Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Season Preview

And while Pittsburgh only plummeted to 13th overall in a 32-team league last season - ending a run of 13 straight years in the top 10 - the brain trust nonetheless felt compelled to make younger, faster and stronger defenders a priority when it came to putting together a draft board in the spring.

As many as four new starters could take up residence in the Steelers' front seven, including first-rounder Ryan Shazier from Ohio State and second-rounder Stephon Tuitt from Notre Dame. There, they'll join holdover Cameron Heyward - a first-round pick three years ago - as well as Cam Thomas, who came in as a free agent during the offseason from San Diego.

And if the newcomers don't toe the line, veterans like Troy Polamalu, entering his 12th season, will make it known exactly what is expected, as he did on the sidelines during a preseason game.

"When someone steps on you that way and wants more from you, the whole defense has to step up,"

Heyward said. "If anybody is going to do that, I appreciate Troy doing it. He's been in this. It's not like he's going to take time off or take plays off. He wants to be great right now.

"Everybody should want to be great right now."

On the offense, coach Mike Tomlin might simply settle for productive.

Among the question marks on the ball-moving side of things is exactly who is poised to stand up as a No. 2 option for Ben Roethlisberger if teams double- down to take away Antonio Brown - he of the 110-catch, 1,499-yard season in 2013.

Emmanuel Sanders and Jerrico Cotchery have moved on to Denver and Carolina, respectively, which prompted the Steelers to bring in Lance Moore from New Orleans and Darrius Heyward-Bey from Indianapolis to provide some veteran street cred in the passing game. Tight end Heath Miller is back as well, and the young set is represented by Markus Wheaton, a third-round pick last season; and Martavis Bryant, who was plucked from Clemson in the fourth round this year.

Another intriguing newcomer, third-rounder Dri Archer, stands 5-foot-8 and could provide the sort of running/receiving threat that's made Darren Sproles a household name for eight seasons.

If it works out after two 8-8 seasons, Tomlin might find his itch for improvement has been scratched.

"I'm trying to get better each and every year and, for me, it's about that," he said. "I like the urgency of now. I embrace that. It's a motivator for me. Obviously I'd rather have high expectations than low expectations."

2013 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to Denver Broncos in AFC Wild Card Playoff

COACH (RECORD): Mike Tomlin (71-41 in seven seasons with Steelers)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Todd Haley (third season with Steelers)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau (11th season with Steelers)

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Dri Archer (third round, Kent State), RB LeGarrette Blount (from Patriots), WR Martavis Bryant (fourth round, Clemson), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (from Colts), CB Brice McCain (from Texans), S Mike Mitchell (from Panthers), LB Arthur Moats (from Bills), WR Lance Moore (from Saints), LB Ryan Shazier (first round, Ohio State), DT Cam Thomas (from Chargers), DE Stephon Tuitt (second round, Notre Dame), P Brad Wing (from Eagles)

KEY SUBTRACTIONS: S Ryan Clark (to Redskins), WR Jerrico Cotchery (to Panthers), RB Jonathan Dwyer (to Cardinals), LB Larry Foote (to Cardinals), DE Ziggy Hood (to Jaguars), P Mat McBriar (released), WR Emmanuel Sanders (to Broncos), LB LaMarr Woodley (to Raiders), NT Al Woods (to Titans)

QB: Ben Roethlisberger is in his 11th season in the NFL, which should make all of us feel a little bit older. Still, the 30-something had one of the best years of his career in 2013 - passing for more than 4,200 yards an doubling his interceptions (14) with touchdowns (28) - for a team that still fell short of the playoffs. He played better after the early going, with only eight interceptions as opposed to 22 touchdowns in the final three-quarters of the schedule.

Bruce Gradkowski enters his ninth NFL season as a capable backup, while Landry Jones begins his second year in the league still looking to throw his first pass.

GRADE: B

RB: Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount have made more news for in-car capers than on-field exploits in the summertime, but they form a potent one-two punch in the Steelers backfield. Bell was a revelation as a rookie, catching 45 passes and running for 860 yards with eight touchdowns, while Blount reinvented himself in New England, where he averaged five yards per carry and scored seven times.

Rookie Dri Archer arrives as a third-round pick with dynamic athletic ability. Meanwhile, third-year man Will Johnson is the starter at fullback.

GRADE: B

WR: Antonio Brown put up some memorable numbers as a starter at wide receiver in 2013, catching at least five passes and gaining at least 50 yards in each game, en route to a 110-catch season that generated 1,499 yards and a Pro Bowl selection. Last season's running mate, Emmanuel Sanders, is gone away to Denver, though, which means a capable No. 2 for 2014 will have to come from a bunch that includes rookie Martavis Bryant, second-year man Markus Wheaton and veterans Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Brown.

GRADE: B

TE: Heath Miller bounced back from an ACL injury in his ninth season to catch 58 passes for 593 yards in 14 games, and should be even better this year with even more time to re-strengthen the knee. Matt Spaeth was brought in as an insurance policy in case Miller was unable to go last year, but he wound up playing in just four games and catching one pass, albeit for a touchdown.

GRADE: B

OL: Guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro are back on the left and right sides this season after allowing just two sacks apiece in 2013. Maurkice Pouncey played in just one game thanks to a wrecked knee, but he's ready to go at center again after fully participating in offseason workouts. Kelvin Beachum was a solid cog at left tackle after taking the spot from Mike Adams early in the season, and allowed just one sack in the final six games. On the right side is Marcus Gilbert, who struggled in spots in 2013 thanks to a major ankle injury a season prior.

Depth play comes in the form of Adams, Chris Hubbard, Cody Wallace, Will Simmons and Guy Whimper.

GRADE: C

DL: New rookie blood arrives in the form of second-rounder Stephon Tuitt to provide a jolt to a slowly declining unit. The Notre Dame product will start at right defensive end, across from a former first-rounder, Cameron Heyward, who started 13 games, made 59 tackles and had five sacks in 2013. Steve McLendon mans the nose again after assuming the starting role last season and making 33 tackles in addition to a forced fumble.

Cam Thomas, Hebron Fangupo and Nick Williams provide depth to the starters, as will veteran Brett Keisel, who nearly left town as a free agent before deciding to stick around for his 13th season.

GRADE: B

LB: Another high draft pick, first-rounder Ryan Shazier, comes in to take over at left inside linebacker, a position that plummeted in its effectiveness for the Steelers last season. Veteran Lawrence Timmons is back for his eighth season at the right inside position, as is Jarvis Jones on the outside right - though the 2013 first-rounder wasn't exactly an impact player in his first season. Jason Worlds led Pittsburgh with eight sacks and is back for his fifth NFL season.

Longtime Steeler LaMarr Woodley left for Oakland as a free agent, so others in the linebacker rotation will include Arthur Moats, Terence Garvin, Vince Williams and Chris Carter.

GRADE: C

DB: Former Carolina Panther Mike Mitchell is a new face among familiar ones as the starter at free safety, coming off the season in which had 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four interceptions. He replaces the departed Ryan Clark and his comrade at safety is strong-side stalwart Troy Polamalu, who'll suit up for his 12th season in black and gold. The starting personnel at the corner positions - Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor - remains the same for 2014. Allen had two interceptions, including one for a 40-yard touchdown, while Taylor failed to pick off a pass for the first time since 2003, but still had 63 tackles and defended 12 passes.

Veteran status is the signature element of the second-tier players, which include 11-year man Will Allen and eight-year man William Gay, alongside Shamarko Thomas and Brice McCain.

GRADE: C

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Adam Podlesh's status is in question temporarily after he left the team to be with his wife following a difficult childbirth. If he's unable to go from the start, the role will fall to former LSU punter Brad Wing. No such chaos exists at kicker, where Shaun Suisham comes in for a fifth season with the Steelers and 10th in the NFL. Suisham made 30 of 32 field goals - a career-best 93.8 percent connect rate - and all 39 of his extra- points in 2013.

The punt return game is in capable hands with Antonio Brown, who ran one back for a touchdown last season. Meanwhile, rookie Dri Archer gets his crack at returning kicks.

GRADE: B

COACHING: Though no one would suggest his seat is anything beyond comfortable, it is a reality that the Steelers under Mike Tomlin have been no better than a .500 team since they finished a 12-win season in 2011. His worst season in his first five was 9-7, but as age and ineffectiveness has begun to take a toll on the veteran core - particularly the defense - the record has worsened.

The front office drafted with that defense in mind this spring and the offense remains largely intact from last season, so improvement on the middling records shouldn't be unexpected and excuses will surely be less accepted by a used-to-winning fan base.

GRADE: B

THE SKINNY: With lesser lights like Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Cleveland (again) and Houston on the docket for the first half of the season, a five-win or better start is mandatory if hopes exist to again become part of the playoff conversation.

The second half is more challenging, with road games at the New York Jets, Tennessee, Cincinnati and Atlanta, paired with home dates against Baltimore, New Orleans, Kansas City and the Bengals.

Put a pair of 5-3 halves together and it yields a 10-win year, and a return to Steel City prominence.

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