Mike Tomlin's defense will look much different following an offseason full of changes
The Pittsburgh Steelers are an enigma entering the 2015 NFL season. They would appear to be a team on the rise after an 11-5 regular season record and winning the toughest division in the league.
Yet questions on defense prevent them from being regarded as a primary contender in the AFC. Las Vegas puts Pittsburgh’s odds at winning the Super Bowl at 30-1, only the ninth-best odds among the 32 teams.
Here are five of the most pressing questions facing the Steelers as their 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., is now in session.
Will Cortez Allen start or even make the team?
Will the real Cortez Allen please stand up? Whereas Allen only allowed one touchdown pass in his first two seasons with the Steelers, thus resulting in a lucrative contract and starting position, he all but disappeared in the second half of the 2014 season. Not only did he not make a tackle in Weeks 9-11, those also were the last games he played, as he missed Pittsburgh’s final six contests due to injury.
In the last game he DID make a tackle, Oct. 26 against Indianapolis, the Washington Post highlighted Allen's duel with Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton as the "NFL Matchup of the Week." Hilton torched Allen for 155 yards on six catches and a touchdown.
The Steelers were built last season to win 31-28 games. That isn't likely to change unless Allen lives up to the potential Pittsburgh saw in him when the team signed him last year to a four-year contract worth more than $31 million.
With Allen due to make $13 million over the next there seasons, it’s possible that he could find himself on the roster bubble. That is especially the case if he falters during training camp or Senquez Golson, the Steelers’ second-round draft pick, shows why he was a first-team All-American after collecting 10 interceptions for Ole Miss. In fact, if Golson shows he’s ready to be thrown into the fray right away, it could mean the end of Allen’s tenure in Pittsburgh.
What’s up with the front seven?
For the past several years, the Steelers have made a concentrated effort to rebuild their front seven.
The last three first-round draft choices have been either defensive linemen or linebackers. This trend extends to four of the last five first-round selections, five of the last seven, and six of the nine such picks the Steelers have had under head coach Mike Tomlin.
Unfortunately the results have been mixed. True, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers' very first draft choice under Tomlin's tenure, made the Pro Bowl last season. It was perhaps the only highlight coming from the box last season though. Pittsburgh’s 4.4 yards allowed per rush and 33 sacks ranked just 25th and 26th in the NFL.
Linebacker Jarvis Jones, 2013's first-round pick, failed to make a tackle after Week 3 in 2014 and he has only three sacks in his first two injury-plagued seasons. Last year's first-rounder, Ryan Shazier, lost his starting position in Week 10. Free agent Arthur Moats also suffered through an injury-plagued campaign.
Pittsburgh was forced to ask James Harrison and Brett Keisel to turn back the clock, as both become starters. Keisel was released in March, but Harrison returns and will battle Jones for the right outside linebacker spot. Rookie first-round pick Bud Dupree is set to challenge Moats for the other starting outside linebacker job.
Cameron Heyward, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, may not be a Pro Bowler yet, but he is a serviceable player, as evidenced by his 7.5 sacks. He's flanked by Stephon Tuitt, a 2014 second-round choice, who also showed signs of impact and became a starter at the end of the season at left defensive tackle.
With the question marks in the secondary, the front seven must improve. There are enough options at outside linebacker and enough progression at the defensive tackle spots that productivity should go up this season. The biggest question comes in the middle, where Shazier is slated to start alongside Timmon, while journeymen Steve McClendon and Clifton Geathers man the nose tackle position. Keisel has become the new Charlie Batch; a popular veteran player whose skids have been greased by Tomlin to make way for a younger player, only to see the younger players aren't as good as the veteran.
What will be the impact of new defensive coordinator Keith Butler?
During the Tomlin era the Steelers have not been prone to sentiment when making a roster. In fact, Tomlin may have prematurely tried to grease the skids for some veteran players, such as the aforementioned Harrison, Keisel and Batch.
Such was the case with 77-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Though in recent seasons many in the media urged for LeBeau to retire so as not to prevent then-linebackers coach Butler from advancing, it was difficult to endorse such a dismissal when the Steelers produced the NFL’s top-ranked defense four times during LeBeau’s tenure. Besides, LeBeau was so popular at least one fan at Heinz Field would wear his old No. 44 jersey, from when LeBeau played for the Detroit Lions, to games.
But LeBeau's zone blitz could only merit a No. 14 ranking in 2013 and a No. 18 showing last season. Even though the Steelers won their division, Tomlin decided it was time for a change.
Now it is Butler's turn, with LeBeau joining former Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt in Nashville as the Titans’ assistant head coach/defense. While defensive line coach John Mitchell and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, both return, Pittsburgh hired two new coaches to tutor the linebackers, former stars Jerry Olsavsky (inside) and Joey Porter (outside).
The Steelers will not play up to their fans’ standards if their defense does not improve in 2015. If Butler’s tenure overseeing the defense how long will it be until he receives the scorn previously held for offensive coordinators in Pittsburgh?
How will DeAngelo Williams spell Le’Veon Bell in the first two games?
Bell’s Aug. 20 arrest for marijuana possession has netted him a two-game suspension to open the 2015 season. As a result, Williams, a former Carolina Panther, is in line to serve as the No. 1 back for Weeks 1 and 2 against the Patriots and 49ers, respectively.
Williams is not the player he once was. Carolina's all-time leading rusher, Williams has not rushed for 1,000 yards since 2009, nor is he the pass-catcher that Bell is out of the backfield. Williams appears to have a lost a step or two and injuries limited him to just six games last season. His longest rush of the year was just 17 yards and he failed to crack double digits on a single carry in six of the eight total games he played.
But Williams, 32, has dropped 13 pounds from last season and did come back rather nicely from an injury-plagued 2010 season to rush for 836 yards on 155 attempts in ‘11.
Historically the Panthers have signed many of the Steelers' stars at the end of their careers. This is a rare occurrence of Pittsburgh signing a former Carolina star for his swansong, and concerning the unusual kinship these two franchises have it's a bit surprising it hasn't happened sooner.
The fear is Williams with Pittsburgh will be like Franco Harris with Seattle. But Harris was 34 when he finished his career with the Seahawks, two years older than Williams. Jerome Bettis established a career high for touchdowns and O.J. Anderson rushed for more than 1,000 yards at the age of 32.
But the question that remains is can Williams be a legitimate option in the passing game? While Ben Tate didn't impress in the playoff loss to Baltimore, he has been a better receiver in his career and his statistics were no worse than Williams' last year.
It’s entirely too early to dismiss a Pro Bowl-caliber player like Williams, but is he even the style of back that fits the Steelers' offense? It’s possible that Dri Archer will see his role expanded in the games Bell misses, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Still, Steelers fans must hope Tom Brady's suspension for the opener remains in place and that they are catching San Francisco and St. Louis at the right time.
Who will be the No. 2 wide receiver behind Antonio Brown
It isn't often Pittsburgh sports fans extend thanks to Cleveland, but it happened this weekend when CBS Sports Radio/92.3 The Fan host Adam "The Bull" Gerstenhaber called Brown the NFL's top receiver on his national radio show on July 25. Such is the case when a receiver catches 239 passes for 21 touchdowns over the course of two seasons. But who will complement Brown in 2015?
Martavis Bryant didn't even play until Oct. 20 and then proceeded to catch eight touchdown passes in the final 10 games. Included in his late surge was the second-longest scoring strike in team history and touchdown grab in the postseason. But Bryant managed just 26 receptions in the regular season, which translates to 42 over a 16 games.
Markus Wheaton was the team's second-leading wide receiver last year, but his numbers (53 rec., 12.2 ypc), seem unimpressive considering his quarterback threw for nearly 5,000 yards.
Rookie Sammie Coates was Auburn's big-play threat when the Tigers played for the national title two seasons ago, catching 14 passes that went for 30 or more yards. His 4.43 speed is comparable to Brown's 4.47.
As long as Brown maintains his production and given Bell’s big-play capability as a pass catcher, Ben Roethlisberger shouldn’t lack for options to throw to this season. The Steelers would be in much better shape if Bryant or Wheaton or even Coates were to emerge as a reliable complementary target. Based on last season’s results, Bryant seems the safest bet, but Coates could be the sleeper of this trio.
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.