Mike Tomlin all but reached for a red challenge flag before interrupting a question on the Steelers trying to return to the playoffs after consecutive 8–8 seasons. “Getting to the postseason is not my goal,” the Steelers head coach said in March at the NFL owners meetings. “My goal is to win the world championship.”
Achieving the goal — or at least making a serious run at it — has become more difficult than it was in Tomlin’s early years with the Steelers. Only a handful of core players remain from the teams that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger always gives the Steelers a chance, and the offense really came together in the second half of 2013. But a defense that is in transition slipped appreciably last season. And reinforcements and improvement from second-year players such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones are vital if the Steelers are going to play with the kind of defensive swagger that has long been their hallmark.
Roethlisberger, who celebrated his 32nd birthday in March, is still playing at a high level, and the Steelers gave him more ownership of the offense than ever in the second half of last season.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley loosened the reins on the no-huddle attack, and Roethlisberger thrived while calling the plays and directing the offense like the seasoned veteran he has become. As a result, fans are no longer dissecting the relationship between Roethlisberger and the similarly strong-willed Haley, and the no-huddle attack is now a staple of the offense after the Steelers averaged 28.2 points in their final nine games last season.
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Le’Veon Bell rescued an abysmal ground attack after missing the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury. The Steelers like everything about Bell, who broke Franco Harris’ Steelers rookie record for yards from scrimmage (1,259). Bell’s running style is a blend of patience and power, and he catches the ball well and is also adept at picking up blitzing linebackers. LeGarrette Blount will ease some of the burden on Bell, and ultra-fast rookie Dri Archer offers a complement to the two bruising backs in front on him on the depth chart. Pittsburgh's backfield depth could be tested at some point now that Bell and Blount are reportedly facing marijuana-related charges stemming from an Aug. 20 traffic stop. The charges (one count of possession for each as well as driving under the influence for Bell) are misdemeanors, but given NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's track record, it's certainly not out of the question that Bell and Blount will end up sitting out a game or two at some point this season.
Pro Bowler Antonio Brown leads a receiving corps that took an unexpected hit in free agency when productive veteran Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers need 2013 third-round pick Markus Wheaton to emerge after a hand injury limited him to 157 snaps last season. Rookie Martavis Bryant gives the Steelers a tall and speedy wide receiver, a dimension that the offense has lacked. Tight end Heath Miller should become a bigger part of the passing game now that he has fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery.
The offensive line should be a strength with all five starters returning, including Maurkice Pouncey. The Pro Bowl center missed all but eight snaps last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee, and he is the unquestioned leader of the line as well as its best player. The Steelers’ most significant offseason acquisition may have been the hiring of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. A Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, Munchak is considered one of the best line coaches in the business. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum summed up the hiring of the former Tennessee Titans head coach in two words: “Instant credibility.”
The Steelers have gotten drastically younger on this side of the ball as strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are the only projected starters over the age of 30. How much better the Steelers will be after an infusion of speed due to additions such as inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and free safety Mike Mitchell remains to be seen.
The defense regressed noticeably in 2013 as the Steelers struggled to stop the run and failed to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Only five teams had fewer than the 34 sacks the Steelers managed, their lowest total since 1990, and the pass rush all starts with their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds came into his own last season, and he played so well that the Steelers kept the fifth-year veteran and released LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers need a similar jump from Jones, their first-round pick in 2013. Jones started eight games but managed just one sack as he too often was thinking instead of just playing, something that is common for rookies in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense. Jones is expected to be among the most improved Steeler after getting stronger during the offseason. The former Georgia All-American had better be, as the Steelers have little at outside linebacker behind him and Worilds.
Mitchell, who had a breakout season in 2013 for the Carolina Panthers, makes the Steelers younger and faster in the secondary. The Steelers should be fine at safety, assuming Polamalu stays healthy for a second consecutive season, but there are questions at cornerback. Taylor has ceded the designation of No. 1 cornerback to Cortez Allen, and the Steelers have to hope Taylor still has something left after teams repeatedly picked on the veteran last season.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward leads a line that is in transition. Heyward also came into his own in 2013, leading the Steelers in quarterback pressures while playing well against the run. A combination of Cam Thomas and rookie Stephon Tuitt will have to get the job done at the end spot opposite Heyward, and Steve McLendon has to make strides at nose tackle. The Steelers have little in the way of proven depth along their defensive line.
Shaun Suisham returns after missing just two field goals last season, though both came in a deflating loss at Oakland. The Steelers, meanwhile, hope free-agent signee Adam Podlesh performs well enough to stop them from cycling through punters. Consistency at a position that is crucial in the battle for field position has too often eluded them during Tomlin’s tenure.
Archer gives the Steelers a home-run threat as a kickoff returner, and he is likely to relieve Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Brown excels in this area of the game as well, but the Steelers would like to keep him fresh and minimize his exposure to big hits. Brown could be used as a situational specialist with Archer handling the bulk of the returns.
The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons since 1998-2000. Tomlin is safe even if that happens — the Steelers are exceedingly patient with their head coaches — but there better be a sense of urgency this season. Roethlisberger and an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season are reasons for hope. So too is a favorable schedule in which the Steelers don’t play west of the Mississippi River. If the defense makes enough strides, the Steelers could win 10 or more games. If it continues to decline or sustains injuries at key positions, the Steelers could be staring at a third straight 8–8 season.