Building on an 11–5 season and an AFC North title won’t be easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The offense is loaded and returns every starter from a unit that averaged 411.1 yards per game last season, second best in the NFL. But the defense is a serious work in progress after the Steelers managed just 33 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1989, and allowed 4.4 yards per carry.
The schedule doesn’t do the team any favors, and by at least one measure it is the most difficult in the NFL. The Steelers’ opponents combined for a .578 winning percentage last season, the highest in the league. What’s more, the Steelers have to visit Seattle, San Diego, Kansas City and St. Louis after playing no games west of the Mississippi River in 2014. The Steelers parlayed a favorable schedule last season and a breakout campaign by the offense into their first division title since 2010. It will be much tougher for them to repeat as division champions, especially in the rugged AFC North.
Mike Tomlin has hardly tempered expectations for the unit that carried the Steelers last season. The ninth-year coach said at the NFL owners meetings in late March that the Steelers could have the best offense in the NFL this season because they “have the goods.” He won’t get any arguments in Pittsburgh or beyond the Steel City. The Steelers have arguably the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger threw for 4,952 yards last season and became the first player on franchise history to win a passing title (he shared the honor with Drew Brees). Roethlisberger, who turned 33 in March, is seemingly getting better with age. And the Steelers backed up general manager Kevin Colbert’s assertion that Roethlisberger’s best playing days are still ahead of him by signing Big Ben to a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $108 million.
Roethlisberger has reigned in the sandlot style that defined him earlier in his career in large part because the players around him are better. Brown led the NFL in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698) last season and plays bigger than his listed size of 5'10", 186 pounds because of his ability to separate and make contested catches in traffic. If Brown’s production dips this season, it could be because the Steelers have an emerging star in second-year wideout Martavis Bryant as well as Markus Wheaton, who made a significant leap in his second season after playing sparingly as a rookie.
As good as Roethlisberger and Brown were last season, Bell won the Steelers’ MVP Award — as voted on by the players — and for good reason. The second-year man rushed for 1,361 yards and led all NFL running backs with 854 receiving yards. There is not a better all-around back than Bell, who also excels at picking up blitzing linebackers. The Steelers have to hope that DeAngelo Williams can do a credible job of filling in for Bell, who is out at the start of the season because of an NFL suspension.
The offensive line returns intact and is still young but also experienced. Maurkice Pouncey re-established himself as one of the top centers in the NFL last season after coming back from a major knee injury. Right guard David DeCastro is the Steelers’ best pulling guard since perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.
It wasn’t that long ago that questions about whether the Steelers’ defense had gotten too old were as much an autumn ritual in Western Pennsylvania as the leaves changing colors. Not anymore. The average age of the Steelers’ projected starters on defense is 26.5. That number dips if rookie Bud Dupree, the team’s first-round pick, beats out Arthur Moats at left outside linebacker.
The Steelers have a new defensive coordinator with former linebackers coach Keith Butler taking over for Dick LeBeau. Butler won’t stray from the LeBeau’s core philosophy of shutting down the run first and foremost or the Steelers’ base 3-4 defense. He will try to simplify the defense to accommodate the youth he has inherited, and Butler has said that the Steelers have to become more opportunistic. They forced more than two turnovers in a game just twice last season, and they have 41 takeaways in their last two seasons. To put that into perspective, consider that the Steelers had 35 takeaways in 2010 alone, the last time they made the Super Bowl.
The linebackers playing to their pedigree could go a long way toward the Steelers fielding the kind of defense that can complement the offense. They should, at some point, have former first-round picks starting at all four linebacker spots. Two of those players in particular are key. Right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has to make a big jump in his third season after missing most of 2014 because of a dislocated wrist. Ryan Shazier may be the most likely candidate to break out after a high-ankle sprain and normal rookie growing pains limited the 15th overall pick of the 2014 draft last season. Shazier’s speed and ability to play in space make him more valuable than ever with the Steelers playing their nickel defense more than 50 percent of the time. He is a playmaker, and the competition at inside linebacker, the Steelers’ deepest position, should only bring out the best in Shazier.
The secondary has gotten younger, and third-year man Shamarko Thomas gets the first crack at replacing the iconic Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has said that the Steelers’ two safety positions are interchangeable, but does the team have a player who can cover ample ground on the back end of their defense? Thomas and starting free safety Mike Mitchell are big hitters who support the run. There are questions about how well both can cover.
Shaun Suisham occasionally stubs his toe on field goals he should make but is otherwise as reliable as they come. Punter Brad Wing has to become more consistent in his second season, and the former LSU All-American will be challenged after having training camp all to himself last season. The Steelers have to get more out of kickoff returns after averaging only 21.7 yards per return last season. They drafted Dri Archer in the third round in 2014 to give them a jolt in the return game. He fared so poorly that he lost his job as the team’s primary kickoff returner before the midway point of the season. Archer, the fastest player on the team, has to emerge this season or he is in danger of becoming a bust.
The offense may have to carry the Steelers until a defense in transition comes together. The offense should be a tour de force if it stays relatively healthy, though the Steelers have to start faster. They managed just 19 points on 16 opening drives last season, and scoring first could help take some pressure off the defense.
Few people expected the Steelers to win 11 games last season, and it will be hard to duplicate that number in 2015. Ten victories could be enough to repeat as AFC North champions if the Steelers win at least four division games.