By Michael K. Reynolds
Are they better or are they worse?
This critical question asked of the Pittsburgh Steelers should be well on its way to being answered by the end of the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
Already in 2014, the team has completed free agency, the draft, mini-camps and training camp at Latrobe. Much of the offseason progress, if any, will be revealed by the time the mop-up crew is playing out the fourth quarter. It’s beginning to approach the “it is what it is” time for this year’s edition of the Black and Gold.
Although there are many storylines and roster intrigues to be enjoyed in the next few weeks, when it comes down to it you can forget about who the last few players will be to make the 53 and who gets chosen for the practice squad. Though some of those players might have something significant to say in the seasons ahead, few of them will have a huge impact on this year’s Super Bowl aspirations.
If you want to keep your eyes on the ball this preseason here are the real keys to answering the team’s most important question, “Are They Better or Worse?”:
Offensive Passing Game
FACTORS: Can the offensive line provide Ben Roethlisberger with more time? Will Antonio Brown repeat his great performance of 2013? Will the diminutive Lance Moore be able to fill last year’s surprisingly big shoes of Jerricho Cotchery? Can Heath Miller approach his 2012 numbers? Will Dri Archer be able to add value as a receiver?
BIGGEST KEY: (Other than Big Ben staying healthy.) Can Markus Wheaton excel at the number two position?
Offensive Running Game
FACTORS: Will Le’Veon Bell ring even louder in his sophomore season? Can LeGarrette Blount bring back the power to the power running game? Will Archer be able to run off tackle in the big leagues? Can Maurkice Pouncey make a full recovery?
BIGGEST KEY: Will the offensive line finally start controlling the line of scrimmage?
Defense Against The Run
FACTORS: Will Stephon Tuitt be able to learn rapidly on the job? Can Cam Thomas add some muscle to the line? Can Steve McLendon take his game to the next level? Will Cameron Heyward be able to continue his ascent to greatness? Will mammoth Daniel McCullers help the team push the pile?
BIGGEST KEY: Can rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier solve the Steelers deficiencies against the run in sub-package play?
Defense Against The Pass
FACTORS: Does Ike Taylor have a good season left in him? Can Troy Polamalu stay healthy? Is Cortez Allen a true number one corner? Can Shamarko Thomas and Antwon Blake provide quality depth? Will Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones be able to shorten the one-alligators…two-alligators…count for opposing quarterbacks?
BIGGEST KEY: Will safety Mike Mitchell be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark?
FACTORS: It won’t take much to improve the punting from last year, but is Brad Wing the answer? Can Shaun Suisham perform under the pressure of a big contract? Will the depth of quality linebackers translate to better special teams tackling? Will the increase of overall team speed make special teams…well, special?
BIGGEST KEY: Can Archer bring back spark to the return game?
FACTORS: Can Mike Tomlin lift the team out of two years of mediocrity? Does Dick LeBeau have what it takes to rebuild his defense? Will Todd Haley’s vision for his offense be finally realized? Can John Mitchell speed teach his youngsters on the defensive line? Will Coach “Peezy” Porter be able to pump up the volume in the young linebacking corps?
BIGGEST KEY: The impact of Mike Munchak: Hype or Hero?