The Pittsburgh Steelers open up their regular season schedule later today against the division rival Cleveland Browns. The team went 1-3 during the preseason schedule, with the one victory coming courtesy of three linebackers that are not on the 53-man roster.
The Steelers have added and subtracted a number of parts on both sides of the ball since last year, so this in many ways is not even the same team that went 8-8 last year. Here are a few of the storylines to watch for on the defensive side of the ball in this season opener.
In an unusual event, the Steelers will be starting three new players who were not even on the team last year, as well as two others who were not in the starting lineup a year ago.
The most notable change comes at free safety, where the Ryan Clark era gives way to Mike Mitchell, the Steelers’ ‘big’ free agent signing this offseason. He and Troy Polamalu haven’t exactly logged a ton of snaps together, so monitoring that should prove interesting.
On the front lines, Cam Thomas is slated to take over the left defensive end spot, at least for now, while Cameron Heyward takes over at right defensive end.
Heyward played mostly on the left side last year after winning a starting job over Ziggy Hood, but when Brett Keisel was out, he played on the right side. Expect to see Keisel and rookie Stephon Tuitt rotated in robustly, as the Steelers like to keep their line fresh early in the season.
Finally, we get to inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, the first rookie to start a season opener for the Steelers in more than a decade, and the first rookie ever to open a season for Dick LeBeau as a defensive coordinator.
Shazier’s inclusion into the lineup has moved Lawrence Timmons over from the mack linebacker to the buck, where he will inherit the play-calling responsibilities on a full-time basis for the first time in his career.
Timmons showed fairly well transitioning during the preseason in terms of being able to get off of blocks or in occupying blockers to allow others to make plays. Shazier’s unparalleled speed should see him making lots of plays.
One of the keys to this entire season, and frankly the near future of this franchise as a whole, will be whether or not right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones can develop into the player he was drafted to be.
The Steelers didn’t ring up many sacks this preseason, but one of them came from Jones on a nice inside move, and he has flashed some in both the pass rush and in the running game. We’ll see how that translates against one of the best left tackles in the league.
The final, but perhaps most significant point of emphasis on defense for the season opener will be to see how much the Steelers use their nickel defense, which seems to be their new base package.
With Josh Gordon out and Brian Hoyer at quarterback, the Browns might not be as vertical as some of the Steelers’ future opponents, and that could potentially mean that we see more base package snaps than we should expect to see going forward.