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 season. Here are a few of the storylines to watch for on the offensive side of the ball in the season opener.
The most significant change from last season is unquestionably getting center Maurkice Pouncey back and healthy. He only played the first eight snaps of the first game last year before a friendly fire hit from right guard David DeCastro put him on injured reserve.
With a new six-year deal tying him to the organization that drafted him, Pouncey is looking for a bounce-back season, and he got his campaign off to a good start during the preseason. Look for a more cohesive and mobile unit with Pouncey back and the line under the tutelage of new offensive line coach Mike Munchak.
The other major change was swapping out Emmanuel Sanders for second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Wheaton will be expected to take an enormous leap from his six-catch rookie year, and the organization believes he can do it.
Because of injuries, Justin Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey will be vying for time in three-receiver sets against the Browns. If the Steelers choose to keep Wheaton on the outside, Brown will be the likely candidate to play in the slot, but if they opt for the veteran in Heyward-Bey, expect to see Pittsburgh move Wheaton inside.
One dramatic difference from the season opener a year ago will be the tight end position. Both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were injured. They’re fully healthy now for the first time in a while. David Paulson started that game—he’s no longer on the roster.
Also expect to see Todd Haley get Will Johnson more involved in the offense this year. The Steelers have been moving him around quite a bit during the preseason, so expect him to take up a lot of third tight end snaps from Michael Palmer—and the extra offensive linemen. He might even get a carry or two.
Le’Veon Bell didn’t start the season in the backfield, but he was the primary ball carrier in the last 13 games of the season. This year, the Steelers have given him a new battery mate in LeGarrette Blount.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said that he wants both backs to have the lead dog mentality, so you should expect both of them to see extended stretches of play, rather than alternating from play to play. And if one gets hot, don’t be surprised to see the coach stick with the hot hand for a while.
Finally, the Steelers were able to cut down on their sacks in the second half of last season. They also did a good job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean during the preseason up until the late hours of his playing time in the third game.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert—also awarded with a new contract—has shown visible improvement, but Kelvin Beachum is still a question mark at left tackle. Watching how these book ends handle the pass rush in the opener could be a barometer for the kind of year Roethlisberger can expect pressure-wise unless they learn to adapt like they did last year.