With the 2014 season now in the books, the attention focuses on the offseason and what teams need to do to better themselves for the chance to step onto the grandest stage in all of sports, the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers made major strides this past season, posting a 11-5 record and winning their first AFC North Division title since 2010.
Although losing in the Wild Card round to their bitter rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, it can be argued that was due to the absence of their star tailback, Le’Veon Bell and the multifaceted ways in which he impacts their offense. He’s the engine that makes them go, and without the offense circulating through him, they stalled in a major way, losing 30-17.
The Vegas sports books never sleep, and already the Steelers are proclaimed 30/1 odds to advance to the big game in 2016 on some sites. What way can they decrease those odds? Well for starters, these aren’t your daddy’s Steelers, or even your granddaddy’s for that matter. Gone are the menacing, “punch-you-in-the-mouth” defenders who intimidated every time the opposition stepped onto the football field. Their over-the-hill veterans are being phased out, and a youth movement of sorts is in order on the defensive side. Now, the team has taken on more of a finesse style, hanging it’s hat on their powerful offense, led by the star, record-shattering trio of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and arguably the best at their respective positions, running back Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
After smashing team records in ’14, it will be the focal point of the team next season, as it’s faced with a taunting schedule that very well could kickoff the season against the defending champion New England Patriots. However, a look at their losses in 2014, and it could be argued that a tougher schedule may bring out the best in the team, as four of their five losses were to non-playoff opponents. They played down to the opposition and rose to the occasion when facing tougher opponents, so that’s definitely a positive. Also, the offense should be even better in 2015, with a healthy Bell back. A reliable back-up will be needed to reduce the wear and tear on Bell, but he could be poised to join Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only running backs in NFL history to not only rush but receive for over 1,000 yards in a single season. The team also now has a big-play threat opposite #1 wideout Antonio Brown in the form of talented Martavis Bryant. The 6-foot-4 youngster threatens to blow the top off the defense on any given play, and also strips double-teams away from Brown, who needs no introduction. And then there’s Roethlisberger, who is just now entering the prime of his career, and coming off a season where he was the league’s co-leader in passing yardage with 4,952 yards.
With the offense seemingly set for years, and with the arrow clearly pointing upwards, the attention of the front office should be squarely focused on the defense. With little wiggle room as far as the team’s salary cap goes, a flurry of moves will need to be made to get under it, and that begins with a contract extension for Big Ben. After that, the team should leave no stone unturned in finding pieces to fit their defensive puzzle, whether it be via free agency or the draft. With a division winner’s schedule, which includes road trips to both Super Bowl participants, the sledding will be very tough, but if the team can find some defensive talent to help hold up it’s end of the deal, don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh is one of the AFC heavyweights waiting to punch their ticket to the big dance next January.