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Despite Tough Schedule, Steelers Should Be AFC North Favorites In ’15

The 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was a bit of a changing of the guard as far as team history goes. The run defense regressed to a historic level, as it gave up 4.36 yards-per-carry, the worst showing of any Steelers team since 1964. On the other hand, the offense absolutely exploded, with many passing, rushing and receiving records being smashed to pieces in the process. The insertion of rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant seemed to be the catalyst the offense needed, as he added a large, downfield deep threat for Ben Roethlisberger to toss bombs to, and seemingly opened the floodgates for the offensive explosion. Although the Baltimore Ravens, who had the highest point differential in the division last year, advanced further into the playoffs, the Steelers seem to be better poised for the long-term.

The Ravens have an aging defense, with several key cogs getting up there in age. They also have a journeyman, Justin Forsett, at running back, who may or may not be the future, as he’ll turn 30 during the 2015 campaign. Despite relatively low mileage as a change of pacer around the league, did he do enough to deserve an extension? As always, Ozzie Newsome will be proactive, and it pains me to say that I could see the team kicking the tires on an Adrian Peterson or rolling the dice on injured college standout Todd Gurley.

However, Pittsburgh will return every piece of their dynamic offense and with a full offseason to work, the unit can only get better. They have arguably the best in the league at their respective positions in running back Le’Veon Bell and wideout Antonio Brown, plus a top-passer in his prime in Roethlisberger. The team also found a budding star in the fourth round last year in Bryant, a 6-foot-4 long-strider who can fly down the field, as evidenced by his two 80-plus yard touchdowns last year. The only hindrance that comes to mind is right out of the gate, with a potential two-game suspension for star runner Bell. With ample cap space, a draft alternative like Northern Iowa’s David Johnson or Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon could be. Both have proved their worth in the collegiate ranks as workhorses capable of carrying a running game if needed. It will definitely be needed come week 1.

This season, for the first time since 2004, the Steelers’ defense will have a new boss in Keith Butler, who will be given every chance to put his fingerprints on the unit, in hopes for a rebound in 2015.

“In the past we only got Keith’s input on linebackers. Now he’s going to be talking about defensive linemen, he’s going to be talking about secondary people, so there will be a learning experience for us to hear what his preferences are for those positions,” Kevin Colbert said, in regards to free agency and the draft. “We know what he likes and doesn’t like as a linebackers coach, but now it will be the whole defense.”

With veteran free agents all over the defense, it’s very possible the unit may even take a step back next season as the overhaul continues runnings it’s course. But it should be offset by what very well could possibly be the top-ranked offense in the league next season.

Two major areas of concern on defense though are the secondary and at outside linebacker. The two go hand-in-hand as the pressure up front can oftentimes mask a patchwork secondary. In the previous two Super Bowl wins, when the team had Joey Porter, James Harrison and an injury-free (and svelte) LaMarr Woodley hunting down opposing quarterbacks, it covered up backend deficiencies. Now, with Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones struggling to generate up front, the pass defense was exposed horrendously. Troy Polamalu is not the hellraiser he once was, and when your interception leaders have only 3 (William Gay and Brice McCain), it’s a bad signal. It may take a key signing or two on the defensive side to either complement or supplant Worilds, a free agent, and Cameron Heyward, the team co-leaders in sacks with 7 and a half. The next closest was the ageless wonder Harrison, whose Instagram account shows he’s hitting the weights harder than ever in hopes for a potential return in 2015. With little wiggle room as far as cap space, the team may need to pick it’s poison, and either sign a secondary player and then draft an edge rusher, or vice versa. Some names to think about maybe going after are Pernell McPhee, Brandon Graham, Kroy Biermann, Byron Maxwell, Antonio Cromartie or Perrish Cox. Jarvis Jones is a wild card here, because although flashing at times, he’s yet to put a full season together, after looking like an absolute quarterback-killer at Georgia .

The team’s brain trust has already began brainstorming for the upcoming free agency period on March 10. Colbert said the list of targeted players may be roughly 30 or so, based on who’s available, and obviously their price tag. To noone’s surprise, Colbert said the primary focus will be the pass rush and improving in coverage, the two things weighing this team down like the anchor on a ship. If the defense doesn’t hold up it’s end of the bargain, an improvement from an 11-5 season will be difficult. Just winning the division or simply making the playoffs are not considered successful measuring sticks by this franchise. The barometer is the six Lombardi trophies in the case, and with several tweaks on defense, the sky is the limit for this team, in 2015 and beyond.

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