We have already learned that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell has been suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the 2015 regular season, pending the result of an appeal that was already filed at the time of the announcement.
For the time being, however, we must operate under the assumption that the Steelers will be without the services of their All-Pro running back for that period of time unless and until it is reported otherwise.
In addition to knowing how low he will be out, we have also recently learned whom the Steelers’ opponents will be during the first three games of the season, so it will be useful to take a look at how those teams fared against the run last year, in addition to what changes they may have underdone this offseason that could alter their performance level.
The Steelers’ three opponents during the opening stretch, in order, will be the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, and the St. Louis Rams. Of the three, only the 49ers game takes place in Pittsburgh, while the Patriots game will be the Thursday night season opener.
After opening the season in Foxboro, the Steelers will be coming home to play the 49ers, who are not quite the same team that embarrassed them four years ago. In fact, they’ve undergone some pretty significant changes since just the end of last season.
Most significant, of course, is the fact that both Patrick Willis and Chris Borland chose to retire during the offseason this year. Willis is, of course, a borderline Hall of Fame player, with the suffix only present due to the longevity of his career, and not his performance level. It’s obviously unfortunate to see such a great player’s career ended early due to injury.
Borland was the player who was going to be his successor. A rookie third-round pick, Borland entered the starting lineup toward the back end of the season, playing about 500 snaps of extremely impressive football. He showed an aptitude for all phases of the game, but he was especially adept at playing the run.
Of course, it’s not as though the 49ers don’t still have linebackers. They figure to get back NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of the 2015 season due to injury. He may have some rust to knock off, but he was a Pro Bowl player before, and perhaps could return to that level.
The other starter figures to be Michael Wilhoite, who actually started all 17 games last year, logging over 1000 snaps. Despite that, he admittedly was merely a replacement-level player, as one might expect, as that is what he was. Still, after previously considering trading him, the 49ers are looking to extend him. His run defense was the weakest part of his game.
One big domino yet to fall is Justin Smith and whether or not he chooses to retire, which, as best as I can find, has not been made official either way yet. Smith has been among the best 3-4 defensive ends, and an excellent sub-package interior player, for many years, and his loss would be significant.
The 49ers added Darnell Dockett in free agency, but they also lost Ray McDonald, who was very good for San Francisco last year. The successors along the line appear likely to be Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial, with Ian Williams also potentially an emerging player in the middle.
The 49ers finished just behind the Steelers in run defense, giving up 100.8 yards per game, but they also faced two carries extra per game. The Steelers gave up 4.4 yards per carry, while the 49ers gave up 4.0. They also only gave up seven rushing touchdowns, but they were vulnerable on the long ball, giving up 10 explosive plays, though none over 40 yards.
It’s hard to say how their run defense will be in comparison to last year due to all of the moving parts. While they have talented, or potentially talented, pieces either stepping up or returning after missing time, I think they have lost a lot of their identity and leadership with Willis’ retirement, which would only be made worse if Smith also leaves.