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.
Taking a look first at the Patriots, New England’s run defense last year ranked ninth in the league in terms of yards allowed per game, surrendering 104.3 yards on the ground. They ranked slightly better, at eight, in terms of yards per rush allowed at four. In total, they gave up 1669 yards on the ground on 419 carries (26.2 carries per game), giving up just six rushing touchdowns and only two explosive runs.
But they have lost some pieces of their front seven, chief among them of course being Vince Wilfork, who has been among the best run defenders in the league for the past decade or so. And they have not meaningfully replaced him, either.
The Patriots have, in fact, made no free agent additions to their interior defensive line, despite being absent their best run defender. They also lost Casey Walker, another defensive interior player, while retaining Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga.
Of the three, Siliga not only saw the most playing time last season, but was also the highest performer, particularly when it comes to playing against the run. The former undrafted free agent played his best games against divisional foes in the Jets and the Dolphins, yet he struggled significantly against the Ravens in the playoffs and their zone blocking rushing attack.
Siliga spent much of last year on the injured reserve list with a return designation, so the Patriots believe that he can obviously contribute even more than he did last season, and fill the void as much as can be expected that was left with Wilfork’s departure.
In addition to getting back a healthier Jerod Mayo, to couple with the emergence of Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots also added another solid run defender in free agency on the edge with Jabaal Sheard. Where they might suffer, actually, is at the cornerback position, where they lost two strong starters against the run. Overall, their run defense may suffer slightly more because the secondary in general will likely be inferior against the pass as well as the run.