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.
The Steelers go back on the road after hosting the 49ers in Week Two, traveling to St. Louis to play the Rams, who have an imposing front four, admittedly. Unfortunately for the Rams, they have not had much else going for them on the defensive side of the ball, which somewhat overshadows the quality of the defensive line play.
I think the discussion must start with Aaron Donald, who was an immediate success as a plug and play rookie starter at defensive tackle. Donald was named the league’s defensive rookie of the year and was selected for the Pro Bowl. He recorded 47 tackles, nine sacks, and two forced fumbles.
The Rams lost a key contributor in free agency with Kendall Langford signing with the Colts, but they most certainly upgraded, signing former Lion Nick Fairley, whose run defense improved last season and is still on the rise as a player. Michael Brockers is also more of a run defender than a pass rusher.
Of course, next to them on the end is Chris Long, who has become a very good pass rushing end. He missed most of last season, however, and as implied, he is more of a pass rusher than a run defender, who doesn’t always play the run on the way to the quarterback. Robert Quinn, an even better rusher, is cut from the same cloth.
At linebacker, the fixture has been James Laurinaitis, who has been a tackling machine since he entered the league. That is not to say that he is an excellent run defender, because I don’t believe he is. Neither is Alec Ogletree, though he may have a higher ceiling. The Rams primarily play in the nickel, and thus they are the two prominent linebackers.
They do have some defensive backs who can tackle, which certainly helps them stay small on the back end. But overall, the Rams were fairly middling, as a defense as a whole as well as in terms of run defense. They finished 14th in yards allowed per game, as well as 15th in yards per rush, giving up 12 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 13 explosive plays, with four of them going for 40 yards or more.