As training camp fast approaches, I’ve decided to break down the current state of the AFC North heading into the 2015 NFL preseason. A comprehensive Pittsburgh Steelers breakdown is on the slate for today, although I’ll likely revisit the team once the 53-man roster begins to take shape.
The Steelers are of course the defending AFC North Champions, a title they wrestled away from the Cincinnati Bengals last season with a strong second half of the year after a 3-3 start. After parting ways with longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau this past offseason, many would say that the defensive side of the ball is in a minor rebuilding mode. That may be true on paper with so many new faces and big-name losses, but the expectations remain sky-high for Pittsburgh in 2015.
Divisional Standing: 4-2 in 2014
Sweeping the Bengals was one of the brightest aspects of the Steelers 2014 campaign, but splitting with the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens did stagger the team early on in the season.
This might be the most talented and versatile offense this city has ever seen, with premier players at almost every position. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell lead a cast of dynamic skill players for a team with much-improved depth to work with this season. Martavis Bryant should be ready for more opportunities in his second season, while Markus Wheaton will look to capitalize on his strong finish in 2014. Rookie Sammie Coates is a blazing specimen who will be brought along slowly, but has the physical ability to become a stud in time.
After dispatching the troubled LeGarrette Blount shortly after midseason last year, the Steelers have finally built up some depth behind Bell in the form of Carolina Panthers castoff DeAngelo Williams. The veteran back should help lighten the load on the Steelers star rusher, and is an adept receiver out of the backfield too.
The offensive line, once the biggest concern on the team, is perhaps the best group Pittsburgh has boasted in years. Kelvin Beachum was a force at left tackle over the second half of last season, and David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey are among the better players at their positions.
Of course, nothing is possible without the leadership and tremendous abilities of Ben Roethlisberger, coming off a career year last season in Todd Haley’s offense. Once again the Steelers will only go as far as the veteran signal caller takes them, which many in Pittsburgh believe could be deep into the playoffs.
There aren’t many, but Ramon Foster is little more than an average option at left guard for the team, while Marcus Gilbert has had some ups-and-downs at right tackle. Both players are definitely serviceable, but may be the biggest question marks for the offense right now. Depth at offensive tackle is definitely a concern as well, as there isn’t even adequate depth behind Beachum or Gilbert should one suffer an injury.
Heath Miller is clearly not the same player he’s been in the past, with six drops last season, an unusual number for the big tight end. While Miller’s athleticism and foot speed are dissipating, he’s still a threat off play-action and working the seam against zone coverage. Consider Miller an adequate threat who could benefit greatly from the host of talent around him this season.
The Steelers are definitely re-making themselves on this side of the ball, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t without strengths or leadership. Cameron Heyward is the team’s best defensive player, and provides top-notch leadership to the unit along with Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. The three veterans will be even more important off the field in 2015, as the departures of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor will leave voids in the locker room.
There are more question marks than weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball for Pittsburgh, largely based on the fact that a multitude of rookies and/or second-year players will be seeing major time this season.
The secondary was a mess last season (27th in the NFL), but the team did work to address the issues via the draft, bringing in corners Doran Grant and Senquez Golson this spring. The rookies will undoubtedly see time early, as only the undrafted Antwon Blake and the oft-benched Cortez Allen stand between the first-year duo and the starting spot alongside William Gay.
Despite just three defensive snaps last season, Shamarko Thomas will be asked to fill the shoes of Polamalu this year, as the third-year safety from Syracuse looks to prove his NFL legitimacy. Mike Mitchell, now fully healthy, will look to rebound from a rocky first season in Pittsburgh as the team’s starting free safety, with very little depth behind him.
The pass rush is perhaps the biggest question mark on the team heading into the year. Rookie Bud Dupree has quite the athletic profile, but the first-round pick may be brought along slowly in his rookie season. Jarvis Jones has proven very little and struggled with injuries during his first two seasons, and Arthur Moats has to show he can be an every-down player.
Even at inside linebacker where Timmons solidifies one spot, many eyes will be on Ryan Shazier, to see if last year’s first rounder can improve on what he called a disappointing rookie season. There is depth behind the Ohio State product in Sean Spence and Vince Williams, but neither can provide the big play impact that Shazier can if he’s healthy and mentally astute.
The favorite for the AFC North title will likely be a complete crapshoot in the eyes of most analysts heading into the season, as Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati all boast talented rosters and have had strong resumes the past few years. The Steelers offense is probably the finest in the division, but there are many uncertainties that come with such a young defense. How fast that side of the ball matures will probably determine how successful Pittsburgh ultimately is in 2015. We know there is talent on both sides of the ball, but how swiftly it all comes together could make or break the Steelers season in the end.