In our buildup to the new season I’ve been examining the questions facing each of the teams in the AFC North. The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers had a mixed bag of a season. Injuries played their part in limiting their success and the defence allowed the third-most passing yards in the NFL (271.9 yards per game). Despite all this the Steelers finished the season 10-6 and made the playoffs as a Wildcard team, losing to the Broncos in the divisional round . As they look to progress deeper into the playoffs in 2016 what are the issues facing the team?
What impact do the draft additions have?
The Steelers used the 2016 draft to retool their defence,especially the secondary which was a glaring weakness last season, highlighted by the 345 passing yards and 5 touchdowns they gave up against the Seahawks. With this in mind, they spent their first and second round picks on defensive backs. Artie Burns was a playmaking corner at Miami and had an impressive six interceptions in 2015. He’ll be asked to step straight in as last year’s second round pick, Senquez Golson, underwent Lisfranc surgery and is expected to miss four months while he recovers.
Second round pick Sean Davis has been getting reps at both safety and nickel corner. He’ll be expected to help early and could see significant playing time. Third round pick, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, will likely start the season as the backup to Dan McCullers but should see the field often as the Steelers look to keep McCullers fresh. Hargrave looks to have an explosive first step and could be the preferred option on obvious passing downs.
Seventh round pick Tyler Matakevich is a surprise candidate for a roster spot as he excelled in one on one drills. The former Temple player is reportedly a film junkie and is making the most of the opportunity. He stood out in their game against the Eagles, contributing six tackles.
Travis Feeney has been injured in camp and hasn’t really contributed thus far. He was one of the more explosive and athletic players at the year’s NFL combine but concerns over the lingering affects of several shoulder injuries saw him fall to Pittsburgh with pick 220 overall. Expect Feeney to play sparingly this year as he fully recovers and adds muscle.
Is Landry Jones really the answer as backup quarterback?
More and more frequently in the NFL we’re seeing quarterbacks miss time throughout the course of a season. There’s a reason Andy Reid was able to flip his second string QBs to another team for a high draft pick. The value of a good reserve quarterback is often underestimated. What happened when Tony Romo missed time last year? The Cowboys offence looked lost.
I watched the whole of the Eagles vs Steelers pre-season game this year and, without many of their starting offensive playmakers, Steelers struggled to move the ball consistently with Landry Jones under centre. Landry looked lost. He threw four interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown and two in the endzone. 12 of 20 for 111 yards. Not good news for the Steelers given that veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski tore his hamstring and could miss the entire season.
If Big Ben and the Steelers offensive line can stay healthy then the team probably has enough offensive firepower to compensate for their suspect pass defence and I expect them to be challenging for the playoffs again.