After the lights went out early in last year’s playoffs, the Steelers have had the chance to have a longer-than-expected introspective into what their expectations should be for this season. Having beaten the rest in the ever-brutal, unforgiving AFC North last year to an 11-5 record, the Steelers set offensive records in virtually every department.
The big question was: if you take a part away from the offence, what are you left with? The answer was, under the scrutiny of the Baltimore Ravens (twice), that the ‘we will score more points than you’ attitude was not the way to win consistently.
Pop into any Primanti Bros, ask that question, and you’ll get the same “Todd [expletive] Haley isn’t playing Steeler ball” and “that defence isn’t playing for Dick LeBeau”.
The truth is, neither of those positions are true. Dick LeBeau’s legendary, Hall of Fame enshrining, run as defensive co-ordinator is over. The Keith Butler era has started. Todd Haley as offensive co-ordinator resulted in the record-setting numbers, but this was not without the aforementioned flaws.
The team reported to Latrobe, Pa., for camp with the new setup in place. Butler, long mentored by LeBeau as his replacement, now in charge of the defensive side of the ball. They have the same pieces in place as well as the astute addition of Brandon Boykin through free agency to counter the retirement of Troy Polamalu in the defensive backfield, and to augment the integration of the often isolated Mike Mitchell, who drew lots of criticism last year.
Boykin moved from the Eagles because he was not guaranteed to play on the outside as a corner under Chip Kelly, a chance he would likely to get with the Steelers given the amount of schemes that rely on corners who play on the outside. It’s a good fit, and given that names such as William Gay and Cortez Allen just did not click last year, with the latter being thrown to the wolves mid-season, it is to be viewed favourably that the team have recognised this. They have also drafted smart in this area with Shamarko Thomas in 2013 and Senquez Golson this year. Golson, however, is injured and is likely only to play a watching brief this year. But with those exceptions, the draft hasn’t been the defensive hunting ground it’s often been in recent years for the Steelers. Perhaps this shows the game has moved on.
If the secondary is in transition, the front 7 (be that a classic Pittsburgh 3-4, a hybrid, or out-and-out 4-3) are fixed, steady and experienced. The evergreen James Harrison rose above towards the end of last season and made plays that defied his age. Ryan Shazier also gave glimpses once the injuries cleared of what potential he has to be a master of his craft. Improve the pass rush, and you take the secondary’s role in the team down a notch or two. Perhaps that’s what the defence needs.
The offence is a Lance Moore light from the 2014 version. Records tumbled, Roethlisberger, whilst statuesque, was again superb at times. What’s more, the pocket stayed intact longer. The offensive line concerns diminish, so long as Maurkice Pouncey stays fit, but what folk better watch for is Le’Veon Bell. A three-game suspension for herb sampling in the “Dude, Where’s My Car?” moment with LeGarrette Blount last summer has been reduced to two, and for that, the Steelers and Haley must be breathing a large sigh of relief. Bell’s 4 figure return last year was no accident, and looks even better when you consider his all-purpose yards. Bell does so brilliantly from the line of scrimmage because he can obviously run the (damned) football [as stated by the Primanti Bros crowd], but also in the blitz pick ups he is able to make. He’s a great blocking back as well as a running back, so this also makes Bell a great slot or slant receiver if he is able to pick up the block, drop off and become the decoy. The explosive WR duo of Brown and Bryant take so much attention, the Steelers often find the flat in behind the line empty, and Bell exploited this to the core in the 2014 season. What the Steelers will hope is that the very clever signing of veteran back DeAngelo Williams is adequate in the first two games, which will also be assisted by the fact that they knew they’d be without Bell all summer long.
Then there are the unknown quantities. In parts, Markus Wheaton as the third receiver looked the real deal, but this needs greater scrutiny and could find himself being called upon early in the season to make things happen. The gap in the WR corps has been filled with the curious drafting of Sammie Coates from Clemson, not exactly top of the shopping list, but this will need to be proven as not just a vanity project for cover very quickly. The Steelers also signed Tajh Boyd to the QB roster in March, which could reap long term dividends if Boyd is built up to be the long term ‘Roethlisberger replacement’, a project that has yielded no results so far, with time running out to commit.
If the offence can play the game consistently, able to floor the throttle at will, then you’d say the team look unbeatable. Certainly, with opponents such as New England and Seattle on the road, they’re going to need to be to get close in some of the games.
If the internal battles all go well, there’s the battles inflicted upon them as a division winner. It’s a tough schedule. AFC North schedules always make the casual reader wince because of the Bengals and Ravens being there (sorry Cleveland, Johnny Football doesn’t scare us much, nor is he a very good ‘drunk cousin’ of Tim Tebow).
The rostered division battles are real bloody-nose stuff. The AFC North has both the AFC West and the NFC West this year. You could argue that’s brutal enough, without the Steelers’ additions of the Patriots (fully inflated) and Colts (PSI: Boston) as the non-mandatory opponents.
As ever, reaching .500 will be target number 1, then a winning record, then a playoff spot – in that order. The AFC North will, once again, be the blue-collar battleground this year. Will the winner have enough puff to win it all? That will take that something special. They’ve enshrined Jerome Bettis into the Hall of Fame this year, and as everyone knows, when there’s inspiration from Bettis, anything is possible…
You can follow avid American Football fan, Ben on Twitter at @bendolino