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?
Can the linebackers contribute positively?
James Harrison continues to defy his age and play at a high level. But although some of the linebackers have flashed talent, they don’t exactly remind you of the great ‘Steel Curtain’ linebackers. It’s essential in the 3-4 that the linebackers make their presence known, especially the outside linebackers.
Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree are both former first round picks. Both have been hampered with injuries so far this season and have been spending more time with the trainers than they have honing their craft. In order for the Steelers defence to do their bit these guys must play more, and better in 2016. Fifty-five tackles and six sacks combined just will not cut it. First round picks must produce at a higher level, especially outside linebackers in a 3-4 defence!
On the inside the Steelers have Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier. Timmons is a leader on and off the field for the Steelers and has played at a high level consistently. Last year Timmons accumulated 119 tackles and 5 sacks. Shazier took steps forward in 2015 but is yet to make it through a complete season without injury. If he improves on his numbers from 12 games in 2015 (87, 3.5 sacks) and stays healthy he’ll been in contention for a Pro Bowl appearance.
Who steps up behind Brown?
The Steelers have one of the best receivers in the league in Antonio Brown. That’s clearly established (in fact Pro Football Focus rates him as the number one receiver). Good news right? Well behind him the waters get rather muddy as there’s no real talent.
Matavius Bryant has been suspended so is out of the equation. Darrius Heyward-Bey has never blossomed into the player that some expected him to be after his 975 yard receiving effort in 2011. Sammie Coates was a third round pick for the Steelers in 2015 but only contributed one reception for 11 yards in the six games that he was active last year. He was expected to step up his play this year but in the game against the Eagles it was Eli Rogers who looked the best receiver in Pittsburgh. Rogers looks quick off the snap and runs sharp routes.
Can the offensive line improve and stay healthy?
In 2015 both Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum missed significant playing time. In the off season Beachum was allowed to leave for Jacksonville whilst Pouncy continues to recover from a total of seven leg surgeries for his fractured leg and subsequent infections.
It all starts with the centre. Pouncey made his return to the field against the Eagles in Thursday’s pre season affair. He’s been a Pro Bowl player four times in his career and if he can return to form the Steelers will have a good anchor and a significant upgrade over backup Cody Wallace. Right guard David DeCastro has been one of the better guards in football. In fact he earned his first Pro Bowl nomination in 2015 and was named to the Associated Press All-Pro Team. Long time Steeler Ramon Foster is a solid starter at left guard , as is right tackle Marcus Gilbert.
That leaves left tackle as the lone undecided position. Last year Alejandro Villanueva filled in for the injured Beachum and flashed potential after converting from the defensive line. The team have added Ryan Harris from Denver and he’ll compete with Villanueva to start this year.
The Steelers do have some depth if injuries strike again. Forced into the starting lineup after Pouncey’s injury, Wallace returns to being a backup at both guard positions and centre. Meanwhile offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins was picked in the fourth round as a project and will be given a chance to develop behind the scenes. He was a 3 year starter while at LSU but isn’t NFL ready.
If Pouncey stays healthy and Harris or Villanueva can be solid the Steelers offensive line could be one of the better units in the NFL.