The 2014 season was one of overachieving and then disappointment for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin's squad finished with an 11-5 record and the No. 3 seed in the AFC to break a two-year postseason drought, but after breakout running back Le’Veon Bell hyperextended his right knee in the final week of the regular season the Steelers fell to AFC North rival Baltimore 30-17 in the wild card round.
It was a discouraging finish for the Steelers, but there is plenty of reason for optimism in 2015. With considerable talent selected in this year’s draft, Pittsburgh could not only repeat their strong regular-season showing, but potentially rule atop the AFC.
Let’s take a look up and down the Steelers depth at each position and grade how strong they are at each spot.
Ben Roethlisberger is coming off his best season, and there is no reason to believe he will see a drop off in 2015. He rarely made inaccurate passes last season, and still has a strong arm at age 33. However, there is room for improvement in the red zone for Big Ben. Brad Gradkowski, Tajh Boyd, Landry Jones and Tyler Murphy are uninspiring reserves.
Big Ben’s clearly among the NFL elite, and another huge year is on the horizon. But if he goes down for any length of time, Pittsburgh has little depth behind him.
There are not enough superlatives for Antonio Brown, who has the speed and the excellent route running that forces defense to make adjustments. The corps also boasts young and impressive No. 2 and 3 options in Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, who totaled nearly 1,200 yards in 2014. Meanwhile, third-round draft pick Sammie Coates could be the steal of the draft. Coates faced some of the top defenses in college, so he should be ready to make an immediate impact.
Brown became arguably the best receiver in the NFL last season, and should be good for 1,600 yards. Wheaton has blazing speed seems ready for a breakout season after admirably filling in for Emmanuel Sanders last year. Bryant and Coates round out an excellent unit. Expect big things from this group in 2015.
Bell is perhaps the best young running back in the league, and arguably the best dual threat in the NFL. He finished with 2,215 total yards, and is only 23 years old. He said way back at the end of January that he was already close to 100 percent healthy, so he should be fit by opening day on Sept. 10, though there is still a wait to learn if he will get his three-game suspension reduced. Veteran DeAngelo Williams and his career average of 4.8 yards per carry will be needed in the early weeks to compensate for Bell's absence. Dri Archer has fantastic speed, and Josh Harris received some playing time in his rookie season after LeGarrette Blount was released.
There is no denying Bell's abilities, and Williams is a serviceable backup despite just 62 carries in 2014. But while Archer has fantastic speed, he failed to show an ability to run between the tackles. Depth is a serious issue for this unit.
Offensive line coach Mike Munchak oversaw a sturdy, consistent unit in 2014. Center Maurkice Pouncey earned his second first-team All-Pro nod, and right guard David DeCastro appears poised for another strong year. Marcus Gilbert had a solid season at right tackle. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, left guard Ramon Foster and No. 3 tackle Mike Adams will be playing in contract years.
Roethlisberger is tough to sack, but needs time to throw. More than likely, the line will do another strong job protecting him and opening holes for the ground game. In fact, this young group could be getting even better in Munchak's second season. The big question is whether they can stay healthy again.
The 3-4 Steelers defensive front got the job done roughly 50 percent of the time. They were No. 6 in the league against the run, but the pass rush remained near the bottom of the NFL at No. 26 with 33 sacks. Pittsburgh does, however, have excellent pieces including linebackers Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, and another year from James Harrison. A big season from Stephon Tuitt and how Cameron Heyward responds after Jason Worilds retirement will determine any improvement against the pass.
Pittsburgh went for a pass rusher in Bud Dupree in the first round, and he could serve as Harrison’s heir one day and likely takes Worilds spot for now. There’s also former first-round pick Jarvis Jones, who was healthy for only seven games last year, and seems ready to play a bigger role.
Just like the offensive line, there’s a ton of young pass rushers on this squad, and the Steelers need at least one player to emerge as the leader. Harrison will serve that role for a time, but he’s on a one-year deal and the Steelers front line needs a face of the future. Maybe it’s Shazier, Timmons, or Tuitt, but someone has to step up. Much of this group's success may depend on how Dupree develops.
There is a void with emotional leader Troy Polamalu retiring. William Gay, 30, is the most consistent player in this group and will be playing for a new contract. Gay and Cortez Allen top a secondary that finished 27th in the league in yards allowed per game. Some of that blame falls on the line for not generating enough pressure, but the secondary deserves some flak for failing to make plays down field with only 11 interceptions forced all season. There is hope in the form of rookie cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, and Gay seeking a new deal. Antwon Blake showed promise late in the season, and seems motivated to be a key figure. Mike Mitchell returns at free safety, and will likely have a better season.
Golson was the best corner in the SEC last season, and Grant played for Ohio State’s championship squad, and they’ll go a long way in patching the losses of retired Ike Taylor and Brice McCain, who bolted to Miami in free agency. But Allen and Gay, and how they lead this young group against the vaunted passing offenses of Baltimore and Cincinnati could make or break Pittsburgh’s success.
Brown handled punts and Wheaton kickoffs last year, and neither was especially effective, with Archer backing up both. Kicker Shaun Suisham was tied for eighth with 29 field goals made last season, and had a success rate of 90.6.
Considering Brown’s amazing play last season, should Archer improve, Tomlin and special teams coordinator Danny Smith might consider Archer to take over punt return duties to limit Brown’s chance for injury. Archer does have incredible speed and could be a lethal returner on punts or kickoffs if he can hone those quick feet.
Before last season, some believed Tomlin was on the hot seat and the Steelers went 11-5 to win the AFC North for the first time in four years. He’s never posted a losing season since taking over in 2007, with an 82-46 overall record, and 9-5 mark in the playoffs. Tomlin might have pushed the right buttons when he promoted former players Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter to coach the young linebacker core. With Dick LeBeau out, the pressure is on Keith Butler to simplify the defense.
A Super Bowl winner, Porter finished third in team history with 60 sacks and might be the best choice to get the most out of Moats, Jones, and Dupree. Players have raved about Munchak. Butler finally gets his chance to run the show, and that's probably a good thing.
The Steelers deserve to be favorites to win the AFC North, and are a legitimate dark horse to reach the Super Bowl. Tomlin will likely need the defense to overachieve in order to overcome the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and others. Pittsburgh has the talent to win 12 regular season games, and a deep run in the playoffs seems plausible, but it will be a very tough task. One playoff win seems like a reasonable projection.