The Pittsburgh Steelers have two quality running backs in Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount and a defense on the rise, but the AFC North is as competitive as ever.
2013 Season Recap
The Steelers were close to making the playoffs with an 8-8 record, but they fell just short as the San Diego Chargers improved to 9-7 to take the sixth seed in the AFC. The Steelers’ 0-4 start came back to haunt them, but they showed steady improvement and won six of their last eight games. Plus, their two final losses were by six points or less.
Their running game and offensive line were nonexistent in their slow start, but rookie Le’Veon Bell recovered from a concussion faster than expected and boosted the Steelers offense. Wide receiver Antonio Brown also had a breakout season with 110 catches, 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.
2014 Offseason Recap
The Steelers did not make any significant coaching changes, but they made a few minor free-agent signings such as running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Lance Moore while losing key players such as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Major defensive upgrades were made through the draft with the selections of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the first two rounds. Running back Dri Archer is also expected to make an impact with his explosive speed.
Position of strength
Although it is difficult to name a position of strength for the Steelers, running back gets the slight edge. Le’Veon Bell is primed to build on his impressive rookie campaign, which consisted of 860 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. He also added 45 catches and 399 receiving yards. LeGarrette Blount will give the Steelers depth at the position after becoming a key piece of the Patriots offense.
Position of strength
Outside linebacker has plenty of promise in Pittsburgh, but it remains the Steelers’ weakest position for the time being. Jason Worilds had a breakout season with eight sacks, but Jarvis Jones struggled in his rookie season and only had one sack. Jones is expected to make the jump in his second year, but the Steelers do not have reliable depth at outside linebacker. An injury to Worilds would damage the pass rush greatly since LaMarr Woodley is gone.
Best case scenario
If the Steelers can play to their full potential and stay healthy, they are capable of winning the AFC North. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of the best seasons of his career despite the Steelers missing the playoffs, throwing for 28 touchdowns and 4,261 yards. If he can maintain his level of play and the running game can thrive with Bell and Blount, the Steelers offense will flourish. The offensive line should be better too with center Maurkice Pouncey returning healthy.
The defense is also promising with Shazier primed to be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. His presence will undoubtedly boost the unit as he has plenty of help with Lawrence Timmons lining up next to him. If Jones can improve, the Steelers’ pass rush will inevitably become more dangerous.
Worst case scenario
If injuries pile up for the Steelers like last season, it will be even more difficult for them to contend in a competitive AFC North. Wide receiver is somewhat of a concern since Brown is the only experienced weapon remaining after the departure of Sanders. Markus Wheaton and rookie Martavis Bryant are being counted on to step up. If they can’t pan out, Roethlisberger’s numbers will likely regress.
If the pass rush continues to sputter, the defense will be unable to return to being a top-10 unit. This will make things harder for the pass defense, which has an aging cornerback in Ike Taylor.
The Steelers have a moderately difficult schedule that consists of the NFC South and their divisional opponents twice. The Bengals are still a contender to repeat as AFC North champions while the Ravens are primed to bounce back from their Super Bowl hangover.
Although it is entirely possible the Steelers will win the AFC North, there are too many question marks and a tough division will be too much to overcome.
Prediction: 3rd place in AFC North, no playoffs