A WHOLE NEW LOOK
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Forget the Steel Curtain. Blitzburgh too. It's a new day for the Steelers; 2015 is all about the offense. The question is: Can this unfamiliar formula—outscoring an opponent instead of suffocating him—deliver a Super Bowl title, as the D did twice in the past decade? Doubtful. But Pittsburgh has never seen an O this good.
The conversion of styles started last year when the offense went from a middling unit to one that rewrote the franchise record books in points (27.3), yards (411.1) and first downs (23.7) per game. The D, meanwhile, slipped to 18th in both points and yards. And the Steelers entered camp with all 11 offensive starters back for the first time since 1982, which means QB Ben Roethlisberger and coordinator Todd Haley are in the driver's seat. It wasn't all that long ago, though—the middle of the 2013 season—that it looked as if Haley wouldn't survive. Pittsburgh had started 0--4, then 2--5, as the O averaged an anemic 17.9 points per game. That the Steelers finished out 6--3 while averaging 28.2 points didn't entirely soothe everyone, but patience was rewarded over the course of the season. And after an explosive '14 the front office handed Haley a two-year contract.
"We have a lot of people back," the coordinator says. "Guys like [second-year receiver] Martavis Bryant, [third-year receiver] Markus Wheaton and [third-year running back] Le'Veon Bell. The fact that they are more comfortable and understand how we are trying to do things, that will only help them have a chance to be better."
The key to the Steelers' offensive resurgence? Health, improved protection for Roethlisberger, and talent. It's difficult to find a more well-rounded group in the NFL. That starts with Big Ben, who has always been accurate, tough and difficult to sack. But in Haley's quick passing attack, his skills have been magnified. Former coordinator Bruce Arians (now in Arizona) could direct a unit, but his old-school, deep-passing attack requires the right personnel. Roethlisberger is better served getting the ball to his talented supporting cast as quickly as possible.
That cast starts with Antonio Brown, who plays much larger than his 5'10", 180-pound frame. Because of his elite leaping ability and route running he was the best receiver in football last season, with more catches (129) and yards (1,698) than anyone else. It doesn't hurt that he has two ascending talents alongside him in Wheaton and Bryant (who's expected to miss the first four games for a drug suspension), or that third-round pick Sammie Coates (Auburn) should be ready to assist right away.
In the backfield Bell is the NFL's best dual-threat player, having just put up 1,361 yards rushing and 83 receptions in year two. An All-Pro in 2014, he possesses a rare blend of agility, quickness, power and vision. You could argue that only his hyperextended knee injury in Week 17 prevented the Steelers from advancing past the Ravens in the playoffs. The team signed former Panthers veteran DeAngelo Williams to make sure the O doesn't end up shorthanded again, particularly during Bell's two-game ban (failed drug test) to start the season.
As for health and the line, the Steelers finally got some luck in 2014, staying relatively injury-free in the trenches. That luck has already run out in '15, however, as center Maurkice Pouncey broke his left fibula in the preseason and is expected to miss significant time. Around him, right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert are in the upper echelon of players at their positions. Kelvin Beachum, a godsend as a '12 seventh-round pick, is very capable at left tackle. In '13, Pittsburgh played nine different linemen and that group allowed Roethlisberger to be knocked down 61 times. Last season, with just five linemen taking on the majority of the snaps, he was knocked down just 34 times.
The Steelers must improve in the red zone; last season they ranked 19th with a TD rate of 51.7%. Haley's off-season study found his team cost itself roughly 30 total points in the red area (which he views from the 35-yard line, not the standard 20). "We can't give points away," Haley says. "We obviously want to score touchdowns. But what kept us from being really good was the fact that we had too many possessions where we got zero points, whether it was an ill-timed sack that took us out of field goal range or a couple turnovers down there."
Playing with a defense that will be without legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau (who landed in Tennessee), and minus stars like retired safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers will need every point they can get.
SI'S PREDICTION: 9--7
ANDY BENOIT ON THE STEELERS' DEFENSIVE EVOLUTION
There's a reason you haven't seen rookies, even first- and second-rounders, playing heavy snaps in Pittsburgh's 3--4 defense over the years: Its complicated matchup zone principles and blitz exchanges make it arguably football's most difficult system to master. Once you catch on, you have a chance to be a 10-year starter, even a perennial Pro Bowler. But the learning process is humbling. In 2015 it will be interesting to see who Keith Butler—the Steelers' longtime linebackers coach tabbed to replace Dick LeBeau—puts on the field. Butler faces an issue that LeBeau rarely encountered: a paucity of talent. Most of Pittsburgh's storied veterans of the past decade are gone. The secondary, headlined by Mike Mitchell (above)—a free safety who should be playing strong safety—and a handful of youthful or ill-equipped corners, will be a problem. The only way to keep these guys unexposed is to create pressure. But the guys most physically equipped to do that are unproven first-round picks: class of '13 outside linebacker Jarvis Jones; '15 outside 'backer Bud Dupree (Kentucky); '14 inside 'backer Ryan Shazier (as a blitzer); and '14 end Stephon Tuitt, who was a second-rounder. Butler will have to rely on at least some—maybe all—of these guys.