Potential There for Steelers, Either Way
Roger Goodell and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers' top pick at the 2014 NFL Draft. Will Shazier be their next great linebacker? (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Both the Steelers and I return to work at the same time. What a coincidence.
The best news for them is there was no news since they last got together six weeks ago, discounting that little dustup at Maurkice Pouncey’s birthday party in Miami.
As the Steelers wander onto campus tomorrow in various modes of transportation – my favorite was the time safety Rick Woods pulled up in an old pickup with empty beer cans rattling around in the back – we await what should be a pivotal time for them.
After consecutive 8-8 finishes, this team resembles little of the one that last made the playoffs in 2011. That may be a good thing – or not, which brings us to our theme this late-July morning: Are the Steelers a team on the way up, treading water or trending further down?
Let’s start with the defense.
The Steelers have what could be a dynamic group of linebackers. Jarvis Jones was their first-round pick last year and they thought enough of Jason Worilds to pay him nearly $10 million this year. Lawrence Timmons has played at a Pro Bowl level for several years and rookie Ryan Shazier could be their next great linebacker.
On the other hand, Worilds has played at a high level for only half a season and missed most of the spring practices with a calf injury; Jones did not play well as a rookie starter, and Shazier has done nothing yet in the pros other than look good in the spring. They also have little proven depth across the board.
Then there is the defensive line. End Cam Heyward, who opened last season still a backup, is now the leader of that line and had an excellent second half of last season. The nose tackle is Steve McLendon, who added 17 pounds in an attempt to fill out the position more, and the other end is, um, undecided. That isn’t quite Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel in their prime. But maybe the young players such as second-round pick Stephon Tuitt will come through and surprise everyone.
The secondary returns 75 percent intact, the exception at free safety, where Mike Mitchell should be an upgrade over last year’s version of Ryan Clark. But will Ike Taylor improve over a poor season now that he’s 34? Can Troy Polamalu be more of an impact player again, at age 33? And will Cortez Allen hit his stride in his fourth NFL season? Cornerback remains an issue after the Steelers did not draft one until the fifth round, and their only free agent signing at the position was a minor one.
That is not a rosey picture for the Steelers defense, but other than two positions in the secondary, the rest are under 30, and they should be faster and that could make up for many of the gaffes that allowed big plays against them last year.
Now for the offense.
This has the potential to be among their most dynamic offenses in quite some time. Ben Roethlisberger finally has an offensive line and a running game that could bring the kind of balance, blocking and protection to the offense that he has not had since the days of Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca.
Le’Veon Bell gives them something they have not had in 20 years – a back who can run, block and catch. He may be the perfect back for their no-huddle offense because he can be used in any situation – first down, passing downs, short-yardage, etc. LeGarrette Blount gives them someone with experience and punch as No. 2 and rookie Dri Archer brings a whole different set of abilities to the mix.
The line’s strength is the interior of center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster. The tackles remain a work in progress. Marcus Gilbert needs to step it up on the right side. Technician Kelvin Beachum held his own at left tackle last season and may hold off Mike Adams’ bid to replace him. If the tackles hold steady – and everyone remains healthy – it could be their best line in years.
The receivers are a mixed lot. Antonio Brown returns after setting the Steelers single-season record with 1,499 yards on 110 catches. But they lost their next two most productive receivers in free agency. They signed 30-year-old Lance Moore, who was a productive receiver for the Saints, to replace departed Jerricho Cotchery. Markus Wheaton, who caught six passes as a rookie, will try to replace Emmanuel Sanders. Rookie Martavis Bryant has potential but no one knows where he might fit in yet. Veteran free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey and others will vie for the No. 5 spot.
Tight end Heath Miller should return to form after a season that began with him recovering from ACL surgery.
Shaun Suisham returns as the most accurate kicker in their history but once again, they will have a new punter.
It’s a team of potential with plenty of young players as they turn the page on their three most-recent Super Bowl teams, their second Super Bowl era, if you will. The potential is also there for it not to go so well.