STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Steelers are coming off of back-to-back 8-8 efforts, missing the playoffs in successive seasons for the first time since the team went three years without a postseason berth between 1998 and 2000. After starting the 2013 campaign by losing their first four games, the Steelers dug their way out of the hole to eventually even their record, winding up a single break away from making the playoffs. A missed field goal by Chiefs' kicker Ryan Succop in Week 17 ushered the Chargers into the postseason instead, but the Steelers' 6-2 run to close out 2013 offers encouragement.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to play a full season for the second time in his career, completing better than 64 percent of his passes for 4,261 yards, with 28 touchdown passes. He and offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally seemed on the same page, although Big Ben took far too many hits, en route to being sacked 42 times. Former Titans head coach Mike Munchak is the team's new offensive line coordinator, and center Maurkice Pouncey is set to return from injury, offering hope that Roethlisberger could enjoy improved pass protection in 2014.
Meanwhile, Antonio Brown cemented his status as the team's go-to wideout following the departure of Mike Wallace. Brown's team-leading 1,499 yards on 110 receptions allowed the Steelers to attack downfield. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, after bouncing back from an early-season foot injury, helped keep opposing defenses honest. Still, the Steelers haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2010, and the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery leaves the team hoping to fill the void at receiver. With that in mind, the Steelers added free agents Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey and drafted Martavis Bryant to compete with 2013 third-rounder Markus Wheaton.
The 2013 season wasn't kind to the Steelers' defense, with the unit surrendering 30 or more points five times, en route to allowing 370 points overall and an average of 337.5 yards per game, up 56 points and 61.8 yards respectively from the team's 2012 marks. In the aftermath, while facing salary cap issues for a second consecutive offseason, GM Kevin Colbert was forced to move on from defensive stalwarts Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley. The Pittsburgh defense now looks to a future that includes defensive end Cameron Heyward, safety Shamarko Thomas and linebacker Jason Worilds. The defensive makeover continued on draft day, with the team's first-round selection of linebacker Ryan Shazier and the addition of defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the second round.
With Bell on track to begin the season healthy and LeGarrette Blount added as insurance, the Steelers hope to get off to a running start this season after operating in catch-up mode last year.
Mike Mitchell – S, Panthers
An aggressive player and eager tackler in both the run and passing games.
Ryan Shazier – LB, Ohio State (Round 1, 15th Overall)
Elite blitzing upside and likely becomes a three-down player right away.
Stephon Tuitt– DE, Notre Dame (Round 2, 46th Overall)
Has extraordinary athleticism and flexibility for someone his size.
Lance Moore – WR, Saints
Should help fill the void created by loss of receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
LeGarrette Blount – RB, Patriots
Could vulture touchdowns from Le'Veon Bell as a sturdy goal-line option.
Emmanuel Sanders – WR, Broncos
Working with Peyton Manning could help him surpass his 67-740-6 2013 effort.
LaMarr Woodley – LB, Raiders
Solid pass rusher, just 29, but hampered by numerous injuries.
Ziggy Hood – DE, Jaguars
On track to work as a defensive tackle with the Jags.
THE GROUND GAME
The Steelers have relied heavily on the pass since Mike Tomlin took the coaching reins following the 2007 season, with the team's ground game producing a modest average of 86.4 yards per game last season. In 2014, the offense may look to re-empahisize the run, with new offensive line coach Mike Munchak's zone-blocking rushing attack in play and the team featuring a running back tandem of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, bolstered by speedster Dri Archer. Bell is much better than his 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie would indicate, exhibiting patience and soft hands. He managed 45 receptions in 2013, despite missing three games, and in the process surpassed Franco Harris' Steelers rookie record for yards from scrimmage (1,259). Bell getting knocked out by Jimmy Smith late in the Steelers' Thanksgiving night loss to the Ravens highlighted the need for depth, which was addressed by the signing of the bruising Blount. Working as the Patriots' lead back down the stretch last season, Blount rushed for 772 yards (5.0 YPC) and seven touchdowns. He'll serve as a battering ram, providing the Steelers with another power option to wear down opposing defenses.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
A foundation of the greatest Steelers' teams was the "Steel Curtain" defense. In 2013, however, the defense turned into the team's greatest weakness. With that in mind, GM Kevin Colbert used five of the team's nine draft picks to reload and retool what was an aging defensive roster. Every good defense starts with a good defensive line, and second round-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt gives Pittsburgh a much-needed youth infusion on that front. Meanwhile, first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier adds athleticism at linebacker, boasting cornerback speed and leaping ability. Not quite as terrifying as it used to be, the Steelers' secondary lost free agent safety Ryan Clark, who signed with the Redskins, creating a huge void. Ike Taylor will be 34 when the season starts and mainstay Troy Polamalu is 33, but with the addition of free agent safety Mike Mitchell (27) and fifth-round draft pick cornerback Shaquille Richardson, the secondary is on track to get both younger and quicker. In fact, if all goes according to plan, the Steelers' starting defense could end up being one of the younger units in the league, but with experienced leaders still on hand to mentor their younger counterparts.
Rising: Now that Heath Miller is further removed from the ACL injury that caused him to miss the start of last season, he could re-emerge as a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger.
Declining: While LeGarrette Blount is coming off of his best performance since his rookie campaign, his fantasy utility is hampered by the presence of the capable Le'Veon Bell.
Sleeper: Martavis Bryant faces competition at receiver, but at 6-4, he possesses upside as a red zone option.
Supersleeper: Dri Archer boasts unmatched speed and can play both running back and receiver, but he'll likely make the biggest initial impact as a kick returner.
Cameron Heyward - DE
Led the team's defensive linemen in virtually every significant statistical category last season.
Mike Mitchell - S
The playmaker totaled 3.5 sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2013.
Lawrence Timmons - LB
Tackling machine with 126 total stops excels in both coverage and run-stopping.
RotoWire Rank: 21