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2015 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

Rick Kinigson

Rick has played fantasy sports since 1984 and has been writing for RotoWire since 2011. He's contributed to a fantasy football segment featured on CBS Sports, and has also written original material for ESPN Radio 1050AM in New York.

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

In 2014, the Steelers set franchise records for points and yards behind the efforts of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. The result was an AFC North title and a record of 11-5. It marked the Steelers' first winning season and playoff berth since 2011.

Offensively, Pittsburgh became one of the league's best and most balanced teams. Bell, whose sophomore campaign was cut short by a knee injury in the final game of the regular season, finished second in the league in all-purpose yards (2,215), which helped the Steelers regain dominance in the rushing game. Perhaps Bell's most impressive feat was that he never once lost the ball last season and now has just one fumble in 662 touches over his first two NFL campaigns.

The second-half emergence of rookie receiver Martavis Bryant (eight touchdowns) opened things up for Brown, who led the NFL in receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698). Roethlisberger tied for the league lead with a career high of 4,952 passing yards and tied a personal record with 32 touchdown passes. In the process, he became the only quarterback to top 500 yards in a single game twice in his career, and the first to put up a total of 12 touchdowns over consecutive games.

The defense, as a unit, has been on the decline the last two years and finished 18th in yards allowed, the team's worst performance since 1991. Despite a shift from aging stars such as Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu to younger players like defensive end Cameron Heyward and linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers had to lure James Harrison out of retirement to provide a spark to an otherwise unreliable pass rush that came away with just 33 sacks. The 37-year-old Harrison finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks and was re-signed to a two-year contract.

After an uneven 3-3 start, that included disappointing losses to the Bucs and Browns, the 2014 edition of the Steelers put things together down the stretch, only to see the team's campaign end abruptly with a loss to the Ravens in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. It will take more consistent play over a full season for the Steelers to make a run at a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2015. Though Bell is now past his knee issues, he's slated to serve a three-game suspension to start the 2015 season, which will provide the team with an immediate early-season hurdle to overcome.

OFFSEASON MOVES

Key Acquisitions

Bud Dupree LB, Kentucky (ROUND 1, 22nd Overall)
After recording their lowest sack total since 1989, the Steelers upgrade with a speed-rusher who also has ability to drop into coverage.

DeAngelo Williams RB, Panthers
Early-season utility is on tap for the former Panther while Le'Veon Bell serves his three-game suspension.

Senquez Golson CB, Mississippi (ROUND 2, 56th Overall)
The Steelers' 27th-ranked defense against the pass needs help, but how often do you see 5-foot-9 outside corners in the NFL?

Sammie Coates WR, Auburn (ROUND 3, 87th Overall)
The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Coates brings a nice blend of size and speed to the table, though he'll need to curb his drops in order to prove he's the draft steal he's been pegged as.

Key Losses

Troy Polamalu S, RETIRED
Hangs up his cleats after 12 productive years in Pittsburgh.

Jason Worilds LB, RETIRED
Just 27, his retirement came as a surprise, ending a five-year NFL career in which he totaled 25.5 sacks.

Lance Moore WR, Lions
Never really got on track with the Steelers, catching just 14 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games during his only season with the team.

Brett Keisel DE, FA
The final leg of his 13-year run with the Steelers ended with a triceps injury and was followed by his release in March.

TEAM NOTES

NO BELL? NO PROBLEM
The Steelers' upcoming season will begin just as their 2014 campaign ended, that is, without Le'Veon Bell. Although he is appealing the NFL's ruling, Bell faces a three-game suspension resulting from his DUI and marijuana possession arrest last August. The hyperextended knee that Bell suffered in the team's regular-season finale hampered the Steelers' ground game in the playoffs, as rookie running backs Josh Harris and Dri Archer along with free agent pickup Ben Tate combined for just 73 yards from scrimmage. However, the Steelers seem better prepared for Bell's looming absence this time around, having signed free agent DeAngelo Williams. After playing just six games during an injury-riddled 2014 season, Williams gets a new start in Pittsburgh, and he should be fresh enough to handle the workload before relinquishing the lead role to Bell in Week 4.

YOUNGER, NOT NECESSARILY BETTER
After both Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor retired, and Pittsburgh released Brett Keisel, six of the team's eight draft picks were used on defense. In the wake of the moves, 2014 second-round pick Stephon Tuitt will replace Keisel, while 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas is the leading candidate to replace Polamalu. 2015 second-rounder Senquez Golson and 2015 fourth-round pick Doran Grant will compete to fill Taylor's spot, and the unexpected retirement of Jason Worilds leaves Pittsburgh with the injury-plagued Jarvis Jones, a 2013 first-round pick, or 2015 first-rounder Bud Dupree opposite James Harrison at outside linebacker. In total, only three defensive players on the roster are over 30.

IS TOMLIN ON THE HOT SEAT?
In eight years as head coach, Mike Tomlin has never recorded a losing record. He's been to the playoffs five times (including two Super Bowls), winning it all once. So how could he be at risk of being fired? Consider that Pittsburgh has lost its last three playoff games and was one-and-done in three of those five postseasons. The Rooney family has been patient, rewarding Tomlin in 2012 with a contract extension through 2016. But note that the team has allowed key members of the coaching staff, who share credit for Pittsburgh's success during Tomlin's tenure, to walk. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was not re-signed after the 2011 season, and then the Steelers parted ways with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau this offseason. Time may be running out for Tomlin as well, and anything short of an extended playoff run could cost him his job.

VALUE METER

Rising: Last season, Martavis Bryant didn't get into a game for Pittsburgh until Week 7, but the 6-foot-4, 211-pound wideout still managed to parlay his 26 catches into eight touchdowns.

Declining: Though Markus Wheaton caught 53 passes last season, the emergence of Bryant and the addition of Sammie Coates could cut into his fantasy utility this season.

Sleeper: If Le'Veon Bell goes down, Dri Archer could conceivably overtake DeAngelo Williams as the starting running back due to his superior pass-catching skills and breakaway speed.

Supersleeper: The 6-foot-7, 261-pound Jesse James is built like Jimmy Graham, making him a huge red zone target, but his fantasy value is limited as long as Heath Miller is healthy.

IDP WATCH

William Gay CB
Had three interceptions for touchdowns and added 69 tackles.

Lawrence Timmons LB
Led the team with 132 tackles (87 solo), including two sacks.

Ryan Shazier LB
Injuries limited him to nine games and 36 tackles as a rookie, but the 2014 first-rounder is healthy now and poised to emerge as an IDP factor in his second season.