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 Harris
on 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.
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.
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.
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 Harris
on 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.