PRE-CAMP ANALYSIS: OFFENSE
The Steelers believe they have the makings of getting back to a dominant running football team with Le’Veon Bell entering his second year, the addition of LeGarrette Blount, and a starting five on the offensive line (Beachum-Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert) that Steelers coaches feel with the addition of offensive line coach, Mike Munchak, have an opportunity to be an above average unit in the NFL.
Pittsburgh ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 86.4 yards per game last season.
From day 1 in training camp, the message from the Steelers coaches is going to be evolving into a hard nosed running football team, but at the end of the day, the passing game is what’s going to determine whether this team makes the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Ben Roethlisberger played at an MVP level the last nine games of the 2013 season when the Steelers went 6-3 down the stretch. Roethlisberger threw for 20 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and 2,331 yards in the Steelers final nine games.
However, the Steelers went 2-6 in their first eight games of the 2013 season and Roethlisberger had a line of 8 touchdowns – 8 interceptions and was sacked 26 times his first seven games.
For the first time under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers offense looks to be trending up, averaged 26 points per game the last eight games of season, and they are likely to avoid the type of disastrous start this offense had in 2013, with no Le’Veon Bell, no Heath Miller to start the year, Mike Adams at left tackle first four games, Haley not emphasizing the no huddle and so on, were among the major hiccups that played a part in putting the Steelers in a 2-6 hole.
WIDE RECEIVER GROUP UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
The theme of the Steelers off-season on both sides of the ball is playing fast.
“We want to be a fast, high scoring offense,” Ben Roethlisberger said during mini camp. “Think we have a lot of speed. I want us to be fast.”
The Steelers are banking on the 5-foot-7 Dri Archer to be a Darren Sproles type player in their offense. Archer adds tremendous speed but this type of player is a boom or bust type and the chances are probably stronger of Archer being a bust than being the next Darren Sproles.
Steelers coaches, though, believe because of Archer’s explosiveness, he’s going to be someone the opposition will have to be aware of at all times.
The major question mark for the Steelers isn’t at running back or offensive line. It’s wide receiver.
Roethlisberger will have the tough task of getting the most out this group that is filled with uncertainty, outside of Antonio Brown.
Brown just 26 years old is coming of a monster season where he produced 110 catches for 1,499 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s such a strong route runner and can create big plays with his legs, that he’s going to continue to put up big numbers the next couple seasons, regardless of the lack of talent around him at wide out.
The Steelers pressing need to flank a legitimate No. 2 receiver next to Brown wasn’t addressed at the draft or in free agency. Emmanuel Sanders surely wasn’t the guy last season and Brown still put up 110 catches.
The Steelers WR corps has weakened, at least on paper, with the loss of Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery who was great in the redzone and added size.
The Steelers top-3 receivers, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore are 5-foot-11 or shorter. Moore is listed as a generous 5-foot-9. That is very concerning.
Significant pressure will be on 2nd year pro Markus Wheaton from the start of camp and he will be among the players that the microscope will be on. Last summer evaluators were calling Wheaton a potential star after watching him in the preseason and some felt he would be the Steelers second best receiver by seasons end.
Injuries never saw Wheaton get much of an opportunity last season as he finished his rookie year with 6 catches for 64 yards.
One Steelers scout believes Wheaton has the talent to be an excellent compliment to Antonio Brown due to Wheaton’s “great quickness” to get “separation” and the ability he showed in college of stretching the field vertically.
However, what remains unanswered with a smallish player like Wheaton is whether he can play on the outside and can he beat jams at the line of scrimmage? Antonio Brown who has a similar build and quickness, has evolved into a receiver who will beat you when lined up anywhere, but there’s no guarantee with Wheaton.
A problem for the Steelers will be if Wheaton is not able to produce out of the gate as the No. 2 receiver and the Steelers are forced to move Lance Moore up the depth chart.
What the Steelers love about Moore is his ability to be a clutch No. 3 receiver and make the tough grabs that Emmanuel Sanders lacked. However, Moore’s strength’s fit the way Jerricho Cotchery was used in the offense, not how Sanders was used.
Anything the Steelers get from 4th round pick Martavis Bryant will be a bonus this season. He has great size and ability but if OTA’s were a sign of things to come, this could be nothing more than a development year for Bryant.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is the wildcard in camp.
Derek Moye who some feel was overlooked last season as a redzone threat, will be in camp pushing for a roster spot again.
One key name to watch will be Justin Brown. His ability to learn the offense has drawn high praise from coaches and they really like his size and the consistency he’s had in practices. He’s made a very positive impression in OTAs on how he appears to be progressing from year one to year two.