Long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pro football writer Ed Bouchette offers fans the questions, the trends and the issues facing the team as it sets up camp at Saint Vincent College for the 49th summer in a row.
1. MORE NO-HUDDLE
The offense went to more no-huddle in the second half of last season. Only a coincidence they went 6-2 and that in the final seven games, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times? He hasn’t had a seven-game stretch with fewer sacks in his career. During that same stretch, he went six games with just two interceptions, four without any. A versatile back like Le’Veon Bell, who can run, block and catch, helps the no-huddle go. What needs more help is for Roethlisberger’s new wide receivers to get in sync quickly with him this summer so there aren’t many of those “miscommunication” interceptions in the no huddle. They spent a good portion of spring practices running it and do plan to use it often from the get-go this season.
2. MORE SPLASH PLAYS
When people refer to the big plays on the Steelers defense lately, they’re not talking about sacks and interceptions but on all those 50-yarders they’ve given up to offenses. It used to be, the Steelers were not only among the top defenses in the league in yards allowed, but among the most feared because of their ability to savage the quarterback and create fumbles and interceptions. Perhaps their two biggest plays in their previous run to a Super Bowl victory came when Troy Polamalu sealed their 23-14 win over Baltimore in the AFC championship with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown late, and James Harrison’s 100-yard interception for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. They need more of that to get back to the kind of defense fans are used to seeing around here.
3. MORE RUN PRODUCTION
Not only did the Steelers not heed the word of Art Rooney II three years ago when he said they needed to get better running the ball, they got worse! The Steelers were 11th in the NFL in 2010 in yards rushing. They slipped to 14th in 2011 and then dived to 26th in 2012 and tied for 27th in 2013. Reasons for those past two seasons could be twofold: Injuries, a lack of talent and falling behind more often, with a perceived need to pass more to catch up. Once Le’Veon Bell got over the sprained foot that benched him the first three games and prompted him to get off to a slow start, he gave them hope that they could return to the kind of ground game they long have been accustomed. They’re not looking to return to the Jerome Bettis days, but to have balance and be more effective with the play-action passes. And having a lead would allow them to run more often. With Bell, and two newcomers, LeGarrette Blount and rookie Dri Archer, the Steelers feel well armed to not only run it, but all three can catch it too.
4. MORE YOUTH, MORE SPEED
The transformation of the Steelers has been startling over the past few years and nearly complete. Only four players remain with two Super Bowl rings – Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Where once seven or eight starters on defense had already celebrated their 30th birthday, only Polamalu and Taylor have seen it. Unless new wide receiver Lance Moore cracks the starting lineup, only two plus-30s will open the season on offense, Roethlisberger and Miller. The Steelers also got faster. Ryan Shazier blazed past all rookie linebackers with a wide receiver-like time of 4.36 in the 40. Dri Archer will be hard to catch if he can break away. Even some of the old guys can still get after it, especially Polamalu, Taylor and Timmons on defense and Antonio Brown at wide receiver. If they don’t perform up to expectations, at least no one can label them old and slow anymore.
5. MORE BLOCKING
An annual entry among our five camp preview points, the tone of this assessment of the offensive line has a new angle: They have a chance to be their best line in years. The interior of guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro with center Maurkice Pouncey will be hard to beat, either by defenses or by most other guard-center combos in the NFL. The tackles remain a work in progress with the potential to indeed progress. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum may be undersized but understands the value of technique, footwork and uses his hands to his advantage. Marcus Gilbert started every 2013 game at right tackle and improved along the way. Mike Adams still is trying to squeeze his way into a starting tackle job and the competition has been good for all of them. Injuries have taken a big toll on this unit for a number of years. They are due for a healthy 2014, which would go a long way to making the line a team strength.