Ed Bouchette's Five Keys to the 2014 Steelers season



1. Is younger better?

If you do not recognize the 2014 Steelers defense, it's not because you are old. Even newly re-signed teammate Brett Keisel said he did not know some of the players, although, at 36, he is old.

They have done a good job of transforming the defense from old and slow to young and fast, but will they be any good? They were not in the preseason, but those are mere practice games with no game-planning and sense of urgency.

Yet there remain major questions surrounding this new defense and some of those include the old guys: Can their past two first-round draft picks, linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, come through the way the Steelers need them to come through? Same with rookie end Stephon Tuitt, who looks to be in for significant playing time, too. And what about veteran players who have not yet done it for a full season, such as end Cam Heyward and linebacker Jason Worilds?

Then there are the leftover old guys. Does Troy Polamalu still have enough left, and can Ike Taylor rebound from his worst season at age 34?

So many questions, so little time.

2. Smoke bomb

Just as it appeared the Steelers had their best situation at halfback as they had in several years, along came Cheech & Chong, a.k.a. Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, toking down the highway.

They may not be suspended until next year for their little marijuana party in Bell's car and likely for only one game at that. But the indiscretion and lack of respect for their sport and team casts a shadow on their character and ability to stay on point for an entire season.

So much was expected of Bell after he steadily improved as a rookie and overcame a foot injury to do so. He caught more passes than any Steelers back in 19 years, and they need that again from him and more. It was not so much the smoking of the marijuana that raised alarms inside the Steelers organization, but the stupidity with how it was done, creating an issue of whether they can count on him for the long term. He will have much to prove.

3. Keep Ben happy, healthy

The Steelers decided not to negotiate a contract extension with Ben Roethlisberger this year, as was their tradition with two years left on their franchise quarterback's deal since the 1990s. Roethlisberger says he is OK with that.

Fine. Do one next year. At 32, Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career, in some of the best shape anyone has ever seen and he will be running -- so they say -- more of the no-huddle offense he so desires.

He. Must. Stay. Healthy. These are not the 2010 Steelers that can go 3-1 without him at quarterback. They do not have that kind of defense anymore. With all due respect to Bruce Gradkowski, they need more than a quarterback to manage the game. He 'is' their game.

The Steelers need to protect Roethlisberger. Without him, they lose all hope.

4. A good start is essential

Have the Steelers ever had an easier schedule the first seven games of this season?

They play one team over that span with a winning record from 2013, the 12-4 Carolina Panthers in the third game. They play at 8-8 Baltimore. They also play 4-12 Cleveland twice, 4-12 Tampa, 4-12 Jacksonville and 2-14 Houston.

It picks up after that with games against the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints -- both at home -- and two with the Cincinnati Bengals. But it's not overly taxing.

Their start is the key. It is not out of the question the Steelers could go 6-1 through those first seven games. Surely, they cannot come anywhere close to laying the kind of egg they did in the first half of last season. If they go 6-1, even 5-2, it could slingshot them into the playoffs because they also have the New York Jets (8-8), Tennessee Titans (7-9) and Atlanta Falcons (4-12) in the second half of the season, although all come on the road.

5. The line is always a key

This should be the best Steelers offensive line in quite some time, which might be faint praise because they have not been very good in quite some time.

Some of that came about because of injuries, and those can happen at any point, as Maurkice Pouncey learned on the first offensive series of 2013.

There is new optimism around this group, though, and it enters a season with the kind of stability in its starting five the Steelers have not had in a while. They even signed Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert to new, long-term contracts. The other starters are Kelvin Beachum at left tackle, Ramon Foster at left guard and David DeCastro, who looks to be a rising star at right guard. The Steelers have not had two offensive linemen make the Pro Bowl together since center Jeff Hartings and guard Alan Faneca did so for the 2005 season. DeCastro and Pouncey have a chance to match that.

The addition of line coach Mike Munchak also had a major impact on this line. After the two coordinators, an offensive line coach is the most important assistant on a team, and head coach Mike Tomlin hired one of the best in the business.

Depth might be somewhat of a problem in the line, but these days it generally is that way for most NFL teams. So staying healthy is the most important thing and the Steelers linemen are due for one of those years.


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