For years, the recipe for championship football in the Steel City was a physical and dominating defense that shut down running games and terrorized quarterbacks, and carried an offense which featured a smashmouth running game with a game manager at quarterback. In those days, the defense was as likely to score a touchdown on a Joey Porter strip/sack or a Rod Woodson interception return during a game, as the offense was on a Bettis run or Hines Ward reception. In some cases, those defenses outscored the offense. These days, with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, times have changed, as it’s now the offense that will determine how far this team will go, while giving a defense with lots of young talented players time to develop and gel.
Last season while Big Ben led the NFL with 4,952 yards passing and threw 32 touchdown passes, while Antonio Brown recorded the second most receptions ever in a season with 129 for 1,689 yards and 13 scores, and while Le’Veon Bell ran for 1,361 yards to go with his 83 receptions, the defense steadily improved as the year went on. Contributions from players like Brice McCain and Antwon Blake helped stabilize and actually improve the pass defense when Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu went down to injuries. Rookie Stephon Tuitt played well when replacing an injured Brett Keisel, while Cam Heyward stepped up to become the leader on defense.
Heading into the 2015 season, Keith Butler finally gets to take over the defense from long-time defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau. While a lot will remain the same with the scheme for continuity, efforts will be made to adjust the system to fit the talent that Butler has available to him. These adjustments will allow rookies and younger guys, like Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Senquez Golson and Daniel McCullers to contribute and have an impact much sooner than younger players did under LeBeau. Tweaks will be made to create situations for them to get after the quarterback and create turnovers. The one thing Keith Butler has that has been lacking the past three years are young, fast playmakers with ball skills, including the three recent defensive backs drafted that had 29 interceptions between them during their last collegiate seasons. Butler also needs another solid season from Willie Gay and a return to form from Cortez Allen, who lost his confidence and then was lost to injury.
Besides the young and talented players that the Steelers have invested in on defense, the best thing that side of the ball has going for it is an offense that has the ability to score from anywhere on the field at any time or the ability to score after chewing up time off of the clock. Last season, the Steelers’ explosive offense set franchise scoring records with arguably the best group of wide receivers and running back in the NFL. Using those weapons, almost to perfection, was offensive coordinator Todd Haley. For the second year in a row, Haley’s play calling was a major factor in allowing Ben Roethlisberger to remain relatively healthy and play in all 16 regular season games. It was a major reason that his version of the triplets, Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell, had one of the greatest seasons in league history. The additions of free agent running back D’Angelo Williams and rookie wide receiver Sammie Coates, who has impressed during OTA’s, gives Todd Haley two more options to play with this upcoming season.
On top of those weapons, offensive line coach Mike Munchak helped bring it all together by developing the offensive line into one of the NFL’s best. David DeCastro, Kelvin Beachum and perhaps Mike Adams may have benefited the most from Munchak’s presence, which in turn, helped Le’Veon Bell to have a monster breakout season. The key to the season that the offensive line had was their ability to remain healthy and cohesive for most of the year for the first time in a long time. After a full year under Munchak, the O-line should be even better in 2015.
If there is one weakness that the offense needs to shore up this season, it is that they need to score more touchdowns from the red zone. A large portion of the OTA’s and mini-camp was spent working on this area. This is where players like D’Angelo Williams, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates can help. Improving in this area is also the best way to help take pressure off of a young and developing defense. There have been too many times in the last few years where the offense has failed to score touchdowns and settle for only putting three points on the board. The best way the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense can help their young defense is to trade those field goals for touchdowns. The firepower on offense is definitely in place to make that happen.
While there are some entities out there who are predicting tough sledding for the Steelers this season, I believe they will repeat as AFC North champions and be a legitimate contender to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Despite the fact that the Steelers will once again have one of, if not the most lethal offense in the NFL, defense still wins championships. The most critical period for the Steelers’ offense will be the first six weeks of the season when they are going to have to carry the defense until these young guys get a feel for playing together and an understanding of Keith Butler’s way of doing things.
There is enough talent on defense to get by on athletic ability until consistent knowledge of the system kicks in and takes over. When that happens, I believe we are going to see a return to the “Blitzburgh” style of defense from the 90’s. Pair that type of defense with the offense that the Steelers have and the Steelers could very well be hoisting Lombardi Trophy number 7 in the near future.