NFL

Super Bowl Boom or Bust: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Before the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had back-to-back 8-8 seasons, which resulted in no playoff appearances.

However, Pittsburgh turned the corner last season, as they won the AFC North, after finishing with a 11-5 record.

Ben Roethlisberger played a major role in the turnaround.

The two-time Super Bowl champion had his best season statistically, as he had career highs in passing attempts (608), passing yards (4,952) and yards per game (309.5) and completion percentage (67.1).

For his efforts, Roethlisberger was rewarded with a five-year, $99 million contract extension this off-season. 

“This is where I want to be, and I’m just happy that I can be here,” Roethlisberger said. “Our first and foremost goal is winning Lombardi Trophies. I think we’ve got a good young football team with a lot of talent and a lot of ability, and that’s what I said coming over here — is there room in that trophy case for more trophies? Because that’s got to be our goal.”

In order for Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl aspirations to come to fruition, Pittsburgh must improve in certain areas on both sides of the ball.

Pittsburgh’s offense was one of the most explosive units in 2014, averaging 27.2 points per game.

Le’Veon Bell was another major factor in Pittsburgh’s offensive success. The 23-year-old running back rushed for 1,361 yards on 290 carries to go along with eight rushing touchdowns in 2014.

As Bell looks to progress in year three, he currently has an obstacle to overcome. Bell has been suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season, after being arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana last August.

As you could imagine, everyone has their hot take about Bell’s arrest, but the rising back is focused on progressing from this low point.

“Everybody has their own opinions about me, but that’s fine,” he said. “I can’t make everybody like me and I can’t make everybody hate me. I just have to continue to move forward and continue to be me. I know I’m a great person and a great football player, so I have to continue to be on and off the field.”

Who will replace Bell during his absence?

The answer is veteran running back DeAngelo Williams.

Williams, 32, was riddled with injuries last season in Carolina. He only appeared in six games, totaling just 62 carries.

If healthy, Williams should be able to still be productive on the ground, but in Pittsburgh’s offense, the running back is expected to be a threat in the passing attack as well.

Bell caught 83 passes last year, while Williams’ season high in catches is only 33, which came during his rookie campaign in 2006.

Despite not being able to show off his hands, Williams doesn’t appear to be too worried.

“Just sit back and enjoy the show and you can answer your own questions,” Williams said. “If you watch practice, I get out here and work on my hands to get them right. I’m aware he caught 85 balls. I’m aware that Dri (Archer) caught a lot of balls last year. I’m aware that if the ball is thrown in my direction, I’m expected to catch it because the media is going to be on my back. I understand the role that I’m put in right now. I’m behind Le’Veon. I’m Le’Veon’s backup. There’s going to be a lot of emphasis on me. I get it. But guess what? I’m ready to handle that role.”

Not only does Williams have to prove himself, young receivers like Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton must prove their worth.

Bryant seems poised to avoid a sophomore slump.

“I don’t have to think like I did last year. I’m not stressing about learning the plays. Everything is slower for me. I don’t have to do a lot of thinking. Now it’s about going out, playing, performing and having fun with it.”

If Bryant and Wheaton are able to take their games to the next level, Pittsburgh’s receiving core should be special with Antonio Brown.

Okay, so Pittsburgh’s offense should be fine, right?

What about their defense?

Leaders Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu are no longer there, which puts a ton of pressure on Pittsburgh to somehow replace those voices on and off the field.

Keith Butler has been promoted to defensive coordinator, after being the franchise’s linebacker coach for over ten years. 

“I’ve always thought this place gave me the best chance to win a Super Bowl as a coordinator,” Butler said. “That’s one of the reasons I always stayed. The other reason is that Coach Tomlin is a great guy to work for.”

Polamalu wasn’t the only player to retire from Pittsburgh’s defense. Jason Worilds and Ike Taylor both called it quits as well.

With so many new faces expected to see major roles in 2015, it’ll be important for them to learn the logistics of the defense quickly. 

“The guys that are new to the defense that are going to get more playing time, myself included, we all have to step up and it starts here,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. You have to make sure we put in the work now, get the details right, so that when the season starts we can hit the ground running.”

Nonetheless, cornerback William Gay knows it’ll take time.

“You can’t build Rome in one day, so that’s what we’re not trying to do,” Gay stated. “We’re just trying to build, trying to come close together, everybody. I want to re-start and learn the defense again because I wasn’t a starter last year (at the outset of the season). I should be making sure I do everything right.”

To make Pittsburgh’s secondary look better, they’ll need their pass rushers to get more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Last year, Pittsburgh only totaled 33 sacks, which ranked 26th in the league.

After seeing those numbers, it makes sense why Pittsburgh drafted Bud Depree in the first round.

The rookie is talking a good game too.

“We want to bring back that hunger, that eagerness to go after the quarterback.”

Bottom line, if Pittsburgh’s defense is able to make major strides, this team would be in great position to make a Super Bowl run.


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.