Super Bowl 51 Contenders: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most successful franchise in NFL history. They have appeared in the most Super Bowls (8; joints with Dallas, New England and Denver) but they are the most storied franchise with the most Super Bowl wins (6; 1974, ’75, ’78, ’79, 2005, ’08). They are in a league of immortality with their six Super Bowl wins and boast not just some of the greatest players to ever suit up in NFL, but have also earned some of the best nicknames. The Steelers four Lombardy trophies in the 1970s was due to the greatest defensive team ever seen in the NFL. It was not only a record setter as through a nine game stretch in 1976 it allowed only 28 points, including fie shut outs. It also produced four Hall of Fame players (Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and “Mean” Joe Greene) more than any other legendary NFL defence.

This Defense was so dominant that the NFL was required to make rule changes for offense’s in order to counter the Steel Curtain’s dominance over the rest of the NFL. Offensive Linemen were allowed to use their hands to block pass rushers like “mean” Joe Greene, while defensive backs were restricted from being able to bump receivers for more than five yards to limit Mel Blount and his bullying of opposing receivers.

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AP Press

The current crop of Steelers still match another of Pittsburgh’s nicknames, one they earned from the mid-1990s due to their tendency to relentlessly attack opposing quarterbacks. Entering 2016 it still seems appropriate to label the Steelers as “Blitzburgh” and Defensive stars such as Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, James Harrison and Bud Dupree have both the talent and athleticism to attempt to live up to the name of the fabled Steel Curtain that terrorised the NFL for most of the 1970s.

That is enough of a history lesson for now and let us preview the group of Steelers in 2016 who will be strong Super Bowl contenders and hoping to secure a historic seventh Super Bowl for the “Steel City.”

The Offence

Although the Steelers are famed for their defense, they boast a whopping ten offensive players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This proud tradition is something that will surely continue in 2016 as the Steelers have one of the most powerful offenses in the NFL headlined by the League’s best ‘triplet.’ The Steelers have also looked to build on their impressive offensive roster with the addition of the speedy Tight End Ladarius Green from San Diego who looks to replace legendary Steeler Heath Miller who retired in February. They have also added Tackle Ryan Harris from Denver as the team lost Kelvin Beachum to Jacksonville.

The Steelers Offence was decimated by injuries in 2015 and was relying on 2nd and 3rd string quarterbacks for stretches during the year. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returning from injury in 2016, the Steelers have a top-5 quarterback alongside a top-3 running back and the leagues best wide receiver who will look to fire Pittsburgh to the franchises ninth Super Bowl appearance in 2016.

 

Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger or as he is more commonly known “Big Ben”, is a tall quarterback who scans the field and is able to pick apart opposing defenses as he connects with receivers all over the field. He boasts the ability to make every throw and his large frame and elusive instincts makes him one of the most difficult quarterbacks to bring down in the NFL. He regularly avoids sacks and rolls out of the pocket to extend plays and hook up with receivers down field. It is Roethlisberger’s ability to play outside the pocket that he is predominantly known for and has earned him the nickname “Backyard Ben” due to his brand of “backyard football.” This is due to him seemingly running round in the backfield and throwing bombs down field while he has two or three linemen either hanging off of him or grabbing some part of his large frame in an attempt to bring him down. He combines his big arm with his gunslinger mentality as he takes shots down the field and lights up opposing secondary’s with his home run threats. Roethlisberger has been to Super Bowls and won it all, he is a proven leader and when on the field is one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League.

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AP Press

Rushing Attack

The Steelers will miss their no.1 running back Le’Veon Bell for the first three games of 2016 for missing a drug test. Bell had a breakout sophomore year in 2014 as he racked up 1,361 yards in just 290 attempts alongside 854 receiving yards with 83 receptions. Bell only played in six games in 2015 but was on track to top his 2014 stats as he improved his average from 4.6 yards per rush to 4.9 yards in 2015. Bell is recovering from a torn MCL and when healthy is the second best back in the NFL behind only Adrian Peterson. Bell is a fast, elusive and tough to bring down back who has the ability to shake off tacklers while possessing the breakaway speed to able to take the ball to the house when he see’s a hole.

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Peter Dianna/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers have an able back up in DeAngelo Williams who filed in for Bell last season and on 200 attempts had 907 yards with 11 TD’s with an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. The Steelers also have Daryl Richardson and Fitzgerald Toussaint fighting for roster spots. It is clear that from week 4 onwards, the Steelers will have a stud at running back who gives the Steelers a hard hitting run game which alongside the Steelers potent passing attack gives them arguably one of the leagues best offences.

 

Receiving Threat

The Steelers have a stud in Le’Veon Bell at running back and a stud in Antonio Brown at wide receiver. Brown is the best wide receiver in the National Football League who is an accomplished route runner with great hands and extremely dangerous after the catch as his punt return duties demonstrate. Brown was only taken in sixth round in 2010 yet has gone on to establish himself as a top wide receiver in the NFL despite concerns with his height and 40 time that scouts raised as he came out of Central Michigan. Brown has been an All-Pro the past three years as he posted 1,499 yards in 2013, 1,698 yards in 2014 and 1,834 yards in 2015 with Michael Vick and Landry Jones starting five games at quarterback. Brown torched the Oakland Raiders in week 9 last season as he caught 17 balls for 284 yards. Brown is nearly impossible to cover and is also a threat in the return game. Clearly the Steelers offence will pose every team problems in 2016 as teams are forced to defend both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

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Justin K. Aller/ Fox Sports

However, the Steelers will struggle for depth at wide receiver in 2016 as Martavis Bryant has been suspended for the entire 2016 season due to substance abuse. Markus Wheaton will start at the no.2 and proved he could be a big play threat for Pittsburgh as he averaged 17.0 yards per catch in 2015 as he caught only 44 balls but posted 749 yards. Pittsburgh have former 2009 7th overall pick Darrius Heyward-Bey who wowed scouts with his 6 foot 2 frame and 4.30, 40 yet has failed to impress in the pros. Heyward-Bey with serve in the rotation with sophomore Sammie Coates and will all benefit from playing alongside Antonito Brown who will demand the attention of teams no.1 corners and could see regular double teams in 2016. The Steelers also signed tight end Ladarius Green this past offseason who served as an able backup to Antonito Gates in San Diego but will look to fill the void left by the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger’s favourite check down, long-time Steeler tight end Heath Miller. Green is a quick Tight End who at 6 foot 6 will pose a mismatch to opposing teams who will have to deal with Green, Brown and also load the box as they look to stifle Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers run game.

 

Offensive Line

The Steelers suffered with injuries everywhere on offense in 2015 and the line did not go unscathed. The line was constantly shuffled throughout 2015, however, entering 2016 the Steelers will hope that the line can rebound and if stay healthy looks like a top-5 unit on paper. Project starters will be Left Tackle Ryan Harris; Left Guard Ramon Foster; Center Maurkice Pouncey (stud); Right Guard David DeCastro (stud) and Right Tackle Marcus Gilbert (elite?).

Marcus Gilbert was the only right tackle last season with 300 or more pass blocks and three or fewer combined sacks and hits. David DeCastro on his inside earned Pro-Bowl and 1st Team All-Pro honours in 2015 and is emerging as one of the best Guards in the NFL despite his young age. Center Maurkice Pouncey every year since entering the League that he has played has been either a 1st Team or 2nd Team All-Pro player. He missed 2013 with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee and 2015 with a broken ankle yet he is arguably the best or at worst second best Center in the National Football League and it seems clear that Big Ben will be in safe hands on the right side of his line. Left Guard Ramon Foster has been a consistent feature of the Steelers Offensive Line since entering the League undrafted in 2009. In his seven seasons with Pittsburgh he has appeared in 99 games, started 84 and missed only 13.

The biggest question marking entering 2016 on offense apart from who will be the no.2 receiver is how well with either Ryan Harris or Alejandro Villanueva fare at Left Tackle. The blindside is undoubtedly a quarterbacks biggest weakness and the Steelers will hope that either the newly signed Harris or the former Captain and Afghanistan veteran Alejandro Villanueva can not only keep Big Ben clean in 2016 but also add a physical presence upfront in the run game. The Steelers have a talented Offensive Line on paper, however, it is a group that is weak in depth and will hope that injuries will not cause a game of musical chairs to ensue.

The Defense

Front Seven

The Steelers have an incredibly talented front seven who have the potential to be a dominant force in 2016. The Steelers deploy a base 3-4 Defensive meaning that they have large strong Defensive linemen who are able to wrestle with Tackles and Guards in order to free up lanes for the Steelers uber-athletic Linebacker’s to fly into the backfield and terrorise opposing quarterbacks. Current Defensive Co-ordinator Keith Butler served as Pittsburgh’s Linebacker Coach from 2003-2014 and replaced long-time co-ordinator Dick LeBeau in 2015 surpassing many experts estimations as the Steelers sack total improved from 33 in 2014 to 49 in 2015 and the number of turnovers rose from 21 to 30 while points allowed per game decreased by 4 and the defense led the NFL in red zone turnovers. The Steelers clearly have all the pieces in place to be a championship defense and if their front seven can produce at the same rate as last season, it should allow their ball hawking and playmaking secondary to reap the rewards in 2016.

The Steelers have an extremely talented 3-4 Defensive End in Cameron Heyward and when he brings it, is one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the NFL. Stephon Tuitt is also an extremely gifted linemen who many are forecasting as having a breakout season in 2016. Tuitt will be entering his third year in the League and is super athletic considering his immense size and was a freak coming out of Notre Dame who many scouts stated had an incredibly high ceiling. If the Steelers can get the most out of the so far underwhelming nose tackle Daniel McCullers or the rookie Javon Hargrave who has created plenty of buzz during training camp then the Steelers could have three Defensive Linemen who can dominate the line of scrimmage and free up gaps and lanes for linebacker’s to be able to penetrate and relentlessly pursue opposing QB’s.

The Steelers are extremely talented at linebacker as they have a mixture of veteran talent with athletic and emerging young stars. James Harrison continues to defy age at 38 years old and looked as impactful in 2015 as he was during his early days in the Steel City. Harrison will compete with the athletic Jarvis Jones for the right outside linebacker. Starting at the left outside linebacker position is Bud Dupree. A first round pick in 2015, Dupree is athletic, long and has the potential to develop into an All-Pro outside linebacker as he possesses the speed and mobility required to be an elite pass rusher while having the strength and agility to prevent opposing teams rushing attack. Dupree is backed up by the able and hard-hitting Arthur Moats.

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Charles LeClaire/ USA TODAY Sports

This combination of young, athletic and dynamic linebacker’s mixed with savvy veterans is continued on the Inside as the Steelers pair Ryan Shazier with Lawrence Timmons. Timmons is a reliable veteran who has not missed a game in 5 years and is more of a force against the run game rather than in coverage. However, he uses his nine years experience in League in place himself in a position to make plays and is the perfect compliment to the athletic Shazier in the middle. Shazier has the size and toughness to play middle linebacker yet the athletic makeup to be able to play wide receiver. He was the third Linebacker selected in 2014 behind Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr and coming out of Ohio State was touted as an extremely talented linebacker prospect who could flourish in both stopping the run and playing in coverage. Shazier posted a 4.38 second 40 alongside a 42 inch vertical and 25 reps on the bench press. He is the perfect compliment alongside Timmons as the Steelers combine athletic and talented young players alongside seasoned veterans with proven experience along their entire front seven.

The Secondary

Following the retirement of long-time Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor in 2014, corner William Gay took on the no.1 role in 2015. Gay performed well and will mostly likely be partnered by rookie Artie Burns at some point later in the season. The Steelers took Burns with the 27th overall pick in this years draft. Burns played for the Hurricanes and also represented Miami as a track athlete where at the 2012 World Junior Championships (those under 20) he posed the no.5 time in the world (no.1 in USA) in the 110-meter hurdles. Burns athleticism has never been questioned and at 6 foot he is a lengthy corner, yet he is still extremely raw and will need to develop quickly if he is to start in the NFL. The Steelers signed Ross Cockrell in 2015 and he was expected to merely back up Burns yet he has started throughout the preseason so far and will most likely start opposite Gay in week 1. Yet I believe that Burns will most likely take over the starting job half way through the season as Pittsburgh looks to rebuild its secondary.

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Matt Freed/ Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Sean Davis was taken in the second round of this years draft and is also envisioned as part of the future for Pittsburgh yet he too will most likely serve as a back up until he can win out the starting job some time in the future. Robert Golden has so far been starting at Strong Safety and I believe will hold down the starting job as Davis will redshirt his first season as he looks to learn and develop to push for a starting job in 2017. Mike Mitchell will start for Pittsburgh at Free Safety in 2016 and all four starters in the secondary are playmakers that will look to improve on an extremely successful 2015 campaign that saw the Steelers register 30 turnovers.

The Skinny

The Steelers boast the best “triplet” in football with “Big Ben”, Le’Veon Bell and Antontio Brown. They also have a strong offensive line on paper with two elite players along the right side and the League’s best center. With the suspension of no.2 receiver Martavis Bryant the Steelers will hope that Big Ben can connect with either Markus Wheaton or Darrius Heyward-Bey on deep balls and build up the same chemistry he demonstrated with Bryant last season. The Steelers will be without Bell for the first three games, yet DeAngello Williams was an able back up when called upon to play last season. The Steelers boast one of the best offensive units in the NFL and there high-powered, high-scoring offence should fire them deep into the playoffs.

Defense wins championship. It is an old saying but it still rings true year in year out in the NFL. The Steelers have complied a dominant front seven alongside a secondary that although contains playmakers, is currently undergoing a rebuild. The Steelers have able pieces in place while their rookie corner and safety develop, however, the team contains enough talent in the front end to be able to help out the back end. The Steelers have a strong roster and despite playing in the ever tough AFC North, if they can beat the Bengals to clinch home field advantage should only have the New England Patriots in their way before challenging for a record seventh Vince Lombardy Trophy.

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