Mr. Haley's 30-point plan to glory
Pittsburgh went into last season with the goal of averaging 30 points. But after injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum, it came up short (26.4) in a season that ended with a 23--16 loss at Denver in the divisional round.
For the Steelers to follow through on their Super Bowl potential, they'll likely need to hit that points goal this season, if not exceed it. While the defense made strides in coordinator Keith Butler's first season after taking over for Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau—Pittsburgh went from allowing 23.0 points per game to 19.9—it is still far from the swarming, dominating units that led the team to Super Bowl appearances in 2005, '07 and '10. The pass rush is not consistent enough to compensate for a secondary that lacks playmakers and is counting on first-round pick Artie Burns of Miami to flash quickly at cornerback.
So the Steelers will ride or die with their offense once again. "Thirty points per game is still a goal," says offensive coordinator Todd Haley. With Bell facing a three-game suspension (substance abuse policy violation) and No. 2 receiver Martavis Bryant banished for the year (substance abuse), the road is harder. Still, there's enough talent to overcome those absences. The 34-year-old Roethlisberger has developed a rhythm with Haley and is playing the best football of his career: Over the past two seasons he has completed 67.5% of his passes and thrown for 318.9 yards per game. Antonio Brown has been the gold standard at receiver with a league-leading 265 catches over that span. With Bryant out, Pittsburgh will need more from Markus Wheaton (44 catches last season) and 2015 third-round pick Sammie Coates, who had an excellent camp. Pouncey is back. DeAngelo Williams (1,274 all-purpose yards and 11 combined touchdowns last year) has shown that he can capably replace Bell.
Left tackle and tight end, however, could determine the Steelers' fate. They decided not to re-sign Beachum, who had developed into a solid back-side protector for Roethlisberger. But the team obviously has confidence in 6'9", 320-pound Alejandro Villanueva. The second-year tackle, who entered Army as a receiver and tight end, is a surprisingly spry athlete, and he had 10 solid starts on the left side after Beachum went down last year.
Tight end is a trickier proposition. Heath Miller, who caught 60 passes in his 11th season in Pittsburgh, retired, as did valued veteran Matt Spaeth. The normally free-agency-averse Steelers gambled on Ladarius Green, signing him to a four-year, $20 million contract. But they haven't even been able to activate him off the PUP list, because of an ankle issue or because of recurring headaches that may date back to his time playing with the Chargers. For now their best option is second-year man Jesse James. He had only eight receptions last year but showed potential, catching a key touchdown in a victory over the Raiders and hauling in a 22-yard pass in the playoff loss to the Broncos. Roethlisberger and Haley both love to use the tight end, especially in the red zone, so the Steelers must get something out of the position if they want to hit that magical and much-needed 30-point plateau.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
The Steelers run an intricate zone scheme that demands their midfield defenders adjust their help coverages on the fly, disguise and execute complex blitzes, and, above all else, read and react in the run game. It takes veteran awareness and first-round talent to do this, which is why Pittsburgh's model has been to draft linebackers early and defensive backs later—the opposite of how most teams do it. These linebackers need time to excel in the system, and the latest to blossom is 2014 first-round pick Ryan Shazier(left) out of Ohio State. Last year injuries limited the 6'1", 230-pound Shazier to only 12 games, but down the stretch he was the Steelers' most dynamic defender. His straight-line speed is the best on the team. (Yes, the team; over the summer he beat wideouts Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates in a race). Shazier could be an All-Pro in 2016.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 11--5
2015 Record: 10--6
SEPT. 12 atWAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 vs.CIN
SEPT. 25 atPHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 vs.KC [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.NYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 atMIA
OCT. 23 vs.NE [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 atBAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 vs.DAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 24 atIND [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 vs.NYG
DEC. 11 atBUF
DEC. 18 atCIN
DEC. 25 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 vs.CLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER