WELCOME BACK: Pittsburgh's pass rush. The Steelers had an NFL-best 56 sacks last year, up from 38 in 2016. They deploy a trove of creative blitzes featuring slot corner MIKE HILTON and powerful inside linebacker VINCE WILLIAMS, but they use them selectively. In fact, 39 of their sacks came off a four-man rush. Tackles STEPHON TUITT and JAVON HARGRAVE are powerful 300-plus pounders who move as if they weigh 250. Eighth-year end CAMERON HEYWARD combines near-perfect technique with outstanding strength and quickness. Outside, T.J. WATT showed bendability as a rookie and also a knack for using his hands.
Because we've long been enamored with the way he sheds would-be sackers and extends plays, we overlook BEN ROETHLISBERGER's amazing arm. His accuracy is among the best ever—and that includes when he's under duress. His precise ball placement enables ANTONIO BROWN to make so many tough catches against dedicated double teams. Big Ben's other overlooked trait: his high presnap IQ, which allows him to trigger a potent quick-strike passing game out of spread formations.
The rushing scheme brilliantly capitalizes on LE'VEON BELL's patient running style. Right guard DAVID DECASTRO and center MAURKICE POUNCEY are football's most mobile interior blocking tandem (except for Zack Martin and Travis Frederick of the Cowboys, maybe). Pittsburgh maximizes that mobility on slower-developing plays that give Bell time to read the D. On inside runs the Steelers almost always use double-team blocks. That patience pays off; the longer the run takes, the longer 600 pounds of offensive linemen can push around a 300-pound defender.
The surprising first-round selection of Virginia Tech safety TERRELL EDMUNDS suggests the Steelers plan to join the growing number of defenses that play primarily with three safeties. Either Edmunds or free-agent pickup MORGAN BURNETT will move to stack linebacker (where Burnett played with the Packers in 2016). Third-year DB SEAN DAVIS, who is better than Pittsburgh fans think, moves to free safety.
2017 RECORD 13W 3L
SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 11W 5L
24th @BUCS [Monday]
8th PANTHERS [Thursday]
THIS COULD develop into a top 10 unit. At corner ARTIE BURNS is improving, JOE HADEN went unchallenged by QBs in several games last year, and slot man MIKE HILTON is a top blitzer. SEAN DAVIS should thrive at his new free safety spot.