We continue our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so), with an overall season prediction post, leading up to the start of the 2015 season. Here, we preview the Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off a first-place finish in the AFC North last season.
Following back-to-back .500 seasons, the Steelers finished 2014 with an 11-5 record as QB Ben Roethlisberger had the best season of his career. They’ll be starting the season at a disadvantage, though, as starting RB Le’Veon Bell is suspended for the first two games, stemming from his arrest for marijuana possession last August. It’ll be up to backup RB DeAngelo Williams, who joined the team in the offseason, to help get the team off to a good start during the suspension.
Roethlistberger’s career year last season included throwing for career highs with 4,932 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. In his second season in the league, Bell ran for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns and added another 854 yards and three scores through the air. The receiving core was also impressive, led by WR Antonio Brown who had career highs in receiving yards (1,698) and touchdowns (13). In limited work — 10 games, three starts — rookie WR Martavis Bryant caught eight touchdown passes out of just 26 total receptions, and veteran TE Heath Miller was reliable as usual, catching 66 passes for 761 yards and three touchdowns.
If Roethlisberger can stay healthy and age doesn’t catch up to him this much, he should lead the team to another strong offensive performance again this year. And with Bryant expected to get a full workload in his second season in the league, that gives Big Ben another weapon to whom to throw the pigskin. The biggest question on offense this season will be how well Williams can fill in for Bell in the first two weeks. He averaged just 3.5 yards/run in 2014 so you would expect the team to rely heavily on the passing attack for those games.
Obviously any analysis of the Steelers’ schedule has to include a look at the first two games, when Bell is serving his suspension. And the season opener is a big one — the league’s annual Thursday night kickoff game against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots — who, as it stands now, will be without starting QB Tom Brady — on the road in Foxboro, Mass. That is followed by their home opener against the 49ers. I think the Steelers will split those games to begin the season 1-1. Beyond that, the team has a tough five-week stretch coming up in weeks 12-16 with a road game at the Seahawks, a home contest with the Colts, a trip to Cincinnati to face the Bengals, a home game with the Broncos and a divisional battle at the Ravens. Despite that rough string of games, I think the Steelers are good enough to compete for the division title with the Ravens.