Our continuing previews of the 32 NFL teams leading up to the start of the 2016 season continues as we conclude with the AFC North. Here, we preview the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are coming off a second-place finish in the division last season.
Coming off a 10-win season, the Steelers will be without a couple of key players from the 2015 campaign. TE Heath Miller retired after an 11-year career with the team and WR Martavis Bryant was suspended for the season — perhaps longer — for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Of course, the team still has one of the league’s best receivers in WR Antonio Brown and fourth-year WR Markus Wheaton will have to step up his game as he is expected to land in the No. 2 slot on the depth chart in Bryant’s absence. At the tight end position, free-agent signing TE Ladarius Green should begin the season as the starter.
QB Ben Roethlisberger started 11 games last season, throwing for 3,938 yards with 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. RB Le’Veon Bell, who was anticipated to be the team’s top running back last season was limited to just six games due to a suspension and injuries that limited his playing time. That allowed veteran RB DeAngelo Williams to get the bulk of the carries in his first season with the team. In 10 starts, Williams carried the ball 200 times for 907 yards and an 11 touchdowns, making it one of the best seasons of his career and just the second time he ran for double-digit touchdowns. In his six starts, Bell managed 556 yards on and 3 touchdowns in 113 rushes. In the receiving game, Brown caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns. In eight starts, Wheaton caught 44 balls for 749 yards and 5 touchdowns. With the Chargers last year, Green had 37 receptions for 429 yards and 4 scores in 11 starts as he split playing time with veteran TE Antonio Gates.
As long as Brown is on the team, Roethlisberger has a top receiver to throw to, but Wheaton has yet to have a breakout year in the league. He’ll have to break out in 2016 to be a strong No. 2 behind Brown. The addition of Green will help Roethlisberger as Green will have his first chance to shine as the bona fide No. 1 tight end on his team after playing in Gates’ shadow in San Diego. Bell should be recovered from his knee injury by the start of the regular season, but there have been reports recently that he will be suspended for the first four games of the season. If that suspension is handed down, the Steelers will have to rely on Williams again to get them through the first quarter of the season. Regardless of how many games Bell plays, if he can return to the level he played in 2014 he will be productive for the team. The Steelers know they have a viable backup in Williams, but there are durability questions if he is asked to take on a big workload again this season as he is now 33 years old and has suffered several injuries in his career.
The Steelers’ season gets underway with a Monday night battle at the defending NFC East champion Redskins, followed by the Week 2 home opener against the defending division champion Bengals. It’s a tough start to the season, and it doesn’t get much easier in subsequent weeks, with such contests as a Sunday night tilt against the Chiefs in Week 4 and a home game against the Patriots in Week 7. In the second half of the season, the Steelers host the Cowboys in Week 10 and visit the Colts in Week 12’s Thanksgiving night game. The schedule concludes with three straight divisional games, at the Bengals in Week 15 followed by home games with the Ravens and Browns. The Steelers have a good offense but they face a tough schedule in 2016. I’m still projecting them to win 13 games, a marked improvement over last season, but they might not do that good if Bell does miss the first four games.