4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Indianapolis Colts

Next up in the AFC South as part of our continuing previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days, is the Indianapolis Colts, who finished in third place last season.

The Colts are coming off of consecutive .500 seasons after three straight playoff appearances from 2012-2014. With QB Andrew Luck dealing with a shoulder injury in preseason and questions about whether he’ll be ready to take the field for Week 1, the Colts may be looking at another disappointing season in 2017. The team traded TE Dwayne Allen to the Patriots in March, leaving TE Jack Doyle as the top guy at the position. As for players joining the team, the Colts tried to bolster their defense by signing DT Johnathan Hankins and a couple smaller signings in LBs Jonathan Bostic and Barkevious Mingo. They also went with defensive picks in the first two rounds of the draft, selecting Ohio State S Malik Hooker and Florida CB Quincy Wilson. Offensively, the team added to its receiver depth by signing WR Kamar Aiken.

Luck played in 15 games last season, throwing for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, a nice comeback season after missing much of 2015 with injuries. WR T.Y. Hilton led the receivers with 91 receptions for 1,448 yards and 6 touchdowns. Doyle was next with 59 catches for 584 yards and 5 touchdowns. WRs Phillip Dorsett and Donte Moncrief had 33 and 30 receptions, respectively in seven starts apiece. RB Frank Gore carried the ball 263 times for 1,025 yards and 4 touchdowns, in addition to 38 receptions for 277 yards and 4 receiving touchdowns. Backup RB Robert Turbin only had 47 attempts but made the most of them with 7 rushing touchdowns. The offense ranked in the top 10 in both points scored and yards gained last season, but the defense allowed the third-most yards and was in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

Luck’s health will be important for the Colts to have a good season. He is currently on the PUP list, but the team said he should not still be on the list to start the season — which would require him to sit out the first six games — but that doesn’t mean he’ll be ready to go in Week 1. QB Scott Tolzien is Luck’s backup; he threw for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions in his lone start last season. If Luck is able to play for most of the season, the passing game should be fine with some good receivers for him to pass to, with Doyle likely getting more involved in the offense with Allen now in New England. The running game, however, is a question mark with Gore now 34 and a veteran who has gotten a lot of reps in the league and due to start breaking down sooner rather than later, as most players do. Turbin, the likely No. 2 on the depth chart, has never had more than 80 rushes in a season. And the defense will have to do better than last season to help keep the team in games in prevent the offense from being forced to put a lot of points on the board to win games.

The schedule has the Colts starting the season in Los Angeles to play the Rams in Week 1, then head home to take on the Cardinals in Week 2. The Colts visit the Seahawks in the Sunday night game in Week 4. Their first divisional game comes in Week 6, playing at the Titans on Monday Night Football. Another divisional foe follows when the Colts host the Jaguars in Week 7. The Colts are at the Bengals in Week 8 and at the Texans in Week 9. They then host the Steelers in Week 10 before getting a late bye in Week 11. They host the Titans coming off the bye in Week 12. They get a Thursday night game in Week 15 when they host the Broncos, then finish the season at the Ravens in Week 16 and hosting the Texans in Week 17. I’m projecting the Colts to be right around .500 for a third straight season, maybe finishing the year at 9-7.

Source: http://www.colts.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Houston Texans

We move on to the AFC South in our continuing previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so), with the Houston Texans, who won the division last season.

The Texans’ offseason centered around QB Brock Osweiler for the second straight season — last year for signing him to a big-money contract, this year for being able to trade him after a mediocre season. With Osweiler now on the Browns, the Texans decided to trade up in the draft to make Clemson QB Deshaun Watson their first-round pick, and he will compete with QB Tom Savage for the starting job. Whoever gets the nod will be without a key piece of the offense for the first half of the season after WR Will Fuller broke his collarbone early in training camp, which is expected to cause him to miss up to three months. The defense was among the league’s best last season — and that was with DE J.J. Watt not playing after Week 3. With him back and expected to be healthy, the defense should be even better than it was in 2016. The defense will, however, be without veteran NT Vince Wilfork, who retired, and CB A.J. Bouye, who went to the division-rival Jaguars in free agency. Veteran T Duane Brown has yet to report to camp as he holds out in an attempt to get more money, but he will likely to join the team before the regular season begins.

Osweiler started most of the Texans’ games at quarterback last season, with Savage starting two games and playing in three overall. He went 46-for-73 on pass attempts for 461 yards but did not throw a touchdown pass — or an interception — in his limited playing time. WR DeAndre Hopkins was the team’s best receiver, but his production was limited given the team’s quarterback play. He had 78 receptions for 954 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE C.J. Fiedorowicz became a favorite target of Osweiler, who liked to throw short passes his way, and he caught 54 balls for 559 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE Ryan Griffin went 50 for 442 with 2 touchdowns. Fuller played in 14 games and caught just 47 passes — partially due to his tendency to drop passes — for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. RB Lamar Miller carried the majority of the workload on the ground, with 268 yards for 1,073 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 games; he also caught 31 passes for 188 yards. Backup RB Alfred Blue totaled 420 rushing yards on 100 attempts, scoring 1 touchdown in the process. In his final season at Clemson, Watson completed 67 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards and 41 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions, though college stats don’t always translate well to the NFL because collegiate competition often isn’t to the level that it is in the NFL. The offense was tied for the fourth-fewest points scored last season, but the defense was the top-ranked team in terms of yards allowed and 11th in points allowed.

No matter who gets the bulk of the starts under center — and it’s looking like Savage will get first crack at it in Week 1 — will almost certainly perform better than Osweiler did last year. With Fuller likely out for about half the season, other wide receivers will have to step up their game, so expect WRs Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong to see increased reps and targets, with Fiedorowicz probably continuing to be an important part of the passing game. Lamar Miller is still the starting running back, but Blue may lose some of his work as the backup with the Texans having drafted Texas RB D’Onta Foreman in the third round. As the season goes on, he should see an increased workload as he gets more entrenched in the system as he goes through his rookie season. If Watt and DE Jadeveon Clowney can both stay healthy and on the field together — which hasn’t been the case much in Clowney’s first three seasons in the league — the defense should again be a formidable unit and among the best in the league.

The schedule opens with a divisional battle at home against the Jaguars, then the Texans head to Cincinnati for Week 2 to take on the Bengals on Thursday night. Then, for the second straight year, the Texans play at the Patriots in Week 3 as they look to avenge their playoff loss against the eventual Super Bowl LI champs. They go back home to play the Titans in Week 4. They could face off against Osweiler when they host the Browns in Week 6. Their bye follows that game, then it’s off to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Week 8. The Texans host the Colts in Week 9 and the Cardinals in Week 11. They’re on Monday Night Football in Week 12 when they play at the Ravens, then stay on the road for their second game against the Titans in Week 13. They host the Steelers in Week 16 for a nationally televised game on Christmas Day, and the Texans finish the season on the road in Week 17 to take on the Colts. Obviously the quarterback play will affect how many games the Texans win, but with their stout defense I can see them getting double-digit wins with just decent quarterback play.

Sources: http://www.houstontexans.com/, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Minnesota Vikings

Our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days leading up to the start of the season, continues as the NFC North comes to an end with the Minnesota Vikings, who had a third-place finish the division last season.

The Vikings were dealt a major blow in training camp last season when QB Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL that caused him to miss the season. That caused the Vikings to trade for QB Sam Bradford, who led the team to an 8-8 record a season after an 11-5 record and division title. Bridgewater is still on the PUP list, so he’ll be out until at least Week 6 if he doesn’t come off the list before the end of the preseason, which means Bradford will remain the team’s starter heading into the season, with QB Case Keenum backing him up after signing a deal with the team in the offseason. For the first time since the 2006 season, RB Adrian Peterson won’t be on the Vikings’ roster after the team declined to pick up the option on his contract. They selected FSU RB Dalvin Cook with their first pick in the draft, likely expecting him to be Peterson’s long-term replacement. The team also lost RB Matt Asiata and WR Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency, leaving some holes on the offense that the team is trying to fill by signing RBs Bishop Sankey — who suffered a torn ACL in the team’s preseason opener and will miss the season — and Latavius Murray and WR Michael Floyd.

Bradford stayed healthy, which has been difficult for him in the past, and played 15 games. He completed a league-high 71.6% of his passes, setting a new career high of 3,877 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. WR Adam Thielen surprisingly led the team with 967 yards on 69 receptions; he had 5 receiving touchdowns. WR Stefon Diggs recorded a team-high 84 catches for 903 yards and 3 touchdowns, and TE Kyle Rudolph was right behind him with 83 catches for 840 yards and 7 touchdowns. With Peterson out for most of the season, RB Jerick McKinnon split starting running back duties with Asiata, going carrying the ball 159 times for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added 43 receptions for 255 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns out of the backfield. In 14 games with the Raiders last season, Murray ran for 788 yards and 4 touchdowns on 195 carries. All told, the Vikings’ offense ranked 23rd in the NFL in points scored for the season, while the defense allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league.

If Thielen can have a similar season to what he did last year and Rudolph can follow up his career year with another strong season, to go along with a potential 1,000-yard season from Diggs, the passing game should do fine for the Vikings. It can be even better if Floyd can contribute better numbers than the 488 yards he had between the Cardinals and Patriots last season. For the second year in a row, the running game is where the biggest question marks exist. Murray should help the unit, but Cook is looking like I could be in store to get a large portion of the carries; he was listed as the No. 1 running back on the team’s initial depth chart during camp.

The Vikings won’t have to wait long to see Peterson again as they host the Saints, his new team, in Week 1’s Monday night game. Their schedule then takes them to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in Week 2. The Vikings face their divisional foes in three straight weeks, when they host the Lions in Week 4, visit the Bears on Monday night in Week 5 and play the Packers at home in Week 6. They have a Week 9 bye, which is sandwiched between road games — at the Browns in Week 8 and visiting the Redskins in Week 10. They visit the Lions in Week 12 for the first game of the Thanksgiving tripleheader, then get extra rest before heading to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in Week 13. They host the Bengals in Week 15, head to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers in primetime in Week 16 and finish the season at home against the Bears. I think the Vikings are looking at another .500 season in 2017.

Sources: http://www.vikings.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Green Bay Packers

The next NFC North team in our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Green Bay Packers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division.

The Packers came within a game of making Super Bowl LI last season, falling to the Falcons in the NFC Championship. In the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have consistently had one of the top offenses in the NFL, and they added to it in the offseason by signing free-agent TEs Lance Kendricks and Martellus Bennett in an attempt to beef up a weak point of their offense. They’ll join a receiving core led by WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams. There could be some questions with their running game, with WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery expected to be the No. 1 back heading into the season.

Rodgers had one of the best seasons of his career last year — a high bar to cross — throwing for 4,428 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions. He threw 14 of those touchdown passes to Nelson, who had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards. Adams had 75 receptions for 997 yards and 12 scores. WR Randall Cobb had decent production in the 10 games he played, grabbing 60 balls for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. Montgomery had 44 catches for 348 yards. After being converted to a running back in the latter part of the season due to injuries, he became the team’s lead running back. Overall for the season, he had a team-high 77 attempts for 457 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Rodgers had the second-most rushing yards on the team, with RBs Eddie Lacy — who is now with the Seahawks — and James Starks limited in playing time by injuries. With the Patriots last season, Bennett had 55 receptions for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns, and Kendricks totaled 499 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 catches for the Rams. The offense scored the fourth-most points in the league last season, and the defense was ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

If the Packers can get good production out of the running game, they should have one of the league’s best offenses again in 2017. The Rodgers-Nelson combo has been one of the best over the last several years when both are healthy. Adams is a strong No. 2 receiver, and the tight ends the team signed should be a vast improvement over what they got out of TEs Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers a season ago. With the defense not doing well last season and no major players signed on that side of the ball, the Packers are likely going to have to put a lot of points on the board to win games. They went with defensive players with their first four picks of the draft, including Washington CB Kevin King in the second round, but you never know how much success a player will have in his rookie year in the league.

The Packers’ schedule kicks off with a home game in Week 1 against the Seahawks, who should be among the better teams in the NFC this season. It doesn’t get easier in Week 2 when the Packers do battle with the Falcons as they open up their new stadium in the Sunday night game. They have a primetime rivalry game, taking on the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 4’s Thursday nighter. The Packers then face the Cowboys on the road in Week 5, then travel to Minneapolis to take on the Vikings — likely their biggest competition in the division — in Week 6. They host the Saints in Week 7, then get their bye and come back to host the Lions in Week 9. The Packers face the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a primetime contest in Week 12. They end the season with back-to-back divisional contests, hosting the Vikings in a Saturday night special in Week 16 and visiting the Lions in Week 17. I think the Packers should at least match last year’s 10-win total, and they could improve upon that by a game or two, depending on how well the defense plays.

Sources: http://www.packers.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Detroit Lions

We continue our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season in the  NFC North with the Detroit Lions, who are coming off a second-place finish in the division last season.

The Lions barely missed winning the division last season, falling a game shy of upending the Packers for first place. They did make the playoffs but lost in the wild card round. Their notable free-agent signings this offseason include CB D.J. Hayden and RB Matt Asiata, who will look to help shore up a running game that was among the league’s worst in 2016. Among the team’s losses on offense is the departure of veteran WR Anquan Boldin

QB Matthew Stafford had a good season last year, completing more than 65 percent of his passes for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. His leading receiver was WR Golden Tate, who recorded 91 receptions for 1,077 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Despite only catching 55 passes, WR Marvin Jones had similar numbers, totaling 930 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE Eric Ebron had 61 catches for 711 yards and 1 touchdown in 13 games. RB Theo Riddick was the team’s leading rusher, but that included carrying the ball just 92 times for 357 yards and 1 touchdown in 10 games, eight starts. He added 371 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns on 53 receptions. RB Zach Zenner played in 14 games and scored 4 touchdowns on 88 carries. With the Vikings, Asiata had 121 rushes for 402 yards and 6 scores. Overall, the Lions were 20th in the league in points scored while the defense was near the middle of the pack in points allowed.

Offense looks to be a challenge again for the Lions, entering the season without a running back who has proven to be a top-of-the-line starter at the position. Asiata could be the best of an underwhelming bunch, but he’s never started more than nine games in the first five seasons of his career. Stafford will have to increase his touchdown output to allow the Lions to score more points to keep the team in games. While Jones and Tate aren’t necessarily big-name receivers, they are able to put up decent numbers, with 1,000-yard seasons possible for both if they can stay healthy. Ebron has never been able to play all 16 games in a season, if he can do it this year he also has a chance to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.

The Cardinals come to Detroit to open the Lions’ schedule, which then takes the Lions to New Jersey to battle the Giants in Week 2. The Super Bowl runners-up are up in Week 3 with the Falcons visiting the Lions. Week 6 has the Lions visiting the Saints, followed by a bye and a home game with the Steelers in Week 8. The first game against the Packers is next on the slate, with a Week 9 visit to Lambeau Field. The Lions visit the Buccaneers in Week 14, with a trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in Week 16. The team ends the season hosting the Packers for the second straight year. The Lions won nine games last season, and it’s looking like they’ll be right around there again in 2017. That was good enough to make the playoffs last year, but 10 wins may be needed to make it this time around.

Sources: http://www.detroitlions.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Chicago Bears

We continue our previews of all 32 NFL teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season with the NFC North. Up first in the division is the Chicago Bears, who are coming off a last-place finish last season.

The Bears are coming off a three-win season, their first since 1982, and the team didn’t have a great offseason  The team was highly criticized for trading up to the No. 2 spot in the draft to select North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky after signing QB Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract with nearly $20 million guaranteed. Neither of those quarterbacks is likely to be among the top 10 in the league at the position. Other free-agent signings this offseason include DB Prince Amukamara and WRs Markus Wheaton and Victor Cruz, who provide high-upside options if they can stay on the field throughout the season, which has been difficult for Cruz in recent seasons. They’ll have to make up for production that will be lost with the loss of WR Alshon Jeffery, who signed with the Eagles in the offseason.

None of last year’s quarterbacks is on the roster entering this season, and none of the guys on the team — which includes QBs Connor Shaw and Mark Sanchez in addition to Trubisky and Glennon — had a starting role last season to provide analysis of their performances, which isn’t a good indicator of what to expect from them in 2017. On the ground, RB Jordan Howard led the team with 252 carries for 1,313 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 29 receptions for an additional 298 yards and a receiving touchdown. RB Jeremy Langford carried the ball 62 times for 200 yards and 4 touchdowns. WR Cameron Meredith was the team’s leading pass-catcher in 2016, grabbing 66 receptions for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns, while TE Zach Miller caught 47 passes for 486 yards and 4 touchdowns. In 15 games — 12 starts — with the Giants last year, Cruz had 39 receptions for 586 yards and 1 touchdown. The offense was tied for 28th in the league last season with 279 yards, and the defense gave up the ninth-most points at 399.

The offense wasn’t great last season and it looks to only get worse this year with the quarterbacks they have on the roster. Barring a strong performance from Trubisky in training camp, I expect Glennon to be named the starter heading into Week 1, but he hasn’t started more than five games since his rookie year in 2013, when he put up decent numbers in 13 starts with the Buccaneers. That was a few years ago, though, and there’s no telling how he’ll do if given a shot at starting this season. If Glennon does begin the year as the starter, I expect Trubisky to get the job during the season but don’t expect much out of him. The Bears have some decent options in the receiving game, including WR Kevin White, who only made four starts in 2016 after missing his entire rookie season in 2016. If he stays healthy and performs to the expectations the Bears had when they drafted him, he can help if the offense if the quarterback play is better than expected, which isn’t likely. The running game is likely going to be the best part of the offense with Howard and Langford leading the way, but without a viable quarterback it won’t be enough for the team to have much success.

The Bears get a tough game to start the season, with the defending NFC champion Falcons coming to Soldier Field in Week 1. The Bears then hit the road to take on another NFC South in Week 2 when they play the Bucs. The Bears host the Steelers in Week 3, then visit the Packers in Week 4’s Thursday night game as the rough early stretch of the schedule continues. The Bears play at the Saints in Week 8, then get their bye before hosting the Packers in Week 10. The Lions then come to Chicago in Week 11, and the Bears head to Detroit for the rematch in Week 15. They end the season at the Vikings in Week 17. The Bears won three games last season and I’m not expecting them to do much better than that — I’m looking at three or four wins for them — with the combination of a bad team and a tough schedule leading to another mediocre season in Chicago.

Sources: http://www.chicagobears.com, http://www.pro-football-reference

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Pittsburgh Steelers

Our continuing previews of the 32 NFL teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season resume as we conclude with the AFC North. Here, we preview the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division last season.

The Steelers were the class of the division last season, and that looks to continue in 2017. They were 11-5 last year, without having their full offense for much of the season, including star RB Le’Veon Bell missing a quarter of the season. One question mark entering the season is WR Martavis Bryant, who was suspended all of last season and is not yet fully reinstated for the coming year. He should be able to play starting in Week 1, but that’s not guaranteed if she slips up before then. Whatever Bryant’s status is, the team will have one of the league’s best receivers in WR Antonio Brown leading the receiving core as they try to make it back to the AFC Championship for a second straight season, and possibly even further. The team will be without some of the complementary offensive players from last year’s team, including TE Ladarius Green, WR Markus Wheaton and backup RB DeAngelo Williams, who performed well when filling in for Bell.

QB Ben Roethlisberger started 14 games last season, passing for 3,819 yards and 29 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Brown had a typically strong season, recording 105 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns. WR Eli Rogers added 48 receptions in limited playing time for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Jesse James had 39 receptions for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns. In his 12 games, Bell carried the ball 261 times for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns. He added an impressive 75 receptions for 616 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, who could be the No. 2 on the depth chart with Williams gone, only had 14 carries for 58 yards last season. Overall, the team was 10th with 399 points scored and while the defense allowed 327 points, 10th-best in the league, and ranked 12th in yards allowed.

Other than Williams, the Steelers didn’t lose any significant pieces of the offense and should get an extra four games out of Bell, who is one of the top players at his position. Roethlisberger is getting older and not as good as he was in his prime but still put up respectable numbers in 2016. Barring injury, you should expect him to put up similar stats as he did last season. If he does miss time, backup QB Landry Jones knows the system and should be able to put up serviceable numbers with guys like Bell and Brown around him. Bryant missed all of last season and hasn’t played more than 11 games in a season yet in his career, but he can put up numbers when he’s on the field — he has 14 touchdowns on 76 career receptions and averages 17.6 yards per reception. Assuming his reinstatement happens in time for the start of the regular season and his health allows him to play most, if not all, of the Steelers’ 16 games, he would be a tremendous No. 2 receiver behind Brown and give Roethlisberger another weapon to throw to in the passing game. Combine that with Bell’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and it should add up to one of the best passing attacks in the NFL to go along with the impressive rushing stats that Bell should put up.

Looking at the Steelers’ schedule, they open up with what should be a winnable game at the Browns in Week 1, then host the Vikings for Week 2. They visit the Ravens for a divisional battle in Week 4 and face the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 6. The Steelers get a Week 9 bye, sandwiched between road games against the Lions and Colts. The Steelers then have back-to-back primetime games at home — the first of four straight night games — against playoff contenders. The Titans come to town for a Thursday night game in Week 11, followed by a Sunday night contest against the Packers. In Week 13, they travel to the Bengals on Monday night, then have another Sunday nighter scheduled in Week 14 at home against the Ravens. Week 15 sees a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship when the Patriots come to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers travel to Houston on Christmas to take on the Texans in Week 16 before ending the season the same way it started — taking on the Browns, this time at home. The Steelers face a tough schedule, but they have good units on both sides of the ball so they should be able to overcome the challenging slate to come within a game or so in either direction of last year’s 11-win season.

Sources: http://www.steelers.com, http;//www.pro-football-reference.com

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