Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Bengals are legit, the Ravens will reload and the Steelers have too many question marks to expect them to overtake either rival in the AFC North.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Steelers hated being an 8-8 team last year. To make the playoffs, they need a big year from Ben Roethlisberger.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 One of the top-rated defenses needs to produce turnovers so it can take control of the AFC North.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Steelers have talent. It's just that too much of it is unproven to see them reaching the playoffs this season.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Given the aging defense, the Steelers might just be average.|
Five things you need to know about the Steelers:
1. Yes, they can coexist: For all of the psychoanalysis that went into offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's relationship in their first year together, the reality is the latter was on his way to his best season before sustaining rib and shoulder injuries last November. Roethlisberger still threw for more than 3,200 yards for a fifth consecutive season despite missing three games. The 10-year veteran tossed 26 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions, and only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers had better third-down passer ratings than Roethlisberger (106.9) in 2012. Roethlisberger has talked about how much better he and Haley understand each other. That bodes well for the Steelers if Big Ben has enough skill players around him.
2. Preseason goose egg: The Steelers went 0-4 in the preseason. The only one other time that happened since the 1970 merger was 2006, when the Steelers went 8-8 as the defending Super Bowl champions and missed the playoffs. The preseason is often anything but a gauge for the regular season and there shouldn't be too much significance attached to an 0-4 record. But the preseason games have given coach Mike Tomlin plenty of reasons to worry. Chief among his concerns: The Steelers were penalized 24 times in the first three games.
3. Suspect ground game: Jonathan Dwyer's 623 rushing yards last season led the team. It also represented the lowest total for a Steelers leading rusher since Merril Hoge gained 610 yards in 1991. The Steelers drafted Le'Veon Bell to become their feature back, but those plans have been put on hold while the former Michigan State star recovers from a mid-foot sprain. Bell's injury means the Steelers will likely go into the regular season with some combination of recent addition Felix Jones and Isaac Redman getting the bulk of the carries. A young offensive line that is still coming together and adapting to a new zone-blocking scheme will have to provide plenty of running room if the ground game is prosper.
4. Fighting Father Time: Five starters on the Steelers' defense are north of 30, and there always seem to be questions about when age will catch up with the unit that has allowed the fewest yards in the NFL in each of the past two seasons. The Steelers have quietly gotten younger on defense and nose tackle Steve McLendon and cornerback Cortez Allen are two new starters to watch this season. The Steelers think highly enough of McLendon, 27, that they didn't re-sign Casey Hampton, who had anchored the defensive line for more than a decade. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound McLendon looks stout enough to hold his ground in the middle of the defense, and he also has some pass-rushing skills. Allen, 24, led the Steelers with two interceptions last season, and he played well while starting for the injured Ike Taylor. The 6-1, 196-pounder missed most of training camp after undergoing knee surgery in early August, but he played extensively and played well in the Steelers' third preseason game.
5. Contributors from the start: The Steelers have a history of bringing along their rookies slowly, but they should get contributions from a handful of players they drafted in April. First-round pick Jarvis Jones is athletic and has a nose for the ball, and he has been pushing Jason Worilds at right outside linebacker. Third-round pick Markus Wheaton will be the Steelers' No. 4 wide receiver, and he should only get better with experience. Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas provides insurance behind starting safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, and he will at least make an impact this season on special teams.
-- Scott Brown, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
The Steelers return only two full-time starters from last year's offensive line and will implement a new blocking scheme this season in front of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
They'll look to block better for a unit that ranked ninth worst in the NFL in yards per play (5.1) last season.
Roethlisberger's numbers against teams that used an aggressive pass rush were his worst since 2008. His Total QBR when opponents rushed five or more defenders was 46.5 in 2011, but dipped to 33.3 last season (50 is average). His completion rate dropped nearly 4.5 percentage points to 53 percent.
The problem may not have been the blocking, but with the performance of the quarterback and his receivers.
He completed 25 passes on 83 plays in which he had at least four seconds in the pocket. In 2011, he had five more completions and three fewer sacks on nearly the same number of plays (84).
Roethlisberger also finished the season with a career low in yards per completion (11.5) and ranked outside the top 10 in the league in passing yards per game for the first time since 2008.
• The Steelers also ranked fifth worst in the NFL in average yards per rush (3.7) last season. Jonathan Dwyer led the Steelers with 623 rushing yards, the fewest by a Steelers team leader in a season since Merril Hoge led the team with 610 in 1991.
• Over the past two seasons, the Steelers have a minus-23 turnover margin, fourth worst in the NFL. The three teams that were worse: the Philadelphia Eagles (minus-38), Kansas City Chiefs (minus-26) and Indianapolis Colts (minus-24).
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
C Maurkice Pouncey (11.8 avg. AV since 2010)
With three Pro Bowls and 37 AV points in his first three seasons, Pouncey is the undisputed best center in football. The only concern: a leg injury that left him hobbled in the second half of 2012.
-- Pro Football Reference