Every year there are teams that are expected to bounce back after missing the playoffs.
The Steelers are one of those teams in 2014. They finished the second half of last season with a 6-2 record, winning those games on average by 11.5 points. That's thanks to a no-huddle approach adopted by the offense at the midseason, something that should stay in place. The key players on offense and the coaching staff also remain the same -- all the more reason to believe this team is on the rise.
Another thing this team did was get younger. Veterans like LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark were wiped out from the defense while Jerricho Cotchery, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer left the offense. Emmanuel Sanders is also gone, though he's not exactly old. The draft netted do-it-all linebacker Ryan Shazier while free agency brought in safety Mike Mitchell and running back LeGarrette Blount. Lance Moore is also now a Steeler, though he isn't exactly young. All in all, only seven starters -- three on offense, four on defense -- from the Super Bowl XLV team in 2010 are still on the roster.
Everyone in Pittsburgh is hoping it works out, none more than Mike Tomlin, who has led the team to consecutive 8-8 records and, more importantly, zero playoff berths (close didn't count last year). The Steelers aren't known for moving on from coaches so easily but the franchise hasn't gone three straight years without a winning season since 1969-1971. That predates Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll. Suffice to say, the seat Tomlin is sitting on is already quite warm and will get progressively hotter if the team can't win games.
Good late-round investment ... Ben Roethlisberger
Big Ben finished last season very productive, putting up an average of 22.2 Fantasy points per game in his final nine, propelling him to a Top 10 finish at the position. But the loss of two receivers he found to be reliable could sting -- Sanders posted career-bests in a contract year and then bolted to Denver while Cotchery (10 touchdowns. Really!) moved on to Carolina. Moore, the former Saint, second-year receiver Markus Wheaton, rookie Martavis Bryant and perennial disappointment Darrius Heyward-Bey will attempt to pick up the slack. If those guys can pick up the offense then Roethlisberger should have no problem being helpful for owners, especially since he'll still have sure-handed do-it-all speedster Antonio Brown to throw to. Whether you take a quarterback with your first six picks or not, Roethlisberger should be on your radar starting in Round 10.
Sleeper ... Markus Wheaton
Last season was a wash for Wheaton as finger injuries kept him off the field. The reality is that he probably wouldn't have played much even if his digits were undamaged because the Steelers were flush with wideouts. That's not the case now, so the former third-round pick will be asked to step up and work in what used to be Sanders' role. Wheaton caught 227 passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in college, so he's not fresh off the turnip truck. The opportunity combined with his speed and skill set should give him a shot to be a contributor. He's worth a look late in every league but specifically in PPR and three-receiver lineups.
Late-round target ... LeGarrette Blount
True, the running back marketplace was sub-standard in the NFL this spring, but Blount was among the most efficient rushers available after gaining 5.0 yards per carry with the Patriots last year. And like New England, the Steelers figure to be running a lot of no-huddle offense, which is something Blount is plenty used to by now. But where Blount will end up making his hay is near the goal line, where seven of the Steelers' nine rushing touchdowns came from 5 yards or closer last year. Believe it or not, just four of Blount's 10 scores last season came from 5 yards or closer, but it's still something he can easily do. The Steelers' O-line is reloaded, the passing game should keep the safeties from cheating down and if anything were to happen to Le'Veon Bell, then Blount would be in line for a massive workload. At the very least Blount could be a source for Fantasy points as a bye-week replacement but offers plenty in the way of depth.
|Le'Veon Bell||289 (244 car., 45 rec.)||37.5%|
|Antonio Brown||117 (110 rec., 7 car.)||15.2%|
|Emmanuel Sanders||68 (67 rec., 1 car.)||8.8%|
|Heath Miller||58 rec.||7.5%|
|Jonathan Dwyer||57 (49 car., 8 rec.)||7.4%|
|Felix Jones||57 (48 car., 9 rec.)||7.4%|
The Steelers start the year with two games in five days, home against the Browns and at the Ravens on Thursday night. That's followed by a Week 3 jaunt to Carolina. Not the kind of start you'd draw up. But things ease up for them, helped by three straight home games in Weeks 7-9 against the Texans, Colts and Ravens. A late Week 12 bye makes their starters more appealing for Fantasy owners. Their final four games are at Cincy, at Atlanta, Kansas City at home in Week 16 and Cincinnati at home, all potentially tough matchups in crunch time. That Week 17 game might end up having some serious playoff implications. Overall, I'd say the schedule sets up better for Roethlisberger than for Bell, but the Steelers DST should really get off to a great start.
Training camp battles
How will the running backs shake out? We know Bell should start and be the main guy week in and week out. But if the Steelers are running the no-huddle, they might not give him every single series. There were times last season where Felix Jones was used a couple of series per game, for instance. Will the Steelers do something like give Bell two series and Blount one, or might they even rotate them in and out? How will Dri Archer, the rookie speedster who could be considered a Darren Sproles-type of back, be rotated on and off the field?
What is Lance Moore up to? Moore signed with the Steelers this spring, giving him the chance to continue doing what he had been doing with the Saints: Work out of the slot. If he's used like Cotchery was used last year, he'll play a little bit more than half the time in three- and four-receiver sets. Unless Wheaton struggles in camp, that'll be the best he can do. It is believed that Wheaton leads the race to be the No. 2 receiver and Moore leads to be the No. 3 with Heyward-Bey and Bryant backing them up.
How many old people will start on defense? The Steelers ranked 21st against the run last season and have since ditched a number of vets who were either ineffective, on the wrong side of 30 or both. Keisel, Woodley, Clark and Ziggy Hood are gone, replaced by younger players, the most notable of which being ex-Panthers safety Mike Mitchell and first-round pick Ryan Shazier at middle linebacker. As of now, the only starters that are long in the tooth are Troy Polamalu (33) and Ike Taylor (34) with Will Allen (32 when the season starts) adding safety depth. While it's exciting to see the youth movement in Pittsburgh, it could make for some growing pains. Luckily, the Steelers' early season schedule might alleviate some of those pains.
There's a real love-fest with Le'Veon Bell and Fantasy owners after last season, but don't count on marriage proposals in 2014. Don't mistake this as calling Bell a bust, because he is not, but the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer are intriguing. Archer is the type of out-in-space type of back that coordinator Todd Haley tried to produce when he was the head coach in Kansas City with Dexter McCluster. There's no doubt that he'll try to get Archer involved the same way -- and that will take snaps from Bell. And Blount hurts Bell's value if only because he'll get called on to help carry more of the workload than Archer, and it might include valuable touches at the goal line. Bell took on 77.6 percent of the snaps as a rookie (691 total) and handled it well, averaging 96.8 total yards per game. But the Steelers had the long-term interests of Bell in mind when they signed Blount, who was superb for the Patriots late last year and should be a part-time grinder and (ugh) a potential touchdown vulture at the goal line. Of Bell's eight total touchdowns last year, seven came from 5 yards or closer. He's still a candidate for over 1,400 yards and even eight total touchdowns, but owners should feel more comfortable with another lead back who won't lose touchdown snaps. You'll be disappointed if you draft Bell in Round 1.