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Where do the Steelers Stand Entering the 2014 NFL Season?
Pittsburgh Steelers 2014
Issues in the secondary last season
Last season the Steelers got off to an 0-4 start to the season while their offense struggled due to poor play and some key injuries. While they played better the rest of the way, they suffered some key losses along the way because they could not count on their defense to come up with much needed stops in crucial situations. Some of this was due to struggling to stop the running game with an aging defensive line that no longer could control the line of scrimmage, but later in the season, weaknesses in the secondary were highlighted against teams with above average passing games. The Steelers have done significant work to improve their front seven this offseason, but less attention was given to improving some key areas in the secondary. A potentially better pass rush could help to overcome some of these problems that became very noticeable last season, but the Steelers enter training camp with some question marks about their pass coverage. While the Steelers did upgrade their situation at linebacker, question marks still remain as they will attempt to use depth to cover these question marks by turning to someone else if the first option struggles. The Steelers are in a good spot offensively as they enter the season, but will they be able to establish some type of defensive identity in 2014?
Offense as a strength
For the Steelers in 2014, they will look to pick up where they left off offensively in 2013 with Le'veon Bell leading the charge in the running game. The Steelers also have receiver Antonio Brown who is coming off a big year for them last year. Heath Miller is back at tight end for the Steelers, but many new faces are competing for jobs at skill positions on the Steelers offense. It is these new faces that give the Steelers a better chance to compete at a high level offensively in 2014. Some players like Lance Moore, LaGarrette Blount and Matt Spaeth have experience in the NFL as well as with the Steelers previously for Spaeth. This experience among some of the new guys will help to give the Steelers structure on their roster as they look plug in young talent to fill key holes. Second year player Markus Wheaton will look to join the starting lineup for the Steelers opposite Antonio Brown at wide receiver. The Steelers have a big target with speed and leaping ability in Martavis Bryant, who should the field in the red zone plenty as a rookie. Dri Archer will provide versatility for the Steelers in the running game and screen game out of the backfield, but the skill players are not the biggest reason why the Steelers should field a strong offensive team in 2014. The Steelers offensive line comes into camp completely healthy for the first time in a while, and it is a group that they have been waiting to see play together for years now. With good training programs and hard work, the Steelers offensive line is now ready to show that they can be one of the best units within an offense in the AFC.
Holes addressed on the defensive front
At times last season the Steelers were gashed for big gains in the running game, which was something that Pittsburgh fans had not seen happen to their team for years. Much of this was due to age and lack of talent along the Pittsburgh defensive line. The Steelers addressed these issues by signing nose tackle Cam Thomas to share time with Steve Mclendon in the middle, as well as drafting Stephon Tuitt to start at defensive end opposite the Steelers best defensive linemen in Cameron Heyward. The Steelers have brought in other young defensive linemen to provide depth at defensive end, and veteran Brett Keisel could still return to the team, but right now this unit is a strength on the defense because of the size and overall athleticism along the defensive front. By addressing this issue, the Steelers hope to get better in two areas of the defense by using great size on the defensive line to protect the linebacker unit that had to fight through many blocks last year in an effort to stop the opposition's running game.
Where the weaknesses still remain
The four starting linebackers for the Steelers have yet to be established at this point in training camp. Lawrence Timmons is the most experienced veteran of their current group of linebackers, and he should keep his job as one of the Steelers starting inside linebackers. As of right now, none of the Steelers options at outside linebacker have ever posted a double digit sack total in their careers. This is a cause for concern at the position, but the youth there gives the Steelers plenty of upside after both Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones had last year to gain experience as starting linebackers for the Steelers. The Steelers options for their second inside linebacker position will come down to a battle between rookie first round draft pick Ryan Shazier and the inexperienced Sean Spence. Spence returns from a devastating knee injury without ever playing a game in his NFL career, but he hopes to provide the Steelers with depth at inside linebacker. While second year linebacker Vince Williams is in the mix, the Steelers would prefer that either Shazier or Spence win the job because of their explosive ability as sideline to sideline tacklers. This unit could become a strength of the team if the Steelers young linebackers are assignment sound, but a lack of discipline from these players could cause the Steelers to struggle once again to stop the opposition's running game.
The other area of weakness that the Steelers addressed in a minimal way, was the issues in the secondary, especially at cornerback. Veteran Ike Taylor is still with the Steelers after a career worst year in 2013, and starting opposite him is Cortez Allen who also struggled at times last season. The Steelers drafted an intriguing prospect at the cornerback position, in Shaquille Richardson, but with no experience in the NFL, this rookie can't be expected to have much of an impact on the 2014 season for the Steelers. Undersized cornerback William Gay will once again have the duties of covering opposing slot receivers in the Steelers nickel defensive package, as the Steelers hope their defensive backs can provide the team with better pass coverage this season despite very little change in personnel. The one positive change that the Steelers made to their secondary this offseason, was allowing the aging Ryan Clark to move on, and bringing in Mike Mitchell, a younger free safety with speed that has allowed him to emerge as a defensive threat last season. The Steelers hope that the addition of Mitchell will help to take some pressure off their cornerbacks, as they now have more athletic range behind them in deep coverage. While this may be a sound strategy, it will be something to watch this season to see if the Steelers defensive backs can learn to trust and complement each other in coverage.
While the Steelers enter the season with high expectations for their new look offense, question marks about their defense loom large for a team that hopes to return to the postseason in 2014. The Steelers aging defense that slowed significantly in recent seasons, has now been replaced mostly by youth and inexperience. This could mean that the Steelers are a year or two away from serious contention, but that would only be if the young personnel that they currently have are able to settle into their roles nicely and carry out their assignments. In 2014 the Steelers could be a team that has to lean heavily on their offense to put up big numbers on the scoreboard in order to win ballgames. However, if the veteran leadership that remains on the Steelers defense is able to communicate effectively with their young teammates, the Steelers could make a return to the postseason in 2014 after a two year absence.