The title of this article might be a bit of hyperbole and sensationalism (the kind of stuff designed to get massive site traffic). After all, isn’t every training camp important, especially for a franchise like the Pittsburgh Steelers that always has its eye on winning a championship–even during trying times, when the salary cap is compromised and the roster is a bit depleted because of it?
- But 2015 just feels different.
Steelers players will report to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., on Saturday, with the first team practice scheduled for this Sunday.
As is always the case in Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania and Steeler Nation as a whole, there is great excitement, optimism and hope for a great 2015 season–one that will end with championship glory. Again, these are always the expectations (The Standard is the Standard), but this year just feels different, like something special could happen if all the pieces come together in just the right way.
Steelers Offense Appears to be Super Bowl Ready
For one thing, the offense is now the talk of the team. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had his finest season a year ago, passing for 4,952 yards, 32 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. Also, receiver Antonio Brown (129 receptions for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns) and second year back Le’Veon Bell (2,215 yards from scrimmage–1,361 rushing; 854 receiving) followed suit with career seasons of their own. After massive upheaval that included a change in philosophy and coordinators (Bruce Arians was out and Todd Haley was in after the 2011 season), the offense looks like a force to be reckoned with.
The offensive line, a source of contention and concern for so many seasons, gave Roethlisberger the finest protection of his career in 2014–608 passing attempts and 33 sacks (5.1 percent sack rate).
In-addition to Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell and the offensive line, third year wide-out Markus Wheaton, second year receiver Martavis Bryant, newly signed veteran running back DeAngelo Williams (he’s expected to start the first three games of the season during Bell’s three-game suspension) are all expected to play huge roles for the Steelers in 2015.
- And, oh yes, Heath Miller is a pretty good tight end.
If the Steelers go far in 2015, the offense will probably have to carry the bulk of the load.
Steelers Defense Still “In Development
After years of doing the lion’s share of the work and grabbing most of the top headlines, the defense is now playing a supporting role for the Steelers. Finishing 13th and 18th in the NFL the past two seasons, respectively, Pittsburgh’s defense really is a shell of of its former self. A unit that once terrorized opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks behind legends such as Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton and James Harrison has been reduced to “Soft and Cheesy” to quote the late Dwight White.
- The Steelers defense hasn’t recorded more than 20 takeaways in a season since 2010 and has averaged just under 35 sacks over the past four years.
After serving as the team’s defensive coordinator for 11 years, the legendary Dick LeBeau stepped down after the 2014 season and was replaced by long-time linebackers coach Keith Butler. Butler has promised some changes and tweaks to the defense, but it’s ultimately up to the players.
You know what you’re going to get from inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and Cam Heyward is emerging as a superstar defensive end, but what the Steelers get from several other players in 2015 could go a long way in determining how well the defense performs.
- Coming into his third season, this could be a make-or-break year for Jarvis Jones, the outside linebacker who was Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 2013. Despite Butler’s proposed tweaks, the right outside linebacker still figures to be crucial in a 3-4 base defense, as it’s always the position expected to generate most of the pass-rush.
- Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, the team’s first round pick in 2014, struggled with injury problems in his rookie year, but he’s still being given the benefit of the doubt heading into his second season. If he stays healthy, he could be a real difference-maker.
- James Harrison, 37, is back for yet another season. He’s expected to play a supporting-role, but if he can perform similarly to a year ago (5.5 sacks), he could add something special.
- And let’s not forget the secondary. William Gay should be one of the two starting cornerbacks, and Mike Mitchell should be the starting free-safety. After that? That’s anyone’s guess. It’s up to the likes of Cortez Allen, Shamarko Thomas, Antwon Blake and rookie Senquez Golson to step up and seize the day.
2015 Could be Legacy Defining for Mike Tomlin
Mike Tomlin signed a two-year contract extension on Thursday, which really is no surprise, as he’s been a successful head coach over his first eight seasons. Also, the Rooneys like stability and have only employed three head coaches over the past 46 years. But while Tomlin has experienced the ultimate success–a Super Bowl XLIII championship–he could really define his legacy in Pittsburgh by navigating the Steelers, who are poised to face the league’s toughest schedule in 2015, to another postseason berth and a deep championship run.
It all starts on Saturday, when the questions begin to be answered at Latrobe. How those questions get answered could go a long way in determining how the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers are ultimately remembered.