Pittsburgh Steelers: Biggest Questions Left to Answer Before Start of Season
Later this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers will make the trek down Route 30 to Saint Vincent College for the 50th straight year. Much like the previous 49 training camps, head coach Mike Tomlin will continue the tradition of fostering a competitive environment to prepare his team for the regular season.
“I love camp,” Tomlin told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the end of minicamp in June. “I love the environment where you get the opportunity to just focus on football and live together, dine together and be secluded, if you will. It’s just a good environment for team building.”
Part of this process involves finding answers to the questions that still surround the team. Unlike previous years, the Steelers seem to have more answers than questions.
With the entire starting unit returning intact, offensive coordinator Todd Haley can focus on refining the offense rather than making any major scheme adjustments. The same can’t be said for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who will implement a new scheme.
Although this can be viewed as a negative, the defense has been on a downward trend, and Butler gets the opportunity to install his scheme with a young core of defenders ready to make their mark.
We will begin to learn how the coaching staff will approach these issues—and others—when the Steelers report to training camp on Saturday. Until then, here is a preview of the biggest questions that must be answered prior to the start of the regular season.
Who Is Next in Line for a Contract Extension?
Free agency is a dormant period for the Steelers, as general manager Kevin Colbert rarely makes any splashes. Instead, he focuses his attention to signing the team’s young talent to lucrative deals once summer arrives.
Last summer, the Steelers rewarded Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Cortez Allen and Shaun Suisham with new contracts. Cam Heyward joined Ben Roethlisberger as the second player to sign a new deal this offseason when he agreed to a six-year contract last week.
With Heyward’s deal complete, the Steelers could turn their attention back to the offense, where David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum are both due for an extension.
DeCastro is a near-lock for a new deal, but he may have to wait another year after the Steelers picked up the fifth-year option on his contract. When you factor this in with the new deals for Pouncey and Gilbert last season, it may leave the well dry in terms of a deal for Beachum.
Although they already have a significant amount already invested into the offensive line, the Steelers would be wise to try to work out a contract with Beachum. He is a young player on the rise, and Pro Football Focus' Cole Schultz identified the 26-year-old as a secret superstar.
Aside from the players, head coach Mike Tomlin is due for a contract extension. Although his contract doesn’t expire until after the 2016 season, the Steelers traditionally negotiate new deals with their coaches with two years remaining.
Which Running Back Will Emerge?
When Le’Veon Bell is in the lineup, the Steelers have little to worry about on offense, but that will not be the case at the start of the season.
As Bell serves a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, the Steelers will lean on veteran DeAngelo Williams. His ability as a runner and receiver makes him a good fit in Todd Haley’s offense, but he is also not the type of player who will touch the ball 20 to 25 times per game.
Williams averaged only 14 touches per game over the past two seasons—21 games—and should have similar numbers with the Steelers. That leaves the door wide-open for a secondary option behind him to share the load early in the season.
Josh Harris is the early favorite after he flashed some potential in limited action last season, including a 59-yard run the official called back because of a holding penalty. His combination of power and speed makes him an intriguing option to fill out the depth chart.
Dri Archer is another option, though he will spend a considerable amount of time at receiver, which opens up a roster spot for undrafted free agents Ross Scheuerman and Cameron Stingily. If neither impresses, expect the Steelers to look for additional options outside of the organization.
How Will the Offense Continue to Evolve?
There are big expectations for the Steelers offense following a record-setting season in 2014.
Led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the offense set a franchise record with 436 points and 6,577 total yards. With all 11 starters set to return, it is easy to understand why many believe that the offense will be even better in 2015.
Despite the optimism, the Steelers must enter the season with a growth mindset. They will not get better—or even maintain their level of play—just by showing up on Sundays. Based on what Ramon Foster said back in January, this team is ready to work.
“You think we had a good season, it’s going to happen every year. That’s not the case,” Foster told Scott Brown of ESPN.com. “It’s going to be the leaders that have to let them understand that they can’t get complacent. We have to work to get better.”
One area where the offense must get better is in the red zone, according to Haley, per Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
What kept us from being really good was the fact that we had too many possessions where we had no points, whether we had an ill-timed sack that took us out of field-goal range and didn't let us kick the ball or a couple of turnovers. When we get inside that 35, we have to get points, whether it is three or seven and those add up quick.
The Steelers only scored touchdowns on 51.72 percent of their red-zone trips in 2014, which ranked 19th in the league. Haley understands this is a significant problem for the offense, and finding an answer is his primary mission prior to the start of the year.
Are Young Defenders Ready to Take the Reins?
Young defenders are accustomed to standing on the sidelines in Pittsburgh, but that is about to change this season with four defenders.
The 25-year-old Jarvis Jones and 2014 NFL draft picks Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt will provide an injection of youth into the front seven, while 24-year-old Shamarko Thomas will step in for Troy Polamalu in the secondary. Beyond the starters, Daniel McCullers, Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson may all see snaps in situational roles throughout the year.
Although a talented bunch, its lack of experience is tough to overcome. Rather than asking too much of these players, Keith Butler can adjust his scheme to better fit the skill sets of his young players. That is exactly what he will do, according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com:
The Steelers know they must cater to young players, which is why new coordinator Keith Butler must make changes to accommodate that. They have no choice. The scheme will still be fairly complex with mix-and-match blitz disguises. But players say Butler's defense will emphasize more one-on-one matchups than in the past, especially on the defensive line. That should help. The Steelers want a renewed commitment to stopping the run. If they can't do that, the defense's chances are limited anyway. The big pieces here are Antwon Blake and Cortez Allen. If they can be solid at outside corner, everything else should fall into place.
An improvement in the secondary will allow Butler to take a more aggressive approach with his front seven. Even if the secondary does fall into place, it will take time for the young defenders to adjust to the new scheme and the speed of the NFL game.
What Will Keith Butler’s Defense Look Like?
The biggest mystery of this offseason is Keith Butler’s defense. Even though he spoke to the media, no one knows for sure what the defense will look like.
We do know that it will not implement any major scheme changes—it will still run out of the base 3-4 defense. It will also continue to place an emphasis on stopping the ground game. But not everything will stay the same, and Butler will have some new wrinkles ready for the season opener.
“There will be some things that are different, yes,’’ Butler said in his first interview with the media as defensive coordinator, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “There are some things we did well last year. We have to try to try to marry the things that we did well last year and maybe some things that we haven’t done before here, we’re going to try to do those.”
Although he wouldn’t elaborate, Butler has plenty of talent to work with—particularly on the defensive line—and may use it in a different way, according to Matt Williamson of ESPN.com:
However, there is some speculation that Pittsburgh’s defensive line will become more of an attacking unit rather than a reactive one. The reason for doing this is to generate more pass rush from the front three rather than just occupying blockers and freeing up the second-level defenders to flow freely to the football. We also could see more slanting and stunts.
Given its issues at sacking the quarterback in recent years, an additional option to generate pressure from the front seven can only help—especially as Pittsburgh sorts out its depth chart at outside linebacker.
Between stopping the run, preventing the big play and getting improved play from the defense as a whole, Butler has a lot on his plate in his first year as defensive coordinator. Given all of the questions on defense, his approach to tackling these problems is the biggest question left to answer this offseason.