Steelers 2015 Preview: Complete Pittsburgh Guide for Preseason, Season
The Pittsburgh Steelers take part in 2015's first preseason game, facing the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday's Hall of Fame Game. And just one month later, they will also open the 2015 regular season, traveling to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots.
With that in mind, it's time to put together a comprehensive preview of the Steelers' upcoming season. Here's everything you need to know about what 2015 could bring for the Steelers.
With the Steelers taking part in this year's Hall of Fame Game, they have five preseason games to play over the course of the next month. The Hall of Fame Game will be broadcast nationally on NBC; the other four games will be shown in the Pittsburgh area on KDKA. Here is the complete schedule:
Preseason Week 1: Sunday, August 9, 8:00 pm ET, at Minnesota Vikings (Hall of Fame)
Preseason Week 2: Friday, August 14, 7:30 pm ET, at Jacksonville Jaguars
Preseason Week 3: Sunday, August 23, 1:00 pm ET, vs. Green Bay Packers
Preseason Week 4: Saturday, August 29, 4:00 pm ET, at Buffalo Bills
Preseason Week 5: Thursday, September 3, 7:30 pm ET, vs. Carolina Panthers
New Impact Players
Though the Steelers are not active players in free agency, that doesn't mean they didn't make key additions to their roster this year that will have a direct impact on the 2015 season. Here are the notable new faces for the Steelers:
CB Brandon Boykin: The Steelers traded a conditional 2016 fifth-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles last week to acquire cornerback Brandon Boykin. Boykin's signing fills a void at the cornerback position in terms of veteran experience and high-level talent. He could step in and start immediately either in the slot or the outside, and he also adds value on special teams as a returner. If Cortez Allen cannot bounce back from his 2014 struggles, the Steelers now have additional insurance at the position.
RB DeAngelo Williams: Pittsburgh needed to add a veteran running back to its roster this year, and it did so by picking up DeAngelo Williams during free agency. The need was even more dire, given that starting Steelers back Le'Veon Bell is suspended for the first two games of the season. Williams will serve as the starter for those two contests and will back up Bell for the rest of the year.
LB Bud Dupree: The Steelers addressed defense in Round 1 of the NFL draft this year, selecting Kentucky outside linebacker Bud Dupree with the 22nd overall pick. The goal here is to have enough capable pass-rushers to improve the Steelers' sack total—they had a disappointing 33 in 2014. Dupree may not be a Week 1 starter, but he should see playing time this year alongside fellow outside linebackers Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats and James Harrison.
CB Senquez Golson: The Steelers struggled in pass coverage last year, ranking 27th in passing yards allowed. So the Steelers made an attempt to improve in this area through the draft, selecting cornerback Senquez Golson in Round 2. The only problem? Golson suffered a shoulder injury in practices this spring and now is considering undergoing season-ending surgery, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. If that's the case, it'll take until 2016 for Golson to make an impact; if not, he could see the field at some point this year.
WR Sammie Coates: Rookie receiver Sammie Coates' first season with the Steelers could go much as Martavis Bryant's did a year ago—slowly easing Coates into the lineup once he finally can master what the Steelers ask of him. But Coates and Bryant have a lot of similarities to their respective games, which means he could be a source of late-season touchdowns as Bryant was in 2014.
QB Tajh Boyd: Quarterback Tajh Boyd, signed by the Steelers in March, is no threat to starter Ben Roethlisberger and may not even push No. 2 quarterback Bruce Gradkowski down the depth chart. But his signing is significant in that he's a direct threat to No. 3 quarterback Landry Jones. But even if Boyd beats out Jones, don't expect him to dress for game days—Jones, in his last two seasons in Pittsburgh, hasn't been active for games once.
The Steelers boasted one of the most productive offenses in the league last year, and little about it will change in 2015.
Ben Roethlisberger, ever increasingly more comfortable with and confident in Todd Haley's offense, will continue to put forth the best performances of his career—especially when aided by receivers like Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Though Le'Veon Bell will miss the first two games, the run game looks poised to make an even bigger leap than it did from 2013 to 2014.
The only difference this summer is that the Steelers are more focused on red-zone production than ever. The Steelers scored touchdowns on just 51.72 percent of their red-zone appearances last year, down from 52.83 percent a year before.
Haley said in June that his goal is for the Steelers to have a top red-zone offense this year, and to that end, goal-line work has been an emphasis in practices, from OTAs to training camp. Haley noted that at least 10 times last year, the Steelers reached the red zone and didn't even come away with a field goal.
Roethlisberger plans for his offense to score 30 points per game regularly this season. But the only way they can get there is to score more touchdowns when given the opportunity. That's why training camp has featured so many 11-on-11s from the two-yard line.
There will be a few changes to the Steelers defense this year, given that the team has moved on from longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and replaced him with just-as-longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler.
One change will be along the defensive line, which will feature players rushing the passer rather than simply occupying offensive linemen, as it was under LeBeau.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward confirmed this when speaking with MMQB.com's Robert Klemko earlier in the summer: "I think [Butler] wants to generate more turnovers and get more one-on-ones up front where we’re maximizing everyone's talents and making sure everyone has a chance to get after the quarterback or get a turnover."
Heyward continued: "I would think our defense will be pretty similar, but there may be some conceptual changes, some more blitzes he wants to add."
Other changes on the defensive side of the ball are more personnel-focused. With safety Troy Polamalu retiring, Shamarko Thomas will start alongside Mike Mitchell. Linebacker Bud Dupree will be rotating with Arthur Moats, James Harrison and Jarvis Jones. A healthy Ryan Shazier should be a full-time starter at inside linebacker. Stephon Tuitt should be starting at defensive end, replacing the retired Brett Keisel.
The one question mark still left to be answered is the cornerback position. Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Kevin Fogg and, if he doesn't get surgery, Senquez Golson are all potential starters. It's just a matter of who gets the nod, and at what position.
On special teams, there have been no notable changes from 2014. Shaun Suisham is still the kicker, and Greg Warren remains the long snapper. A punting battle between incumbent Brad Wing and challenger Jordan Berry should play itself out during the preseason, but other than that there are few changes.
That is, with the exception of returner. Right now, Dri Archer seems to be getting another shot at being the team's kick returner, and it's possible receiver Antonio Brown will reprise his role as the punt returner in 2015.
But the Steelers have other capable returners on the roster, such as receiver Markus Wheaton, cornerback Brandon Boykin and running back Josh Harris. On the Steelers' latest preseason depth chart, Wheaton is earmarked as the kick returner and Brown as the punt returner, but this is something that can certainly change between now and Week 1.
The Steelers have, on paper, one of the most difficult schedules of the 2015 NFL season, making it that much more of a struggle for the team to repeat as AFC North champions. Here are the games they are slated to play this year:
Week 1: September 10, at New England Patriots (Thursday night)
Week 2: September 20, vs. San Francisco 49ers
Week 3: September 27, at St. Louis Rams
Week 4: October 1, vs. Baltimore Ravens (Thursday night)
Week 5: October 12, at San Diego Chargers (Monday night)
Week 6: October 18, vs. Arizona Cardinals
Week 7: October 25, at Kansas City Chiefs
Week 8: November 1, vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Week 9: November 8, vs. Oakland Raiders
Week 10: November 15 vs. Cleveland Browns
Week 11: Bye
Week 12: November 29, at Seattle Seahawks
Week 13: December 6, vs. Indianapolis Colts (Sunday night)
Week 14: December 13, at Cincinnati Bengals
Week 15: December 20, vs. Denver Broncos
Week 16: December 27, at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday night)
Week 17: January 3, at Cleveland Browns
Matchups of Note
With such a difficult schedule ahead, it's almost as though all of the Steelers' games this season are notable ones. But there are some matchups that stand out. This begins with Week 1, when the Steelers travel to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
The Steelers will be without suspended starting running back Le'Veon Bell, while the Patriots—for now, at least—will be without starting quarterback Tom Brady, as well as running back LeGarrette Blount, with the two also serving (unrelated) suspensions. But even if Brady is out, it will be a difficult matchup for one reason: tight end Rob Gronkowksi, who will test the athleticism of Pittsburgh's coverage linebackers and the strength of their cornerbacks and safeties.
A tough, two-game stretch occurs in Weeks 6 and 7, when the Steelers first play host to the ever-improving Arizona Cardinals and then go on the road to face the Kansas City Chiefs in loud and intimidating Arrowhead Stadium.
But the five games the Steelers stare down after their Week 11 bye may be the toughest span for the team this year. First, they travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks, which may be the most difficult place for any visiting team to play.
Then they return home to host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, head to Cincinnati to face the Bengals in Week 14, have a home game against the Denver Broncos and then return to Sunday Night Football in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens, a game that could determine who wins the AFC North.
And wrapping up Week 17 with the Cleveland Browns may not be easy, either, especially following these five games and with the Browns improving on both offense and defense this offseason.
It will be a much tougher road to the playoffs for the Steelers this year, that cannot be denied.