Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are a well-built team coming off a spectacular season, Johnny Manziel is in Cleveland, and the Baltimore Ravens are just a little over a year removed from a Super Bowl title.
For the most part, the AFC North is a toss up. And while everyone and there mother will be programming their television sets to Johnny Football – should he start – the real team to watch for is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Missing out on the playoffs by a hair in 2013, Pittsburgh revamped its roster in the offseason, and is arguably being overlooked amidst the hype surrounding some of the other clubs. But you got to remember, this Steelers’ squad isn’t far off from vying for a Vince Lombardi trophy.
Riddled with injuries last season, Pittsburgh lost standout center Maurkice Pouncey to a torn ACL and MCL, linebacker LaMarr Woodley to calf ailment, and safety Troy Polamalu was playing his first full season after missing essentially the 2012 campaign with a torn calf. Not to mention their only effective running back, Le’Veon Bell, was out the first three games with an ankle injury, and he was a rookie.
Now, of course, injuries are a part of the game, and the Steelers are no more hampered than the next club, but those players listed above are some pretty key attributes. Pouncey is their lead lineman; Woodley was a leader (now on the Raiders); Bell is their top halfback; and Polamalu, well, is the best player on their team. It’s no wonder the team struggled to compete until Week 10.
In order for me to convince you Pittsburgh is primed for a bounce-back year, I must prove it. So, let’s dissect both sides of the ball.
On offense, it all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who’s a two-time Super Bowl champion.
Although he had an issue with turning the ball over last season, Roethlisberger stretched the field the way a quarterback needs to for their group to win, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t carryover in ’14. Racking up 4,261 passing yards in ’13 (second-best of his career), Roethlisberger didn’t exactly have an abysmal campaign, but it just wasn’t good enough. Remember, Roethlisberger knows how to take his team to the promise land, and if there’s one QB who can take his players to the next level, it’s him.
Having Bell healthy for the season’s entirety is also a boost. You can chuck the ball downfield all you want, but if your team doesn’t possess an effective running game, it diminishes your ability to stretch the field. Now that Bell is in his sophomore season, better numbers are anticipated for the Michigan State alumni. Owning refined quickness and an elusive tackle-breaking game, Bell’s contributions should have a direct correlation to how well the Steelers’ passing operates. But Bell’s going to have room to run because of tight end Heath Miller and Antonio Smith.
Roethlisberger is no stranger when it comes to running outside the pocket, and he can open up the defense just by using his legs, but Miller and Smith are tremendous pieces to how the offense orchestrates.
Despite only reeling in one touchdown last season, Miller is more of Big Ben’s go-to on third down. Rarely do you see Miller receiving a plethora of attention, because Roethlisberger simply uses his wideouts a lot more; however, Miller is a big body and a reliable target for Roethlisberger to keep plays alive.
Brown exploded last season. Ranking second in the league in receiving yards (1,499), Brown beat-out wideouts such as A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, and Demaryius Thomas – that’s pretty good company. And now that he’s established himself as a high-end threat to the opposition, Roethlisberger’s arsenal gets that much tougher to defend.
Defensively, Pittsburgh is stacked.
Obviously, they still plug Polamalu out there to terrorize adversaries, but linebackers Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons are great compliments to the beastly safety. Timmons holds his own in the middle, but Jones’ production should see improvement, given he’s now got an NFL season under his belt. Then you got Ike Taylor, who’s one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league. So, there’s no shortage of talent in Pittsburgh’s scheme.
Probably the biggest addition this offseason was safety Mike Mitchell. Mitchell played a huge role in Carolina’s destructive defense last season, and is as tenacious as they come. Ryan Clark‘s time in Pittsburgh just wore its welcome, and now that Polamalu has a fresh counterpart, who’s as feisty as he is, I’d hate to be an opposing wide receiver strolling into that secondary. Not only is Pittsburgh’s defensive line going to hound the quarterback, but even their secondary is going to penetrate, and that completes them.
Of course, everything I claim won’t matter if Pittsburgh can’t stay on the field. Facing well-rounded teams like Cincinnati, the Steelers need every player available, and if they can remain healthy, best believe they’ll come out on top.
Pittsburgh’s kind of been a forgotten team, but in ’14, we’ll see a group ready to reclaim its spot in the ranks of the best the AFC has to offer. And if they can wind up winning the AFC North, there’s no limit to what they can do in the playoffs.
Sleeper? More like, a sleeping giant is about to wake.