The AFC North has had a different division winner for each of the past four seasons. The Baltimore Ravens won the division in 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals won it in 2013, the Pittsburgh Steelers won it in 2014, and most recently the Bengals won it again in 2015. While the Cleveland Browns spent the offseason remaking their entire organization for the umpteenth time, it seems that these three teams perennially remain in the dogfight for the division crown.
The Pittsburgh Steelers enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the division (potentially extending the streak of a different team winning the AFC North to five straight seasons). Even after losing two of their best offensive players — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell — for a combined 14 games last season, they still finished the season with a 10-6 record — going 6-2 over their last eight games — and pulled off an upset victory over the Bengals (in Cincinnati) in the AFC Wild Card playoff game.
Even given the fact that the threw 16 interceptions last season — the second highest total of his career — one could argue that, under the guidance of Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career.
As the maestro of the third-ranked passing attack in the NFL last season, Roethlisberger threw for 3,938 yards in only 12 games; his 328 passing yards per game in 2015 was the highest such total of his career. Even with the interceptions, he had the highest completion percentage of his career last year (68.0), and his highest yards per attempt (8.40) since 2009.
Of course, you could attribute a lot of Roethlisberger’s success to the transcendent play of wide receiver Antonio Brown, who’s statistics over the last two seasons rival any totals of any wide receiver in NFL history. In 2014, he leads the league receptions, receiving yards, and passes caught for a first down. How did he follow that up in 2015? By again leading the league in receptions and receiving yards, exceeding both totals from 2014. His 136 receptions were the second highest total in NFL history, and his 1,834 yards was the 4th highest total in NFL history. He has an extraordinary ability to get himself “open” when a play breaks down and Roethlisberger is forced to improvise and extend the play; a lot of Brown’s demoralizing damage to the opposing defense has come this way.
Opposite of Brown, even with #2 wide receiver Martavis Bryant lost for all of 2016 (he was suspended by the NFL missing his mandated drug tests), the Steelers are optimistic about some of the young talent at wide receiver they’ve drafted and developed; namely, wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates. Both players have had great training camps, and will be heavily relied upon to fill Bryant’s shoes. The team’s one significant free agent acquisition — tight end Ladarius Green, signed to replace the retired Heath Miller — also adds a significant shot of athleticism to the offense, and another weapon for Roethlisberger to utilize when he returns to health.
In the backfield, most people with knowledge of the team feel that Bell will not be able to overturn his four game suspension. When he’s on the field, Bell might be the most dynamic and productive running back in the NFL, in terms of total yards per scrimmage. But while he serves that suspension, the Steelers are more than comfortable with 33-year-old backup running back DeAngelo Williams, who ran for 801 yards and 11 touchdowns in the 10 games that Bell was injured last year.
As long as this team has Roethlisberger, the one-two punch of Bell and Williams, and that wide receiving corps headlined by Antonio Brown, all coupled with an offensive line featuring two Pro Bowl players (center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro), the offense has the ability to outscore nearly anyone they play.
As per their traditional modus operandi, the Steelers eschewed making any significant additions in free agency, and focused on adding young talent through the draft whom they can develop into future starters (thanks to their benchmark organizational stability). This is especially the case on defense, as the team continues to rebuild the unit with young talent to mold into the next generation of great Steelers. Five of Pittsburgh’s last five first round picks were on defense: defensive end Cameron Heyward (2011), outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (2013), inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (2014), outside linebacker Bud Dupree (2015), and most recently, cornerback Artie Burns (2016).
Hayward and defensive end Stephon Tuitt (the Steelers second round pick in 2014) are both young and talented defensive ends that give Pittsburgh a formidable presence on the line of scrimmage. Shazier and Jones both have athleticism to spare, and the Steelers hope they can turn all that talent into on-field productivity.
Dupree failed to record a sack in the final eight games of 2015, but after cutting out carbohydrates over the offseason, he came into camp about 20lbs lighter, dropping his weight from 270-plus pounds to around 254. He was already a player known for his quickness off the line and around the edge, and Dupree — and the Steelers — hopes the weight loss will help him better utilize the sub-4.6-second 40 yard dash speed he was known for coming out of college. He hopefully will return to play in 6-8 weeks.
Burns, and defensive back Sean Davis out of the University of Maryland (taken with their second round pick), are ultra-athletic guys who will initially provide depth to the much-maligned Steelers secondary, but will groomed into eventual starters. For now, starting cornerbacks William Gay and Ross Cockrell are really just stopgap guys, who the Steelers would love to replace with the guys they drafted this year.
At Safety, the duo of Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden aren’t going to make Steelers fans forget about Rod Woodson or Troy Polamalu. Mitchell is a favorite of head coach Mike Tomlin, but Shamarko Thomas (the team’s fourth round pick in 2014) hasn’t developed the way they hoped he would; they enter this season hoping Davis will help. In general, it’s strange to see a Steelers team that features zero Pro Bowl players on defense. If this team is to go far into the postseason — and they have all the firepower one could ask for, in order to make a deep postseason run — it will come down to whether this team can simply get the opposing offense off the field, and give the ball back to the offense.
If they can just manage to do that, it’s hard to see this team not winning at least 11 or 12 games in 2016.