In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC North, beginning with the Pittsburgh Steelers today.
Recap of 2015: After losing in the playoffs to the archrival Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a long offseason to stew before the 2015 season. Overall, the team rebounded from the loss pretty well, winning 10 games and making the playoffs once again. Their offense led the way during the year, finishing third in DVOA, third in total yardage, and fourth in points in the NFL. The team battled through a litany of injuries over the year, including missing four games of Ben Roethlisberger, ten games of Le’Veon Bell, and an entire season for Maurkice Pouncey. Imagine how good the offense could have been if everyone stayed healthy all year. In the playoffs, The Steelers took their battered, but not broken, team into Cincinnati to play their division rival Bengals. You probably remember how that game went, but if you forgot, it was one of the craziest endings in NFL history. The Steelers did everything they could to lose the game, but somehow they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and found a way to win (or you might say the Bengals found a way to lose) the game. While Pittsburgh won the game, a brutal hit to star Antonio Brown left him with a concussion, and the Steelers were forced to battle the top seeded Denver Broncos without him the following week. The Steelers still played them pretty closely and led for most of the game. That was until the infamous Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble that ended up being the turning point in the game. The Broncos won the game, and eventually the Super Bowl, while the Steelers were left to stew again for another long offseason.
Significant Additions: TE Ladarius Green, OT Ryan Harris
Significant Subtractions: WR Martavis Bryant (Suspended), TE Heath Miller (Retired), QB Michael Vick, CB Brandon Boykin
Potential Impact Rookies: CB Artie Burns, S Sean Davis, DT Javon Hargrave, WR/KR Demarcus Ayers
Team Strengths: The best quarterback/wide receiver combination in the NFL resides in the Steel City. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are poised to carry the Steeler offense once again in 2016. The 34 year old Roethlisberger keeps putting up huge numbers year after year. He threw for just under 4,000 yards last year despite missing a quarter of the regular season. If you project out those missing games, the two time Super Bowl winner might have challenged the all time single season passing yard record. He was able to do this because his primary target Antonio Brown is simply the best wideout in the league right now. Brown had 136 catches for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015, his third straight year of 1,499 or more receiving yards. Brown has also thrown in a return touchdown in each of those seasons just for the heck of it. Big Ben and AB will keep the Steelers competitive in every game this season, even if the rest of the team struggles. They are just that good.
Team Weaknesses: The NFL Drug Policy. Positive and missed drug tests for marijuana have heavily impacted the 2016 season for the Steelers. Star running back Le’veon Bell will miss the first three games of the season and wide receiver Martavis Bryant will miss the entire season. While the Steelers’ offense will still be the strength of this team, these suspensions will knock them down a notch. Outside of the suspensions, the defense is the real weakness of this team. Long gone are the days of the Steel Curtain. When the best player on your front seven is 38 year old James Harrison, you might have some issues in the AFC North. Pro Football Focus has the Pittsburgh front seven rated as 25th in the NFL entering the season, which seems astonishing for what is usually the backbone of perennial contender. The Steelers have also invested heavily in their secondary, but they are still a few years away from rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis leading the back end of their D. Steeler fans should expect more frustrating big plays allowed by their defense this season.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Big Ben is a clear QB1 entering 2016. I have him right behind Drew Brees currently, but the one concern with Ben is his health. He missed four games last year and seems to get banged up every season at some point. I would still not hesitate to nab him if he falls a bit in your drafts, but I would make sure to get another decent QB for your bench that you would be happy to start if Ben missed a game or two. Le’veon Bell is one of the most difficult players to judge right now. On one hand, he is the best all around running back in football who will put up a huge amount of rushing yards, catch a ton of balls out of the backfield, and is sure to find the endzone almost every week. On the other, he is guaranteed to miss the first three weeks of the year and has not shown to be a very durable player in his first few NFL seasons (coming off an MCL tear that ended his 2015 season). Personally, I would love to have Bell on my fantasy team and would consider him at the end of Round 1 or beginning of Round 2. I would especially love if I could handcuff him with backup Deangelo Williams, who we know will start three games and be there in case Bell gets hurt down the road. Williams did very well last year when Bell was out and I would expect him to be a solid player again this year in limited time. At wide receiver, Antonio Brown should be the first receiver off the board in your draft and in all likelihood the first player regardless of position (he just went for $88 in our auction draft over the weekend!). Well deserved as seen by his stats mentioned before, Brown was the top receiver in fantasy the last two seasons and shows no sign of slowing down this year. If you are up to pick and he is available, take him. After Brown, it gets a little murky with Bryant suspended for the year. Markus Wheaton is the next man up, but he has been inconsistent in his career. Sammie Coates is also on the sleeper radar, but is unproven in the NFL. Someone besides AB will have to catch the ball this year, but at this point it’s mostly a guess who that will be. At one point this offseason, I loved new tight end Ladarius Green as a sleeper low end TE1, but after the ankle injury and possibly concussion news, I am staying away from him in drafts.
2016 Outlook: As usual, the Steelers did not do a whole lot in free agency, so their roster looks fairly similar to last season to start the year. The biggest issue is replacing the value of three games of their starting running back and 16 games of a starting wide receiver. DeAngelo Williams should fill the void for Bell, but Pittsburgh really needs their wideouts to take some of the pressure off of Brown this season. Otherwise, the offense should be at the top of the league this year and light up the scoreboard week after week. On the other side of the ball, the defense has a lot to prove to get the Steelers to the next level, which would be the AFC Championship and Super Bowl, where Pittsburgh has not been since the 2010 season. Some of the young defenders need to step up, including former first round picks Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, and Jarvis Jones. It is time the Steelers finally see some big dividends from their investments, especially for a team that relies so heavily on the draft to build their team. Getting to the quarterback should be the number one goal for the defense again, an area where the defense excelled in 2015, finishing third in the league. This will alleviate pressure on their young secondary and force the other team into turnovers, while also hiding some of the other blemishes of this defense. A top 5 offense and top 15 defense should be the recipe for an AFC North title and first round bye, especially in a year where the two top teams from last year (Denver and New England) should take a step back from last season record wise. This will set Pittsburgh up for a chance at their 7th Super Bowl victory in team history.
Record Prediction: Pittsburgh has a tough slate to start the year, facing three playoff teams in their first four games (Washington, Cincinnati, and Kansas City). They also have a date with Tom Brady and the Patriots before their bye week mid season. If they can hit the bye with a winning record, their second half sets up nicely with only one playoff team (Cincinnati again) in their last nine games. With an easy overall schedule (matchups against the AFC East and NFC East), the Steelers should win 10-12 games and battle for the top seed in the AFC. I think the Steelers end up going 11-5 and edge Baltimore and Cincinnati for the AFC North title. This will position them for a chance at redemption in the AFC playoffs after last year’s disappointing end.
Photo Credit: Justin Aller/FOX Sports