By Jonathan Rodrigues
On Tuesday, August 11, I was given an incredible opportunity to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers’s training facility at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The team orchestrated a two-hour public practice which showcased both new players and old players’ new abilities. From what I observed, the Steelers are an underrated offensive powerhouse, with a stable front seven on defense. Historically, the franchise has been built around its hard-hitting defense. With an offense that has the ability to put up 30+ points per game, they may not have to rely on their defense so heavily in the 2015 season.
Offensively, Pittsburgh is stacked at the wide receiver position, with some surprising rookies and improving veterans. Last season, we saw the emergence of Martavis Bryant, the 6’4” deep-threat out of Clemson. He came out of last season averaging 21.1 yards per catch with 8 touchdowns and over 500 yards. Bryant could quietly emerge as a star offensive player, even with the stud Antonio Brown on the opposite side. Much like Alshon Jeffery becoming the number one wide out in Chicago, coming to stardom as he played opposite Brandon Marshall. Bryant showed flashes of absolute brilliance in practice, with a spectacular grab over Pittsburgh’s number one cornerback Cortez Allen (pictured below). It will be tough for Bryant to gain the position alongside Brown, as Markus Wheaton is currently the favorite. Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season which will impact the decision of coach Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers’ expanded their WR corps with the addition of two new rookies, Sammie Coates and Shakim Phillips. In practice, Coates showed resilience and raw route running skills. With his strength and speed, the 3rd-round draft pick could become a valuable target for Ben Roethlisberger. While Coates was a fairly high profile selection, Shakim Phillips is a rookie who was overlooked, becoming an undrafted free agent until he was signed by the Steelers. In practice, Phillips showed great football IQ, good blocking abilities and route running skill. He was stellar on special teams and made a highlight reel grab in the Hall of Fame game against the Minnesota Vikings.
A major storyline of the offseason has been the suspension of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell. He will be out for the first two games of the regular season, against New England and San Francisco. The Patriots had the ninth ranked rushing defense in the NFL in 2014 while the 49ers were ranked seventh. New England will not be as stout defensively without Wilfork’s presence and the 49ers have suffered huge losses such as Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, and Chris Borland. The question arises, who will replace Bell in those two games? Will it be the speedy second-year Dri Archer or the veteran out of Carolina, DeAngelo Williams? DeAngelo Williams has shown incredible promise out of the backfield, showing the capability to break off long yards in the pre-season.
As far as the Steelers’ D, we are still seeing the same 3-4 defense they have run since the Bill Cowher era. But defensive coordinator Keith Butler and his coaching staff have some serious decisions to make with regards to the linebacker positions. This is a very talented linebacking corps with incredible versatility in man coverage and stopping the run. They will be deciding between talented players such as Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, and Alvin Dupree. The leader of this powerhouse group is Lawrence Timmons, who will be entering his 9th NFL season after being selected in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. This fleet of linebackers consists of four first round picks and should be impressive in the upcoming season.