In looking around the AFC at the Steelers' competition for this coming season, let's first throw out the teams that either don't have good enough quarterback play or have signal-callers who are too inexperienced: Jets, Bills, Browns, Texans, Jaguars, Titans, and Raiders.
The Jets have some nice pieces on the defensive line, but that will never be enough to overcome Geno Smith. I'm not sure what the Bills have in E.J. Manuel but I'm leaning toward him not being a championship-caliber QB over time. I'll believe it when I see it with the Jimmy Haslem-led Cleveland Browns, even if his circus partner Johnny Football maximizes his on-the-field tricks. Tom Savage is likely a couple years from even thinking about developing into the guy in Houston. Or, he can always find a job as Nicholas Cage's stunt double. I like what Gus Bradley is doing in Jacksonville, but the Jags look to be at least a year away from becoming a serious threat. Ken Whisenhunt will find out for sure what he probably already knows, that Jake Locker doesn't have the accuracy and instincts to be the long-term answer. Finally, if Matt Schaub was the guy for Oakland, he would've done it by now in Houston. That ship has sailed, baby.
Next are the teams that could possibly compete. And I'm just not sold on Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins. Maybe I'm biased because on Hard Knocks he didn't know enough about the NFL to even name the teams in his own division. Maybe it's his demeanor that suggests little in terms of leadership. But between some questionable, personnel decisions by Jeff Ireland, bully-gate, and now Mike Pouncey's hip injury, I'm not seeing it with this team.
There are still too many holes on defense and the offensive line for me to believe the quarterback-capable Chargers are a legitimate contender.
The Chiefs were trending in the wrong direction last season. And I believe losing Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz, and Branden Albert (the jury is still out on Eric Fisher) will be their undoing. However, if they do have the capable replacements along the offensive line -- with a Tamba Hali, a healthy Justin Houston, and a capable Alex Smith -- the Chiefs can still be a threat. But in the end, I think Andy Reid's addiction to the pass will always cause his teams to fall short.
The Ravens' off-season hasn't been exactly smooth with the Ray Rice distraction. They have some age in their starting front seven. The addition of Steve Smith doesn't get my attention in the slightest. He's too old with more bark then bite at this stage of his great career. Ozzie Newsome does a great job replacing parts, but something tells me this team is going to suffer from giving an above-average quarterback elite money. They're going to have a difficult time supplying the roster with the talent that necessary to complement Joe Flacco. I believe the leadership transition will take more time with this group just because Ray Lewis consumed so much of it and left very little room for the development of others.
The Bengals have a lot of talent but they have questionable talent in the secondary. They took a step back with the loss of Michael Johnson. Most importantly, I believe their quarterback simply isn't good enough. Andy Dalton puts up decent numbers largely due to the skill-position talent that surrounds him (mostly because of A.J. Green). Dalton has always reminded me of Ryan Fitzpatrick (though maybe just a shade better). He's been exposed in the playoffs as the field gets smaller and becomes raggedy Andy. I don't expect that to drastically change.
The Colts seem to stand alone in their "division of developing quarterbacks." Andrew Luck is someone who can strike fear. He's proven he's never out of a game and has been consistently clutch in tight contests. But I'm not sure this team can overcome the distraction that is their owner. I have to believe Jim Irsay's arrest and recent bizarre comments about his recovery will effect this team's focus. That combined with the awful trade for Trent Richardson has me positioning the Steelers ahead of the Colts.
The Steelers' finish last season reminds me a lot of the way they ended the 2000 season. You could see they were moving in the right direction then, and it led to a 13-3 record and a division championship in 2001. With Ben Roethlisberger finding his groove in Todd Haley's offense in the second half of the year, I have to believe things are only going to get better with the return of Maurkice Pouncey, the hiring of Mike Munchak, and the signing of LeGarrette Blount. Sprinkle in some Dri Archer with Martavis Bryant in the red zone, and you have an offense that can offer any and every dimension. They can beat you with no-huddle. They can beat you with stretch zone or power running with pulling guards. They can hopefully now beat you with a legitimate play-action game. They can beat you with short passes, screens to RBs, or deep passes with their field stretchers. When the weather gets cold, they can grind it out and wear you down with Le'Veon Bell and Blount. Many fans seem concerned about Markus Wheaton. I'm not. He flashed last preseason. When I say flash, I mean he did some things that made you think "Wow!" Antonio Brown did that as a rookie. Never once in four seasons did Emmanuel Sanders ever give me a "wow" moment. He was just a dime-a-dozen guy to me. Maybe not during the first half of this coming season, but as Wheaton gets comfortable I expect the smart, hard-working kid to be a very good player.
Someone else gave me a few "wow" moments last preseason: Jarvis Jones. Watching live, I initially thought it was Troy Polamalu quickly bursting through the line on a blitz to create a fumble on a backfield pitch during the preseason game against Washington. Those are types of plays only special players make. As Jarvis stops thinking and becomes a reactionary player, I expect to see great things. He was all over the field in the season finale against Cleveland. I don't ever expect him to have the season-to-season sack production of a James Harrison. There were seasons in which Greg Lloyd dominated with only 6 sacks. There are ways to be productive other than sacks. That said, I don't think 1 sack is acceptable. I think he'll get between 6-8. If he does become a double-digit sacks guy, then look out because this defense could be special in a hurry.
One of the main issues the Steelers encountered during their 8-4 finishing stretch was their lack of speed in the middle of the defense. The Steelers were getting gashed in the run game when teams spread them out. The Dolphins and Packers exposed Ryan Clark and Will Allen late in the year. So the Steelers addressed it with the additions of Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier.
With Shazier, the Steelers now have four linebackers capable of playing three downs. Mitchell brings physicality with a sense of knowing when to go for the ball and when to hit. Their speed, along with that of Shamarko Thomas, will allow the corners to play more aggressively in coverage. Thomas is much like Wheaton in that I expect great things from him. You don't see many safeties play with his speed and fluidity. Thomas was having a better rookie season then the one Polamalu experienced. No one could ever ask Troy to play slot corner as the Steelers did with Thomas. A bad ankle sprain derailed his rookie year. Like Wheaton, I expect this hard-working, high-character young man to turn the corner. How long Troy stays, I believe, will dictate just how soon Thomas can make a significant impact.
I think this team is still a year away from being right there with the Patriots and Broncos. Stephon Tuitt, Shazier, Thomas, Jones, and Mitchell in years two or three in the system should position this team for an optimum run. I still have my concerns about their ability to stop elite quarterbacks. When healthy, even the 49ers, a team with elite middle speed and pass-rushing specialists, were exposed on the outside by the top QBs. Team speed could go a long way toward changing that, but I still have my concerns about the Steelers being able to get through both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in a playoff run. Since 2007, the Steelers are 1-5 against the duo, giving up 18 TD passes and 0 interceptions. Three of those games came prior to 2011 when the Steelers were considered to have an elite defense, yet still went 0-3 while giving up 10 TD passes.
Still, the arrow is pointing up. The quiet off-season has gone as well as could be expected. There haven't been any run-ins with the law, distracting comments about teammates or coaches, stabbings, or, most importantly, injuries. The under-the-radar free-agent additions, increased speed, and experience on defense, along with the significant coaching upgrade in Mike Munchak, has to improve a team that went 6-2 the second half of last season.