Steelers are in familiar territory going into training camp in Latrobe
The Steelers characteristically take calculated, closely measured steps when altering their lineup, something they've done with great infrequency over the past decade.
This year, they tossed out the less-is-more approach and moved faster than Dri Archer to hasten change. It's put them in a familiar position: They're hearing predictions they will win the AFC North.
For a team that's won one division title in the past five seasons and none since 2010, it's a welcome change as they trek to training camp in Latrobe on Friday.
The Steelers not only added nine free agents, but they also drafted multiple players who might start as rookies, something that rarely happens in Pittsburgh. Only six players were starters at their current positions as recently as 2012.
“I love their offseason, absolutely,” said Solomon Wilcots, the NFL Network and CBS analyst. “I've admired what they did in the offseason. They've never been a team that looks to make a splash but make what I call a smart purchase.
“They're really sharp shoppers in terms of getting good fits. And guys seem to play harder when they put that uniform on: They play smarter. They play better.”
The key additions include running back LeGarrette Blount, safety Mike Mitchell, linebackers Ryan Shazier and Arthur Moats, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and receiver Lance Moore, all of whom are expected to play major roles.
“Blount is going to be just that — a blunt instrument that bangs away at defenses,” Wilcots said. “Mike Mitchell will be great for this team. He'll probably be more explosive than Ryan Clark. … He can blitz and can cover and can run, and he's got range.”
The Steelers look to be deeper on both sides of the ball than last season and considerably faster as they try to generate more big plays on offense and allow a lot fewer on defense.
The Steelers barely missed being in the lower third of the league last season in offensive yards per play and yards allowed per play on defense.
“There's nothing worse in this league than getting old and not being productive … and they had to turn the page,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “They haven't been doing as good of a job (recently), it seems, of restocking some positions.”
NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes agrees, saying, “They've been in transition for a few years now, and this probably is the worst transition I've seen them make (in 2012 and 2013). … But I like what they've added.”
What Wilcots likes is “they've got the best quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) in the division. It ain't even close. They also have something the other teams don't have — Baltimore had it until Ray Lewis and Ed Reed left the building — and that's when they take the field, they believe they can beat anybody.
“Even when they were 0-4 (in 2013), they took the field believing they were going to win. … The Bengals may have had a more talented roster, but they don't have the intestinal fortitude like what the Steelers have.”
To Baldinger, the Steelers won the offseason. Now they'll see if they can win the season following their most dramatic makeover since Kevin Colbert became general manager in 2000.
“Cleveland looks as dysfunctional as they always are … it's just Cleveland,” Baldinger said. “Cincinnati … I don't know that you can replace a (defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer (now the Vikings coach), and the quarterback (Andy Dalton) was awful in the postseason. Baltimore, can they fix the offensive line?”
Baldinger understands the Steelers are only four years removed from their last Super Bowl, but there's a growing sense of urgency for them to get back to being elite after successive 8-8 records.
“Things have changed a lot in the NFL,” he said. “Look at the heat (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick has come under for not winning the Super Bowl, even though he keeps getting to them. Everybody is under the microscope a lot more than they were.”