Unlike years past, strength of 2014 Steelers could be offense
The newly elected team captain, going into his 11th NFL season, is overseeing the unit that might need to carry the Steelers through a challenging first month of the season.
Only it's not Troy Polamalu. It's Ben Roethlisberger.
After decades of leaning on a historically high-level defense, the Steelers might be ready to send out the most balanced offense of Roethlisberger's era Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
The offensive line is the most experienced he's had. The running game, precariously thin last season, has two starter-quality running backs. Antonio Brown is coming off what might have been the best season by a Steelers receiver.
And Roethlisberger begins the season with running back Le'Veon Bell, center Maurkice Pouncey and tight end Heath Miller healthy. They missed nearly nine games combined as the Steelers started 0-4 last season.
“We've got the playmakers around us, and with everybody healthy there's a shot for us being a really good team,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “We've just got to make that part happen and understand what's at stake here.”
What's at stake is making sure the Steelers get off to a fast start offensively during a transition time for a defense that is expected to start four players who weren't in the season-opening lineup last year: Ryan Shazier, Mike Mitchell, Jarvis Jones and Cam Heyward.
“We're fortunate to be healthy right now, and hopefully we can use that to our advantage and start the season off fast,” Miller said Monday. “We certainly have that potential, but we've got to go out on Sunday and execute.”
That offense, so slow to get going with Bell and Pouncey injured for most of that 0-4 start, averaged 115 yards rushing in December compared to only 58 yards in September.
At the same time, Roethlisberger was sacked only six times in the final month of the season after going down 15 times in September.
And the Steelers averaged 8.3 yards per play to close the season compared to 7.1 in the first month.
But this September could be a major challenge, too. Each of the first three games will match the Steelers against a defense that ranked in the top 12 last season: No. 2 Carolina, No. 9 Cleveland and No. 12 Baltimore.
The only new offensive starter is wide receiver Markus Wheaton, but it is almost imperative he produces immediately to prevent defenses from constantly doubling up on Brown, who had 1,499 yards receiving last season.
There also are questions about the run game's readiness for the start of the season, given how poorly the Steelers played offensively in their final two preseason games against Philadelphia and Carolina.
To Foster and Bell, it wasn't a case of the Steelers not being able to run the ball but not running it consistently with the starters on the field.
“When we ran it in the preseason, we always ran it effectively, very efficient runs, 4 yards here and 5 yards there,” Bell said. “We didn't have a chance to break one, but we had a steady dose of run after run after run. I'm excited to see if we get the chance for 40 runs or 30 runs or 20 runs, how good we're going to be.”
Another change is that Blount, a former 1,000-yard rusher, effectively is replacing the four ineffective or injured backups from last season: Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones.
“He's another solid No. 1 back, really,” Bell said. “They haven't really told us our roles or anything, just whenever our number is called we're going to go in the game. We're both capable of going in there and getting tough yards, and Dri (Archer), he's going to make plays
“Now we're going to play the whole game and see what we can really do.”