The running game
The Steelers have two very capable running backs in Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. But there is some question about whether the Steelers can successfully run the ball this year ... and the backs' recent off-field antics aren't helping matters.
Bell in particular has shown an extraordinary talent for finding room to run ... but the offensive line hasn't been as proficient at opening up space. Against Philadelphia, neither Blount — who spent last season with the Patriots — nor Bell ran especially well outside of the no-huddle. They can improve as the season goes on, but still unclear is how the pair's extracurricular exploits will affect their performance.
Until a few seasons ago, the Steelers seemed largely immune to the kind of off-field hijinks that plagued other teams. Now, however, there seems to be a controversy every year. The day before that third preseason game, against Philadelphia, a Ross Township police officer pulled over a car that Bell was driving and, according to reports, discovered marijuana in the car. Bell was charged with possession and is expected to be charged with operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana. Charges might also be filed against Blount. There's no telling what the response from the league or the team will be, although the initial reaction was to let them play.
"Obviously that conduct is detrimental to our efforts. They'll be dealt with appropriately," Tomlin said after the Eagles' game. "I didn't view it as punishment to send them home, to be quite honest with you, to not play in this pre-season game."
"I'd rather them play more than anticipated than to remove them," Tomlin added. "So that's why we took the stance that we took tonight. Obviously we have some things to do regarding the matter moving forward."
If there's a member of the Steelers coaching staff who absorbs more vitriol from fans than Tomlin, it's Haley. He's an explosive figure whose in-your-face-style has attracted heat everywhere he's coached. In fact, the offensive coordinator hears it not only from fans but from his players as well. He's famously had his differences with Roethlisberger over the team's offensive strategy. And last year he had a sideline argument with Brown over how often he called passing plays.
In fact, Haley seemed all but gone last year before the Steelers turned around a 2-6 start to finish 8-8. A lot of that success was due to an increased use of the no-huddle offense. But that's not Haley's style. He's a run-focused coach who prefers short passes to take the pressure off of the QB — a style Roethlisberger has referred to as "dink-and-dunk." The no-huddle worked to perfection this year in the team's second preseason game, against Buffalo. But once it faltered against Philadelphia, it was quickly abandoned, and the Steelers went back to their old style of offense ... which often seems to consist of two-yard rushing plays and Roethlisberger running for his life.
The Steelers can have some success on offense this year if Roethlisberger and the no-huddle get a chance to develop. That means Todd Haley stepping back and getting out of the way. But history suggests that may not happen.
In the past, it was borderline blasphemy even to insinuate that the Steelers defense was getting old and losing its edge. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and NFL analyst Warren Sapp was slammed by Steelers fans when he said they were old and slow in 2011 — and when he did it again last year. In 2011, the team ended up with the league's top defense. But their decline began in 2012, and now the Steelers have apparently admitted to themselves that this time, Sapp was right.
There is still a veteran presence on the unit: cornerback Ike Taylor, safety Troy Polamalu and recently re-signed lineman Brett Keisel. But the heart of the defense — especially the linebacking corps and defensive line — is now fresher and faster. And the entire squad seems to have recognized that in this league, you have to be able to get to get to the quarterback to be successful.
While this unit has the makings of another great Steelers defense, it will probably be a work in progress this year. There are too many young players still trying to find their way, and a few too many veterans who probably still need to be phased out. In addition, a defense which was once impenetrable to the run has been leaking like a sieve for the better part of two seasons. The results were little different in this year's preseason games against New York and Philadelphia. The latter game especially offered evidence that this defense isn't ready for prime time. Not only was it scorched by the first team, but second-string quarterback Mark Sanchez — cast off from the Jets for general shittiness — also had his way with the Steelers defense.
So what does that mean for the regular season? Defensive lineman Cam Heyward said it best after the Philadelphia game.
"Everything went wrong," he said. "Missed tackles, execution, a lack of energy. On top of that, we played terrible on the defensive side.
"There's got to be a sense of urgency going into the season, and if we don't step it up now, Cleveland is going to come into our house and beat us."