With a prolific offense and young defense, the 2015 Steelers season should be interesting. Here are five storylines to follow as the NFL season progresses.
Extra Points: In an effort to make the PAT a little more exciting, the NFL now requires kickers to hit a 33-yard kick for the extra point. Or, if they so choose, teams can try a two-point conversion from the two-yard line, a play the Steelers have run several times in preseason games. But if the Steelers can put up 30 points a game as they plan, PATs shouldn’t be too necessary.
The emergence of Martavis Bryant Sammie Coates: This season was supposed to be the coming-out party for Bryant, the Steelers’ 6’4” second-year wideout who gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the big, tall receiver he’s always wanted but so seldom had. Bryant was awesome last year, in his rookie campaign, and big things were planned for him this year. Unfortunately, something big happened before the season even started: a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. That will give rookie Sammie Coates time to try to make a Bryant-like splash of his own. At 6’2”, Coates, who played his college ball at Auburn, is a shade shorter than Bryant. But he brings that big-play ability that the Steelers have relied on over the years from guys like Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace and Bryant (at least until his first four games went up in smoke). Coates is fast, and in college averaged a staggering 21 yards per catch. In one preseason game, he torched Green Bay’s secondary. If he does that in the first four games of the regular season, he may steal Bryant’s thunder — and his spot as the No. 3 receiver.
Dick LeBeau: Regardless of how long he coaches the Tennessee defense, the Hall of Famer will be seen as a Steelers coach. (After all, who even remembers that he was head coach of two of the worst Bengals teams in history?) But LeBeau was forced out at the end of last season because his once-unbeatable defenses had become, well, beatable. It will be interesting to see whether LeBeau can recapture his Steelers success, or if it will become as sad as seeing Franco Harris in a Seattle uniform in 1984.
The race for the AFC North: Last year, all three teams in one of the toughest divisions in football — Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati — made the playoffs. “Three?” you ask. “There are four teams in the division,” you say. “What about the Steelers’ hated rival, the Cleveland Browns?” I think that until the Cleveland Browns decide to take themselves seriously, we should all refuse to even acknowledge their existence. A lot of experts appear to favor the Bengals in this division, but the only thing that’s keeping the Steelers from that spot are questions on defense. All three teams should once again be in the hunt. As for the Browns, probably the only thing they’ll be hunting for at season’s end is another new coach and another starting quarterback.
The resurgence of James Harrison: With his steely gaze and his ability to keep driving forward no matter what, or who, is in front of him, Harrison has always sort of looked like the Terminator. Or maybe that’s just because of the “I’ll be back” mantra he’s displayed in recent years. He left the Steelers after the 2012 season, fell flat in Cincinnati in 2013 and promptly retired. Then he rejoined the injury-depleted Steelers for the last 11 games of 2014 and racked up five-and-a-half sacks in limited playing time. Already in the preseason, he has two sacks, including a pancaking of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a safety. As first-round draft pick Bud DuPree acclimates to life in the NFL and on the Steelers defense, look for Harrison to turn in one more impressive season.