OPEN CAMP: July 28, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
LAST YEAR: Steelers shook off underwhelming first half to win seven straight and clinch second AFC North title in three years. Two more playoff wins followed before lopsided loss at New England in AFC championship game. RB Le’Veon Bell established himself as one of NFL’s best, averaging over 150 yards from scrimmage after returning from suspension for violating league’s substance abuse policy. WR Antonio Brown went over 100 receptions for fourth straight season, thriving despite serious depth issues following injuries to Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates, and Martavis Bryant’s year-long suspension. Defense improved in large part due to rapid development of DT Javon Hargrave, CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis. Still, they were exposed – as was everyone else – by Tom Brady, who threw for 384 yards and three scores in dominant 36-17 AFC title victory.
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IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookie LB T.J. Watt, rookie WR Juju Smith-Schuster, rookie DB Cameron Sutton, rookie QB Josh Dobbs, rookie RB James Conner, RB Knile Davis, DE Tyson Alualu.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Lawrence Timmons, RB DeAngelo Williams, TE Ladarius Green, WR Markus Wheaton, CB Justin Gilbert, LS Greg Warren, LB Jarvis Jones.
CAMP NEEDS: Wide receiver position is pretty crowded, a good thing. Bryant is back and arrival of Smith-Schuster should give QB Ben Roethlisberger plenty of options to take pressure off Brown. Running back is wide open behind Bell, Davis and rookies fighting for primary backup spot. More vital questions are on defense: Steelers drafted Watt 30th overall, tasking him to do what predecessor Jarvis Jones could not and take playing time away from seemingly ageless James Harrison. Secondary filled with questions behind Burns, Davis and veteran Mike Mitchell. Senquez Golson was 2015 second-round pick only to miss all of last two seasons due to separate injuries. Ross Cockrell is still around as is Will Gay, but both will come to camp fighting for jobs.
EXPECTATIONS: Steelers have taken sequential steps each of last three seasons, losing in wild-card round, divisional round and conference championship. Super Bowl berth is next logical step and Pittsburgh will be as well-equipped as anyone to challenge Patriots. Bell, playing under franchise tag , motivated to show he’s worth massive long-term deal. If defense can play as it did over much of second half of last season, Pittsburgh should be playing well into January, if not into February.
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