NFL 2016: Steelers eyeing big numbers (and wins)

BY foxsports • September 5, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) The script has flipped in Pittsburgh. Completely.

The franchise that spent the better part of four decades relying heavily on its defense to fill the display inside the team's headquarters stacked with Lombardi Trophies has its eyes set on adding a seventh next February. It's just that the path the Steelers plan on taking to get there has changed entirely.

The offense run by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have a catchy nickname like ''Steel Curtain'' or ''Blitzburgh'' - monikers given to Pittsburgh's defense through the years - at least not yet. If Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell put up the kind of numbers they expect, the folks in marketing (or on Twitter) might want to get to work.

Considering Pittsburgh ranked third in total offense in 2015, even though Roethlisberger and Bell found themselves in the same huddle for less than one full game for a variety of reasons (most of them injury related), there's a very real chance - to borrow Brown's favorite catchphrase - that business will indeed be ''boomin'' in 2016.

Not that Roethlisberger wants to talk about it. Potential is one thing. Providence (and a little bit of luck) is another. The Steelers, after all, led eventual Super Bowl champion Denver on the road in the fourth quarter of the divisional round of the playoffs even with Brown, Bell and DeAngelo Williams all out due to injury. One ill-timed fumble by third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and it all went away.

''The key is always staying healthy,'' Roethlisberger said. ''We've had a hard time doing that the last few years, but if we can stay healthy and be a selfless team, we'll have a better chance.''

Optimism remains high even after a bumpier-than-expected offseason. Bell will begin the year serving a three-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant will miss the entire year due to his own substance-abuse policy issues. Tight end Ladarius Green, signed to a four-year, $20-millon contract to replace retired Heath Miller, is out at least the first six weeks while recovering from an ankle issue and other health concerns.

Still, the first team's brief preseason excursion against New Orleans did little to damper expectations. Two drives. Two scores, with most of the plays being called at the line by Roethlisberger.

''But we have a no-huddle that allows us to get the plays off quick, we have a `muddle' where I'm calling the plays on the line - so we have a lot of different speeds,'' Roethlisberger said.

If Pittsburgh can find the right rhythm - and keep it - it should be right there with Cincinnati in the race for the AFC North title.

A look at some of the other factors that will determine whether the Steelers will need to call in contractors to remodel their trophy case over the winter:

SPEED TO BURN(S): Pittsburgh addressed a secondary that ranked 30th against the pass in 2015 by taking cornerback Artie Burns in the first round of the draft and safety Sean Davis in the second. Burns' preseason was limited by a quadriceps injury, meaning he will likely start in nickel and dime packages before getting the shot at becoming the shutdown corner the team has lacked since Ike Taylor's prime. Davis is a physical presence. If he can quickly grasp the nuances of defensive coordinator Keith Butler's scheme, that will free up Mike Mitchell to roam freely in search of big plays. Pittsburgh also acquired former first-round pick Justin Gilbert from Cleveland on Sept. 3, hoping he finds the consistency he lacked during two disappointing seasons with the Browns.

THE OUTSIDERS: The Steelers thought they were selecting their edge rushers of the future when they spent first-round picks on Jarvis Jones in 2013 and Bud Dupree in 2015. It hasn't quite happened that way. Jones has struggled to stay off injured reserve and the team didn't bother exercising his fifth-year option. Dupree slimmed down after a solid but not spectacular rookie season but was slowed by injuries during camp. There's a very real chance the stating outside linebackers for the Sept. 12 opener in Washington could be 38-year-old James Harrison and 28-year-old Arthur Moats.

THE OUTLAW: Pittsburgh envisioned Green as a field-stretching threat at tight end when they signed him in March. Instead, they'll begin the season with second-year project Jesse James as the starting tight end. James is big (6-foot-7) but is hardly a deep threat. He averaged just 5.1 yards per reception during the preseason. His blocking remains a work in progress, too, but his height could still make him a threat in the end zone.

BEN'S BLIND SIDE: Roethlisberger was limited to 12 games last season due to knee and foot injuries. Keeping him upright remains paramount. The Steelers allowed left tackle Kelvin Beachum to walk in free agency and will replace him with either Alejandro Villanueva (a former Army Ranger) or veteran Ryan Harris.


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