Steelers’ season kicks off

Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers took on the Johnny Footballs, also known as the Cleveland Browns, to open their 2014 campaign. After back-to-back disappointing 8–8 finishes, the Steelers have hopefully finished the growing pains stemming from their recent major roster turnovers. Previously known as a veteran defense with an aging offensive line, Pittsburgh has completely rebuilt its front seven on defense and focused on offensive talent in the draft, resulting in a young, energetic team hoping to reverse old fortunes.

The biggest youth movement has come in the linebacking core with back-to-back first round picks Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier leading the rebuilt unit. Shazier has exceeded all expectations in training camp and is already garnering defensive rookie of the year buzz before taking a single meaningful snap. Jones showed flashes of his pass rush potential last year as he grew into the starting role, but is looking to avoid the sophomore slump and step up his pressure.

Another big switch is the replacement of 34-year-old safety Ryan Clark with former Carolina Panther Mike Mitchell, who is entering his prime in his sixth season. Several of the Steelers’ issues came from the safety position last year, as both Clark and Troy Polamalu appeared to have lost a step, but attacked with the same aggressiveness they had in prior years. This risk-taking approach by both the players and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau resulted in more big players for the opposition than turnovers, reversing the formula that led the Steelers to their three Super Bowl appearances (and two wins) between 2005 and 2010.

On the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh hopes to have a new identity closer to the championship Steelers of old, and less like the gun-slinging spread offensive heavily used in recent years. The departures of top receivers in recent years — Mike Williams to the Miami Dolphins last year and Emmanuel Sanders to the Denver Broncos this off-season — has left the once explosive wide receiver core with question marks beyond standout Antonio Brown, whose success played a large role in the decision to let Sanders walk. Markus Wheaton barely saw the field in his rookie season, as he dealt with lingering knee injuries, recording only six receptions, and veteran Lance Moore was brought in on the cheap after the New Orleans Saints decided to move in a younger direction.

While this lack of depth at receiver may sound like a recipe for disaster, it should lead to a return to the ground-and-pound style used by the Steelers during many of their championship seasons. A rebuilt and healthy offensive line is laying the ground work for the best tandem of Pittsburgh running backs in recent memory. With center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro both healthy for the first time since DeCastro joined the team, the line appears to have turned a major weakness into a source of strength.

To capitalize on the line, the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell last year and brought in LeGarrette Blount after he revitalized his career in New England last season. Bell has shown flashes of breakaway speed and great vision, but was hampered by injuries for much of last year, while Blount gives the Steelers the large battering ram they have been missing since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 Super Bowl win. This increased running game will hopefully keep some of the pressure off of perpetually beaten quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been attacked both on and off the field due to the recent gunslinger mentality he has been forced to adopt.

Overall, Steelers fans have plenty to be excited for this season, with the team emerging from its rebuilding cocoon a younger team more closely resembling the championship teams of old. With the division rival Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens both facing major question marks after interesting off-seasons, the extension of belabored quarterback Andy Dalton and the minor suspension and resulting fall out for running back Ray Rice, respectively, the AFC North is up for the taking.