|By Shawn Childs, Saturday, September 2, 2017|
The Steelers have been great since 1972. They have six Super Bowl titles while making the playoff 29 times over the last 45 seasons. Their offense finished 10th in points scored (399) and seventh in offensive yards gained. Both stats were lower than the previous two years (2014 - 7th in points and 2nd yards and 2015 - 4th in points and 3rd in yards). Mike Tomlin returns for his 11th season as head coach. He has a 103-57 record with seven playoff berths in nine seasons and one Super Bowl titles. He's never had a losing season in the NFL. Todd Haley will make the offensive calls for the sixth season. Todd had success as the offensive coordinator in 2008 when he led the Cardinals' offense to a Super Bowl battle with the Steelers. Haley struggled in his three seasons as a head coach for the Chiefs (19-26 with one playoff appearances). Pittsburgh was a better defense team in 2016 with growth in points allowed (327 - 10th) and yards allowed (12th - 21st in 2015). Keith Butler will run the defense for the third straight season after working as their linebackers coach for 12 years. The Steelers will have all their toys on offense in 2017, which points to an exciting season if everyone stays healthy.
It doesn't look like the Steelers will bring back RB DeAngelo Williams in 2017. He played well in relief of Le'Veon Bell over the last two years. Pittsburgh signed RB Knile Davis for running back depth. WR Markus Wheaton left to play with the Bears. Long time LB Lawrence Timmons was shown the door after having regression in 2016. He did have 114 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Lawrence never missed a game over seven seasons with Pitt. LB Jarvis Jones left to play in Arizona after being a rotational player in his four seasons in the NFL. The only other player added to the Steelers was CB Coty Sensabaugh who struggled in 2016.
With their first round and third round selections in the 2017 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh added two defensive players - LB T.J. Watt and CB Cameron Sutton. Watt flashes short area quickness while his first step isn't as explosive as the best disrupters in the game. His brother is an elite player with Houston and T.J. offers a sound foundation of skills to make plays vs. the run and pass. He could use more strength while his speed isn't elite. Watt works hard while having a short resume so he may fall short of expectations. Sutton is a read-and-react guy in pass coverage who works well as a trailer. He lacks the size and strength to shut down receivers in press coverage. Cam will get tested deep, and his game offers more upside when facing the line of scrimmage. His best value will come as nickel or dime option in pass coverage while showing risk in tackling.
Pittsburgh continues to take swings at upgrading the wide receiver position. They invested in WR JuJu Smith-Schuster with their second-round selection. He does a lot of things well, but most of his assets won't lead to big windows at the next level. His deep speed is below par and JuJu isn't an explosive route runner. His hands grade well, and he'll have upside in the open field once he has the ball in his hands. Smith-Schuster blocks well while bringing an edge to his game. Maybe Antonio Brown can improve his movements when running pass routes to improve his separation coming out of his breaks.
It was all about insurance with the next two picks in the draft for the Steelers. They selected RB James Conner with the second pick in the third round and QB Joshua Dobbs in the fourth. Conner is a power runner who relies on his strength to make plays. He lacks vision with limited ability to downshift and reaccelerate when shut down at the point of the attack. North/South runner with no real upside in the passing game. The Bus type of player with questionable footwork to create in tight areas.
Dobbs will bring athletic ability to the quarterback position with the arm to make plays in the deep passing game. His mechanics hurt his accuracy while needing to improve his ability to read the defense and make better thrown under duress. Joshua looks like a project with a wildcat feel to him.
DB Brian Allen and LB Keion Adams were taken with two of Pittsburgh's last three picks sandwiched around long snapper Colin Holba. Allen is a former WR with minimal experience playing CB. He'll offer an edge in size (6'3" and 215 Lbs.) that works well in press coverage if the QB doesn't have a long passing window. His technique needs a lot of work plus Brian brings a weak tackling skill set. Adams could have value in run support, but he needs clean lanes to the ball. He struggles in the war zone leading to bad angles on the outside and too many stalemates when facing interior lineman. His passing rushing skill set needs more depth of options. Holba hikes, spins, and blocks!
Despite having a great running back, Pittsburgh ranked 14th in rushing yards (1,760) while gaining 4.3 yards per rush with 13 rushing TDs. Surprisingly, they only had five runs over 20 yards and two over 40 yards. The Steelers finished 9th in the NFL rushes over 10 yards (51) with only 26 negative runs (third-lowest total in the league).
Their offensive line allowed only 21 sacks and 56 QB hits leading to the second-lowest sack rate (3.5 percent) in the league. The Steelers finished tied for 5th in the league in passing yards (4,202) with 32 TDs and 15 Ints.
LT Alejandro Villanueva went from unknown to one of the better offensive linemen in 2016. He allowed minimal sacks with high value as a run blocker. At age 28, he's only started 26 games in his career with all coming over the last two years.
LG Ramon Foster was a rock in pass protection with exception value as a run blocker in 2016. Ramon has been on the Steelers for the eight seasons.
C Maurkice Pouncey is a former first round draft pick (2010). Pittsburgh played the 2015 season without Pouncey due to an ankle injury that required surgery, and he missed a game and a half in 2016 due to a thumb injury that required surgery. Pouncey is one of the better centers in the league, and the Steelers will be helped by having him in the starting lineup. He tends to offer more upside as run blocker while minimizing the damage in the pass rush. He missed almost the entire 2013 season after tearing both ACLs and MCLs. Pouncey was a Pro Bowler in his first three years in the league.
RG David DeCastro is one of the top players at his position in both run and passing blocking. The Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2012.
RT Marcus Gilbert didn't offer much to the Steelers in 2015, but his game improved last season. He started 13 games with three missed due to an ankle issue. Pittsburgh selected him in the second round in 2011.
The Steelers have one of the better offensive lines in the league, which is helped by having a top quarterback and elite running back. With repeated success in blocking in all areas in 2017, Pittsburgh will have one of the top offenses in the league.
The above data shows the strength of schedule as far as rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing TDs touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA), and passing TDs (TDS).
This information is based on 2016, which will work as our starting point for 2017. We'll look at all the changes on offense on each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades on each team on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish the research on all 32 teams.
2016 LG Average = the league average of all stats from all 32 teams in 2016.
2016 Results = this is the results for each team in the NFL last year.
2016 Adjustment is based on the 2016 league average and the 2016 results for each team, this number will show if each team is above or below the league average in each stat and the basis for strength of schedule.
Other than two games vs. the Browns, Pittsburgh has a below par schedule for their rushing offense. They play five of six games against teams with some strength stopping the run from Weeks 11 to 16, but four of those games are at home. Baltimore will be their only tough matchup over the first eight games of the season.
The Steelers have nine games against teams with above average success defending the pass with their three toughest matchups based on 2016 being Jacksonville, Minnesota, and Houston. The two games that offer the most upside look to be Tennessee and Green Bay.
Pittsburgh had about a 40/60 split in rushing and passing in 2016. They'll continue to get a high volume of touches to Le'Veon Bell while having more explosiveness in the passing games with Martavis Bryant expected back.
The Steelers defense has four games vs. teams that struggle to run the ball (MIN, DET, and BAT X 2). They only have one bad matchup (TEN). Overall, this is a favorable schedule.
Pittsburgh has six games vs. teams that grade above the league average passing the ball (NE, GB, IND, DET, and BAL X 2). The Ravens had plus pass attempts, but their passing offense isn't an edge. They have four weak opponents as well (HOU, TEN, and CLE X 2) with the Chiefs and the Jaguars coming in below par as well.
This defense struggled to defend the run (13th in rushing yards allowed - 1,600). Ball carriers gained 4.3 yards per rush with 15 rushing TDs. They allowed 10 runs over 20 yards.
The Steelers moved to league average in passing yards allowed (3,882) with improvement in passing TDs (20). They finished with 13 Ints and 38 sacks.
DE Cameron Heyward missed nine game in 2016 due to a pectoral injury. The Steelers drafted him in the first rounds in 2011. He had 14.5 combined sacks in 2014 and 2015 with upside in run support. DE Stephon Tuitt was less productive in all area in 2016. Pittsburgh drafted him in the second round in 2014. His game still projects as an asset, but he's battled a knee issue in back-to-back years. DT Javon Hargrave looks to be an asset in run support with some quickness and strength. Javon plays hard with underlying pass rushing skills, but he earned his way in college by matching up with weaker talent because of playing at a small school (South Carolina St.). His base needs to add more strength while offering more upside with improved technique and coaching. Javon was just below the league average in his first season in the league. I expect improvement in 2017.
LB Ryan Shazier had almost identical stats in 2016 (87 tackles and 3.5 sacks), but he was much more active defending the pass (nine defended passes and three Ints). Ryan is a former first round draft pick (2014). He missed three games in 2016 due to a knee issue. LB Vince Williams is just a steady asset with minimal upside rushing the QB. LB James Harrison continues to play at a high level at age 38. The Steelers signed him to a two-year deal, so he'll have to prove his worth at 39. LB Bud Dupree is a first-round pick (2014). He missed the first nine games of 2016 due to a groin injury that required surgery. When he returned, Bud had 4.5 sacks while almost matching his rookie season in sacks (24). His game looks ready to make a step forward. LB T.J. Watt will be the insurance for Harrison plus add a fifth upside option at linebacker.
CB Ross Cockrell did a nice job in coverage in his second season as a starter. He had 14 defended passes with growth in his tackles (62). His finished as an above the league average player for his position. S Mike Mitchell was the Steelers' best player in the secondary in 2016. He has combined tackles over the last two years with 18 defended passes. Both of their safeties were drafted in the second round (Mitchell - 2010 and Sean Davis - 2016). Davis saw action 16 games in his first season with solid value in tackles (70) plus 1.5 sacks, five passes defended, and one Int. Davis played CB in 2015 at Maryland, but he moved to safety in the NFL where he had college experience. His cover skills will work much better against RBs, TEs, and lower WRs while offering upside in run support. His best value will come when attacking the line of scrimmage. Sean has enough speed and strength to play corner, but his lack of quickness especially when changing direction invites risk in the NFL. CB Artie Burns also played 16 games in his rookie season after Pittsburgh drafted him in the first round. He posted three picks and 13 defended passes while chipping in with 65 tackles. Burns appears to be an upside athlete with playmaking skills. His speed is an edge, but it isn't elite. Artie needs to add more upper body strength while improving his technique in mirroring pass routes. At times, he will play soft leading to mistakes and penalties. Burns also takes plays off at times. He was much improved over the last eight games of the season.
This defense is improving with growth at the second and third levels of the defense. If they improve their pass rush which will need to come from their linebackers, it will help the pass coverage. The coaching staff has a history of playing well on the defensive side of the ball, and they appear to have the right blend of young talent and veteran players headed into 2017. This team has a chance to make a nice step forward this year, and I believe they will finish as a top 12 Fantasy defense in the second-long games. The return game should produce a TD or two as well. I would target them as a second defense with the idea of playing them in multiple weeks.
QB Ben Roethlisberger - Stud (low risk)
Update 10/16/17After a disaster game last week due to five Ints, Roethlisberger is standing on the ledge with Fantasy owners ready to push him to the abyss. In fairness, Ben did pass for 312 yards with a 60 percent completion rate in Week 5. On the year, Roethlisberger has only six passing TDs with seven Ints. Last season he had a great game at home vs. the Chiefs (300 yards and five TDs). This may motivate Kansas City for this week’s game. Over the last two games, QBs gained over 8.7 yards per pass attempt with seven TDs against the Chiefs. Kansas City allowed only one team to pass for over 300 yards (PHI - 333/2). Two teams going in opposite direction offensively. Ben has a fading salary, but a Fantasy owner may have to wait until after Week 9 to cash in his ticket. Huge against the grain play with enough talent in the receiving game to post a winning score.
RB Le'Veon Bell - Stud (low risk)
Update 10/16/17Bell struggled to find open space last week vs. the Jaguars. He gained only 93 yards on 25 touches (3.7 yards per play). His day was saved by catching all ten of his targets. On the year, Le'Veon still has a low total in yards per rush (3.6) and yards per catch (5.3), which is well below 2016 in both areas (4.9 and 8.2). Bell continues to get elite touches (25.8 per game). Last season he had 178 combined yards with five catches against the Chiefs. Kansas City does have some risk vs. the run (4.6 yards per rush) with RBs scoring four rushing TDs. Great opportunity, but the Steelers need to do a better job scoring TDs (nine offensive TDs in 2017). Not running the ball well while the Steelers are coming off a low point in the season. His top shelf salary makes Le'Veon a tough add without multiple TDs.
RB James Conner - Fantasy Handcuff
When watching the highlights of Conner, he looked to have the movements of a quarterback running the ball (Steve McNair was my though) with a fullback's mentality yet to he had deceiving long speed. His footwork is choppy but driving while running with a high style. Over about three seasons at Pitt in college, James rushed for 3733 yards on 668 carries with 56 TDs and minimal value in the passing game (30/412/4). He missed most of the 2015 season due to a successful battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer. Tricky player for Fantasy owners in 2017. He's not good enough to be a DeAngelo Williams type of backup for Bell, but he could get in the way in short yardage and goal-line carries. I don't even want to suggest it, but there is that chance. At the very least, his draft value will be wide enough to secure him at a reasonable price point to handcuff Bell.
NEWS:The shoulder injury for Steelers running back James Conner is minor.
He could return to practice as early as this week. Conner is the favorite to be the backup to Le'Veon Bell. Conner has a FFWC ADP of 172 and is a target of the Bell owner.
WR Antonio Brown - Stud (low risk)
Update 10/16/17Brown is the only Steelers' offensive player that is on pace to match his previous success other than TDs. Antonio has 40 catches for 545 yards and a TD on 64 targets, which comes to 128 catches for 1,774 yards and three TDs on 205 targets for 16 games. Last week he had a season high 19 targets leading to 10 catches for 157 yards. It was his third game with over 100 yards receiving. In 2016 at home vs. the Chiefs, Brown had four catches for 64 yards and two TDs. The Chiefs' secondary allowed five TDs to WRs in Week 5, but Houston's WRs only caught nine of 19 targets for 158 yards. On the year, WRs have 55 catches for 842 yards and nine TDs on 102 targets (53.9 percent catch rate). Kansas City's top CB Marcus Peters lines up on the opposite side of the field so Antonio will see the weaker coverage when singled. Great opportunity in targets in most weeks, but Brown needs to find a way to produce more TDs. Mid-tier match while his QB isn't playing up to his expected level.
WR Martavis Bryant - Sleeper (undervalued)
Update 10/16/17Fantasy owners have nailed Bryant to the cross this week with Juju Smith-Schuster being the talk of the WR2 town in Pittsburgh. Over the last three games, Martavis only has ten catches for 99 yards on 21 targets. His catch rate is under 50 percent while averaging only 6.2 targets per game. It will take some Hail Mary's by Fantasy owners and the Steelers to remove this dark cloud around his name. A typical question on Scout's message board has this type of tone: Should I start Josh Gordon over Bryant this week? Basically, it's the dead over the dying. CB Marcus Peters lines up on the same side of the field on most plays so Pittsburgh may just take one for the team by letting Martavis try to beat tough coverage in this game. Let's just say we have trust issues here, but this dude is going to make someone a million dollars over the next six weeks. To add more dirt to his grave, Ben Roethlisberger stated this week that Bryant may need a “break in playing time”. Only the deep hearted can carry this torch to the top of the Fantasy mountain.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster - Not Draft Worthy
Over three seasons at USC, JuJu caught 213 passes for 3092 yards and 25 TDs with his best success coming in his sophomore year (89/1454/10). Smith-Schuster adds more power than finesse to the wide receiver position. His size (6'1' and 215 Lbs.) may give him a chance to earn action over the middle. This is the guy that will put Roethlisberger over 40 TDs in 2017. He's going to be a scoring threat in the middle of the field in the red zone plus has a few chances at scoring on fade patterns. The best part of his 2017 is the fact that he is going to see the third possibly fourth option in pass coverage. I expect him to be the 3rd most valuable WR in this offense. In 2016, Pittsburgh completed 208 passes for 2765 yards and 23 TDs on 328 targets to the WR position. This doesn't leave a ton of chances for JuJu unless the Steelers attempts a lot more passes this year or he steals chances from the TE. Player to watch this summer, but I would be careful not to overvalue his opportunity.
WR Eli Rogers - Low Potential
Headed into the 2016 high stakes draft season, Rodgers was gaining momentum with Bryant out for the season. Over four seasons at Louisville, Eli caught 176 passes for 2020 yards and 12 TDs. In his first pro game, he had six catches for 59 yards and a TD on seven targets. He ended being a bad play in Week 2 (1/9) before getting hurt in Week 3 leading to three missed games. Rodgers flashed again in Week 6 (6/103 on a season-high ten targets). His role became more defined over the last three games of the season (5/75/1, 4/84, and 6/61), but he only had 17 targets in those games. In the end, Eli finished with 48 catches for 594 yards and three TDs on 66 targets. This year he'll compete for playing time at WR3. Possession type WR who will see more favorable coverage this season with Bryant back in the mix. More of an injury cover for me with limited explosiveness.
TE Jesse James - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
Update 10/16/17James has fewer than 45 yards receiving in each game with three catches or fewer in his last three starts. On the year, Jesse has one playable game (6/41/2) while averaging five targets per game. The Chiefs allowed over 100 yards receiving to the TE in two games (PHI - 6/107 and WAS - 5/110), which is part of the demise due to the Eric Berry injury. Overall. TEs don't have a TD with 19 catches for 365 yards on 36 targets vs. Kansas City. James doesn't have the big play ability to beat this secondary so I'd avoid him in this matchup.
PK Chris Boswell - Quality Backup
Over two seasons in the NFL, Boswell made 87.7 percent of his field goal chances. He was perfect from 50 yards or more in 2015 (2-for-2), but he whiffed on both chances last year. Chris has one missed extra point in 63 tries. Last week Boswell missed Week 13 with an abdomen issue. The Steelers will be a high scoring team, but they do score TDs in the red zone. Over the last two seasons, they've averaged 30 field chances per year. Viable swing as a top ten kicking option, but I'd like to see eight to ten more field goal chances in 2017.