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2017 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Offensive Philosophy

There are few teams with as clear of an offensive identity as the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team revolves around its trio of stars in Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le'Veon Bell. Bell's all-around versatility allows the Steelers to give him a higher percentage of their RB snaps and touches than any other RB in the NFL gets, while Roethlisberger and Brown are masters of precision who at the same time aren't adverse to throwing the play out the window and playing some schoolyard ball. Surrounding these three are mostly a cast of young speedsters capable of pressuring a defense down the field.


Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs [R]

Starting QB: Ben Roethlisberger will not commit to playing football after the 2017 season, and it's got the Steelers thinking about the future without him. For this year, Roethlisberger is going to give it one more try and if healthy fantasy owners should consider him a top-10 quarterback. He hasn't played a full season since 2014, and nagging injuries continue to pile up for the veteran quarterback. Over the last two years, Roethlisberger has finished around the 20th spot for fantasy quarterbacks. In the two seasons prior to that, Roethlisberger was nearly top-5 at his position. With the return of Martavis Byrant (suspension) and the selection of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger will have better weapons around him than he did in 2016. We could see a return to the days when Roethlisberger was seemingly going over 300 yards passing on a weekly basis. Last year, Roethlisberger only surpassed that mark four times but in 2014 he went over 300 yards passing a whopping nine times (including a 400 and 500 yard day). The Steelers have a complete offense with superstar running back Le'Veon Bell, and opponents forced into stuffing the box to stop the run can get shredded by Roethlisberger and the passing game. We're expecting a bounce-back season for Roethlisberger in 2017.

Backup QB: Landry Jones may be the primary backup for now, but the team is likely to groom Josh Dobbs as an eventual starter. The Steelers selected Dobbs in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft with the idea that he can be developed as a passer. He's incredibly bright (aerospace engineering was his major at Tennessee) and known as a mentally tough player. Dobbs is incredibly athletic and can threaten a defense with his legs on any dropback. He can hit deep targets with uncanny accuracy (47.7 percent on passes over 20 yards) and is willing to challenge a defense. Dobbs does need work going through his progressions faster and must have a better understanding of exotic defensive concepts that will be used against him at the pro level. He has a bad habit of making his decision with pre-snap reads but not adjusting when a defense takes a target away. Dobbs has poor mechanics - especially on the run - and he'll need to clean that up to play up to his potential as a pro.

Running Backs

Starter: Le'Veon Bell
Backup(s): James Conner [R], Terrell Watson
Fullback(s): Roosevelt Nix

Starting RB: When healthy, there's no better running back in the league than Le'Veon Bell. No longer is DeAngelo Williams there to give Bell a breather, and we may see more of Bell than ever before in 2017. The Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell earlier this offseason, and we should see the two sides work out a long-term contract before the July 15th deadline. He's dealt with various injuries (both major and minor) during his pro career and once again Bell is coming back from a surgery. Bell underwent surgery to repair a "core muscle injury" on March 13, and there is no timetable for his recovery. We can't imagine him doing much during the offseason, but having him ready for the start of training camp seems like the most realistic target. In two of the last three years, Bell has finished as a top-5 fantasy running back and he's always got the potential to be the best fantasy back in a single season. Going over 1,200 yards rushing with 75 catches and double-digit touchdowns is a realistic projection for the superstar. Fantasy owners will be overjoyed if they can get Bell at any point after the first-overall pick.

Backup RBs: Everyone out there should be fans of rookie James Conner. The PITT Panther beat cancer and returned to the football field last year. He has a no-nonsense game and is all about power football. Conner has little nuance to his running style, but he can bowl over defenders with ease and has a tendency to get stronger as the game goes on. He's a battering ram with a football helmet, and Conner could be utilized as a short-yardage specialist behind a healthy Bell. He also has the ability to work as a receiver out of the backfield if called upon. He would not be as successful as Bell if he was the starter, but Conner could perform like a Jordan Howard (Bears) if thrust into the starting lineup.

Fullback: Roosevelt Nix will continue to serve as the fullback for the Steelers, blasting open holes for Bell and the others. With only four receptions over the last two seasons (and no carries), Nix won't touch the ball much if at all. He will continue shine on special teams too.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant
Backups: JuJu Smith-Schuster [R], Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter

Starting WRs: Antonio Brown is one of the biggest superstars in the game today, and the Steelers locked him up -- likely for the rest of his career -- with a big contract earlier this year. They showed him the money he deserves with a four-year, $68 million extension through 2021. Fantasy owners are going to feel like they've won the lottery if they can acquire Brown early in drafts. With over 100 catches each of the last four years, Brown is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he may not have peaked yet - a scary projection for opponents but an exciting one for fantasy leagues. We're not predicting it, but it wouldn't be a shock to see Brown as the first wide receiver in NFL history with 2,000 receiving yards in a single season. Matching his total from 2015 (1,834) is not out of the question - especially if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is healthy. There's no question that Brown is a top-5 fantasy wide receiver and could be the no.1 fantasy wideout for the third time in his career in 2017. One thing that should open things up a bit for Brown is the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Suspended for all of 2016, Bryant did enough to get reinstated by the league earlier this year. With his life hopefully back on track, Bryant could get back to dominating on the football field. His size/speed combination is one of the best in the league, and Bryant can regularly take the top off the defense in the blink of an eye. Snaring passes for over 100 yards in a single game is nothing for Bryant as he can make your fantasy week on a very small handful of plays. We've just seen the tip of the iceberg with Bryant in the Steelers high-powered passing attack.

Backup WRs: The Steelers have quite the collection of talent behind Brown and Bryant. Smith-Schuster, the second-round pick out of USC has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin, and those are fair as the rookie is an alpha male that thrives on making difficult grabs over the middle. Smith-Schuster is not afraid of contact, and he won't shy away from making a catch just because he's going to get hit. He has strong hands and plays with intense concentration. Smith-Schuster isn't a burner, and he's not going to get separation with lightning quickness. However, he's capable of getting open with refined routes and he has the physical aggression to rip away contested passes from defenders draped all over him. He can score touchdowns in bunches (eight of his 10 touchdowns in 2016 came in three games) and Smith-Schuster should become an instant favorite for Ben Roethlisberger. Undrafted out of Louisville in 2016, Eli Rogers was the third-leading receiver on the team in 2016. He hauled in 48 catches for 594 yards and three touchdowns as the third option behind Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. The addition of Smith-Schuster is likely to move Rogers down the pecking order. Darrius Heyward-Bey is the same player he has been for years. He's not going to do much, but there might be a game or two where his size and speed come into play on a deep pass or two.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jesse James
Backups: Vance McDonald, Xavier Grimble

With the release of Ladarius Green, the Steelers have to find a new starter at tight end. The edge may got to former fifth-round pick Jesse James. In 2016, James hauled in 39 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns. A huge tight end, James measures in at 6'7" 261 pounds which automatically makes him a fine red-zone target. James has the potential to snare 40 or so passes and a small handful of touchdowns. With new additions to the wide receiver position, the targets for the tight ends could be few and far between even though the Steelers should have a high-powered passing attack. Fantasy owners are likely to find better value elsewhere. Undrafted out of Virginia Tech in 2016, Ryan Malleck has the size to be a "Y" tight end for the Steelers and is known mostly as potentially a decent blocker. The Steelers re-signed David Johnson earlier this year, but he's almost exclusively a blocker when on the field. Xavier Grimble re-signed with the Steelers to a one-year, $540,000 contract back in February and should only be an in-line blocker for the team. The team also traded for Vance McDonald, further muddying this picture for fantasy.

Place Kicker

Chris Boswell: Chris Boswell was a fantasy and NFL hit in 2015 after taking over as the Steelers kicker, but 2016 wasn't as kind to him. He missed one game with an abdomen injury, and he also missed more kicks in 2016 than he did in 2015 despite having seven more field goal attempts in his first year. Boswell was perfect on extra points and his six for six field goal performance in the playoffs led the team to a road divisional round win at Kansas City. He is 15 for 15 on postseason field goals with the team and will be the starter going into the 2017 season. He is on the fringe of draftable kickers in 2017 ADP, but his track record and the potency of the Steelers offense make him a good fit in a draft plan that puts kicker in the last round.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Justin Hunter

After Fitzgerald Toussaint and Sammie Coates were released and Hunter made the team, he seems like the best candidate to return kicks.

Punt Returners: Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers

Pittsburgh has paid lip-service to lightening Antonio Brown's workload on punt returns for years. They should not be believed. After finally producing a seemingly credible alternative on punt returns in Eli Rodgers and giving him four attempts in the first three weeks, (vs. two for Brown), Rodgers didn't return another punt all season until the Steelers rested Brown in week 17 with their playoff position already clinched.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Alejandro Villaneuva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David Decastro, RT Marcus Gilbert
Key Backups: Chris Hubbard, Matt Feiler, Jerald Hawkins, B.J. Finney

The heart of the Steelers' offensive line is along the interior, where center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David Decastro both are coming off Pro Bowl appearances. Left guard Ramon Foster is not as highly regarded as the other interior players but he is every bit as solid. Foster has been a fixture in the Steelers' lineup for years and he remains effective. Alejandro Villaneuva almost doubled his salary last season due to performance bonus, and he is playing like a starting left tackle, despite not being paid like one yet. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is like Foster, an underrated but solid starter who excels at run blocking. The Steelers' line doesn't have much depth at all, so they don't have much room for injuries. But regardless, the starters grade out as a top tier unit and in fact they are one of the better lines in football.

Team Defense

The Steelers D/ST was once a fantasy cornerstone, but recent years had seen them erode before our very eyes. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler installed changes during the Week 8 bye that included more blitzing, and the unit was a top 5-6 fantasy performer in the second half of the season. Fantasy drafters are still leaving them on the board outside of the top 10-12 and they open with Cleveland, which is all you need to know if you like to wait until the last round to take your defense. Their most talented edge rusher, Bud Dupree, and best defensive end, Cameron Heyward, were both hurt for long stretches last year, and the team had a lot of youth in the secondary that should improve with seasoning. Lawrence Timmons left in free agency, but the team has Vince Williams to replace him against the run, and they took TJ Watt in the first round to strengthen their pass rush. They should be considered a potential elite D/ST and the best choice if you are one of the last to take a D/ST in your league.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Javon Hargrave, DE Cameron Heyward, DE Stephon Tuitt
Backups: NT Daniel McCullers, DE Tyson Alualu, DE L.T. Walton

Starting DL: The front three has long been and should continue to be the foundation for Pittsburgh's perennial defensive success. In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the Steelers have prototypical 3-4 ends who can control the line of scrimmage and keep the linebackers clean. Both players also have the ability to make an impact in the pass rush. In 2015 Heyward and Tuitt combined for 78 solo tackles and 13.5 sacks. A pectoral injury cost Heyward more than half of last season. Without him the Steelers run defense fell to number twenty and their sack total slipped from 48 in 2015 to a still strong 40. To add a little insurance the team added former Jaguar Tyson Alualu who will likely see time as the third man in the rotation. As a rookie last season Javon Hargrave stepped into the lead role at nose tackle for much of the season. He also worked at end late in the year after Heyward was lost. It took him a while to get comfortable, which showed in both his play and production. Down the stretch however, Hargrave showed why the organization invested in him. He is somewhat undersized compared to the typical 3-4 nose tackle, but is more mobile and athletic than most. Nose tackles in three man fronts are generally tasked with eating up space and/or blockers at the line. Hargrave is able to do that when called upon. He can also make a little noise as a pass rusher and get off blocks to make plays in the run game. A year of experience for Hargrave along with a healthy Heyward should give the Steelers a strong foundation for a potential top ten defense.

Backup DL: The Steelers are not a team that uses many players up front. Their starters generally play a lot of snaps and they rarely keep multiple backups. A lack of depth seemed to bite them a little when Heyward was lost last season. To ensure there would be no repeat, the organization invested in veteran Tyson Alualu to be their third end. Alualu comes over from Jacksonville where he was somewhat miss-cast in a four man front. Having started his career as a first round pick of the Chiefs, he is certainly no stranger to the 3-4. It remains to be seen if having such a quality third option means the coaching staff will use more of a three man rotation. At worst they will be able to weather at least one injury up front without much drop off. L.T. Walton was the team's sixth round pick in 2015. He has been active for a handful of games over his two seasons with the team but has not been on the field much. Walton is the kind of developmental player Pittsburgh is known for but he is unlikely to get on the field much if the team is not hit hard by injuries. Daniel McCullers had a good deal of opportunity while spelling Hargrave last season. He made a couple of starts late in the year when Hargrave shifted to end. At 352 pounds McCullers is well suited to the typical nose tackle role of space eater. He even had a sack against the Browns in week seventeen. Barring injury there is little chance of McCullers cracking the lineup as more than a situational short yardage guy or to spell Hargrave once in a while.


Starters: ILB Vince Williams, ILB Ryan Shazier, OLB James Harrison, OLB Bud Dupree
Backups: ILB Tyler Matakevich, ILB L.J. Fort, OLB T.J. Watt, OLB Arthur Moats, LB Steven Johnson

Starting LBs: Steelers history is littered with great pass rushing linebackers. As a team Pittsburgh recorded a strong 40 sacks in 2016. The unusual fact being that no linebacker has exceeded 5 in either of the last two seasons. It is not a case of the team not reloading with talent at the outside linebacker positions. In fact they have invested several early draft picks there in recent years including rookie T.J. Watt this year. Despite their commitment of resources to the position it was 38 year old veteran James Harrison leading the group with 5 sacks in 2016. After turning 39 in May, Harrison is expected to be the opening day starter opposite 2015 first round selection Bud Dupree. Harrison can still play and provides excellent leadership on the field, but is clearly not the player he once was. Dupree had a pedestrian rookie season producing 4 sacks as a rotational player. After missing most of 2016 with a groin injury he gave the organization a lot to be optimistic about. Dupree started the final four games totaling 15 tackles with 4 sacks and a forced fumble. The team is confident he is poised for a breakout season and will soon take his place in the long line of Steelers greats at the position. Long time starting inside backer Lawrence Timmons moved on in free agency leaving oft injured Ryan Shazier and 2013 sixth round pick Vince Williams to man the positions. Shazier is a highly talented player with big play ability and the potential to become a perennial all pro. The issue for him has been staying on the field. Shazier has missed games in each of his three seasons as a pro and has played at noticeably less than 100% in several others. With Timmons gone Shazier is set to take on a leadership role as well. This should be no issue for him as he was a team leader at Ohio State as well and has already earned the respect of teammates. Williams has served as a backup to both inside linebacker positions over his four years with the team. His development over that span has been noticeable even through limited playing time. In three starts last season Williams stood out by totaling 25 tackles, 5 assists and a pair of sacks. His impressive play made the decision easy for the organization to let Timmons walk and promote the cheaper/younger player. There are some questions to be answered with this group but the Steelers seem to have all the pieces in place at linebacker. Barring injury their front seven is poised for an excellent 2017.

Backup LBs: With the addition of first round pick T.J. Watt and the presence of veteran Arthur Moats, Pittsburgh has quality depth at the outside linebacker spots. Watt is likely to see a lot of action in a three man rotation as a rookie. If all goes according to expectations he will take over as a starter by or before the start of the 2018 season. Moats is a serviceable fill in if called upon but his upside is limited. An injury at inside backer could be a much bigger problem for the Steelers. Last year's 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is the next man up with journeymen special team contributors L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson behind him. Matakevich is a developmental player the coaching staff is high on but his experience amounts to about 20 snaps of live action.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Sean Davis, FS Michael Mitchell, CB William Gay, CB Artie Burns, CB Joe Haden
Backups: SS Robert Golden, CB/FS Brian Allen [R], CB Cameron Sutton [R] (inj), CB Coty Sensabaugh, S JJ Wilcox, CB Mike Hilton

Starting DBs: Pass defense has been the Achilles heel of the Steelers over the past couple of years but they seem to be heading in the right direction from some perspectives. In 2015 their secondary managed a respectable 10 interceptions but the team finished 30th in passing yards allowed. In last year's draft they added Sean Davis at strong safety and Artie Burns at corner. The result was a drop in picks by the group to 6 but the defense improved to 17th in passing yards allowed. Steelers corners have never been known for creating a lot of turnovers. They are often asked to cover with an emphasis on not allowing big plays rather than creating them. Pittsburgh's zone blitz scheme relies more on the front seven to be disruptive while not allowing their corners to take many chances. 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns is likely to start across from late August acquisition Joe Haden. Haden gives the Steelers the best corner they have had since Ike Taylor's heyday. William Gay will man the slot. Free safety Michael Mitchell gives the team an excellent center fielder. He is not the most physical of players but has excellent speed to help make up for the mistakes of others if need be. He also has a knack for making the big play which is what the team expects from him. After accounting for 2 turnovers last season, the coaching staff would like to see Mitchell get back to being the playmaker he was in 2015. That season he totaled 3 picks, forced a couple of fumbles and recovered a pair. In 2016 Davis moved into the strong safety role full time after the team's week eight bye. He continued to show improvement as he settled in and was rather impressive down the stretch. Over their final six games he accounted for 31 tackles, 9 assists, a sack and a half, a fumble recovery, a pick and 3 passes defended. He had the mentality and physical nature of an enforcer versus the run with the skill set cover backs, tight ends and most slot receivers. Calling him the next Troy Polamalu might be stretching it but Davis has the potential to become that kind of difference maker.

Backup DBs: Robert Golden opened last season as the starting strong safety. He did not play poorly but was not able to hold off the talented rookie past mid-season. In the event of an injury Golden is more than capable of holding down the fort at either of the safety positions, though he is best suited to work at strong. It is unclear if rookie fifth round pick Brian Allen will work at corner or safety. Chances are he will see time at both during camp. At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Allen is a big athletic third level defender who made the transition from receiver to defender while playing at Utah. He is a raw and inexperienced project type player who needs to improve in several aspects including tackling before garnering serious consideration for playing time. Veteran journeyman Coty Sensabaugh will compete with third round rookie Cameron Sutton and possibly 2015 second round pick Senquez Goldson to establish the rest of the pecking order at corner. Sensabaugh has experience but lacks upside. Sutton has good ball skills and excels in man coverage but lacks physicality in run support. Golson has the skill set to emerge as a starter if he can stay healthy. His rookie season was washed out by a shoulder injury. Golson was working as the nickel corner for a time early last year before a foot injury landed him on IR in October.

Last modified: 2017-09-05 16:03:47