2015 AFC preview: Pittsburgh Steelers
From now until the Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their storyline on offense, their storyline on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Pittsburgh Steelers
THE BIG STORY
How will the Steelers defense respond without longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau?
For the first time in 11 years, the Steelers defense won't have Dick LeBeau running the show, scheming up zone blitzes in order to confuse opposing quarterbacks. In LeBeau's place will be Keith Butler, who will rely on a combination of youth in first-round pick Bud Dupree and experience in 37-year-old James Harrison to give the unit an edge.
OFFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Can Ben Roethlisberger keep pace with last year's output?
With starting running back LeVeon Bell suspended for the first three games of the season, the Steelers may struggle to find offensive balance, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still has plenty of weapons with which to work. Receiver Antonio Brown is coming off of a career year in which he led the league in receiving yards and receptions. Rookie Sammie Coates and second-year wideout Martavis Bryant give the team speed on the outside, and tight end Heath Miller is a reliable target in short-to-medium yardage situations.
If Roethlisberger can approach the season he put together in 2014, Bell's absence shouldn't be a killer. Completing 67.1 percent of his passes with 32 touchdowns and nine picks, Roethlisberger had one of the best seasons of any signal-caller in the league and should have a strong follow-up year provided he continues to get solid protection up front.
DEFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
Who will emerge amid Pittsburgh's personnel changes?
The list of departed Steelers defenders runs long with big names. Troy Polamalu is gone. Brett Keisel wasn't re-signed. Ike Taylor has joined the ranks of former NFL players in the media. And Jason Worilds surprised many by retiring early. How the Steelers replace those names will go a long way in determining the effectiveness of their defense.
Rookie corner Senquez Golson (pictured) and safety Gerod Holliman have promising ball skills and could compete for significant snaps in the secondary but there remain plenty of questions all over the defense to be answered in training camp.
THREAT LEVEL: ELEVATED
Under new leadership and with several starting spots yet to be determined, the Steelers defense may need the first month of the season or more before it finds its way. But Pittsburgh's offense is talented enough to vie for the AFC North title and one of the top playoff spots in the conference.
The season-opening matchup between the Patriots and Steelers may not the best indicator of how either team will look come season's end, but both teams will likely be near the top of the conference when January rolls around.