Know Your Enemy is back for the sixth time. In the 2017 season, the NFC North plays the AFC North and NFC South. This should be a tough schedule so let’s take a look at the enemies; starting with the defending AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers went 11-5 in 2016 and won the AFC North easily. Pittsburgh beat Miami and won at Kansas City in the playoffs to advance to the AFC Championship game. The Steelers lost badly at New England with a banged up team including losing Leveon Bell early in the game. Pittsburgh went 6-2 at home and 5-3 on the road in 2016.
Pittsburgh earned a top 10 offense scoring 24.9 PPG with OC Todd Haley and a banged up Ben Roethlisberger for most of the season at QB. The Steelers had 1,760 rushing yards (14th) at 4.3 YPC and 13 rushing TDs. They turned the ball over 18 times with 15 interceptions but only 3 fumbles lost
The Steelers were also 10th in defense allowing only 20.4 PPG and forcing 23 turnovers (14th) under DC Kevin Butler. Pittsburgh’s top 10 offense and defense is a tough feat to accomplish in this league.
Mike Tomlin has been the head coach since 2007 and the players love him but he seems to concede a lot to his coordinators.
Big Ben Roethlisberger is a good veteran QB. He had a 95.4 rating last year with 64.4% completion adding 29 TDs and 13 interceptions. Landry Jones played in two games for Ben and added 4 TDs and 2 interceptions against the Browns and Patriots. Big Ben contemplated retirement but is back for another season in Pittsburgh with a ton of weapons.
Antonio Brown is one of the best WRS in the league. Brown had 1,284 yards and 12 TDs which is a down year for him. Leveon Bell is a big time receiving RB threat with 616 yards and 2 TDs on 94 targets. Martavis Bryant returns from a year-long suspension and had 700 yards and 6 TDs in 2015. Bryant had 8 TDS in 2014 only playing half the year. Eli Rogers is a solid slot player with 594 yards and 3 TDs in 2016.
Second year third round pick Sammie Coates had a rough rookie year with only 435 yards and 2 TDs. He wasn’t efficient but had seven plays over 20 yards in only 49 targets. Heyward-Bey has some speed too as the 5th WR and Ju Ju Smith Schuster was added in Round 3 of the draft. The Steelers are stacked with WR and RB weapons.
Leveon Bell is a monster that notched 1,268 yard and 7 TDs in 2016 at 4.9 YPC. Bell had a whopping 261 carries which eases life for Big Ben if needed. James Conner was drafted in Round 3 to replace Deangelo Williams. Conner can be a workhorse back from his days at Pitt. The Steelers will run the ball well.
Protection and Run Blocking
The Steelers only allowed 21 sacks in 617 drop backs. Alejandro Villaneuva is a good left tackle (82.2 grade) and settled in nicely in 2016. David Decastro is a top 10 guard and Ramon Foster had a great year in 2016 earning the second highest guard grade in the league.
Maurkice Pouncey has been a good center and finally stayed healthy for Pittsburgh in 2016 after several injury plagued years. Marcus Gilbert is a good right tackle (11th ranked tackle) in the league returning to man his spot. The Steelers protected their QB well and can run block. Their offensive line is a big key to their offensive success.
Pass Defense and Pass Rush
The Steelers were pretty good at 11th in the league allowing 93.9 QB rating. Artie Burns (1st round pick 2016) and William Gay (veteran CB) is a solid corner tandem. Sean Davis can play SS and the hybrid LB spot and Mike Mitchell was a good free safety in 2016 (81.1 grade). Davis earned an average grade as a rookie but can grow in his second year in the league.
James Harrison was their leading pass rusher with 5 sacks and ranked 11th in the league of edge defenders; despite his age (38). Bud Dupree (1st round pick 2015) struggled in 2016 and the Steelers need the former first round pick to step up.
Pittsburgh added another 1st round pick in the 2017 draft in TJ Watt to help the pass rush. Watt replaces another 1st round pick in Jarvis Jones who left to Arizona in free agency. Jones wasn’t very good for the Steelers so wasn’t much of a loss. Ryan Shazier is a good ILB and can blitz with 3.5 sacks and covers well. The Steelers nabbed 38 sacks in 2016 but consistent pressure to help their secondary.
Ross Cockrell is the 3rd corner but a pair of day 2 picks in Senquez Golson and rookie Cameron Sutton could challenge Cockrell for his spot.
Stephen Tuitt and Cameron Hayward are good defensive ends in the 3-4. Tuitt earned a good grade but Heyward was average in 2016 but has been good in past seasons. Both offer a pass rush and stout run defense. Young Javon Hargrave added 2 sacks from the nose tackle spot from South Carolina State. Vince Williams should get more playing time to replace the departed Lawrence Timmons at ILB as well. Williams has some coverage ability at linebacker.
The Steelers had some issues against the run allowing 4.3 YPC and were 19th in rushing yards allowed. Pittsburgh needs better run defense in 2017 but have the talent to make stops in the run game.
Ladarius Green didn’t work out as a free agent and was cut after a big deal in 2016. Jessie James is their top tight end and didn’t produce very much in 2016. The Steelers lack a good tight end.
The Steelers lack proven depth except at QB but have talent depth at RB2, WR, nickel and OLB. The Steelers hope to stay healthy at offensive line, CB, safety, ILB and defensive line this season.
The Steelers play at Chicago in Week 3 at 1 PM (ET) and at Detroit in Week 8 on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers host Green Bay in Week 12 on Sunday Night Football and host the Vikings Week 2 at 1 PM (ET).
All four teams will have a very tough matchup against the experienced Steelers. Two games are in primetime which bring even more intrigue to the game. Pittsburgh should at least go 2-2 against the NFC North and has the talent to sweep the entire NFC North.