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4 reasons why Steelers should own 2016's top offense

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

The Steelers entered the 2015 playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league, but their season ended in disappointment after a divisional-round loss to the Broncos. A big reason for the success of the team was the offense, which finished the season with the fifth-highest PFF grade. Enough has changed over the offseason to believe the offense should be even better in 2016.

Here are four reasons why Pittsburgh’s offense could finish the 2016 season with the league's top grade.

1. Ben Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career.

Throughout his career, Ben Roethlisberger has constantly been a top-10 quarterback, but he has gotten even better in recent years. In 2015, he had a big-time throw on 8.9 percent of his pass attempts. That isn’t just the best rate for Roethlisberger in his career, but also the best rate for any quarterback in a season over the past four years. This was, in part, because he was the most accurate quarterback on deep passes, with an accuracy percentage of 50.7. Deep passing accuracy is the area where Roethlisberger has improved the most, and led him to be our top quarterback by PFF grade in 2015 (92.7). To have a great offense, you need a great quarterback, and the Steelers have this covered.

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 9.34.41 AM

2. Le’Veon Bell was the top RB of 2015 before injury.

Suspension stopped Bell from playing at the beginning of the season, and injury stopped him from playing at the end, but in between, Bell was better than any other running back in football. His 3.4 yards after contact per carry led the league; this was, in part, due to his ability to make defenders miss. He forced a missed tackle on one in every five carries, which was the fifth-best rate for backs. What’s just as impressive as his ability to make defenders miss is his hands. He has just one rushing fumble in his career and no receiving fumbles. He hasn’t dropped a pass in a game since Week 14 of the 2014 season. Even though DeAngelo Williams was one of the better running backs in 2015, Bell forced just as many rushing missed tackles as Williams on nearly half the carries, and Williams had three fumbles. If Bell returns healthy, he should be an All-Pro player.

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3. The Steelers won’t miss their lost receivers.

There are two noticeable receivers the Steelers will be without in 2015: Martavis Bryant due to suspension and Heath Miller due to retirement. While Bryant provided a number of big plays to the Pittsburgh offense, he was also very inconsistent. He had 13 dropped passes (including the playoffs) in 2015, which was fourth-most for NFL receivers. Sammie Coates will be taking his place as a deep-receiving threat. While Coates didn’t play much in his rookie year, in 2014 he had 488 receiving yards on deep passes—eighth-most for college players from Power-5 schools. While Coates might not have as many highlight catches, he also won’t have as many drops.

At his best, Heath Miller was a top-five receiving tight end. In most seasons, he was an average receiving option, but in 2015, his yards per route run hit 1.17 (the lowest it’s been in the nine years we have data on him). In running situations, Matt Spaeth who has been a great run-blocking tight end throughout his career, will be an upgrade. In passing situations, the Steelers added tight end Ladarius Green from the Chargers. He is inexperienced, but when he’s been on the field, he’s been effective. Since 2013, his 1.55 yards per route run has been 11th-best among 42 qualifying tight ends.

While Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green might not be the top guys you want in the starting lineup, they shouldn’t be a step down from where they were at last year. They don’t need to be the focal point of the offense with Antonio Brown and Bell on the field, and with their upside, they could be something special.

4. The offensive line will be better.

The return of Maurkice Pouncey should be a huge upgrade to Cody Wallace at center. Wallace was the fifth-lowest graded center in 2015, while in 2014, Pouncey was the third-highest. Comparing Wallace in 2015 to Pouncey in 2014, Wallace allowed four more sacks, four more hits, and 17 more hurries to Pouncey, even though Wallace had 14 fewer pass blocks. There were only two times in the run game in 2014 where Pouncey had a negative grade, the man he tried to block had a positive grade, or the man he tried to block had a tackle for a loss or no gain. Wallace had 10 of those plays last year.

The Steelers also added offensive tackle Ryan Harris from the Denver Broncos, who could become the Steelers' starting left tackle over incumbent Alejandro Villanueva. Where this should help the most is pass protection. When Ben Roethlisberger dropped back 7 yards away from the line of scrimmage or fewer, Villanueva was just fine in pass protection and didn’t allow a sack. When Roethlisberger dropped back 8 yards or more, Villanueva wasn’t nearly as effective. Ryan Harris, on the other hand, isn’t as good on shorter drop-backs compared to Villanueva, but is better on deep ones. More than two-thirds of the time, Roethlisberger is dropping back at least 8 yards, making Harris the better option, and therefore an improvement.

 Pass-blocking efficiency
7 yards or less 8 yards or more
Ryan Harris 96.3 92.3
Alejandro Villaneuva 98.4 90.7

When you add in the return of Ramon Foster (82.3 overall grade in 2015), David DeCastro (83.4), and Marcus Gilbert (75.3), the Steelers should have one of the better offensive lines in football.

Put all these parts together, and Pittsburgh likely has the best offense on paper. They will need to stay healthier than they did last year in order for them to have the best offense on the field, however.

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