Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Year in Review: The Season That Got Away
The Pittsburgh Steelers had an up-and-down season in 2015, and it will certainly be remembered as a year of "what ifs."
Finishing 10-6 and securing a wild card spot would be a huge success for most franchises, but in Pittsburgh, that is the baseline.
The Steelers squeaked into the playoffs thanks to some help from their friends up in Buffalo but made some noise with a memorable comeback win against the Bengals in the wild card round.
The season ended with a tough divisional round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, in part to a huge fumble by little-known running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Injuries, especially on the offensive side of the ball plagued the roster all season long. Some of the biggest names in the game, especially in the fantasy football world, Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell missed significant time in the regular season, and Antonio Brown missed the final game of the year in Denver.
It wouldn't be right not to mention the crazy kicker situation as well. After Shaun Suisham was injured in the first preseason game, it seemed that the Steelers tried out about every kicker on the market, including trading for an injured Josh Scobee before finally striking gold with their fourth kicker of the season in youngster Chris Boswell, who made a game winning kick in their wild card win in Cincinnati.
Suspensions also played a part in the early-going of the 2015 campaign. Martavis Bryant was suspended for four games for violation for the league's substance abuse policy (more on him later) while Le'Veon Bell missed the opener against the Patriots because of an off-the-field issue the previous year.
One of the main storylines throughout the season was the backup quarterback situation. Quarterback Michael Vick was never a natural fit for the Steelers' offense but provided an exciting Monday night in San Diego right after a frustrating overtime loss against the Ravens.
2013 draft pick Landry Jones was equally exciting in a win over the Cardinals as he was frustrating in a road loss to the Chiefs.
Once Roethlisberger finally returned from injury mid-way through the season, the offense began to perform at the top-notch pace that many expected coming into the year.
Over the final nine games of the season, the Steelers' offense averaged 29.4 points per game, finishing fifth in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP). You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
The maturation of the defense was also an interesting storyline as the season went on. While the Steelers' defense did surrender the third-most passing yards in the NFL (271.9 yards per game), they finished third in sacks with 48 and sixth in interceptions with 17.
The "splash plays," as Mike Tomlin likes to call them, were back for the Pittsburgh defense in 2015.
What Went Right
The Steelers' offense ran at a historic pace for portions of the second half of the season in 2015. The offense set a franchise record with six straight 30-point games from Week 9 to Week 15.
Antonio Brown was magnificent again in 2015, racking up 136 receptions (1st), 1,834 yards (2nd) and 10 touchdowns (5th).
Another bright spot for the Steelers' offense in 2015 was free agent addition DeAngelo Williams.
Williams was brought in after being cut from the Carolina Panthers and clearly had a chip on his shoulder. Williams lost about 15 pounds before the season started and proved to be incredibly valuable when Bell went down for the season in Week 8.
Williams finished third in the league in our Rushing NEP metric (14.32) on 200 rushes over the course of the season. He racked up 907 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 10 starts.
Even though he started in only 11 games, Roethlisberger finished eighth in our Passing NEP metric (122.48). Among the top 32 quarterbacks last season, Roethlisberger led them all in Pass Success Rate at 53.78%.
On the defensive side of the ball, the huge positive was the return of the pressure defense under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Legendary coordinator Dick Lebeau had become too conservative in his schemes during the last few years of his tenure in Pittsburgh, and Butler made sure to bring back the "Blitzburgh" style of defense. It paid off in a big way in terms of generating sacks.
The Steelers were third in the NFL with 30 takeaways, their highest total since 2010.
Young players such as Ryan Shazier, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt showed huge promise for the future of the Pittsburgh defense, leading the team to a ninth-place finish in Defensive NEP when adjusted for strength of schedule.
What Went Wrong
The negatives from the 2015 season are also plenteous.
Losing to the division rival Baltimore Ravens twice, when the Ravens finished the season 5-11, was a huge disappointment.
The Week 16 loss to the Ryan Mallett-led Baltimore team nearly dashed the Steelers' playoff hopes if it weren't for a choke job by the Jets in Buffalo the following week.
Pittsburgh must finish better than 3-3 in the AFC North in 2016 if they expect to win the division.
Although our metrics show that Pittsburgh finished the season 11th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (influenced by their 17 interceptions), the pass defense was absolutely horrific in 2015. Finishing 30th in that category based on yardage allowed is something that the front office must address in the draft.
Allowing 345 passing yards and 5 touchdowns to Russell Wilson in Seattle stands as a glaring reminder of the porous pass defense.
Pittsburgh will enter the 2016 season as one of the favorites in the AFC.
The offense will return most of the key pieces with Bell expected to make a full recovery in time for training camp.
Left tackle Kelvin Beachum departed in free agency after missing most of the year with an ACL injury. He will be replaced by former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, who played fairly well over the second half of the 2015 season.
Center Maurkice Pouncey will also be back, giving the Steelers another dynamic run blocker for Bell.
The one key piece who will not be around for the 2016 campaign is Martavis Bryant.
Bryant was suspended for the entire season by the NFL for failing multiple drug tests. Bryant is undoubtedly an elite talent, but it is troubling to see a young player like him take the same path as another AFC North star Josh Gordon.
For now, we can only hope that Bryant can improve himself off the field and get the necessary help that he needs to return to his playmaking ways on Sunday afternoons.
For fantasy purposes, an exciting addition to keep tabs on is former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green. Pittsburgh signed the 6'6" tight end after long time veteran staple Heath Miller decided to retire this offseason.
Green will provide Roethlisberger with a big red zone target and could take a lot of the looks that Miller and Bryant received in the red zone.
Markus Wheaton will also pick up some slack after showing some positive glimpses in 2015, including his 201-yard outburst in Seattle.
Pittsburgh, like usual, will retain most of their own while adding a few pieces in free agency and focus their efforts on the draft. The Steelers have seven selections in the upcoming draft and should look to add more depth on the defensive side of the ball.
2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson will be like a free pick because he missed his entire rookie season. Look for him to make some waves in the offseason program.
The talent is there on both sides of the ball in Pittsburgh to have an excellent season.
If the Steelers can stay healthy, they have a great chance to add that coveted seventh Lombardi trophy in 2016.