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2015 Pittsburgh Steelers: 7 Burning Questions Heading Into Training Camp

This is the year.

The year the Pittsburgh Steelers win their seventh Super Bowl?

Well, not necessarily. Even though the Lombardi Trophy is always the standard in Pittsburgh and certainly not out of the realm of possibility this season, another bragging right is within more immediate reach.

This could be the year the Steelers offense is the best in the NFL.

The Steelers were .3 yards, about a foot, behind the New Orleans Saints last season for the league lead in yards per game with 411.1. Ben Roethlisberger tied Drew Brees atop with NFL with 4,952 passing yards, and he directs an offense that returns every starter from last season.

This offense is capable of carrying the team from a wild-card flop to a much deeper January run this year.

The defense, on the other hand, could be the reason the Steelers are cleaning out their lockers the day after the regular season ends.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the defense is the subject of most of the burning questions the Steelers face as they open their 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

If they can answer enough of these questions in the affirmative, then this might really be the year.

Can the Steelers offense improve in the red zone?

Before we dissect the defense, let’s take a look at the offense’s ability to convert those gaudy statistics into actual points.

Despite having the league’s second-best overall offense and passing offense, the Steelers ranked only seventh in points scored in 2014. Part of the problem is they scored touchdowns on 51.72 percent of their trips inside the red zone, according to Team Rankings. That’s 19th in the league.

If second-year receiver Martavis Bryant can do in a full season what he did in 10 games last season, his 6’4″ frame could provide a red zone boost. Five of the nine touchdowns he scored last season, including playoffs, came in the red zone.

The offensive line, under a second year of tutelage from Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, could be the best one the Steelers have had since 2005, the year they won Super Bowl XL. The unit can increase the Steelers’ red zone efficiency by opening up holes for running backs.

As dazzling as the Steelers offense has the potential to be, it will need to show a little more grit inside the 20 to put more points on the scoreboard.

Will Keith Butler make his mark as defensive coordinator?

The Steelers ranked 18th in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed in 2014. That was their worst ranking in both categories since 1991, the year before Bill Cowher became head coach.

They allowed 368 points in 2014 and 370 in 2013, their two worst showings since 1988. That’s what happens when players like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel are past their primes.

It’s possible that opposing offenses had figured out certain tendencies of Dick LeBeau’s defense. Obviously the talent needs to improve for the Steelers defense to become respectable, but it couldn’t hurt if new defensive coordinator Keith Butler adds a few wrinkles that opponents haven’t seen.

So far, the only possible deviation from LeBeau’s scheme that Butler has revealed is a desire for the defensive linemen to make more plays, according to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

One would think that he has more than that up his sleeve. After all, Butler has been waiting 12 years for this promotion.

Will anyone drafted in the first round since 2013 make an impact?

Since Kevin Colbert came on board in 2000, he hasn’t botched a first-round draft pick. Not yet, anyway.

Even the Steelers’ worst first-rounder of this century, Ziggy Hood, started for two seasons.

Since Hood, the Steelers have picked Maurkice Pouncey, Cameron Heyward and David DeCastro. Pouncey is a perennial Pro Bowler and the other two are on the cusp of a Pro Bowl berth.

The Pro Bowl is a long way off, however, for Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round selections in 2013 and 2014. It’s hard for them to prove they have the talent to play in the NFL if they can’t stay healthy. Jones has missed 11 games in his two-year career and Shazier missed seven games as a rookie last season.

The Steelers can be a little more patient with Bud Dupree, their 2015 first-rounder. At the same time, would it be too much to ask for a rookie to make an impact on defense under the new regime?

Part of the reason the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and been to a third during Colbert’s tenure is the success of their first-round picks. But the jury is still out on their last three.

The Steelers already have felt the effects of so-so first-round picks in two straight seasons. A year before drafting Hood, the Steelers took Rashard Mendenhall in 2008. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards twice. But his career as a Steeler was over at age 25. With a little more help from their first-rounders in 2008 and 2009, maybe there wouldn’t have been a playoff drought in 2012 and 2013.

The Steelers have drafted defensive players in the first round in three straight seasons for the first time in their history. If they all turn out to be busts, the Steelers could be picking in the top 10 an awful lot in the coming years.

Will Cortez Allen prove 2014 was a fluke?

Optimistic Steelers fans will point to Ike Taylor’s benching in 2006 and say that Cortez Allen can overcome his disastrous 2014 season and have a productive career.

Like Allen last season, Taylor signed a contract extension worth more than $20 million in 2006. He then lost his starting job eight games into the season. Everything turned out OK for Taylor, but he had more of a track record than Allen. He had two postseason interceptions in the Steelers’ run to their 2005 Super Bowl title.

Allen’s resume is highlighted by six career interceptions. However, the best quarterback he’s intercepted is Andy Dalton, and that was in 2012. In 2013 he picked off passes by Terrelle Pryor and Matt Flynn and last season he intercepted Mike Glennon and Blake Bortles.

You again have to go back to 2012 to find Allen’s best performance against an accomplished receiver. He held Anquan Boldin to three catches on seven targets in the Steelers’ win at Baltimore. His finest hour might have come at Green Bay in Week 16 of the 2013 season. He had a pick-6 and limited Jarrett Boykin to four receptions on 10 targets.That’s the same Jarrett Boykin, though, who was surpassed on the depth chart last season by Davante Adams and will struggle to make the Panthers’ roster this year.

The Steelers need Allen to stop the Demaryius Thomas’ and T.Y. Hiltons of the world. Surrendering touchdown passes to Hilton and Donte Moncrief in Week 8 last season was the last straw. Allen didn’t play another snap on defense after that game, and a broken thumb ended his season after Week 14.

Allen allowed five touchdown passes in half a season last year. At that pace he’d have allowed 10 over a full season and tied the Redskins’ David Amerson for most in the league.

At his best, Allen is a ballhawk the Steelers so desperately need in the secondary. He might never come close to the shutdown corner that Taylor was, so he’ll have to earn his keep by collecting interceptions.

Will Mike Mitchell prove 2014 was a fluke?

Mike Mitchell didn’t make Steelers fans forget about Ryan Clark in his first season in Pittsburgh.

The free safety was a disappointment after signing a five-year, $25 million contract before the season. He then revealed after the season that he played through a groin injury for the entire year, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

So was it the groin, or was Mitchell exposed without a strong pass rush in front of him?

Mitchell earned his free-agent payday by posting career highs in interceptions (four) and sacks (3.5) with the Carolina Panthers in 2013. It didn’t hurt that the Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks that year and were second in yards allowed.

The Steelers, on the other hand, were 26th with 33 sacks last season and 15th in yards allowed per game.

Mitchell can be more worthy of his contract if the Steelers put more pressure on quarterbacks. But if quarterbacks have all day to throw, expect more of the same from Mitchell.

Is Shamarko Thomas ready to start?

The question isn’t whether Shamarko Thomas is ready to fill Troy Polamalu’s shoes at strong safety. No one can do that.

The question is whether Thomas is a viable starter in the NFL. With just two defensive snaps since Week 10 of the 2013 season, he hasn’t had much on-the-job training.

The Steelers traded their 2014 third-round draft pick to move up in the fourth round and draft Thomas in 2013. He’s been a special teams stalwart. But when Polamalu was injured last year it was Will Allen, 32 at the time, who started in his place rather than Thomas.

When he did play defense in the first nine weeks of 2013, Pro Football Focus rated Thomas as a better run defender than pass defender. The 5’9″ Thomas allowed 6’6″ tight end Rob Gronkowski to catch two passes in the infamous Speed Limit 55, Steelers 31 game at Gillette Stadium in Week 9.

Guess who the Steelers play in Week 1.

Regardless of who’s throwing the ball for the Patriots on Sept. 10, Thomas will be in for a baptism by fire as the Steelers’ new starting strong safety.

Will the Steelers sign Kelvin Beachum to a contract extension?

And we bookend five questions about the defense with two about the offense.

If they can make a movie about Michael Oher, there’s probably a movie somewhere in the story of the Steelers’ left tackle.

Kelvin Beachum has gone from being an undersized (6’3″, 303) offensive lineman without a position drafted five spots before Mr. Irrelevant in 2012 to the fifth-best left tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.

Beachum is entering the final year of his contract, and if the Steelers don’t sign him to an extension during training camp, the feel-good “Blind Side” narrative will turn to “Wall Street” after the season.

Greed will be good for Beachum if he continues to perform like one of the top left tackles in the league. His current base salary, according to Spotrac, is about $1.5 million per year. The five highest-paid left tackles in the league all make more than $7 million per year.

If the Steelers don’t find a way to get Beachum closer to that income bracket before the season starts, the price tag could be a lot higher when Beachum becomes a free agent.

Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 33 times last year, the fewest in any season in which he’s played at least 15 games. It has taken years for the Steelers to build a respectable offensive line. It’s going to cost them some money to keep it together.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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