The Steelers absolutely need to be able to run the ball effectively this year to get back to the playoffs. They finished 26th in the league last year in rushing yards, averaging a little over 96 yards per game. This year was the Steelers worst year on the ground since Mike Tomlin first took the job in 2007. To be fair, aside from his first year, the Steelers have never had much production in the running game under Tomlin. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be successful in that area. Now they need to be able to put their offense in manageable third down situations. Ben Roethlisberger with two rings, is pretty elite in my book, but far from indestructible. A more effective running game will likely keep him healthier, and should provide stability in the offense should he miss a few games. Levon Bell will in all certainty assume the starting role, and he has a chance to greatly improve the Steelers 26th ranked rushing attack. He has great vision and size, and has extremely quick feet for a man his size. Give him the rock, throw him a block.
Ok here is the thing: Baltimore’s defensive statistics are probably not completely indicative of how they were last year at full strength. Last year Baltimore finished 17th in the league in total defense and against the pass, with a barrage of injuries. I think Newsome and company did a great job tightening up the loose ends through the draft and free agency. I truly believe this defense will be better, much better. However, a lot of that will be contingent upon their rookies to fill the vacancies left by the departure of future hall of famers. These will be extremely big shoes to fill. Elam is an incredible open field tackler, and will be extremely helpful against the run. Elam may not be quite the ball hawk that Ed Reed was, yet. Elam capitalizes on quarterbacks mistakes, and if he’s in position and the ball is not thrown perfectly, Elam will be there to change possession. He’ll be a significant piece in improving this defense as a whole, and his open field tackling skills will be needed to improve the run defense as well.
Mingo was a great pick for this Cleveland team. He’s an intimidating force and has tons of capability to succeed at the professional level. Cleveland’s pass rush finished tied for 11th in the league with 38 sacks. While Mingo can help improve that pass rush, it’s hardly the teams greatest need, especially with the arrival of Paul Kruger. Their biggest need defensively comes in the trenches defending the ground attack. The Browns finished 19th last year, giving up roughly 118 yards per game on the ground. Although Mingo is an outside linebacker, Ray Horton would be wise to have him play up on the line of scrimmage more often than not. It’s more common than many think in the 3-4 defense, as outside linebackers commonly play at the line of scrimmage to defend against the run. If Mingo can rack up 8-12 sacks, and help this defense stop the run more effectively, the Cleveland defense could be much improved.
Brown is another rookie with larger than average shoes to fill. He comes to a team that just won a Superbowl and has high expectations to improve upon a rushing defense that finished 20th in the league. Kansas State often employed a 5-2 defense, keeping Brown as one of the inside backers. As far as a transitioning standpoint goes, most NFL teams don’t often run a 5-2, but the responsibilities for an inside linebacker are very similar in a 5-2 and 3-4. He’ll still remain on the inside and will actually have to concern himself with less space in pass coverage, which was something he actually excelled in. The hardest transition will be in the run game. Ray Lewis was not as productive as many think he was in his final years, however most people just appropriate Ray Lewis with excellence. As unfair as it may be, the expectations will be high and the new successor to the middle of this defense will be expected to help improve this run defense. I thought this was an excellent second round pick, and I feel that he has all the capability in the world. He’s slightly undersized for an inside linebacker, but his speed might be his biggest asset against fullbacks and pulling guards.
Eifert will be tremendous in helping this team take pressure off AJ Green and Andy Dalton. Eifert has some good size, can run routes pretty well, and will likely make his presence felt primarily in the passing game. Many analysts compare him to Greg Olsen, although he’ll likely be more effective in the red zone. Eifert can help improve this team from the 17th ranked passing offense, by opening up more routes in the middle and taking more pressure off AJ Green. I’m not so sure about his size as a traditional run blocking tight end, so I imagine Jermaine Gresham will still get the bulk of that responsibility. Eifert will be another nice target for Andy Dalton, and could give this team the added boost they need offensively to win the division this year.
Why is Jones lower on this list than Bell despite being drafted higher? Well defense was hardly the problem for the Steelers last year, as they finished with the number one total defense in the NFL in 2012. Jarvis Jones will probably best serve the Steelers on defense as a pass rushing specialist at outside linebacker. I personally never like transitioning a player to a new position, even if their body types qualifies them more for a different position in the NFL. Jones comes from a 4-3 defense at Georgia, where he put his hand in the dirt to play the run and rush the passer. Luckily in the NFL there is probably the greatest symbiosis in the transition from a 4-3 defensive end to an 3-4 outside linebacker. Outside linebackers often times play at the line of scrimmage unless the defense calls from them to play in coverage. Ultimately though, the number one defense has nowhere to go but down, and I think that his impact will be far less significant than his counterpart in Bell.
Drafted in the second round, Hunt might be the final necessary piece to making this defense the number one defense in the league this year. It’s very possible. The Bengals finished 6th last year in total defense, but 12th against the run. Margus Hunt has all the physical capability in the world to be a great football player. The guys boasts a herculean physique at 6’8” and 280 pounds, with lots of speed for a person his size. He does have playmaking capability as he can strip-sack, defend passes with his long arms, and even block kicks. He also does an extremely good job of taking on lineman in pass blocking. If Hunt can make his presence felt against the run game, Hunt could give this defense the spark it needs to be the best in the league in 2013.
A new weapon for Dalton in this offense, Bernard has tons of play-making ability and is very explosive. He can turn small gains into big ones and always fights for extra yardage. The Bengals finished 18th in rushing offense last year, and will look to improve upon that as a means to aid Dalton. People forget just how important a good running game can be to a quarterback’s success. If you can give a quarterback shorter 2nd and 3rd downs, there is a greater chance your offense will convert for first downs and be successful. Bernard will probably be best suited to come in as a specialist or utility player, but will likely see his role expand as the year goes on.
I am hard pressed to call him a 3rd down back because the biggest weakness in his game seems to be in pass protection, as he usually goes for the cut block as opposed to taking the block head on. However, he’ll be a great safety net for Dalton out of the backfield and in the middle, heck they could probably even run him in the wildcat from time to time. Many compare him to Deangelo Williams in Carolina. If the Bengals drafted a mini Williams in Bernard, this offense should be one of the league’s best next year.