For being a minute or two from making the AFC Championship game, you'd think the Steelers wouldn't have a whole lot of room to improve. But, despite having an outstanding off-season by most measures, there are a few key areas where the team has taken a step back -- even if just temporarily.
The biggest, most glaring of those areas? Tight end. Sure, they picked up Ladarius Green as a free agent from San Diego, but the event that precipitated that move was the mostly unexpected retirement of Pittsburgh legend Heath Miller.
Replacing Miller's overall production is likely a futile effort. He was one of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets, and a constant safety valve for the passer. Beyond that, he was also one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. The two combined to make him one of the top two all-around tight ends in the league, along with Dallas' Jason Witten.
But, as personnel changes, so does scheme. And scheme is offensive coordinator Todd Haley's playground. Now, he's been given a toy with a different dynamic: while an adequate blocker, Green's true strength lies in his athleticism down the field. One could argue that his ability to make plays in the intermediate- to long-range passing game could do as much -- if not more -- for the run game than his blocking ever will, by stretching the field and drawing the safeties away from the line.
If you didn't think the Steelers' offense was explosive enough already, just wait to see what happens when you put Green's speed and size on the seams.
The key, though, will be to get the Ben-to-Ladarius connection going early and often. Perhaps more than with any other quarterback in the league, chemistry is a huge part of the equations between Roethlisberger and his receivers. That's because a lot of plays may start as planned, but often end with improv acts that would be no less fitting on stage than they are on the gridiron. The ability of Ben to simply know where Green will go when he breaks off his route will go a long way toward dictating how useful Green will be in game-critical situations.
If you doubt the importance of that chemistry, you simply need to look back to the production of Antonio Brown during Roethlisberger's absence in 2015. Brown all but fell off the NFL map for four weeks, and it had nothing to do with his level of talent. It was more a factor of Ben knowing what it looks like for Brown to be "open" -- and here's a hint: it's not what "open" looks like for most other receivers. If it was, backups Mike Vick and Landry Jones would have thrown Brown's way a lot more often. It was a matter of repetition, as well as being inside one another's heads, that allowed -- and will continue to allow -- Roethlisberger and Brown to perform seemingly otherworldly feats.
Building that chemistry between Roethlisberger and Green will be paramount to Life After Heath. And I would hope Green is up for the challenge. Playing your entire career thus far in the shadow of Antonio Gates, another living tight-end legend, will fuel that fire. Now, Green has his chance to seize the bull by the horns -- or, perhaps more aptly, the ball by the laces.