Matt Williamson is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. You can download the podcast here. Williamson's opinions do not reflect those of the Steelers organization.
Buffalo Bills (Last year's record: 11-6)
The Steelers travel to Buffalo on Sunday 10/9, Week 5 of the NFL season.With Josh Allen the focal point of an excellent offense that loves getting three and four wide receivers on the field, Buffalo didn't tinker much with this side of the ball since last year. Their biggest offseason addition was James Cook. Already an exceptional receiving back, Cook gives the Bills passing game a new dimension, making this side of the ball even more difficult to play against. Coming from Tampa Bay, OJ Howard projects as the backup tight end, but he could realize his vast potential in his new surroundings.Buffalo's defense surrendered a measly 4.6 yards per play last year, tops in the league. The second-best defense in the NFL came in at 5.0 yards per play allowed. Buffalo also led the league in points allowed, allowing just 17 points per game. The Bills and Patriots took the ball away 30 times, which was tied for third best in the league. Buffalo's defense didn't need much in the way of reinforcements, but this team still gave Von Miller big money and then traded up in the first round for Kaiir Elam, who could be an immediate starter opposite Tre'Davious White, one of the best cornerbacks in the league whose 2021 season was cut short. Buffalo has possibly the best pair of safeties in the league and Miller should be a tremendous role model for recently highly drafted edge players Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and EJ Epenesa.The Bills produced 1.1 more yards per play every time they snapped the ball on offense than what they gave up per play on defense. That was the best in football in 2021 as was Buffalo's +11.4 number in terms of points per game. The Bills are currently considered the Super Bowl favorite.
Miami Dolphins (Last year's record: 9-8)
The Steelers travel to Miami on Sunday 10/23, Week 7 of the NFL season.The Dolphins produced just 4.8 yards per play on offense last year. Only three teams were worse. And the organization reacted accordingly this offseason by not only hiring an offensive minded coach in Mike McDaniel from the 49ers, but by making a blockbuster trade with Kansas City for Tyreek Hill and signing Terron Armstead to a massive contract to help what was potentially the worst offensive line in the NFL last year. Miami also picked up Teddy Bridgewater for Tua Tagovailoa insurance as well as Connor Williams, a starting guard, and a slew of new running backs for McDaniel's run-heavy scheme. A big problem for Miami's offense last year was turnovers. By creating a better ground game, McDaniel is looking to alleviate this problem as well as making Tagovailoa's job much easier. By adding Hill to the Dolphins other offensive weapons, particularly Jaylen Waddle, Miami now might have the fastest group of offensive skill players in the entire league. That will make stacking the box to defend the run more difficult. There is a clear plan in place on this side of the ball and the Dolphins look like they implemented it well. Now it is on Tagovailoa to sink or swim.The offseason for Miami was all about improving the offense to see what they really have in Tagovailoa. Josh Boyer was retained as defensive coordinator, so expect this defense to look very similar to when Brian Flores was in charge. The Dolphins will rely on their excellent cornerbacks in man coverage with a heavy dose of blitz. Melvin Ingram and Channing Tindall are two interesting additions to Miami's front seven and defenders such as Christian Wilkins, Jaelen Phillips, and Jevon Holland could be primed for big breakout seasons.
New England Patriots (Last year's record: 10-7)
The Steelers host New England on Sunday 9/18, Week 2 of the NFL season.It might surprise many that the Patriots generated 27.2 points per game last year. Only five teams were better in this department. New England didn't do a lot to enhance Mac Jones' surroundings, but they did add DeVante Parker via trade and drafted speedster Tyquan Thornton in the second round. After trading Shaq Mason to the Buccaneers, New England used their first draft pick on his replacement, Cole Strange. Jones was very solid in his rookie season and can be expected to take a step forward. The Patriots called a pass play on just 54% of their snaps last year. That percentage should increase in Jones' second season. But Josh McDaniels, the Raiders new head coach, could really be missed.The Patriots gave up just 5.1 yards per snap on defense last season. That was the third best in the NFL behind only the Bills and Browns. And only Buffalo gave up fewer points per game. The Bills and Patriots took the ball away 30 times, which was tied for third best in the league. But New England lost JC Jackson, probably their best defensive player, to the Chargers in free agency. Two youngsters to keep an eye on as breakout players are Christian Barmore and Kyle Dugger.In terms of yards per play differential, New England was the fifth best in the NFL last year. On average, the Patriots outscored their opponent by 9.4 points per game in 2021, third best in the NFL. One thing that can be counted on every year, Bill Belichick's team will excel on special teams. But overall, this roster isn't overly impressive. Still, Belichick keeps winning games. Great coaching goes a long way.
New York Jets (Last year's record: 4-13)
Pittsburgh hosts the Jets on Sunday 10/2, Week 4 of the NFL season.New York managed to produce just 5.0 yards per offensive snap last year, 8th worst in the league. Like the Dolphins, they too were very proactive to address this problem. The Jets drafted Garrett Wilson with the 10th overall selection and then traded up in the early second round for Breece Hall, who should project to a workhorse role in his rookie year. Before the draft, the Jets signed Laken Tomlinson at guard to sure up their front five. Tomlinson and Elijah Vera-Tucker might just be the best guard tandem in the NFL. The Jets also have a slew of tight end options for Zach Wilson, who is already at a crossroads period to his young career. The pieces are now firmly around Wilson, however. Also, don't expect this offense to be near the top of the league in percentage in which they pass the football like they were last year when only the Buccaneers and Steelers threw the ball a higher percentage of the time.On defense, the Ravens gave up 6.0 yards per play in 2021. That was the only defense worse than the Jets. And zero defenses allowed more points per game than New York, giving up a whopping 29.6 per contest. That was more than two whole points worse than the 31st ranked defense from a year ago. Jacksonville was the only defense to take the ball away fewer times than the Jets, who are looking to greatly improve in that area by drafting Sauce Gardner with the fourth overall pick and then also picking up Jermaine Johnson late in the first round. Johnson will pair with Carl Lawson as edge pass-rushers. Lawson missed last year with injury. The secondary looks much improved with Gardner along with free agent additions DJ Reed and Jordan Whitehead.Not surprisingly with the above information, the Jets were the second worst behind only Houston in yards per play differential. New York was -.9 in this very telling statistic. Also, the average Jets game last year ended up with New York losing by 11.4 points. Only Houston was worse. The Jaguars were the only team with a worse turnover differential. This is a much better roster than a year ago, but the Jets don't have a recent history as a winning organization with just six wins over the last two seasons and only 27 victories in the last six years, and they have an extremely young quarterback/head coach combination. But the roster has really improved.