Steelers will win the AFC North

Improved run-blocking and pass rush could lift Pittsburgh to division crown

Updated: June 18, 2014, 12:47 PM ET
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider

LeGarrette BlountAP Photo/Keith SrakocicLeGarrette Blount could provide Pittsburgh with an upgrade in the backfield.

Last season marked the first time the Pittsburgh Steelers have missed the playoffs in consecutive years since they were absent from the playoffs for the 1998-2000 campaigns. The good news for the Black and Gold? It is unlikely that postseason drought will extend into a third season, as multiple factors point toward the Steelers making a return to the playoffs in 2014 after an 8-8 campaign last year, and winning the AFC North. Here's why.

Their run-blocking prowess could reach elite levels with the return of Maurkice Pouncey

The Steelers bring back four starters who served as the core of a blocking wall from last year's offensive line, a unit that posted a superb total in the good blocking rate (GBR) metric. GBR measures how often an offensive blocking wall gives a ball carrier good blocking, which is very roughly defined as not allowing the defense to do anything to disrupt a rushing attempt. Pittsburgh's 44.7 percent GBR last season ranked ninth in the league.

The fifth starting spot is at center, which should be upgraded with the return of Pouncey from a knee injury that cost him all but one game of the 2013 season.