The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.
Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.
So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.
For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
At arguably the most critical position on the defense, the Steelers have gone from a former undrafted free agent who turned into a Defensive Player of the Year to a first-round draft pick who is running out of time to avoid the ‘bust’ label. There is perhaps no greater chasm in quality from than to now than there is at the right outside linebacker position.
The aforementioned Defensive Player of the Year is, of course, James Harrison, who took over the starting job full-time in 2007 and set a new franchise mark for sacks the following year. He was, for a stretch of four or five years, the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the game, and a two-time starter in Super Bowls for the Steelers.
Even today, at the age of 37, he retains some residuals of the player that he once was. He came out of retirement to post 5.5 sacks last year in limited work, eventually taking over a starting role simply because he was the best option that the team had, which was not the plan.
The plan was, of course, for Jarvis Jones to start the entire year, who is the former first-round draft pick that the Steelers selected after releasing Harrison in 2013. He likely would have been a day one starter had it not been for an injury suffered in the final preseason game. instead, he started in the second week.
He eventually lost his starting position as a rookie, but was put back into the lineup due to injury. The coaching staff was hoping to see significant improvement from him in his second season, but everything was sidetracked with a wrist injury suffered in the third game that wiped out half of his season and limited him upon return.
Jones has offered an occasional glimpse here and there of the potential to develop into a playmaker, even if that doesn’t always come in the form of a game-changing pass rush. Whether or not he ever manages to develop into that type of player remains to be seen, of course.
When making a comparison between the Steelers of today and the Steelers of their most recent championship, however, this particular position reflects a clear negative disparity for the modern incarnation. Harrison was the best in the game, while Jones is just hoping to not go down in history as a bust. He could still improve significantly and pale in comparison to Harrison at his height.