After watching Super Bowl 50, you can’t help but wonder how the Pittsburgh Steelers would have fared against the Carolina Panthers had they beaten the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and the New England Patriots in the subsequent AFC Championship game, which would have taken place in Foxboro. There are so many what-ifs involved, however, and if you attach all of them to the Steelers, you have to allow several of the other teams that made the playoffs the opportunity to do the same.
All we can do at this point is to start looking ahead to the 2016 season as it relates to the Steelers chances of winning their seventh Lombardi Trophy. The early future odds indicate that the Steelers should have a good chance of playing next February in Super Bowl LI and on Monday, the “experts” at ESPN.com seem to think that will be the case as well as evidenced by their Way-Too-Early 2016 Power Rankings.
A panel of 21 voters from ESPN have determined that the Steelers should be the 6th ranked team heading into the offseason. However, as far as the AFC goes, they have the Steelers ranked behind both the New England Patriots and the Broncos.
Voting results: 569 points
Why they’re here: It’s hard to bet low when Mike Tomlin is entering his 10th season and has finished under .500 zero times. The Steelers had one of the best offenses in the NFL in 2015 … without Le’Veon Bell. He’ll be back, the ridiculous corps of wide receivers will be too, and Big Ben will be healthy. A defense that has transitioned young is improving and will return Senquez Golson.
What could change: The Steelers face a major cap crunch, among the worst in the NFL. In short order, they could lose up to six starters in free agency, including a pair of starting offensive linemen, in front of a QB that is too often playing hurt. They might need to be creative just to keep Heath Miller. Heeeeaaatth sounds a little like not very deeeeeep.
The cap crunch that these “experts” point to isn’t really worth addressing again as I have already done so in a recent post. I will add to that, however, that tight end Heath Miller and his contract isn’t really a concern at all and I will be surprised if he’s released or extended.
The Steelers look poised to have nearly all of their offense back in 2016 and assuming their key players stay away from injuries and suspensions, you would have to think that unit has the potential to be the best in the league in 2016.
Yes, a lot will be expected out of young cornerback Senquez Golson next season, but the success of the Steelers defense in 2016 will rely on more than just him as young linebackers Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier must also make huge jumps next season. While the Steelers defense did improve their sack and pressure numbers in 2015, they still need to get better when it comes to getting more consistent pressure on the edge. Additionally, their secondary still needs improvement and it will be interesting to see how that unit gets addressed during the offseason.
While the NFL is still very much a quarterback-driven league, we saw during this year’s playoffs that a better-than-average defense can be the deciding factor when it comes to competing for a championship. For that reason, the Steelers being considered the sixth-best team in 2016 as the NFL enters the offseason is probably a fair ranking.