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Steelers Spin: 2016 Season Crystal Ball Edition

September hails the dawning of a new Super Bowl era for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The rise of another decade of post season brilliance will be launched with the kickoff Monday night against the Washington Redskins in front of a national audience.

After dabbling in the uncertain waters of mediocrity the past few seasons, the NFL’s most storied franchise is back to claim its proper perennial standing as being among the league’s best.

The usual suspects of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will be around to provide some token resistance and a few generic brands in the National Football Conference will serve as speed bumps, but in the end it will be Black and Gold banners left to wave proudly.

So without any further foreshadowing, here is your 2016 Season Crystal Ball edition of the Steelers Spin:

9 Minutes of Evidence

There certainly is a lack of evidence, your Honor, when trying to forecast the success of any Steelers season. Coach Mike Tomlin’s philosophy toward competitiveness in the preseason is so lackadaisical it’s difficult to form legitimate expectations. In total, there were nine consistently shining minutes in the preseason, and all of those, quite un-coincidentally, were when QB Ben Roethlisberger was prancing about on the field. Of course, there was a splash interception return by CB Doran Grant, but it’s irrelevant now that he’s gainfully employed by the Buffalo Bills. Were those nine glorious minutes enough to comfortably predict a Lombardi Trophy? The Spin says…yes…but only if Big Ben is part of the pipe dream.

Of Particular Concern

This was one of the easiest roster cut downs to 53 in the past 20 years. In contrast to Tomlin’s starters who were mostly put on a shelf alongside the family’s bone china, the Twos, Threes and Fours played extensively providing plenty of evidence to support long, sustained yawns. This doesn’t bode well for the depth and more distant future of the team. The reality is the Steelers, when it comes to the cellar portions of the roster, were clearly out-scouted by a majority of other teams. The front office would be wise to swallow its pride and aggressively upgrade the practice squad via the waiver wire.

Nothing’s For Free

The other depressing observation is the Steelers whiffed on undrafted free agents as well. WR Eli Rogers is on path to being one of the NFL’s undrafted free agent sensations, but he counts as last year’s bounty. They’ll need to keep the watchtowers open if they are going to turn this year’s collection around.

The Trifecta

Fortunately, the lack of lower roster sensations is more than compensated by the fact that the Steelers brass had one of their best drafts in a long time. The trifecta of CB Artie Burns, S Sean Davis and DT Javon Hargrave will give the Steelers defense a talent infusion that will tip the scales to it becoming a team strength once again within the next year or two. Offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, selected in the fourth round, showed real promise as well before suffering a season-ending injury. Seventh rounder and fan favorite Tyler Matakevich demonstrated he is more than a novelty and may end up being the cherry on one of the team’s best modern era defensive drafts.

High Stakes Poker

The Steelers are not only a post-season favorite, but also are in the enviable position of boasting a young roster with an average age of 27. This means they can abandon a conservative, needs-based approach to strengthening their roster and go all in with high stakes acquisition poker. This is exactly why taking fliers on castaway players like CB Justin Gilbert and QB Zach Mettenberger is the perfect approach for the team moving forward. These are the kind of high risk, high rewards moves the New England Patriots used to build their dynasties. The Steelers have a strong enough locker room culture to adopt this approach as they attempt turn their hand into a Super Bowl Royal Flush for years to come.

No Secret Handshakes Please

But please, Coach Tomlin, no secret handshakes. Last year, he infamously brought in WR Jacoby Jones to return kicks and in the process sent RB Dri Archer, who at the time was a top five ranked returner, out to pasture. Jones performed so miserably from the get-go that the only reasonable explanation why he wasn’t sent packing was that he had some side promise from Tomlin to be kept on the roster. The Steelers should be taking chances on acquisitions, but need to avoid any unnecessary golden handcuffs in the future.

Gilbert’s Best Mentor

Gilbert arrives with a well-documented reputation as a slacker and underachiever. Several have suggested he get buddied up with LB James Harrison for some attitude adjustment. However; Gilbert’s best mentor would be WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. Like Gilbert, Heyward-Bey was deemed a high draft pick flop and the Steelers acquired him at Dollar Store pricing. But Heyward-Bey has rewarded the team handsomely by taking on the attitude of an undrafted player scrapping for a roster spot rather than that of some entitled Prima Donna. With Gilbert’s talents, if he takes on the Heyward-Bey Way, he’ll be the next great turnaround story for the Steelers.

No Grave Dug Here

One of the big stories of the preseason was the announcement that rookie sensation Hargrave had earned the starting nose tackle position over Daniel McCullers. Clearly, there have been a bastion of commenters who have panned McCullers since the day he was drafted and celebrated the news of his setback with unscholarly apoplectics. One went as far to say Hargrave’s success signaled the end of McCullers career as a Steeler. Some say he hasn’t developed. Bah…what rubbish. They said he couldn’t stay on his feet, now he rarely hits the ground. They said he couldn’t handle zone blocking, and he does so now handily. They said he didn’t have technique, but now he’s using his hands like a seasoned pro. Big Dan will never be a complete defensive lineman in the sense of a Reggie White. He will never have Mean Joe Greene’s disposition. But he is a significant defensive weapon. He is the anti-Cam Thomas, in that he is an unmovable object in the center of the line. He has only one move, which is straight up the field, but he does it better than just about any other player in the league. With McCullers, offenses either have to put up with having their center pushed back ten yards or they have to commit two linemen to hold him up. Either way is a big win for the Steelers defense. The truth is he will never be on Dancing With The Stars, and he may never be Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell’s belching, rip-the-lid-off-the-beer-bottle-with-his-teeth type of guy. But he gives the team a significant skill set that provides the d-line with depth and diversity. So let’s celebrate the rise of Javon “the Gravedigger” Hargrave, but not at McCullers expense.

A Pair of Threes

The addition of Mettenberger to the roster means the team will now have two quarterbacks trying to establish themselves as a true NFL backup with QB Landry Jones clearly having the inside track. The reality is this position is the team’s greatest Achilles Heel and if Roethlisberger goes down, so too will Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl aspirations. Jones ended the preseason with a boatload of interceptions and in his last six possessions, mainly against players who no longer collect NFL paychecks, he managed to inspire his team to only three points. You know you have a great backup when other teams are flashing number one and two draft picks at your general manager to dislodge them from your roster. When QB Teddy Bridgewater went down in the preseason do you think that Minnesota had the Steelers on speed dial?

One Of Us

You had to cheer for guard B.J. Finney when he made the Steelers final 53. Finney earned fame in Steelers Nation a couple of years ago with his passionate YouTube video documenting his teary-eyed announcement of earning a Pittsburgh contract. In a time of flighty superstars, with much of their allegiance focused on their wallets, it’s refreshing to know there are players who are superfans as well and wear the Black and Gold with pure pride. Straight off the couch and onto the field, it’s great to have someone who is truly one of us on the team.

Designated Hitter

Another moment of roster joy was earned by S Jordan Dangerfield, a guy who frankly hasn’t gotten any respect the past few years. If a baseball team has room for a guy who only bats .220 but racks up 25 homers, there ought to be room in the NFL for a player like Dangerfield. He may not be the most consistent in coverage, but he consistently delivers attitude-shifting hits.

Reynolds’ Fantasy Football Prediction

My Fantasy Football vision is the Steelers keep Big Ben upright and coast into the playoffs with a record breaking offense. They make it to the Super Bowl where the game-winning play is a 99-yard interception return by Dan McCullers. And, I’m there to watch it all in person. Impressed by the foresight and truth telling of the Spin, the Rooneys have me in their private box for the Super Bowl. There, Dan Rooney, Jr., the former ambassador to Ireland, confesses to being a huge fan of my Heirs of Ireland Series and our conversation is overheard by filmmaker Ridley Scott who writes a check for film rights on the spot. Oh…and Dave Bryan, at tremendous risk to his storied blogging career, his newly earned Vegas creds and his gilded reputation as an elite podcaster…invites the Spin to guest host an episode of The Terrible Podcast. Hee…hee…hee.

Back To The Future

And now for the coveted Spin prediction of the Steelers 2016 season. Drum roll please. The Pittsburgh Steelers will go 13-3 this year, minus one win for each game that Roethlisberger misses. Regardless, they make it into the playoffs, and with a healthy Big Ben leading an unstoppable offense and boasting a surging defense, the team wins the Super Bowl over…who cares…31-14.

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