As we slowly climb the last, hot, summer tracks of the roller coaster ride up prior to plunging into the 2017 NFL preseason, Steelers Nation finds itself drinking a curious brew of the bitter end of last year’s playoff run spiked with a shot of enthusiasm for an anticipated championship run.
Are we entering another long, drawn out version of Groundhog Day, where the Pittsburgh Steelers minimize the value of the preseason, struggle in the first half of the year, and then streak their way into barely making it into the playoffs…only to be spit out by a more Super Bowl-worthy opponent?
Or does this year signal the culmination of a five-year master retooling of the Black and Gold by Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert as they usher the team triumphantly into their next era of NFL dominance?
With nearly every planet aligning for Pittsburgh’s hopes prior to the beginning of the season, the time of strategic patience is probably coming to a close for Steelers fans as they grow increasingly aware their future Hall of Fame quarterback is entering the last prime cuts of his career.
After gorging ourselves on six months of the fillers and artificial ingredients of the offseason in terms of news about free agency, drafts and mini-camps, it looks like meat is back on the menu with the start of the preseason nearing.
What is the State of the Steelers as the season of 2017 approaches? Here is a position-by-position breakdown in this special Summer preview edition of the Spin.
In Pittsburgh, the molten steel of championships is forged by the defense and we’ll begin here with our positional overview. So many people believe Steelers Nation is over-obsessing about having to overcome the New England Patriots this year in order to be Super Bowl bound. After all, there are 32 teams in this league, the super-chill, anti-obsessors say. But the reality remains that Coach Bill Belichick has been stealing Mike Tomlin’s lunch money for years now, and based on Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live broadcast, Coach T is as obsessed about the bully as are Steelers fans. There was a growing narrative toward the end of last season that the Steelers defense was clearly on the rise. But…that was before the Patriots receivers were open…and by this we mean…really, really open in the AFC Championship. Like…back to the drawing board open. Have the Steelers made the adjustments on defense necessary to defeat the Patriots and the host of other rising offensive threats? Has there been a shift in mindset, talent or scheme? The preseason will provide many of these answers.
Linebackers have always been the Main Event in Pittsburgh, although of recent years, it’s fair to say they haven’t been as dominant as Steelers linebacking units of the past. The front office response is “out with the old and in with the new” as they invested a first rounder in J.J. Watt’s little brother T.J. Watt while allowing longtime star performer Lawrence Timmons to escape for brighter pastures in free agency. Timmons was underappreciated league-wide, and although he was graying a bit at the seams, he’ll provide the Miami Dolphins with at least a couple of years of glory. Don’t be surprised to see him in the Pro Bowl as free agency does raise the profile of a player. As for his replacement Vince Williams, no one is doubting his thunder. Will there be enough lightning in his step to keep up with running backs? That will be the big test as the entire linebacking crew will rise or fall with the performance of Williams in 2017. Expect Watt to add intensity to the squad, but history tells us this year for him will be on training wheels. Then there is Bud Dupree. Can he stay healthy long enough to show he was worthy of a prior first round pick? Tellingly, there are more questions than answers that you would normally want regarding this critical unit.
It seems far in the distant past when Steelers Nation was left to say, “Where’s the Beef?” when it came to the defensive line. After some Dark Ages following the retirement of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, it was a frustrating parade of Ziggys and Cams. But now the Steelers have a front line that is not only uber-talented, but is healthy and deep as well. No one will be running over the Steelers this year.
How many drafts has it been in a row where fans were screaming that the secondary was the position of greatest need? These shouts were answered this year with a…yes…third round pick in Cameron Sutton and a fifth rounder in Brian Allen. It’s clear that William Gay is winding down his career with the Steelers and safety Mike Mitchell won’t be that far beyond him. After that it’s the young and untested. Some say there is plenty of talent in Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Ross Cockrell, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh and maybe even Brian Allen to form a secondary of the future. The problem is…the team needs that secondary now. Should the team have dipped into free agency much more aggressively this offseason? This question will be answered all too soon as the team takes the field again.
If you dare mention that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had only a slightly above average season last year (for him) you’ll be attacked by the swarming team of velociraptors who defend him like he’s fragile eggs in their nest. The resigning of Landry Jones was cheered vigorously…throughout the Jones’ household, but perhaps not much further outside of the neighborhood. The Spin has always maintained that Jones could be the best third string quarterback in the league for years to come. He’s bright, hardworking and the ultimate team player. There’s just not enough there…there…to have him jog on the field if Big Ben goes down. Will the intriguing Rookie Scientist, Joshua Dobbs, give the Steelers more pizzazz at the number two spot…and perhaps even…gasp…provide a glimpse into the Steelers future at the position? Maybe not…but at least it’s somebody new to complain about for Steelers Nation. The greatest factor at quarterback is whether Big Ben will have the Biggest Season of his Big Career. That’s how it works when you’re the team’s franchise investment.
After years of worrying about wide receiver Marcus Wheaton’s crooked fingers, we now have Sammie Coates to be the next in line for that concern. Maybe Big Ben throws too hard. Coates was the heir apparent to Martavis Bryant before getting a bad case of the dropsies last season, a malady hopefully resolved by fingers that actually point north now. The big news is the return by the one he was going to be heir to, Martavis Bryant. In a team filled with “X” factors, Bryant may be the biggest one of them all for the Steelers. There is no question he was the turbocharger in the Steelers passing offense before having a year-long suspension last season. But was he as good as we remembered? And can he be more than a passing memory this time around? One of the greatest proponents of Bryant’s successful return is All-World Antonio Brown who will benefit from being freed from triple teams. There is also enthusiasm for rookie Juju Smith-Schuster as well as Eli Rogers and the rest of the talented squad. This…should…be…the most potent receiving corps in Steelers history. Keep your fingers straight and crossed.
Anytime your running back squad includes a member by the name of Le’Veon Bell, you’re already among the league’s best. You add an intriguing change of pace prospect in third round selection James Conner to go with some steady performers and you’ve got necessary depth. Should the Steelers bring back super-sub DeAngelo Williams for added insurance? Considering what a great teammate and pinch hitter DeAngelo was for the team, it would seem to make good sense if the front office is serious about making a Super Bowl run.
If Steelers fans thought the Ladarius Green situation was a headache last year, they’ll really have a migraine this season when they realize the potential he added to that roster position is gone. Jesse James has shown promise, but certainly isn’t being fitted for Heath Miller’s cowboy boots anytime soon. Will someone like Xavier Grimble be able take a huge leap and surprise everyone? Beyond that happening, this season may prove the Steelers need to select a tight end in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
They are healthy. They are exceptionally well coached and they know they have the chance to lead the way for the most prolific offense in Steelers history. The offensive line is a dream assembly of talent, attitude and teamwork. The spotlight continues to shine brightest on C Maurkice Pouncey and G David DeCastro but this season may reveal that the Steelers have the league’s best tackle combination in RT Marcus Gilbert and LT Alejandro Villanueva.
Chris Boswell continued to display that he is one of the league’s brightest, young placekickers and has already received the hard-to-win confidence of the fans. He’ll look to add some more consistency in his play in 2017 as he did suffer from a few head-scratching misses and had one of the most embarrassing onsides kick attempts in NFL history. Aussie punter Jordan Berry had such a sensational camp last year, his regular season play seemed a bit of a letdown. Still, he showed enough promise he may end up being the Steelers punter long into the future.
Probably the biggest, underperforming position for the Steelers over the past few years has been kickoff returner. Can you remember the last time the Steelers have been a consistent threat to “take it to the house”? Actually, the bar is so low now there is some celebration when the team manages to merely get it past the twenty-five. Whether it’s scheme, talent, or a combination of both, the Steelers have been absolutely toothless on kickoff returns and this will have to change if they expect to dominate opponents on the scoreboard. After much controversy last year, Antonio Brown returned to his role as punt returner, and mostly to yawns. Who will tote the rock on returns this year? It’s probably not as big of a question as, “Who will block for the returners?” this season.
Every rock star needs their roadies. Every championship teams needs their kick coverers. Although, the Steelers have been anemic with returns, they’ve been mostly strong in covering them through the past few years, which is probably the main reason Special Team Coordinator Danny Smith still has a job. With new, eager players to impose their will on Special Teams, there is no reason to believe the team won’t excel again in this area.
There are two main camps in Steelers Nation in regards to Coach Mike Tomlin. One believes he is the “Great Untouchable”, a coach so talented and beloved by his players he is beyond any reproach…at all…ever. The other camp is in the “Super Bowl or Bust” category. This “What have you done for me lately” group believes a head coach for the Steelers should either be polishing a Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season, or be polishing their resume. The truth lies somewhere in between. Tomlin and his staff are undeniably loaded with talent…especially on offense. This is a team that not only COULD go far in the playoffs, but SHOULD go far in the playoffs. The coaching staff is talented…and stable, so there aren’t any excuses. Barring an unusual crush of injuries, the Steelers should come out of the gate in front…and ride this horse far. Otherwise…yes…you should blame the jockey.
The most beautiful music played in Steelers Nation leading into the season is the “Sound of Silence”. That is, in terms of dramatic overtures. Remember last year? The Bell and Bryant bombshell disclosures and suspensions? The Antonio Brown contract. Last season was a year of Great Expectations. This year is no different, except that the team comes in much more focused…and much less distracted. Well…there was the whole Big Ben retirement saga. But, that’s pretty much Ben being Ben. No…all has been quiet on the Western front and this might have the greatest positive impact of all.
SO WHAT SAYS YOU?
The Steelers can already be declared Paper Champions…just like the 31 other teams entering the new season. For Pittsburgh, the paper prognostication is much more compelling. Yet, at this point, there are only questions. Will Roethlisberger be more focused on guiding his team to a championship than sifting through his 401K Retirement Plan? Will Bell be able to perform… without or in spite of the long term contract he is seeking? Is Bryant the next Randy Moss after all? Will he be around long enough for moss to grow? Can the young guns Watt and Dupree bring the sack back to Pittsburgh? Is Williams ready to show he is a Steelers-grade linebacker? Will Artie Burns and Sean Davis show the future of the Steelers secondary is bright? These questions and more…will begin to be answered in the preseason. Can’t wait to find out? Either can the Spin.