The Pittsburgh Steelers were a perennial contender for the Super Bowl from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season until about 2011. They went 12-4 in that season, just a year removed from actually playing in the Super Bowl, but were a Wildcard team and were upset by the Denver Broncos.
They would go on to finish 8-8 during the next two seasons and undergo a short period of tinkering, but they have reached the postseason for four straight seasons now, reaching at least the Divisional Round in three straight seasons with one appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
They have gotten back to this point largely thanks to the investments that they have made in young players, but they are going to need even more contributions from some of their biggest young starters in 2018 if they hope to make the Super Bowl this season, according to Jeremy Fowler.
In a list of the five most important players for the Steelers in 2018, he included the names of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Artie Burns, and Bud Dupree, who a second-, third-, and fourth-year starters, respectively. Fowler argues that the fate of the season rides largely upon what these three players will be able to do.
“Smith-Schuster carrying his rookie momentum into Year 2 is crucial for the identity of the Steelers’ offense in 2018”, he wrote about the young wide receiver. As a rookie, he caught 58 passes for 917 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games, but he will be a full-time starter without Martavis Bryant here and should face a higher quality of competition on a play-to-play basis, facing a lot of off coverage a year ago.
“The Steelers have a budding star in linebacker T.J. Watt, and Dupree has the potential to become one, but it hasn’t happened yet”, the ESPN beat writer had to say about the team’s left (or is it right now) outside linebacker. He recorded a career-high six sacks last season in 15 games, but played through a shoulder injury. “The Steelers need Dupree to make plays in pass coverage and get to the quarterback more often”.
Burns was pretty inexperienced when Pittsburgh drafted him in 2016. He is still young, having only turned 23 in May, and still has a lot of potential for growth. Fowler wrote that he “has the physical tools to be a high-level corner. He hasn’t put it all together just yet. A more complete performance from him in 2018 would help solidify the back end”.
Dupree’s contributions may be the most significant, in my opinion, because it is the position at which the Steelers are thinnest among those named above. if he is not the player who steps up next to Watt, then nobody else is going to, either. There are other potential options at the other spots, but Anthony Chickillo and Keion Adams are probably not going to be the splash-play guys.