The 2017 NFL season is finally here. The 2016 season ended at the hands of the New England Patriots in one of the most forgettable AFC Championship Games the Steelers have played. With Ben Roethlisberger toying with the idea of retirement this offseason, the Steelers have gone “all in” on the chance to win in 2017. Every year, Mike Tomlin says his only concern is winning the Super Bowl. This season, the Steelers clearly have their sights set on finishing the season in Minnesota in Super Bowl LII. The road will not be an easy one, but this is the opportune time. Everything is aligned for the Steelers to take their shot this season. Ben is back. Le’Veon Bell turned down a long-term deal but is playing on a one-year franchise tag. Martavis Bryant is fully reinstated from his suspension. Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt signed contract extensions. The Steelers even signed former Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden during the preseason to boost their secondary. The time is now. The last three years of playoff exits in the Wild Card, Divisional, and Conference Championship rounds have built to this. Now is the time. Here. We. Go.
After a summer of speculation, Ben Roethlisberger committed to playing the 2017 season. He left the door open that this may be his last year of football. Ben is coming off an up-and-down season where he played like the 2nd best quarterback in the league at home and the 26th best quarterback in the league on the road. The biggest question surrounding the Steelers offense is which Ben will show up in a given week. If Ben plays a full season like he plays at home, he has a chance to win league MVP and the Steelers will absolutely be Super Bowl contenders. Landry Jones will be the #2 quarterback and despite what some might say, he has actually grown into a capable backup. Landry is not Ben and can not be counted on to win multiple games in a season. That said, if Ben gets hurt Jones is capable of stepping in and moving the ball down the field. Josh Dobbs will be the #3 and while he showed some flashes of potential in the preseason, we will hope he is able to get a “redshirt” year where he can focus on learning the playbook.
Le’Veon Bell is back. He signed his one-year franchise tender and will be the every down back for the Steelers. The only thing that can slow down Bell is an injury. He is the best running back in the league and can run both between the tackles and can get to the outside. Bell runs with patience and has great vision to see the hole and the explosiveness to drive through it. He finishes hard and displays both physicality and agility. Bell is also one of the best receiving backs in the league and can catch passes both out of the backfield and can split out and play a receiver role. James Conner was drafted to be the top backup. In one of the surprises of training camp, Terrell Watson beat out Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis for the third running back position. Roosevelt Nix will once again be the fullback and will likely get his one catch for 9 yards per game.
The long offseason may have made you forget this, but Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league. Only 5 times has a Steelers receiver surpassed 100 receptions and 4 of those belong to Brown. He also owns the three highest single-season yardage totals in Steelers history. It is an absolute treat to watch him play and you should enjoy every minute of it. Brown is one of the best technical receivers in the game and gets open through a variety of route combinations and quick cuts. Brown has some of the best hands on the team and rarely drops a pass. He can toe the sidelines better than anyone in the league and his patented 15-yard out-route is unstoppable. Brown should see fewer safeties hanging over the top this season with the return of Martavis Bryant. Brown’s yards after the catch dropped significantly last season because the Steelers lacked a consistent deep threat. With Bryant’s full reinstatement, the Steelers have two receivers that could top 1000 yards. Bryant displayed a bit of rust in the preseason but has shown a willingness to work and be on the field and continue to improve. He will still drop some balls, but he has the physical tools to be a dominant player. Eli Rogers will be the slot receiver and Darrius Heyward-Bey will get a helmet on Sundays if only for his special teams abilities. Justin Hunter is essentially an insurance policy for Martavis Bryant. He can do many of the same things by vertically stretching the field and gives the Steelers another tall, speedy target to work with.
The biggest offseason acquisition was trading for TE Vance McDonald from the 49ers. McDonald is a tall target with good speed downfield. He scored two touchdowns of over 65 yards the last few seasons. He can do more after the catch than any tight end the Steelers have had since Eric Green. McDonald should be able to own the middle of the field against teams that play cover-2 press like Baltimore and Cincinnati. Ben Roethlisberger will be the best quarterback McDonald has ever played with and should be able to maximize his potential. Once McDonald fully learns the playbook, he will settle in as the #1 tight end, though Jesse James is still the better blocker. James is a decent #2 option and can get open in the middle of the field but isn’t going to bring much after the catch. Xavier Grimble has showed flashes and made the team as the third tight end over David Johnson. Grimble is the better receiver while Johnson was the better blocker.
The Steelers signed Alejandro Villanueva to a contract extension which solidified the five starters on the offensive line. The Steelers had one of the best lines in the league last year and they have been able to consistently open holes for Le’Veon Bell and keep Ben clean in the pocket. David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey have been Pro Bowl players and Marcus Gilbert has played at a Pro Bowl level but been overlooked because he plays RT instead of LT. With Villanueva and Foster on the left side, the Steelers will look to run left quite a bit to enable DeCastro to pull from his RG position. Chris Hubbard played well as a backup tackle last year and is capable of stepping in or providing a spot start. BJ Finney had a dominant performance at the guard position when he had to start against Buffalo. The top 7 linemen are set in stone. Second-year lineman Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler may not get helmets on Sundays and are waiting in the wings if additional depth is needed.
Cameron Heyward is back. In the last two seasons when he was fully healthy, Heyward led the team with 7 and 7.5 sacks. Last season he was on a similar pace before suffering a season-ending injury. Heyward’s presence on the defensive line makes everyone else better as he commands a double-team, including Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave. Tuitt has blossomed into a solid player on the verge of his second countract. Hargrave had a good rookie year and showed rare explosiveness from the 3-4 NT position. Hargrave is athletic enough that he is able to fill in during nickel package sets as well. Former Jaguars first round pick Tyson Alualu was signed in the offseason to the be the top backup across the line. He also has some athleticism and played both inside and outside in the Jaguars 4-3 front. Alualu and Hargrave will enable the Steelers to rotate their linemen so Heyward and Tuitt do not have to play 60+ snaps per game.
Will this finally be the year a Steelers linebacker breaks the 8-sack threshold? Better yet, possibly the 10-sack threshold? The last Steeler to hit 8 sacks in a season was Jason Worilds in 2013. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison both had 9 in 2011 and 2010 was the last season a Steeler achieved double-digit sacks (Harrison 10.5, Woodley 10). Bud Dupree has the best chance of any to break through after spending his offseason in intense pass rusher training. Dupree produced 4.5 sacks last season in just 7 games after missing time due to injury. On the other side, rookie first rounder TJ Watt is slated to start but James Harrison will see time. Watt got off to a great start in the preseason but cooled off. He will need to win with effort and motor as his technique is not yet refined. Harrison has generated 5 sacks each of the last two seasons and Watt’s presence should keep the ageless wonder fresh.
On the inside, Ryan Shazier’s ability to stay healthy and stay on the field will be a key factor in our defensive success. Shazier is a game-changing linebacker who can blitz and hit run gaps with speed and also make plays in coverage down the field. If he can stay healthy for a full season his play-making ability could put him in the Pro Bowl conversation. Vince Williams will start next to Shazier this season and is easily the Steelers’ best tackler. Williams is a great defender against the run but will likely be targeted in pass coverage. He is a good tackler in space but may get taken off the field on passing downs if the Steelers decide to play more dime this season. Tyler Matakevich is the top backup at both linebacker positions. Matakevich isn’t the fastest or most athletic player, but he excels in the mental aspect of the game. The Steelers trust him to be the man with the “Green Dot” to get the defense lined up if Shazier goes down.
Over the last few seasons, the Steelers have completely overhauled their cornerback depth chart. Just two years ago, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Ross Cockrell and Antwon Blake all started games at CB and people were constantly asking why Brandon Boykin wasn’t playing. Only one of those 5 is still with the Steelers. This season, Artie Burns will be the top corner and recently-signed Joe Haden will be the #2. The Steelers have been very vocal about wanting to play more press man coverage and now have the players to do so. William Gay and Mike Hilton will be the slot corners and could both see time in dime packages. Coty Sensabaugh will likely be the top backup on the outside while fifth-round pick Brian Allen may get a “redshirt” year as his technique develops.
Mike Mitchell has missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury and his status for the season opener is uncertain. Mitchell has yet to miss a game in his time with the Steelers and he has been an effective player when healthy. With Mitchell, you have to take the good with the bad. He will make an equivalent number of good plays as he does bad plays. The Steelers traded for hard-hitting safety JJ Wilcox from Tampa Bay this past week in the event that Mitchell can’t play. Wilcox is expected to play some snaps in the “big dime” package as well as an in-the-box safety. Sean Davis will anchor the other safety. Last year as a rookie, Davis got off to a rocky start when he was asked to learn both the safety and slot corner positions. When he finally settled in to just the safety role, his game exploded. He was an impactful run defender able to crash into the box and displayed good range and athleticism in the secondary.
Chris Boswell has been one of the most efficient kickers in Steelers history. He has converted over 87% of his field goal attempts since signing with the team in 2015. Among Steelers kickers that attempted at least 5 field goals, only Shaun Suisham has converted a higher percentage than Boswell. Jordan Berry is entering his third season as the Steelers punter, making him the longest-tenured punter since Daniel Sepulveda. Berry is good at pinning opponents inside the 20 but he doesn’t have a booming leg to pound a long punt when the Steelers are backed up in their own territory. The biggest surprise of the preseason was Kameron Canaday beating out 6th-round pick Colin Holba for the long snapper position.
Mike Tomlin is entering his 11th season as head coach of the Steelers. This offseason we did a “Ten For Tomlin” series looking back at his first decade at the helm. Tomlin is a risk-taker, sometimes to his own detriment. With a fully healthy offense heading into the season, you have to believe that Tomlin will continue his aggressive strategy of attempting to go for 2 after touchdowns. Last season against Dallas this strategy backfired and the Steelers were chasing points all game. Tomlin also has continued to struggle with clock management in endgame (and end-of-half) situations. He will at least make one mind-bogglingly ridiculous clock management decision each month. This is an area of his coaching that has not improved over time and he has repeatedly said he manages the clock “with his gut” which puts his players in situations to have to bail him out for his poor time management.
Todd Haley is beginning his sixth year as Steelers offensive coordinator. In his prior five seasons his offenses out-performed Bruce Arians’ units in nearly every aspect. Ben has also taken fewer sacks during Haley’s tenure. With all the weapons in place heading into 2017, will this finally be the season the Steelers make a run at the elusive 30 points per game average? The talent is in place and Haley has been able to maximize the potential of many players by putting them in positions to succeed. On defense, Keith Butler enters his third season as defensive coordinator. Butler has not been privy to an elite pass rusher, but he has found ways to manufacture sacks. The Steelers have finished in the Top 10 in the league in sacks in both of his seasons. Butler’s defenses are able to generate pressure through schematic blitzes rather than relying on individual talent. The Steelers have been very vocal about playing more press man coverage this season so it will be interesting to see how Butler’s schemes adapt. Special Teams coordinator Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of the Steelers blogosphere for quite some time. The kick return units have been nothing special and the punt return team hasn’t been able to produce much outside of Antonio Brown.
The Steelers have assembled a quality group of assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak is credited with the turn-around the Steelers have seen up front in recent years. This will be WR coach Richard Mann’s final year with the team as he has announced his plans to retire. On defense, Joey Porter gets a lot of publicity as the Steelers outside linebackers coach, but that unit has yet to flourish under his tutelage. Defensive line coach John Mitchell is one of the best in the game. Like Porter, Carnell Lake has yet to maximize the potential in the secondary, though this is arguably the best group he’s had to work with during his tenure.
The Steelers are the defending AFC North Champions and have won the Division crown in two of the last three seasons. Baltimore emerged as the top challenger last season and it took the Steelers until Antonio Brown’s immaculate extension on Christmas Day to seal the division title. The Browns made a number of moves this offseason to improve their roster, but the roster they had went 1-15 last year. In case you were wondering, they are in fact still the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals continued to do Bengals things, like signing Vontaze Burfict to a 3-year extension after he was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for an illegal hit in a preseason game. The Bengals once had a very deep roster that has been depleted because owner Mike Brown doesn’t like to spend money. They added a lot of speed in the draft with WR John Ross and RB Joe Mixon. The Ravens suffered an insane amount of injuries this offseason but also added Jeremy Maclin in free agency whose speed should play right into their “pass interference roulette” offense. Joe Flacco threw the ball more than anyone last season but had a paltry yards per attempt and was basically captain checkdown. The Ravens have nothing special in the running game, though their defense figures to be tenacious once again. If the Steelers offense clicks at the pace it should, there is absolutely no reason the Steelers should not repeat as division champions.
Coming into the season, a surprising number of media outlets were ready to crown the 2017 New England Patriots as better than the 2007 version that went 16-0. Many even predicted a perfect season. The Patriots subsequently went out and got the pants beat off them by the Chiefs in Week 1. New England is still the best team in the conference and it figures to be a race to 13 or 14 wins for who can secure home field advantage. The AFC West should be an exciting race as the Chiefs and Raiders will both be good and you can never count the Broncos out with their stout defense. In the South, the Titans are the favorites but Houston’s defense has carried them to two straight division titles. The Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game last season and should see themselves as one of the top two teams in the conference. They should be in the mix for homefield advantage and a first round bye in the playoffs. Head-to-head games against New England, Tennessee, Houston, and Kansas City will go a long way towards sorting out the pecking order in the AFC.
The Steelers will face the AFC South and NFC North in the rotation of non-divisional opponents this season. By virtue of winning the division last year, the Steelers also play the Patriots and Chiefs. Based purely on last year’s records, the Steelers have the fifth-easiest schedule in the league this season. According to Warren Sharp’s metrics, the Steelers have the 7th-easiest schedule in the league. The offense should flourish based on facing defenses that rank 26th in efficiency (26th in pass efficiency and 23rd in run efficiency). Similarly, the defense should have a fairly easy go of it as they face offenses that ranked 23rd in pass efficiency and 26th in run efficiency. The Steelers get the toughest opponents on their schedule at home. The run of games between mid-November and Christmas will ultimately determine the Steelers season as they face Tennessee and Green Bay at home, travel to Cincinnati, then play Baltimore and New England at home. The Steelers will be on national television 8 times this season with 5 night games and 3 more games featured in the 4:30 timeslot.
In conclusion, the Steelers have their sights set on making a run for their seventh Lombardi in Super Bowl LII. They have assembled the roster to do so, improving on their weaknesses from last year. If Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, there is absolutely no reason why the Steelers should not be in the running for homefield advantage in the playoffs. The Steelers have even made moves during the preseason such as trading for Vance McDonald, signing Joe Haden, and trading for JJ Wilcox, that indicate they are going “all in” this season. This could very well be Ben Roethlisberger’s final season in the NFL. He has given us 13 great seasons and finally has an offense in place with a plethora of weapons. The Steelers have the best running back and best wide receiver in the league. On top of that they have a deep threat in Martavis Bryant and one of the top offensive lines in the league. This has the potential to be the best offense in Steelers history. In recent years, teams have been able to reach the Super Bowl (and win it) without a dominant defense. A defense that is “good enough” – one that can slow teams in the red zone and force field goals along with producing timely turnovers can get you to the promised land. The team is mostly healthy heading into the start of the season. Now all that is left to do is go out on the field and perform.