After the return of Ben Roethlisberger and two straight wins, the attitude of most Pittsburgh Steelers fans has been pretty positive lately.
I know that I was growing frustrated prior to this short winning streak, with Steelers fans. The team faced so much adversity in the first half of the season dealing with suspensions and injuries and handled it really well in my opinion.
All things considered, I feel that the team and coaching staff has done a fantastic job coming out all of that in the driver’s seat for a wildcard. Still, the cries from Steelers nation were the same old sky is falling comments.
While it’s a little disappointing that the division race is essentially over, the team has a lot to feel really good about right now. Let’s take a look at the team for the rest of this season, and future seasons.
This Offense is Still Pretty Scary
It’s really disappointing that Le’Veon Bell’s season ended early, but he was fortunate that there was no ACL tear and should be back at 100% in camp next year. This year, he’d have been great to have in a playoff run, however, the Steelers made a great signing this past off-season when they grabbed veteran DeAngelo Williams. Plenty of national writers wrote this team off when Bell went down, but I would argue the Steelers run game is still better than a lot of playoff teams’ with Williams in the backfield.
Injuries to two very good offensive lineman has weakened that unit, but they’re managing to weather the storm. I believe the Steelers saw Alejandro Villanueva as the future LT all along when Kelvin Beachum walked after the season, so getting him reps now may not be such a bad thing. There’s still some home that Pouncey returns, and Marcus Gilbert has quietly played at a pro bowl level this season.
What can you really say about the passing game when healthy that hasn’t been said already? Ben Roethlisberger might be the best QB in the league right now not named Brady. With two weeks rest I expect him to put up some crazy numbers with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant in the final stretch of the season. Speaking of Antonio Brown, if he’d had Ben throwing to him all season, we might be talking about best season all time by a receiver. In games with Ben, Brown is averaging 10 catches, 151 yards, and 0.83 touchdowns. That would project to 160 catches(record is 143) , 2,416 yards(record is 1,964), and 13 touchdowns over a 16 game season.
Looking toward the future. The Steelers offense could lose Beachum and Ramon Foster, but most of them are going to remain intact for some time.
The Defense is Better than We Thought
Keith Butler is exactly what we’ve all wanted out of our defense for the past few seasons. It hasn’t been perfect, but the defense has been way better than anyone predicted. Despite ranking 22nd in the NFL in total defense, the defense ranks 5th in scoring defense which is all that really matters. They also are tied for 5th in the league in takeaways, something sorely missed in Lebeau’s last few seasons.
Just a couple of seasons ago, the Steelers defense was filled with old, expensive players. Drafting young talent became extremely important. There’s been some misses, but the defense finally has some young players with potential to make the defense respectable again.
Cam Heyward is a legitimate superstar. Stephon Tuitt in just his second season looks to be well on his path to be the same disruption that Heyward is. These two might be the best pass rushers on the roster, and give Butler credit for changing the scheme to let these guys loose.
Jarvis Jones isn’t what we all hoped when he was drafted, but he’s not a bad player. Looking back, the 2013 draft was terrible in the first round, and Jones might actually be one of the better picks. Personally I’m really hoping the Steelers figure out a way to retain him without breaking the bank. Arthur Moats is another play that’s not spectacular but very sold, and a very important piece of the OLB rotation. Bud Dupree is having one of the most impressive rookie seasons for a Steelers defender in a long time, and looking stronger every week. If Ryan Shazier can stay healthy, he showed in the 49ers game what kind of impact he can have.
The secondary is obviously the achilles heel of this defense, but they’ve made it work. I am excited about Ross Cockrell’s development. He has the ball skills to possibly be very good. My one worry going forward is that nearly all of the cornerbacks will be free agents after this year, but with the rest of the roster looking solid, I’d expect the secondary to be a huge priority in the 2016 draft.
To summarize the defense… Just a couple seasons ago we were saying this defense had almost no talent on it that wasn’t about to retire. In a short time, there’s now reason for hope.
I’m not sure how this season will go for the Steelers, but I do think that they’re in great position to make the playoffs, and will not be an easy out for anyone. I don’t see a team in the league right now that I wouldn’t give us a chance against with a healthy Big Ben.
I’m even more encouraged for 2016. I think right now the Steelers have a window for success that they need to take advantage of. We still have a franchise quarterback playing the best football of his career, and we have some guys like Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell playing at a very high level on rookie contracts. Once we have to start paying some of those guys, it’s going to be harder to keep our roster together, so the time is now for a 7th Lombardi.