The Steelers have been to more Super Bowls than almost any other team in the NFL. The standard for greatness in Pittsburgh, needless to say, is high.
So is it fair to use the term “drought” when it comes to the Steelers and their ultimate postseason destination of choice? Perhaps it’s a bit harsh, but the Steelers are now six seasons removed from their last AFC Championship and eight removed from their last Super Bowl victory.
Two of the main players from that momentous night in Tampa, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison, remain key members of a 2017 Steelers team that is determined to get back to the Super Bowl. The players around them now are almost completely different, but each side of the ball boasts a group that has grown together and is hitting its prime at the right time to help their elder veterans get another shot at the game’s top prize.
The Steelers have arguably the best running back in football with Le’Veon Bell, the best wide receiver with Antonio Brown, plenty of supplementary playmakers and a solid offensive line, but they’ll only go as far as Roethlisberger is able to carry them. The past two years have been tough on the 35-year-old veteran, who missed stretches of 2015 and 2016 with various injuries. Though most assumed he’d be back for his 14th season, Roethlisberger waited until early April to make it official. Clearly, he’s on the back end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, completely healthy or not. The Steelers are 28–13 with Roethlisberger under center over the past three seasons — a stretch that has seen him post three of his four highest passing yards-per-game averages.
Roethlisberger is the driving force behind an offense that should be nothing short of a top-five unit in 2017. A player of Bell’s caliber is poised for another big season after averaging more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in 2016, a suspension-shortened campaign that was so dazzling that some dubbed him an MVP candidate. Entering his fifth season, Bell is in the heart of his prime and will have no shortage of motivation while playing on the franchise tag. His security blanket of the past two seasons, veteran DeAngelo Williams, is no longer with the Steelers, but rookie James Conner is expected to provide short-yardage thump that should nicely complement Bell’s patient running style.
The Steelers did just fine through the air last season without Martavis Bryant, who was suspended from start to finish. Now with Bryant back in the fold, the Steelers present one of the league’s most dangerous one-two punches at wide receiver. Bryant’s blazing speed and ability to take the top off the defense not only makes him a dangerous deep threat, but also opens up the field for Brown, who has been the constant target of double-teams and bracket coverage over the past few seasons. And if Bryant can’t stay on the straight and narrow, the Steelers are prepared. On top of returning receivers Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pittsburgh added the well-traveled Justin Hunter in free agency and used a second-round pick on USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could make an immediate impact in the slot.
Tight end is a bit of an unknown with the release of Ladarius Green in May. The former Charger signed a four-year, $20 million contract as a free agent last offseason, but played in just six games because of injuries. Jesse James figures to continue serving as the primary tight end, although the depth behind him will need to be sorted out in training camp.
The Steelers didn’t add a single player to their offensive line through the draft for the third time in five years in large part because the unit returns completely intact and is one of the league’s most reliable. The group is strongest up the middle, where it features two Pro Bowlers, center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro. Entering his third season at the left tackle position, Alejandro Villanueva continues to ascend, while left guard Ramon Foster and right tackle Marcus Gilbert round out a unit that helps bring the best out of the team’s dynamic playmakers.
The glory days of The Steel Curtain are in the past. The Steelers of this era simply need a defense that can hold off opponents enough to let their high-powered offense go to work and build multiple-possession leads. They certainly have the makings of just that, especially if a number of their younger players build off the promising performances they posted in 2016.
Pittsburgh needs to be more consistent against the run. The Steelers regressed from fifth in the NFL in 2015 to 13th last season in rushing defense largely because of some aberration games (222 rushing yards surrendered to Miami, 231 to Cleveland). Pittsburgh went 2–4 in games in which it allowed more than 100 rushing yards.
Some of the ups and downs that the defense suffered through can be attributed to youth and injuries, as Pittsburgh relied heavily on rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave and rookie Sean Davis at strong safety and played without Cameron Heyward during the second half of the season.
The good news for Pittsburgh is that Heyward will be back at his spot on the end of the defensive line and players such as Hargrave, Davis and up-and-coming pass rusher Bud Dupree will be a year older and better.
Ryan Shazier made his first Pro Bowl in 2016 and is on the path to many more. He’ll be the lead dog in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense after the departure of veteran Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers will hope to get an immediate impact from first-round pick T.J. Watt, who essentially fills the spot vacated by 2013 first-round disappointment Jarvis Jones, who signed with Arizona. Watt, Dupree and the ageless Harrison, who will be 39 years young at the start of the season, will be the main men behind a pass rush that ranked tied for ninth in the NFL with 38 sacks in 2016.
A liability at times in 2015, Pittsburgh’s secondary showed signs of improvement last season, as rookies Artie Burns and Davis were tasked with major responsibilities right out of the gate. Both are bona fide starters on a unit that also features veterans Ross Cockrell and hard-hitting Mike Mitchell.
The depth on the back end will be supplemented by a mix of old and young with William Gay, rookie Cameron Sutton and the potential return of Senquez Golson, the former second-round pick who has missed the past two seasons with injuries. The Steelers certainly aren’t counting on much from Golson, so Sutton, a third-round selection out of Tennessee, should be expected to take on some kind of role as a rookie — just like a number of his counterparts who have grown together and improved with each passing season.
The Steelers aren’t going to fix what isn’t broken at kicker, as Chris Boswell will enter his third season with the job firmly in hand. After going 21-of-25 during the regular season, Boswell proved his worth and then some in the playoffs, connecting on all eight of his attempts, including a whopping six in Pittsburgh’s AFC Divisional Round win against the Chiefs. This will be punter Jordan Berry’s third season, too, and he’s coming off a similarly strong 2016 (45.6 yards per punt). The kick return job could be up for grabs, while Brown and Rogers will return punts.
Time might be winding down on Roethlisberger’s career, but there’s more than enough in the tank for what could be another exciting January in Pittsburgh. When the Steelers are healthy and clicking on offense, there are few, if any, teams that can stop them. With very little turnover from a roster that advanced to the AFC Championship last season, the Steelers are poised to make another run deep into the playoffs and could very well put an end to their Super Bowl “drought.”