The 2016 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers were one game away from the Super Bowl. After looking at what the front office did to improve the roster in the offseason, here are five areas to examine on the 2017 Steelers team that will decide whether or not they make it to the Super Bowl.
Five Keys to Improving on the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers
Keep the Triplets Healthy in the Playoff Run and Beyond
The Triplets are Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, and unfortunately, they haven’t been healthy simultaneously when it comes to the playoffs. Last year Bell played only a few snaps against the New England Patriots, making him a non-factor while the Steelers were eliminated. Brown suffered a similar fate the year prior; he was in the concussion protocol after an illegal hit that he sustained in a wild card game against the Cincinnati Bengals. This led to Brown being sidelined when the Denver Broncos eliminated the Steelers from from the 2015 postseason.
Having Ben Roethlisberger’s biggest weapons on the field has been the formula to get the Steelers into the playoffs. If they want to go any further, they have to keep these elite talents on the field during the playoffs.
Breaking the Mold
Last season the Steelers were ranked 20th among NFL teams with 58.94% of their plays being passing plays. A lot of factors played in to this: Le’Veon Bell’s late season rampage, injuries throughout the Steelers wide receiver corps, Roethlisberger missing a few games, and the offense’s poor red zone efficiency.
The Steelers have the unique ability to make running room through their passing game. The weapons the Steelers employ at receiver demand respect, and it makes defenses vulnerable to a well-balanced, strong running game. It’s very likely the Steelers percentage of passing plays drops even further this year. In an ideal world Bell, along with rookie James Conner and Knile Davis, could combine for a total of 2500 yards from scrimmage throughout the 2017 season. It’s a huge number, but if healthy, it’s feasible. The numbers break down as follows: Bell rushes for 1,500 yards, racks up 500 receiving yards, Conner rushes for 200 yards, and Conner and Davis combine for the last 300 yards through receiving. Leaning on the backfield and offensive line hearkens back to the Steelers formula that worked so well under Bill Cowher at the start of Roethlisberger’s career. Roethlisberger was not forced to throw more than 30 attempts on a normal basis, and it was effective. The Steelers returned to a similar formula during the second half of last season when they ended the season on a seven-game winning streak.
The Three Musketeers
Entering the draft, outside linebacker was a major position of need for the Steelers. Now they have a nice mix of savvy veteran leadership in James Harrison, players getting close to their prime in Bud Dupree, and a raw talented rookie T.J. Watt. In 2008, the last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl, James Harrison and his counterpart LaMarr Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks.
I don’t think this group of outside linebackers can duplicate that level of success, but they can build on last year’s production. If Harrison, Dupree and Watt each get a minimum of six sacks, and one of the three can get ten sacks, the outside backers would/could hypothetically get their sack numbers back up into the 20s. This would take some stress off of a young secondary and prove that the Steelers are moving in the right direction when it comes to rushing the passer.
Shutting Down the Block
All of a sudden the Steelers cornerback room looks very crowded. Last year’s mainstays, William Gay, Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell, all return with another year of experience and a deep playoff run under their belt. But they are joined by free-agent signing Coty Sensabaugh, third round draft pick Cameron Sutton, and 2015’s second round draft pick Senquez Golson, who has yet to play an NFL snap due to injuries.
Entering the 2017 season, Burns would be the hands down favorite amongst fans and critics alike to blossom into a shutdown corner. He’s big, long, and fast, and when his ball tracking and tackling skills catch up with his natural gifts he projects to be amongst the league’s elite at the position in the near future. Sensabaugh is another intriguing prospect. He struggled on the outside for the Rams and was cut not even one season into a $15 million contract. But he has rebuilt his career playing in the slot. With today’s pass happy offensive schemes, having a lock down corner in the slot can be every bit as valuable as having a lockdown corner playing on the outside.
Out With the Egos
Numerous players have told me directly that the people in the Steelers locker room really love being there. There’s a high morale, a coach that the players like, and a high standard of excellence. I really believe that Steelers players love playing for one of the most storied franchises in the NFL. A lot of groups display close bonds beyond just football; the offensive line is a great example. But there is one group that does not fit the Steelers mold; yes, I’m looking at you, wide receivers.
I’m not going to recap all of the penalties and media controversy Antonio Brown caused last season with his social media accounts. Or the fact that newly reinstated star Martavis Bryant “needs to earn back trust” according to Ben Roethlisberger. Or that Sammie Coates largely underachieved in his rookie year. But it’s the way the receivers seem to conduct their business. There seems to be a “me versus the rest of the receivers” mentality instead of a group mentality.
Nothing outlines this better than Bryant’s reaction to the Steelers second pick in the 2017 draft: JuJu Smith-Schuster. Instead of welcoming Smith-Schuster to the team, which has become some of a Twitter tradition these days, Bryant commented on how Smith-Schuster was Coates’ backup and that he (Bryant) was back to stay. Head Coach Mike Tomlin put out the fire rather quickly by responding to the comments, saying “play nice boys” on Twitter.
But therein lies the problem, the Steelers receivers are not working as a group to improve but rather working to improve to show they are the superior player. Sometimes this type of competitiveness causes players to raise their performances to whole new levels. Others collapse under the pressure. Which will happen to this group of wide receivers? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain, Roethlisberger and Tomlin better have a short leash on that unit specifically or it could divide one of the NFL’s closest locker rooms.