New season, same faces in Steel City
Pittsburgh was too good, too electric on offense, too experienced where it matters, to have its 2017 season end prematurely at the hands up the upstart Jaguars in the AFC divisional round. Their long-anticipated rematch with the Patriots never materialized, and the Steelers were sent into an offseason with plenty to mull. Months later, the roster is barely changed, and neither have the expectations. There’s no telling how much longer their vaunted triple-B trio will be together, but the Steelers expect to be nothing less than Super Bowl contenders in 2018.
For the first time since 2011, veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be working with a different offensive coordinator. Todd Haley, whose topsy-turvy relationship with Roethlisberger was well documented, is now with the division rival Browns, and Randy Fichtner, who previously served as Roethlisberger’s quarterbacks coach, is calling plays for the first time since 2006 when he was at the University of Memphis. There’s not much to fix from a production standpoint -- Pittsburgh ranked third in total offense and eighth in scoring offense last season -- but Fichtner is expected to get even more out of the Steelers’ 15-year veteran quarterback.
Roethlisberger’s year-to-year numbers have been nearly identical ever since the triple-Bs -- himself, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell -- became a force to be reckoned with. Last year was more of the same for all three from an individual statistics perspective, but Pittsburgh, as an offensive unit, had uncharacteristic red zone issues. The Steelers were a pedestrian 18th in the NFL when it came to converting opportunities inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns. These struggles played a big part in kicker Chris Boswell landing in the Pro Bowl, as the Steelers attempted a whopping 24 field goals inside 40 yards. If Fichtner gets Pittsburgh to break into the top 10 in red zone offense, the Steelers could be back on top as the league’s best scoring offense.
Roethlisberger, at 36, has openly talked about his football mortality but should be reinvigorated by the arrival of rookie Mason Rudolph, the highest-drafted Steelers quarterback since Roethlisberger back in 2004. Roethlisberger doesn’t move the way he did as a rookie, but he makes up for it with craftiness and trust in his loaded stable of playmakers. There’s no better security blanket in the business than Bell, who in 2017 registered his lowest yards-per-carry average since his rookie season but took on a career-high 106 targets in the passing game and turned them into 85 catches for 655 yards. If Bell, who is unhappy with his contract situation, bypasses training camp like he did last year, it’s fair to expect a slow start from the talented running back. It just might not matter, as Brown remains in the thick of his prime after clearing 1,500 yards with nine touchdowns in 2017.
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s breakout rookie season made Martavis Bryant expendable, and the Steelers will count on the second-year player to do even more. If his rookie season was only a sneak preview of what’s to come, Pittsburgh might just have the best one-two punch at wide receiver in the NFL. If they get half the production from rookie James Washington -- a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State -- that they got from Smith-Schuster as a rookie, it will be considered a win. Jesse James has acquitted himself nicely as the featured tight end, but his production hasn’t matched what Heath Miller gave the offense in the past. They don’t really need it to.
Stability has been the key for Pittsburgh’s offensive line, which comes back in full for 2018. Three of the five -- left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro - -are coming off Pro Bowl appearances. Their presence gave Pittsburgh no choice but to let Chris Hubbard, a key reserve whom the franchise groomed and developed over four seasons, walk in free agency.
The tragic loss of Ryan Shazier in Week 12 took the heart and soul out of the middle of the defense, and the Steelers never recovered. They’ll have a full offseason to regroup and prepare for life after Shazier, who has made incredible strides in his recovery from a serious spinal injury but has been already ruled out for the 2018 season.
The defensive roster reconstruction centered on the secondary, where the Steelers released a number of notable names, including hard-hitting veteran safety Mike Mitchell, in hopes of getting younger and better against the pass. Perennial Pro Bowler Joe Haden isn’t the same player he used to be, but he’s reliable enough to be a solid option opposite Artie Burns, whom the Steelers expect to elevate his game in his third season. Morgan Burnett, who spent his first eight seasons in Green Bay, was the Steelers’ biggest addition in free agency and is poised to fill the void left by Mitchell. Pittsburgh could very well utilize three safeties in a number of formations, as first-round selection Terrell Edmunds gives defensive coordinator Keith Butler a versatile option in the back end of the defense. Don’t be fooled by the traditional depth chart: Mike Hilton, a former undrafted free agent, is essentially a starter on this defense after emerging as one of the league’s top nickel backs in 2017. Containing the big play will be an area of focus for a unit that was 29th in deep passing yards allowed in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
Up front, the Steelers remain stout and stable. Cameron Heyward made the 2018 Pro Bowl and continues to embody the nastiness Pittsburgh fans relish from their hardest hitters. He’s coming off a season in which he recorded the most sacks (12) by a Steelers defensive lineman in more than 30 years, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again. This group will be under a new coach, Karl Dunbar, for the first time in a generation after John Mitchell shifted his focus exclusively to his assistant head coach role.
The Steelers remain young at outside linebacker. As a rookie, T.J. Watt led everyone at the position with seven sacks, while Bud Dupree, who is entering his fourth season, tallied six. Both have been asked to do more than previous players in their positions, as the modernization of NFL offenses has forced them to drop into coverage more often. Watt has been especially up to the task, as head coach Mike Tomlin has described him as “more of a linebacker than a lineman.” Dupree’s performance has been up and down thus far, but Pittsburgh provided him with a boost of confidence of sorts when they picked up his fifth-year option. Anthony Chickillo saw his playing time increase in 2017, and he can be counted on if Watt or Dupree goes down for any period of time.
In the middle, there’s no way to truly replace a player of Shazier’s caliber, but the team will roll forward with Vince Williams and Jon Bostic, whom the Steelers signed in free agency. Bostic has bounced around the league since he arrived as a second-round pick out of Florida, but he’s the frontrunner to take Shazier’s spot on the depth chart. He’s coming off one of his most productive seasons, recording 97 tackles in 14 games with the Colts.
Boswell was Mr. Reliable for the Steelers in 2017 and looks undaunted kicking in the swirling winds of Heinz Field. Pittsburgh will hope not to rely on him as much as it did last year, but it has insurance knowing he’s currently one of the best in the game. You won’t find Jordan Berry anywhere near the top of the NFL’s punter rankings, but he’s been steady for the Steelers since 2015. Brown and Smith-Schuster are consistent threats to break off big returns, and both provide proof that teams don’t necessarily need to employ return specialists on their 53-man rosters.
The Steelers have all the right pieces to pile up points and breeze through the regular season on their way to another AFC North title. They’re a serious Super Bowl contender, too, but they’ll have to clear all the necessary hurdles to get there first.