We conclude our 2018 Regular Season Preview through the AFC North with a trip to the Steel City, where the Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to once again contend for a Lombardi Trophy. Despite going 13-3 infield 2017, Mike Tomlin’s charges ultimately fell short of expectations, as they missed out on Home Field Advantage due to a controversial loss to the eventual AFC Champion New England Patriots at Heinz Field, before getting upset in disappointing fashion (42-45) by the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars at home in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs. Heading into 2018, Pittsburgh must now deal with filling the void left by a number of departed players (and coaches) on both sides of the football, a rapidly improving division, an aging Quarterback, and yet another holdout courtesy of thier franchised All-Pro Tailback. So with that said, let’s take a look at (seriously, just) three key storylines that will ultimately determine whether or not the Steelers will extend their dominance of the AFC North, or if their Championship Window is indeed closing.
Show Bell the Money
For the second Offseason in a row, the Steelers are forced to deal with prolonged contract negotiations involving their stud Tailback Le’Veon Bell, who received the dreaded Franchise Tag for the second consecutive term. Bell, a Three-Time Pro Bowler held out for a lengthy period of time in 2017, and thanks to a lack of time in Training Camp, got off to an uncharacteristically slow start to the campaign, before ultimately compiling 1,946 All-Purpose Yards, and leading the league in Rushing Attempts (321). At 26-Years Old, Bell wants his payday, and he wants to be compensated greater than a Tailback, which in comparison to other positions, isn’t nearly as rewardewd as much as others. The crux of the dilemma is that he wants to recieve the money that some of the league’s top Receivers are garnering, which is a real debate given his influence in the Steelers’ Passing Game; the Sixth-Year Veteran has topped Eighty Receptions on three occasions in his career, racking up an average of 42.9 Receiving Yards per Game with Seven Touchdowns in that span. As these negotiations rage on, there is a sense that Pittsburgh will be relying on his services even greater than before, for the Offense will be featuring a new Offensive Coordinator in the form of Randy Fichtner, who is replacing Todd Haley, who spent the last six years as the team’s primary playcaller. They’ll also need to replace the oft-troubled Martavis Bryant (50 REC, 603 YDS, 3 TD in 2017), who after being suspended for the entirety of the 2016 campaign due to running afoul of the league’s Substance Abuse Policy, was traded to the Oakland Raiders during the NFL Draft last April. The bottom line is that this team needs Bell in uniform and on the field, but they’re going to have to pay him first, and handsomely at that, which eventually should happen.
Big Ben’s Twilight
Though he’s oftentimes openly mused about the end of his playing career, the inescapable truth is that Ben Roethlisberger (64.2%, 4,251 YDS, 7.07 NY/A, 28 TD, 14 INT, 62.9 QBR in 2017) is indeed entering the twilight of his illustrious tenure as the Steelers’ Starting Quarterback. Over the past fourteen years, Big Ben has been unquestionably one of the most successful Quarterbacks of his generation, owning a 135-63 Record (.682), which includes ten trips to the Playoffs and three appearances in the Super Bowl, where he has hoisted a pair of Lombardi Trophies. In that time, he’s progressed from a young Game Manager to a bonafide mad-bomber, and is sure to be a Hall of Famer when he inevitably calls it quits. However, at some point the 36-Year Old will begin to slow down, particularly when you consider some of the circumstances that he’ll be facing this sseason. First and foremost, don’t make the mistake of overlooking the departure of the aforementioned Haley, who despite clashing with him in the past, has enjoyed by far and away his greatest individual showings. Then there is the wear and tear of injuries, which Roethlisberger has sustained with increasing abundance over the past few years. Consider this for a moment: the veteran has started all sixteen games in a season just twice since 2010. And then there is the waffling back and forth between extending his career and prematurelt calling it quits; after falling in last year’s Division Round, he openly pondered to the Media that his career may have indeed come to an end, only to reverse course and proclaim that he would be playing another three years for the Black & Gold.
All good things come to an end, and that notion rings particulalry true in the world of sports, where if you blink, you may miss a team’s rise and fall. Which brings us to the Steelers, who after advancing to the Playoffs in each the past four seasons, have yet to climb the proverbial mountain and compete on teh grandest stage, despite owning clearly the most productive QB/RB/WR Combo in the league today. Whether it’s that they run against a peaking New England Patriots team, or an upstart Baltimore Ravens or Jacksonville Jaguars, fate has continued to deal Mike Tomlin’s charges cruel hand after cruel hand. At some point, as is the case with all teams, that magical window of opportunity closes, leaving everyone to wonder what could have been. This team in particular, really makes one wonder which side of the coin they fall on. Roethlisberger may be entering his twilight, but when he’s healthy and upright, there are few Quarterbacks that you’d rather have in your corner with the game on the line. We’ve covered Bell’s absence, which could lead to a slow start for aguably the league’s most productive non-QB, though his presence alone makes this Offense elite. And then there’s Antonio Brown (101 REC, 1,533 YDS, 9 TD in 2017), whom while insanely prolific, has picked up a few nagging injuries in Training Camp already, which again leaves us to wonder if Pittsburgh’s celebrated Big Three will indeed be ready by the Season Opener in Cleveland, and just how long it will take them to get on the same page. And what about the rest of the team? Don’t discount the playcalling void left by Haley, or the fact that the middle of the Defense really felt the loss of Pro Bowl Linebacker Ryan Shazier (89 TKL, 3 INT, 11 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR in 2017), whose career may likely be over after sustaining a brutal hit late last season. There’s a lot of things to think about with the Steelers, who may (or may not) be on the verge of declining.
2018 Outlook: 10-6 (Playoffs)
Projecting the Steelers for 2018 is a tough call for a number of reasons which we have thus far listed, for while possessing elite talent at a number of positions, the overall “feel” of this team appears to be trending in a negative direction. Tomlin’s control of his charges has been a legitimate question for about a year now, particularly his Big Three, which is rather remarkable when you consider just successful they’ve been over the past four years. However, while they have plenty of question marks, Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in a wealth of areas, for few teams in the leageu draft and develop on both sides of the ball better than they do. With that said, as the rest of the AFC North improves, and what looks like a daunting schedule ahead of them, we’d be surprised if the Steelers replicate their 13-3 record in 2018, though we firmly expect them to be in contention for the Playoffs, and one of the likley candidates to be representing the AFC in Super Bowl LIII