The Closing Window Behind the Steel Curtain: Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Preview

The Pittsburgh Steelers, on paper have the most potent offense in the league and until a few months ago were my favourites to win the Super bowl. But suspensions to two of their most explosive players and a lack of depth in key areas, has me questioning whether they really are on “the stairway to seven” or going to be the “nearly men” as their Super bowl window begins to close.

2015

In 2015 the Steelers offense was as explosive as any in the league. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown were considered by a number of people to be the best at their craft (including the Gents). Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley’s relationship got off to a rocky start, but in 2014 it seemed to click into place. 2015 was primed to Roethlisberger’s big year with Haley, but it never really worked out.

Well that’s a little strong. They did finish 10-6 still and made the playoffs, but this team was considered a strong Super bowl contender, which is something they obviously didn’t achieve. The loss of Le’Veon Bell was huge for this team down the stretch. DeAngelo Williams came in and performed admirably, but there’s no doubt that had Bell been in the line-up for their game against the Broncos, we could have had a very different Super bowl winner. Roethlisberger missing several games early on, leaving Landry Jones and Mike Vick to run their offence, hampered their regular season run too. The fact remains that if Roethlisberger had started those games, they might very well have gone through to the playoffs, with a bye for the wild card.

The defence went through a difficult transition. Dick Le Beau had been the defensive coordinator for 13 years. He left to make way for Keith Butler, who had the unenviable task of transforming a flat 3-4 defence into a 3-4 hybrid. The Steelers had run a 3-4 longer than any other team in the league, which makes his job of transforming the unit all that more impressive. The Steelers run defence was one of the best in the league, ranked 6th for yards on the ground and 2nd for TDs allowed, with a stingy 6 TDs making it to the end zone on the ground. Pittsburgh pass defence were less efficient, allowing 4350 yards through the air and 29 TDs.

It became clear when 2016 rolled around where the main issues were for this team.

2016

Straight off the bat the Steelers had to deal with 3 big losses to the 2016 season. Martavis Bryant had a good 2015 and was set for another big year, with Antonio Brown drawing a lot of attention in the secondary. Bryant will miss the at least the entire season after multiple failed drugs tests. Le’Veon Bell was set for a 4 game suspension, for missing a league mandated drugs test. Like last year however Bell had it reduced, this time to 3 games, meaning he’ll be back for a tough game against the Chiefs. The reductions of these suspensions are massive and excellent news for the gents favourite running back. last year getting his suspension reduced to 2 games meaning he was only in line to get a 4 game suspension, then having the same happen this year means he’s avoided a potential future 10 year suspension, with 4 games being the most he could miss following another substance abuse issue. Along with the suspensions, the loss of Heath Miller to retirement means that Roethlisberger is losing his favourite safety valve at tight end. Not a good start to the potent Steelers off season.

Filling holes from 2015 was the main goal of the Steelers coming into free agency. Ladarius Green was the big pickup on the Steelers offence, filling in for Heath Miller and bringing with him a decent amount of so far, unrecognised potential. Really it’s make or break time for Green who struggled to get snaps with Antonio Gates still playing well and will have to impress to stay ahead of a very hungry Jesse James on the depth chart, which will involve coming back off the PUP list firing. Aside from Ladarius Green they didn’t add a great deal in free agency. Ryan Harris joined them as a backup left tackle from the Broncos as did tight end David Johnson, Steven Johnson at inside line backer and Ricardo Mathews at defensive end, who all add some much needed depth.

In the draft they started future proofing the team in areas that were a little on the shallow side. Artie Burns comes into the league pretty raw and with a quad injury side-lining him for the 1st 3 games of pre-season, we might not see him on the field too much to start with. Burns could however be a valuable depth player down the stretch in a potential playoff run. Sean Davis was picked up in the 2nd round and brings some versatility in the backfield. Davis can line up as a hard hitting safety or in the slot. Davis played football in Maryland and last season accrued 88 tackles with 5 forced fumbles. Clearly he’s been brought in to attempt to fill the vast gap that Troy Polamalu left. Continuing the theme of versatility through to the 3rd round, the pickup of Javon Hargrave is beginning to look like one of the moves of the draft. With Keith Butler transforming the defensive unit from a straight 3-4 to a hybrid unit, Hargrave brings an ability to line-up as a straight 3-4 nose tackle or part of a 4 man front. If Hargrave can push to the 1st team, he looks like a nose tackle that could pick up 5 sacks this season from the middle of the line.

The Steelers added players that have a decent amount of potential, but can they get good before the Steelers Super bowl window closes?

Is it too late?

The offence, even without Martavis Bryant has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Roethlisberger has been on the cusp of being included in the leagues greats for a few seasons now and it feels like it’s a matter of time before we can have the conversation about him as a potential best in the league. Antonio Brown has only been name checked briefly in this piece. The truth is there is little I can say about Brown that hasn’t been said a million times. Antonio Brown in my eyes is the most talented receiver in the league and is vitally important to this team. Behind Brown though there are a few concerns. The competition for the 2nd spot seems to have been overblown a bit. I’d be very surprised if Markus Wheaton doesn’t win out against a lacklustre Sammie Coates, with Eli Rogers pushing them both. Whilst none of these are as talented as Martavis Bryant, they are all pretty capable of reaping the benefits that come with taking the field the same time as the best receiver in the league. As already stated Le’Veon Bell will be missing the opening 3 games… in steps DeAngelo Williams, who has been consistently one of the best backup running backs in the league. Williams should do fine for the opening 3 games with an injury prone Bell coming back to carry the load in week 4. Where the Steelers are sneaky good is on the offensive lines, which has seen little change over the last few years and have grown to become one of the best in the league under the tutelage of Mike Munchak. The Steelers line will be vitally important in keeping Big Ben healthy, which leads me to the downside of this unit. Where the Steelers will potentially struggle on offence is if Roethlisberger gets injured. Behind him is a selection of poor choices as a backup QB, starting with Landry Jones. If Roethlisberger goes down injured, we could see the Steelers look a lot like the 2015 Cowboys. The Steelers have one of the worst backup QB groups in the league.

Whilst on offence the window is possibly closing, it seems to be opening on defence. Yes there are older players but the system does seem to be working and really a lot comes down to players that have been knocking on the door of being a Pro-Bowl talent. Ryan Shazier has been a nearly man for the Steelers since he came into the league. Shazier is a smaller line backer who looks incredibly dynamic and in coverage, is a great match for most modern tight ends. However this comes at the expense of poor tackling technique, which has seen him miss on some big plays. Shazier needs to iron out some kinks, but could be one of the better line-backers in the league. Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones are 2 players with a lot to prove if they are to take snaps away from Arthur Moats and James Harrison. The pair combined for just 9 sacks last year. They will need to step up this year if the Steelers are to improve on defence. The secondary improved as the season went on last year, but how good can they be this year? Well they’ll benefit from being a unit not in flux for the 1st time in a number of years, and having 1st and 2nd round talent waiting in the wings is nothing to sneeze at. The Steelers depth in an aging secondary might be the key to success this year.

Whilst I do believe the Steelers window is closing, I think they have a couple of years yet before we see the best of this team. The offence is potentially the best it can be with Antonio Brown in his prime, but the suspensions make me think that maybe next year might be their year. The same goes for the defence. There is no doubt that this is an improving unit, but I don’t think it’s at a Super bowl calibre just yet.

Whilst there is an insane amount of talent on this unit and I think they’ll be a formidable playoff contender, I don’t think this team is a Super bowl contender… this year. I do think there is something quite special going on in Pittsburgh however and it seems like only a matter of time before they pick up the elusive 7th Lombardi.