Let’s look back before we go forward: After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2013 and 13 with 8-8 records, they won the AFC North Division in 2014 (11-5) but lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round. In 2015, they didn’t win the division, but they secured a Wild Card Spot (10-6), beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round and almost upset eventual Super Bowl 50 winner Denver in the Divisional Round, and in 2016, they won another AFC North title (11-5), beat Miami and Kansas City in the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds respectively, before losing to eventual Super Bowl 51 Champion New England in the Conference Championship.
Now that 2017 is upon the Steelers, their goal (which has been their yearly standard) will be to take that extra step, win the AFC Championship and earn a trip to the Super Bowl, something that they haven’t done since the 2010 season when they lost to the Green Bay Packers. The last time they won the Super Bowl? In 2008 vs. the Arizona Cardinals.
This year’s Super Bowl will be played in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Steelers are hoping that they will be the AFC representative, but to do so they have to prove if they have what it takes to get there.
Like a good meal, it isn’t just one ingredient that will turn a team into a champion. It’s more than just their regular season, a good offense and defense and getting hot at the right time, it’s even more than chemistry, though that is a critical ingredient. No, the one ingredient that is needed above those others is hunger and if you are hungry, then you will do whatever it takes (as the Late Chuck Noll stated years ago) be a champion.
Can the Steelers make it to the Super Bowl? Yes. They proved that in 2016 before fizzling vs. the Patriots in the AFC Title Game, they also had that ‘look’ in their eyes when they almost beat the Broncos in the Divisional Round 2015. On paper, they are 12/1 odds to win the Super Bowl (behind New England, Dallas, and Green Bay) they are also predicted to win the AFC North for the 3rd time in 4 seasons. They have a strong shot at a 1st Round Bye. But the true question is, will they?
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For the first time in a long time, the Steelers actually had salary cap room, but true to their nature, they didn’t go out and spend it all in free agency. But they do know how to spend money on their own and they did so with their All-Pro WR as they gave Antonio Brown a 5-year extension worth $73 million. the eighth-year pro leads the league in targets, receptions and receiving yards while tying Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison with four straight campaigns of 100-plus catches in the regular season.
With more receptions over a four-year span (481). Brown’s 2016 wasn’t too shabby either as he caught 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 scores. The Steelers then placed the Franchise Tag on All-Pro RB Le’Veon Bell who can make $12.1 million with that tag. Bell had 1,268 yards rushing and scored 7 TD for the Steelers, but he also caught 75 passes (2nd on the team) for 616 yards. (More on him later).
The Steelers then signed three of their own free agents: 39-year old LB James Harrison, backup QB Landry Jones and FB/TE David Johnson, then they went outside and signed WR Justin Hunter, CB Coty Sensabaugh, RB Knile Davis and DE Tyson Alualu. In the NFL Draft, they made LB TJ Watt (brother of Houston’s JJ) their #1 pick, grabbed WR JuJu Smith-Shuster at #2 and former Pitt Panthers RB James Conner at #3 and also drafted several others with hopes of making their team better.
And as the team prepares to make their 51st trip to Latrobe for Training Camp July 27th, here’s what the Steelers need to do to punch their ticker to Super Bowl 52:
- Defense-It is said that defense wins championships, and even though today’s NFL seems to contradict that fact (See Super Bowl 51)you still need a good defense to win the Super Bowl (See the 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seattle Seahawks) and for a team who won their 6 Super Bowls with a great defense, it behooves the Steelers to have made improvements on this unit for 2017. As good as the 2016 team was, their defense had awful moments, especially in the secondary and it was truly proven when Patriots QB Tom Brady picked them apart in the AFC Championship Game. An excellent defense is what’s keeping this them from being the best team in the NFL.
Here’s what the Steelers did to improve this unit: With the re-signing of Harrison, they also drafted Watt as a potential Edge starter to improve their pass rush and added Alualu for depth on the line to backup the returning Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Jason Hargrave and added Sensabaugh and drafted Cam Sutton to help improve the secondary to complement top rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Veterans William Gay and Mike Mitchell are mainstays in the unit as well. They let veteran LB Lawrence Timmons walk in free agency and nearly signed LB Donta’ Hightower before he returned to the Patriots and are putting their inside LB game in the hands of Vince Williams and Pro-Bowler Ryan Shazier. Now, defensive coordinator, Keith Butler needs to add the chemistry to make this a better unit on the field.
- Beat the Patriots-You would think this would be #1, but the Steelers wouldn’t admit that to you, but you know that this is high on the list. Face it, the Patriots are truly in the Steelers heads. They have their number and they also are the standard of the AFC. They have beaten the Steelers in 3 AFC Championship Games (2001, 2004, 2016) and have owned them in the regular season. Since 2001, the Steelers have only beat the Patriots 3 times (2004, 2008, 2011) and will face them again this season at Heinz Field, so there’s no escaping this team unless they get eliminated in the playoffs before the Steelers can face them. In the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers were outsmarted by the Patriots from start to finish on offense and defense in that 36-17 defeat. The Steelers lacked the hunger that they had vs. the Dolphins and Chiefs and it sent them home while the Patriots were Super Bowl bound.
If the Steelers are to slay this giant, they need to do what they did in their 2004, 2008 and 2011 wins and that’s by punching them in the mouth early and often. Putting the pressure on Brady on defense and scoring touchdowns on offense. Plus, the offense can use time of possession to their advantage by keeping Brady on the sideline as often as they can. If they do that, then victory is possible.
- The return of Martavis Bryant-Fact: The Steelers made it to the AFC Championship Game without Bryant, just imagine what they could’ve done with Because of Bryant’s year-long suspension, the Steelers weren’t able to see what they could do with their deep-threat and had to rely on several youngsters (Eli Rogers, Darius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Coby Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers) to complement Brown and although Rogers was excellent all season, the other receivers were as successful, and it truly showed in the AFC Championship Game with several dropped passes and fumbles. Plus, it didn’t hurt that veteran Markus Wheaton missed most of the season due to injury. The Steelers let his walk via Free agency. The return or Bryant fix that problem quickly. Although he has played since 2014, he still hasn’t played an entire season (His best season? 2015: 50 rec, 765 yards, 6 scores)yet so the sky’s the limit on what this team can do with him for 16 games. He’s a proven deep threat that can stretch defenses.
- A Healthy Offense-This is truly not just one of the best offenses in Steelers history, but also n the NFL. It’s a fact that as the offense goes, so does this team, so it will help that this unit stays healthy and ready to roll in 2017. Of course, it starts at QB where 35-year old Ben Roethlisberger begins his 14th season and although he was injured for 2 games in 2016, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Last season, he passed for 29 scores and 3,819 yards. With Big Ben on the field, this team is a Super Bowl contender. But the foundation of this team is their offensive line who only allowed Big Ben to get sacked 16 times. The quintet of Maurkice Pouncey (Pro-Bowl), David DeCastro (Pro-Bowl), Marcus Gilbert, and Alejandro Villanueva provided holes for Bell and has proven to be one of the top lines in the league. Add Brown, Bryant, and Rogers to the mix, and this will be a sight to see in 2017. Being injury-free will truly benefit this unit.
- No Distractions! Which means no holdouts from Bell, and Villanueva, who want new contracts. Although Bell was given the Franchise Tag, he still hasn’t signed it and missed mini-camp. He rejected a contract from the Steelers that would’ve averaged $12 million annually and can’t participate in training camp without a contract. Although Brown is publicly pleading for Bell to come to camp, it remains to be seen if he does show up July 27th. The same goes for Villanueva who signed his exclusive-rights deal but has made it known that he want’s a new deal. The Army veteran filled in for Kelvin Beachum in 2015 and played so well, that they let Beachum walk to the NY Jets.
The Steelers don’t need to deal with holdouts in a season in which they’re trying to reach the Super Bowl, They’re a side-show and a distraction, which is why it was a good thing that they re-signed Brown. And Bryant and Villuneva both need to realize that the Steelers aren’t intimidated by holdouts, that won’t force their hands to sign players. If they want a deal, they need to come to camp.
So there you have it. It proves to be an interesting season for the Steelers, who’re truly inspired by the 2-time Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins. Now it’s time to see if they’re hungry enough to take that extra step join the Pens for another ring.
Notes: Throughout the 2017 regular season, the Steelers will honor owner Dan Rooney with a patch on the right side of their jerseys with Rooney’s initial’s DMR, which stands for Daniel Milton Rooney, lovingly enveloped in a black and gold shamrock to honor, remember and show love and respect for the man who was more than an owner, but family to the players. Rooney passed away in April at the age of 84.
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