Sizing Up The Steelers

By the standards of most franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been on a decent four-year run. From 2011-14, they’ve gone 39-25 in the regular season, made the playoffs twice and won the AFC North once. But by the standards of this proud organization, four years without getting past the first round of the postseason seems like a dry spell. As the Steelers get set to open the NFL season tonight in Foxboro against the Patriots, what are the prospects for 2015?

When you start with a great coach and a great quarterback, that’s a nice foundation. Mistakes by the usually reliable Steeler front office with personnel on defense and the offensive line left the team in perilous straits. The combination of Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger kept them afloat. The back-to-back 8-8 seasons of 2012-13 are almost as a big a credit to these two as the two Super Bowl trips of 2008 and 2010 (plus a 2005 title for Big Ben with Bill Cowher).

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve seriously underrated Roethlisberger over his career. When asked to mention elite quarterbacks I go with the standard Brady-Peyton-Rodgers troika with some debate over Brees. But Roethlisberger has to be in that elite group.

Whether it’s leading a good team and winning Super Bowls or just dragging decrepit squads to respectability, Roethlisberger has done it all. I don’t necessarily admire him, given the off-the-field fiascoes, but on the football field he should be classified with the other elites and not with Joe Flacco or Eli Manning, other Super Bowl winners that are clearly outside the position’s top rung.

When it comes to coaches, while Bill Belichick is on a tier above the rest of the league, Mike Tomlin joins contemporaries like Baltimore rival John Harbaugh as the best after that. The ability Tomlin has shown to motivate teams and engineer in-season turnarounds (like 2013 when they rallied from 0-4 start and would have made the playoffs if not for an acknowledged bad officials’ call in San Diego in Week 17) mark him a true leader of men.

Last season had its rocky moments—losses to Cleveland, the New York Jets and even to Tampa Bay. But Pittsburgh got back on top of the AFC North. A playoff loss again followed and the fact it was to Baltimore makes it sting even more, but the Steelers are clearly cycling back upward.

The biggest thing this offense now has is an offensive line. Even with center Maurkice Pouncey out for at least eight weeks, there’s still a very good right side with David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert, and a solid left tackle in Kelvin Beachum. If there’s going to be a weakness in pass protection, better it come from the middle. If the pressure comes from that direction, Roethlisberger can see it and step up in the pocket. In either case, they guy’s almost impossible to bring down.

Antonio Brown has become the best wide receiver in football—not the best Fantasy receiver, an honor that probably goes to Dez Bryant in Dallas. But Brown’s ability to do everything well, including block make him the wideout I’d take first if I had to choose one player at the position. Roethlisberger also has his old reliable target in tight end Heath Miller.

The early part of the season will present some challenges, with Le’Veon Bell, the big physical runner suspended for two games and wide receiver Martavis Bryant suspended for four. I think the Steelers can sustain the loss of Bryant, but it’s tough to see them running the football consistently with a soft interior of the offensive line and their pounding back out of the lineup.

But those players will return. The real issue with Pittsburgh is going to be their defense. The personnel upgrade of the last couple years has focused on the offensive line, but defensive talent is still lagging. Legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau has also retired. There is no clear playmaker on this side of the ball that can cover for a lack of depth, the way Roethlisberger can on offense.

James Harrison remains one of the most productive players, but the Steelers need a couple young edge rushers to step up, in Jarvis Jones and Bud DuPree. The secondary is problematic and can likely only be covered for with pressure.

It’s the defensive problems that I think hold the Steelers back enough to let the Ravens take the AFC North. But Pittsburgh’s resurgence last year show things are moving in the right direction in the Steel City and they should be back in the playoffs, where they seek their first victory since beating the Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game.