By the time the Steelers, battered and bruised, were eliminated by the Broncos in the playoffs in January, a number of people had already installed them as favorites to win the AFC next season.
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The Steelers look a lot like the best team in the NFL. Sitting here in June, I would at the very least say they should be the favorite to win the AFC.
But championships aren’t won on paper or in June, and there is a long, long way to go just to get to the regular season much less the playoffs.
Many others believe the Steelers are going to be the best team in the league — an elite QB, the best WR-RB combo in the league, a very good offensive line, a rebuilt defense that is now in its second year under Keith Butler, etc.
I buy all that, but I’d be careful to plan that parade just yet for a couple of reasons, the biggest being the Steelers’ ability to keep key players healthy.
Ben Roethlisberger is only 34 years old, so he still has a few great years in him, but he is coming off a season where he was banged up and missed four games.
That doesn’t mean he will get hurt again, but as we’ve seen with quarterbacks as they get older, they have a tougher time protecting themselves and avoiding injury. A player of his age, who plays as fearless as he does, with as many miles on his tires (171 games), is always going to be a little bit vulnerable to injury.
You also have Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey, who haven’t exactly been models of durability, and Antonio Brown coming off a pretty serious concussion.
Those players might all play 16 games and if they do, the Steelers will be in a great spot. But if any of them go down, it begins to erode their chances to win the Super Bowl.
That also doesn’t even account for the fact they are without Martavis Bryant for the whole season, and that’s one of those losses that a lot of people just seem to be treating as if it’s no big deal.
Yes, Sammie Coates may be able to fill that role adequately and become a very good player who takes the top off the defense and makes some of the big plays that Bryant makes. And as the Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo pointed out, the Steelers have been a lot less potent on offense without Bryant.
That means training camp for Coates is going to be huge, as he needs to come in and seize the job and show that he can fill that role adequately.
If he does and the Steelers offense stays healthy, then all these lofty projections are on point and they should be able to average the 30 points per game they have been talking about.
Then there is the defense. In Year Two under Butler it should improve for a couple of reasons the Sporting News article points out.
There has been a makeover in talent at some positions, and the defense seemed to improve as the 2015 season wore on and got more comfortable in Butler’s schemes and with him calling plays. I would expect that to continue, and I do think that there are some really good young players in the front seven.
They should be able to get after the quarterback and force turnovers. If they do that, it will be a fun unit to watch and one that gives the Steelers a chance to win every week.
There are, however, some real questions in the secondary, and I’m not sure they have been adequately addressed.
As of right now, the starting corners are likely to be Ross Cockrell and William Gay. Both are adequate and have shown the ability to get the job done on some level.
Like receiver, though, the secondary’s improvement is going to have to come via some young, untested guys — Artie Burns, Doran Grant and Senquez Golson — learning quickly and proving they can play to their potential.
Either way, the Steelers’ corners have a lot to prove, and if the youngsters don’t push for and ultimately win playing time, I’m not sure the secondary will be good enough to lead them to the Promised Land.
These are legitimate questions facing the Steelers. Given that training camp doesn’t begin for about another month, they are fun questions to consider and NFL predictions at this time of the year give lots of fodder for discussion.
The Steelers can win the Super Bowl, and they should start the season as one of the favorites because of their offense.
But if they don’t find a second big-play option to take pressure off Brown, don’t get improved play out of their secondary and can’t stay healthy, this will be another year in which the Steelers’ season ends in frustration.