2017 NFL season preview – Pittsburgh Steelers

2016 Record: 11-5; 1st AFC North
Head coach: Mike Tomlin (Steelers W/L: 111-63, Career W/L: 111-63)
VP & General manager: Kevin Colbert

Key ins: DE Tyson Alualu Jaguars; RB Knile Davis Chiefs; WR Justin Hunter Bills; CB Coty Sensabaugh Titans
Key outs: CB Justin Gilbert; TE Ladarius Green; LB Jarvis Jones; DE Ricardo Matthews; LB Lawrence Timmons; WR Markus Wheaton; RB DeAngelo Williams; RB Karlos Williams

Draftees: R1 (30) LB TJ Watt, Wisconsin; R2 (62) WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC; R3 (94) CB Cameron Sutton, Tennessee; R3 (105) RB James Connor, Pittsburgh; R4 (135) QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee; R5 (173) DB Brian Allen, Utah; R6 (213) LS Colin Holba, Louisville; R7 (248) DE Keion Adams, Western Michigan

That collective sigh of relief you could hear was Steelers fans reacting to the sight of Ben Roethlisberger in black, white and gold at OTAs last month. In the aftermath of the battering at the hands of the Patriots in the AFC Championship, Big Ben threatened to walk away from the game.

All those offseason sleepless nights, waking in a cold sweat by nightmares of seeing Landry Jones atop the depth chart are just an unhappy memory for twizzlers of the Terrible Towel and Steelers management, who’d have been rushed into a succession plan.

At 35, the two-time Super Bowl winner remains Pittsburgh’s best shot at a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy. He starts the season just over 3,000 yards short of 50,000 career passing yards – a milestone reached only by Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and John Elway. Only in the first two years of his 13-season career has Roethlisberger thrown for less than 3,000, which would see him top the mark in his 14th season. Steeler great Terry Bradshaw marshalled the offense for 14 years, passing for a mere 27,989 yards en route to four Super Bowl titles – if that’s not worthy of a ‘the game done changed’ klaxon, I don’t know what is.

Big Ben will be happy to have wide receiver Martavis Bryant back on the end of his passes. Two months after the quarterback said Bryant had to “toughen up” in wintry AFC North clashes, the young wide receiver was handed a year-long suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

It was a blow for the talented player, who had scored 15 touchdowns in eight starts over his first two seasons. The 6ft 4in Clemson product claims that he’s turned his life around and credits teammates Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey for their support during his suspension.

Bryant should return to his role as Robin to Batman Antonio Brown. Batma… sorry Brown signed a new five-year deal in February to make him the highest-paid WR in history. Since 2013, Brown has proven himself worthy of such a contract, having recorded two of the top five single-season catch totals (129 in 2014 and 136 a year later) plus 110 and 106-catch seasons, good for 481 receptions – the most ever in a four-year stretch.

2016 revelation Eli Rogers (48 for 594, 3 TDs in his rookie season) looked to have the slot spot sewn up until the Steelers surprisingly drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round. The USC pass-catcher, whose physical style, hands and smarts have drawn comparisons to Hines Ward, will be on the field in four-receiver sets, starter or not. WR4 will be a battle between Sammie Coates, who’s struggled since being drafted 87th overall in 2015, free agent signee Justin Hunter (three teams in two seasons) and 30-year-old Darrius Heyward-Bey in his fourth year as a Steeler.

4 Antonio Brown (2016 RANKING 4)
9 Le’Veon Bell (2016 RANKING 41)
22 Ben Roethlisberger (2016 RANKING 21)
97 David DeCastro (2016 RANKING NR)

Jessie James won the starting job last year in the absence of big-name free agent signing Ladarius Green. The disappointing Green was hurt in the offseason until November, played six games then a concussion put him out for the season in Week 15. A failed medical in May led to his release a year into a four-year deal.

Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak, a former head coach in Tennessee, took over as Tomlin’s offensive line coach in 2014. His unit is one of the best in the league, powered by centre Maurkice Pouncey, guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert on the outside are both on the verge of being Pro Bowlers.

They pave the way for arguably the NFL’s best running back, Le’Veon Bell. The franchise-tagged back would doubtless agree with that sentiment, having said a week ago that he wants to be paid as the No1 rusher and No2 receiver. If he could stay on the field, that contract would be a no-brainer, but over the past two years the 26 year old has missed 14 regular season games through injury and suspension and it’s possible this may be his last season in Steelers colours. As training camp opened this week, Bell was a no-show. His absence, however, may be a boon for the team, allowing rookie James Conner to get extra snaps after he missed some of OTAs.

21 Antonio Brown (2015 RANKING 2)
27 Le’Veon Bell (2015 RANKING NR)
36 Ramon Foster (2015 RANKING NR)
67 James Harrison (2015 RANKING 92)
80 David DeCastro (2015 RANKING NR)

The rookie is already nationwide news after sales of his jersey knocked Sir Thomas of Brady off the No1 spot this week. The third-round pick, from the University of Pittsburgh, is a feel-good story, having fought back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma to rush for 1,092 yards and 16 TDs last year. His bruising style will be a nice complement to Bell’s when the season kicks off. Knile Davis was signed from Kansas City for depth but will be used primarily on special teams.

Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier continued the proud tradition of Steeler ‘backers in 2016, with 87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and nine passes defensed on the way to a first Pro Bowl. In the playoffs he tacked on two more picks. The Ohio State product will have a new running mate in 2017 after Lawrence Timmons (team-leader in tackles for the last four years) left for South Beach in free agency.

Shazier was the franchise’s 2014 No1 pick (15) and will be joined on the field by this season’s 30th overall selection TJ Watt (yes, relation). JJ’s younger brother is the fourth linebacker taken in the first round by the Steelers in five years. Jarvis Jones (17, 2013) didn’t pan out and departed to become a Cardinal in the offseason. Bud Dupree (22, 2015)    had abdominal surgery in 2016 but closed out the season strongly with 4.5 sacks in four games. He’ll start opposite the ageless James Harrison on the outside with Watt working into the rotation. Harrison, at 38, had five sacks for the team-lead last season. Run-stuffer Vince Williams will step into Timmons’ shoes, having recorded 40 tackles and two sacks last time out.

The secondary is led by Mike Mitchell, the former Carolina Panther, for the fourth season. At 30, he provides the big hits and tutelage for the rest of a unit where all of the starters are 25 or under. 2016 rookies, first-round corner Artie Burns and second-round safety Sean Davis both started nine games in their debut season and both looked the part when called upon. Burns led the team with three interceptions and Davis was fourth in tackles. Ross Cockrell mans the other cornerback slot with veteran William Gay working in at corner and safety.

Burgeoning defensive end star Cameron Heyward saw action in only seven games last year due to pectoral surgery. A return to the form that saw him bag at team-leading 7.5 and 7.0 in 2015, ’15 will be a welcome sight for defensive coordinator Keith Butler. It will also make life easier for Stephon Tuitt, the fourth-year end out of Notre Dame. Tuitt has shown pass-rushing chops with 6.5 sacks in 2015 and four last season. The 10th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Tyson Alualu joins the Steeler line after seven seasons without a winning record and brings versatility. At the nose, Javon Hargrave enters his second season after 13 starts in 2016. The rookie scored a touchdown in Week 11 when he recovered a Josh McCown fumble in the end zone against Cleveland.

That 24-9 victory at the Browns kick-started the Steelers season after a four-game losing streak turned a 4-1 start into 4-5. They wouldn’t lose the rest of the way in the regular season, finishing 11-5 before succumbing to the Patriots in the Conference Championship. With New England seemingly still the class of the AFC, the onus is on Tomlin and the Steelers to rip that title from them to add to their own packed Vince Lombardi Trophy cabinet.


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