Steelers Nation is reeling the disheartening and embarrassing 36-17 AFC Championship loss to the Evil Empire, also known as the New England Patriots. For the third time, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick prevented them from advancing to the Super Bowl, this time on their home turf in Foxborough.
But the 2016 season wasn’t and shouldn’t be a total disappointment for Pittsburgh fans. This playoff run and the second half of the regular season showed all the pieces necessary are in place for a potential Steelers dynasty.
It obviously starts with the franchise QB. Ben Roethlisberger is already the best quarterback in Pittsburgh Steelers history over Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. He’s already won two Super Bowls and played in a third. He has every important quarterback statistic in franchise history. This should no longer be a debate.
Of the key significant players on the Steelers offense, he’s the oldest at 34 years old. Barring significant injury, which has been an issue through this career, Big Ben should be able to play at an elite, pro-bowl level for another four years or so. That is if Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Warren Moon to name a few are the new norm. Roethlisberger will be protected by a top rated offensive line and have arguably the most talented and explosive collection of skill players in the NFL at his disposal, as well as a young emerging defense.
Look first at the guys who will protect #7. Everyone raves about the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line, but the Steelers underrated line, which has two Pro Bowlers in David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey who have also been All-Pro’s, was the second ranked overall unit in the NFL. They only allowed 21 sacks, the second fewest in the league. They allowed the third fewest hits on the QB at 56. The starters average age is 28.2 with an average of 5.6 years of experience. They’ll hold down the trenches not only keep him clean, but also open up holes for Le’Veon Bell.
Speaking of Bell. As Roethlisberger ages, he will become the focal point of the offense and carry the load. Think of it how Kyrie Irving has now become the closer for the Cleveland Cavaliers, even though LeBron James is still their most important player. The Steelers were 9-0 this season when he rushed for 90+ yards.
Bell, the guy I call “the most lethal weapon in the NFL”, is only 24 years old. In the 12 games he played, “Juice” led the NFL in scrimmage yards per game at 157 (105.7 rushing; 51.3 receiving), and was the first back in history to average more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game. His yards per carry average of 4.9 ranked 2nd of those who qualified and his total 1,268 rushing yards was 5th best in the League. The guy many say is the best all-around back in the game is only going to get better.
At this point, we already know what to expect from Antonio Brown. Arguably the League’s best wide receiver, he once again finished in the top 5 in receptions (106; 2nd), receiving yards (1,284; 5th) and touchdown catches (12; tied for 2nd). The key was finding other guys to step up when opposing defenses doubled and bracketed AB. Eli Rogers and Jesse James became those guys and were third and fourth in receptions. James (39 catches, 338 yards & 3 TDs) played more than expected with all the injuries high-priced free agent tight end LeDarius Green suffered through all season long. The second-year tight end from Penn State showed he has the size and athleticism to fill the void in the middle of the field left by Heath Miller’s retirement.
Rogers (48 catches, 594 yards & 3 TDs) and Cobi Hamilton (17 catches, 234 yards & 2 TDs) appear to have passed up Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton–who can’t stop dropping passes or stay off the injury list–on the depth chart in the wide receiver rotation and were a welcome surprise. The biggest addition will be, IF he can stay clean and IF he gets reinstated, getting a proven commodity in Martavis Bryant back to go with all this new firepower.
But the offense hasn’t been the concern in recent years, it was the defense. The kryptonite to the offenses Super Powers in recent seasons has been their aging defense, specifically in the secondary. Even with 38-year old James Harrison playing a significant role, and who knows what his future will hold, it’s still the 11th youngest unit in the NFL.
The secondary started two rookies in safety Sean Davis and cornerback Artie Burns. Second-year pro Ross Cockrell finished his first season as a full-time starter at corner. 23-year old outside linebacker Bud Dupree only played half of his sophomore season, and maybe it’s coincidence or not, the 9-game win streak began when he returned from a groin injury that kept him out the first 9 regular season games. 24-year old Ryan Shazier was first on the team in forced fumbles (3), interceptions (3) and second in tackles (87). Oh, and they’re getting back from injury, the guy who was the most consistent in the early part of the season in defensive end Cam Heyward. The guy who replaced him, rookie Javon Hargrave, got valuable experience in his absence registering 27 tackles, 2 sacks, and another one in the playoffs.
As the 2016 season carried on, Keith Butler’s group steadily improved in his second season calling the shots. They’re now almost as explosive as the Killer B’s in the way they get after the quarterback and create turnovers. Surely they’ll draft a linebacker in the first round, and hopefully draft another athletic, rangy defensive back to pair with what they have. But, it’s looking a lot better on that side of the ball than it did mid-season.
Some say the only difference between the teams that didn’t make the playoffs and the ones that did, is the extra weeks of practice time. Well then it was worth it. The young guns got thrown into the fire and gained valuable, much needed experience.
Remember when Big Ben was a young pup and Pittsburgh relied on a strong running game with Jerome Bettis and a stout defense with Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and James Farrior to name a few, to win games? As he ages, they’ll revert back to that formula and increase his championship window. Only this time as the elite running back and defense ages, they’ll be entering their prime. Where as the roster Roethlisberger inherited was exiting their prime as he was entering his.
I no longer think it’s a question of if he’ll win another Super Bowl, in my opinion that’s a given. The question is will he catch Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl victories and pass him? The hope and possibility of that should enough to get Steeler Nation through the winter.