The Steelers have to look back at this year and think what if? They lost their season opener to the Patriots, but this is fresh off of the news that center Maurkice Pouncey is out for the year, and Le’veon Bell and Martavis Bryant are suspended. Bell comes back after one week, the Steelers score 43 at home, and then in week three Ben Roethlisberger goes down with an MCL injury. Martavis Bryant comes back in week 5 and essentially wills his team to a victory over the playoff Cardinals with Landry Jones at quarterback. Roethlisberger comes back to a 4-3 Steeler team and after scoring a touchdown on his first drive back, Bell tears his MCL on the second drive. The game resulted in a loss at home to the Bengals, and the rest of the season felt cursed. Roethlisberger was in and out of the next three games with injury and the Steelers sat at 6-5. They then beat the Colts, Bengals and Broncos in a row scoring 30 against all three, including scoring 24 unanswered on that amazing Broncos defense in a game where Antonio Brown scored two touchdowns on Chris Harris, and Von Miller had no sacks or tackles. The very next week however, they got caught looking ahead and got tripped up in by far their ugliest loss 20-17 against their division rival Ravens. The Steelers got to the playoffs, but that is where Brown and Roethlisberger were hurt, and while Roethlisberger played, this time the defense of Denver got the best of them.
Mike Tomlin has one major issue. The clock. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of the clock in any of his decision making, whether it be timeouts, play calls, even going for two basically on a whim. “I dont live in my fears” is how Tomlin puts it, the way I put it is that if he hired a clock manager he would be right behind Belichick as the best coach in the league. That is because even more than Belichick he is the master motivator. You can see it from the players that they ride with their leader, and this is a team that always wins on primetime, never gets blown out, and seems to thrive against the best of the league. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has adjusted nicely with his relationship with Roethlisberger, and besides the times he tries to outsmart himself you have to love how he branches plays off of each other throughout the game. Keith Butler took over a defense with a lot of youth and they went from 30th in efficiency to 11th in one year. They mainly rose against the run, and if they can get a legitimate pass rush soon look out.
Do we even need to get into Roethlisberger. He is when healthy one of the best quarterbacks in the league. His confidence is pretty high in his receivers, almost to a fault, but he lets them go get it. You can’t name five quarterbacks you would rather have next season. Landry Jones clearly isn’t the answer, and may not even be a backup, so the Steelers either will sign Bruce Gradkowski or draft a quarterback late and hope he will be their answer, and no Michael Vick will not be back. No chance.
Running back play
Le’veon Bell when healthy is the best do everything back in the league. The problem is the last two times he played the Bengals his season ended. If he is healthy, the duo of him and Deangelo WIlliams, who had his best year since 2009 in relief of Bell could be the best in the league. Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled late in the playoffs, but signed off the street, he also had a huge playoff catch in the final two minutes against the Bengals and the thought would be that those are your three backs.
Wide Receiver Play
There really hasn’t even been much discussion that anyone is currently a better receiver than Antonio Brown. The fact that he also returns punts is borderline psychotic, but he changes the game in two facets, and his footwork is legendary. Martavis Bryant was called out late in the year by Brown and Roethlisberger, but had a big playoff touchdown, and has Randy Moss like deep threat speed and size. Markus Wheaton is the third punch, and is another deep threat, and the thought is that Sammie Coates, now in year two will cap off the best receiving core in the NFL.
As for tight end the Steelers are going through the departure of Heath Miller due to retirement. Miller may open more time for Coates, as Matt Spaeth is not a receiving threat, and Jesse James as a rookie only got eight catches. It will be interesting to see if they trust James to basically assume the role of Miller or if they find somebody in free agency or the draft.
It sounds like exaggeration, but along with the best back and receiving unit, the Steelers may have the best offensive line in the league. They had one of the best run blocking rates, and as mentioned, Maurkice Pouncey, their most noted lineman wasn’t even healthy for a single game. David DeCastro stepped up in his absence and became an All-Pro along the way. With those two, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who had a very underrated year make the entire right side complete. Ramon Foster on the left side is a free agent, but it can be assumed they will sign him, and at left tackle Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL in week 6 and may have lost his job to Alejandro Villanueva. Beachum is an impending free agent, and the Steelers interest in him will show where they feel they are with Villanueva.
Between Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward you have the start of any optimism that can be had for this defense. There are questions at almost all nine other spots but these two have brought it, and Hayward is a very underrated defensive end with 7.5 sacks. At the nose, Steve McClendon is a free agent to be, and if he is not retained they will need an immediate fix here. The hope would be that McClendon is retained so that they can focus on the defense elsewhere.
The Linebacker position is going to be one the Steelers will have to look long and hard at. The first question will be to extend Lawrence Timmons, to cut him or to let him play out this year as the second highest paid player on the team. To extend him would be to take a pay cut, but to give him the same money over a two year period. It would probably be the wisest idea to extend him to 2/16 type of deal instead of pay him 15 million this year. It also gives you time to evaluate if Vince Williams can eventually take over his spot. It also gives them time to decide what to do with Ryan Shazier. There are times where Shazier is the best player on the field, and then there are the times when he is not on the field. He has been injured a lot of his first two years and will be needed for a big year if the Steelers want to be confident at linebacker moving forward.
Bud Dupree is another potential form of hope. As a rookie he compiled 4 sacks and essentially rotated with Arthur Moates. Moates, along with 37 year old James Harrison, and first round disappointment Jarvis Jones all have one year left on their deals. Harrison admitted if he even plays this year that this is it. Moates can be retained as a backup who will not draw attention, but someone may bite on Jones and his draft status leaving them bare outside of Dupree moving forward. Anthony Chickillo will get a shot, but they will have to address the pass rushing position, preferably at some point in the draft.
The Steelers biggest priority will probably be to retain William Gay. Gay was great in the slot, and solid on the outside, and essentially was the only cornerback to prove anything. Antwon Blake may have forgot how to tackle which makes it hard to make a case for him coming back, but when Ross Cockrell took his time late in the year he had success. The Steelers also have a wildcards in Senquez Golson who was drafted in the second round, but missed his entire rookie season and Cortez Allen who has had ups and downs, mainly related to health. Allen didn’t play in 2015 after a 2014 hampered with injury so he is tough to count on. Between Cockrell, Gay, and Golson you are probably looking at their top three, and either Allen or rookie Doran Grant will step up as the fourth guy. Therefore they can use their attention this offseason to look at safety and the pass rush. Mike Mitchell had a much better year, and is basically a strong safety in a free safety position. Shamarko Thomas is currently the only other safety signed, and he is effectively Mitchell’s back up. Robert Golden got some time as a starting safety next to Mitchell, and it actually worked pretty well. He will be signed as the special teams captain, and if the Steelers cannot find another safety he will compete to start. There is a thought that Grant would make a better safety than corner, but only time will tell if he is even in the Steelers long term plans as they could even bring back Blake at corner and scrap Grant altogether.
Where do they go?
They essentially have the best offense in the league, and if they address it at all it would be to get a tight end, or because Foster left. On defense they could upgrade across the board. Depth isn’t a glaring problem, but it wouldn’t hurt on the defensive line. Also pass rush and safety will clearly need addressed with potential longer term answers. If they can sure those spots up you are looking at one of the clear Super Bowl Favorites