The 2016 season was one filled with many ups and downs for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team started 4-1 and seemed to be firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball, but went almost a full calendar month without a win, going 0-4 in its next four contests. The Steelers, however, hit their stride in late November. The team rattled off seven straight wins to close out the regular season.
The Steelers, thanks to a Christmas miracle in Antonio Brown’s now-dubbed the “Immaculate Extension”, would win the AFC North for the seventh time since division realignment (the fifth time in the Mike Tomlin era) and would finish with the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
After dispatching both the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional round, the Steelers traveled to Foxboro for a meeting with the New England Patriots. The Steelers were handled relatively easily, as they lost 36-17, one game shy of their ninth Super Bowl appearance.
A number of storylines unfolded throughout the 2016 season, both on and off the field. All in all, it added up to the Steelers falling short of being able to compete for a league-record seventh Lombardi trophy.
As Super Bowl week is upon us, the offseason and NFL combine and draft loom ahead. Here’s a guide to the five keys for the Steelers in order to contend for their seventh ring:
#1 — Resign Le’Veon Bell … and hope he can stay on the field.
Le’Veon Bell would, without a doubt, be considered the best all-around running back in the league if it weren’t for a litany of injuries and multiple suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Bell has yet to play a full, 16 game NFL season in his four year career.
That being said, Le’Veon Bell is a hell of a football player and adds a dynamic element to an already explosive Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers 2016 MVP rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns. Bell is no one trick pony, however, as he has shown the capability to be an elite pass-catcher, both out of the backfield and spread out wide. Bell caught 75 passes for 616 yards and two scored in 2016.
The Steelers, a team which historically is faced with salary cap room issues, is expected to use their franchise tag on Bell this offseason. This essentially buys Pittsburgh another year to figure out what to do with the 24 year old halfback. If Bell can stay healthy and out of trouble with the league, expect the Steelers to sign him to a long term deal next offseason. Frankly, GM Kevin Colbert and the Rooney family ought to pay Bell whatever he wants. He’s earned it. Provided he’s available for most, if not all, of the 16 game schedule next year, look for Le’Veon Bell to be wearing black and gold for a long time.
#2 — The defense needs to continue improving
Year two with Keith Butler coordinating the Steelers’ young but talented defense was a large success and those in Pittsburgh are high on the future of the most current version of the Steel Curtain.
The biggest difference between the 2015 and 2016 seasons on defense was the improved play in the secondary. Colbert drafted cornerback Artie Burns out of Miami and safety Sean Davis of Maryland to help sure up a secondary that ranked 30 in total pass defense a year ago. Some perspective: the Steelers ranking at the end of the 2016 season? 16th. Look for third year cornerback Senquez Golson to make an impact next season as he returns from injured reserve.
Linebacker play has seen the explosion of fourth-year middle linebacker Ryan Shazier onto the scene. Shazier, who beat out everyone else on the team in sprints in the preseason, had a total of 87 combined tackles and three picks in 2016. Shazier is quickly becoming a leader on the Steelers’ defense and will be, without a doubt, an anchor around which the Steelers will build their defense.
The biggest question on the Steelers defense is the pass rush and current lack thereof. Look for Colbert to target a speedy linebacker who can impose his will on the quarterback. More on this later in point #5.
With Cameron Heyward returning from injury and James Harrison returning for a 14th NFL season, the Steelers defense has quickly turned itself around in just one season.
#3 — The receiving corps … Who else is going to step up?
This was a question the Steelers found themselves asking quite a bit this past season. With Martavis Bryant suspended for the entire season after multiple violations of the league’s drug policy and a few key injuries early in the season, Pittsburgh found itself without much in the way of receivers other than All-Pro Antonio Brown.
Injuries to Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey devastated an already shallow receiving corps. With Bryant returning next season, the Steelers are already in good shape. However, losing all of these key personnel may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Injuries paved the way for second-year receiver Eli Rogers to come off of the practice squad and jump right into the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver role. Make no mistake about it: Eli Rogers will be Pittsburgh’s X-factor next season.
With teams consistently double and triple teaming Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant elite speed and ability to stretch the field vertically, Rogers’ presence in the slot will be key. Rogers showed flashes of excellence this season. Expect him to keep it up to create a lethal offense which will wreck havoc on opposing defenses. Teams just do not have enough playmakers to be able to stop all of Pittsburgh’s elite offensive threats.
#4 — Sure up the special teams play
One word sums up Pittsburgh’s special teams play as of recent years: bad.
In 2015 the Steelers had all sorts of trouble on special teams, mainly the field goal kicking unit. A preseason injury to placekicker Shaun Suisham started a “kicker carousel” which ended up costing the team a few wins on missed field goals, before the team signed Chris Boswell who has been nothing short of impressive in his brief stint with the team. His six field goals in the Divisional playoff game against the Chiefs accounted for all of the team’s scoring and set a franchise and postseason record for most field goals in a single game.
The biggest problem the Steelers faced on special teams this season was kickoffs. The team drafted Demarcus Ayers in the seventh round of the draft with the goals of having him be the kick return guy, a role he excelled at the University of Houston. For whatever reason, Pittsburgh opted to have Sammie Coates, Fitzgerald Touissant and Justin Gilbert return kicks this year. Opposing teams would often kick the ball just short of the endzone so the Steelers returners would be forced to run it back. They barely ever made it back to the 25 yard line (the new starting line for kickoffs). Teams exploited the Steelers inability to return kicks, and it often cost Pittsburgh valuable yards in field position. I expect Ayers to make the kick return team next season, where he can use his speed to get the edge around defenders and start drives for the offense past the 25.
#5 — Draft wisely
Given Kevin Colbert’s incredible ability to scout and draft all-star caliber players consistently (Bell, Brown, Ben, Shazier, Burns, Sean Davis, etc.), this is the point Steelers fans should feel most comfortable on. The franchise is in good hands as long as Colbert, the Rooney family and Mike Tomlin continue to make smart draft selections.
The Steelers No. 1 priority in this draft should be an edge rusher. With James Harrison turning 39 in March, and his backup, Jarvis Jones likely not returning to the team next season, the Steelers are thin at outside linebacker.
Every year there is talk about whether or not Pittsburgh should draft a replacement quarterback for Ben Roethlisberger when he inevitably retires. Despite Big Ben recently saying that his career with the Steelers is “up in the air”, this draft is shallow on elite quarterbacks. I don’t expect the Steelers to draft a QB this year. It’s more likely they sign current backup and soon to be restricted free agent Landry Jones to a short-term contract to back up Roethlisberger until an adequate long-term replacement is found.
I hear Tony Romo is in the market for a job …