Steelers Must Seize Super Bowl Window
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl window could be nearing an end, putting pressure on head coach Mike Tomlin to get a response from his team in the 2018 campaign. The Steelers appeared to be on a collision course with the New England Patriots for another showdown in the AFC Championship game last term. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars stunned Tomlin’s men in the Divisional Round, dumping them out of the playoffs on home soil.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is beginning to show signs of age, although he managed to recover from a rough patch of form. Running back Le’Veon Bell has been kept under wraps via the franchise tag for the past two seasons, which has brought murmurings of discontent from the All-Pro. Antonio Brown continues to operate at the peak of his powers, but he will turn 30 during the summer and will be on the back nine of his career.
The Steelers last won the Super Bowl in the 2008 campaign when Roethlisberger produced a special drive late in the day to defeat the Arizona Cardinals. Those moments have been few and far between in the playoffs since. Tomlin has also come under fire for the quality of his defenses, which have been decimated in their last two season-ending defeats. The first came at the hands of the Patriots and the latter more surprisingly against Blake Bortles and the Jaguars’ offense, who scored nine points in the previous week in their contest with the Buffalo Bills.
There’s work ahead of Pittsburgh to prove they are once again contenders in the AFC. Tomlin’s men have odds of 10/3 to win the Conference with Coral, which could be worth monitoring with Oddschecker with the prospect of a free bet to place on their chances of advancing. The white whale of New England will still stand in their way, although there’s ample talent on the roster to reach Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
Roethlisberger has been a model of consistency since the 2009 season, averaging a quarterback rating of 90 or above in the past nine campaigns. At the age of 36, there will be concerns for his future, with the quarterback never one to play down speculation about ending his NFL career. There were suggestions after a five-interception game against the Jaguars that he could be looking at the prospect of retirement. However, he quickly returned to form and guided the Steelers into the playoffs, only to be defeated by Jacksonville.
Roethlisberger has taken his fair share of hits over the course of his career, although the recent performances of his offensive line have spared his body. He has missed seven games in the last three seasons, but a couple of those were after the club’s playoff position had already been set. Whether he can emulate the success of playing like Brady into 40s seems to be unlikely, therefore, time is ticking to notch his third Super Bowl ring. His accuracy remains solid and his level of production has not dipped – as long as Brown, Bell and Juju Smith-Schuster are on the field he will have top-level talent around him.
Brown & Bell
Brown continues to amaze and has built a Hall of Fame career over the past five seasons. The 29-year-old has reeled off five 1,000-yard and 100-catch terms on the bounce, scoring 52 touchdowns in the process. His chemistry with Roethlisberger is electric and has been the beating heart of the offense, taking over the mantle from Hines Ward. Brown cannot afford to allow his production to slip as he enters his thirties. Receivers of his ilk have been known to slow down with age due to the amount of wear on their bodies. He could emulate Larry Fitzgerald and remain truly elite, despite his advancing years. The development of Smith-Schuster will be an important aspect of the offense going forward to ease the pressure on Brown after an impressive rookie term.
The Steelers are yet to come to a long-term agreement with Bell. He has been just as productive as Roethlisberger and Browns over the past five seasons. Bell has been the workhorse for Pittsburgh in the backfield and has put forward a good shift over the last two years. He held out of training camp last term, but has committed himself to play in the campaign. Tomlin needs one of his best players on side and on form to ensure that his side can keep pace with the Patriots’ offense. The Steelers could use an early selection in the NFL draft to take a running back, which would ease the burden on Bell and keep him fresh for the playoffs. Keeping their stars healthy has been the issue for Pittsburgh and moves should be made to ensure they’re fit and firing for January.
The Steelers were rocked by a devastating injury sustained by linebacker Ryan Shazier towards the end of last season. Shazier had been the lynchpin of their unit, patrolling the middle of the field. His speed and tackling ability made him a vital cog for Tomlin. His absence played a significant role in the club’s inability to reach the AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh were exposed by their inability to cover the middle of the field, while Vince Williams struggled to provide the same resistance against the run. Shazier has made strides in his recovery, but it would be a surprise to see him return for the 2018 campaign.
Tomlin will be hopeful of further development from the emerging stars on his defense. TJ Watt flashed in his rookie term and will only improve with further time in the NFL. He notched seven sacks in his first season and could be the pass-rusher that could see the Steelers return to their dominant ways of old. Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns are all entering their third campaign, with a lot more expected of them to become integral parts of the unit. Morgan Burnett was added to the secondary in free agency, but it would not be a surprise to see the Steelers address the area in the draft after allowing Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden leave the club. The position has been suspect for the Steelers for too long and one of the primary reasons why they have been unable to compete in their showdowns with the Patriots. A successful draft would be to add a cornerback and a safety that could fit seamlessly into the defense.
The Steelers have benefitted from facing the Cleveland Browns during their recent turmoil on the field, which has gifted them two wins almost every campaign. The Baltimore Ravens continue to be up-and-down, while the Cincinnati Bengals opted to retain the services of Mavin Lewis – effectively ruling themselves out of contention. The Browns are unlikely to make an improvement in 2018, while the same could be said of the Ravens and Bengals, therefore the Steelers’ path to the playoffs is more or less solved already bar an injury to Roethlisberger. To achieve their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl they will have to either beat or avoid New England.
The Philadelphia Eagles proved that you can outscore the Patriots to win it all, and unless the defense takes the ultimate stand, it will be on Roethlisberger and company to win the prize. It would be fitting for Roethlisberger to have one last great effort to win his third ring as well as delivering one for Brown and Bell for their exploits over the last five seasons. It may not be straightforward, but there is a path to victory, although it will have to start with securing home-field advantage.
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