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Is 2017 the year the Steelers climb the last step to greatness?

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended the 2016 season as AFC North champions, but fell a single step short of Super Bowl XLI. Improved depth and the return of key pieces should make them even better — but is it enough?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Up, and down.

High, and low.

Top of the world, bottom of the barrel.

The 2016 season was, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a tale of extremes. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended — the lowest of lows. The team looked excellent out of the chute, with a dominant win over the Redskins and then a victory over bitter-rival Cincinnati. Thirty-five thousand feet high and climbing.

Then they fell flat against the Eagles, giving up 34 points and scoring a meager three.

But they started 4-1, including utterly destroying the Chiefs, 43-14.

Then they got thumped by the Dolphins.

If you aren’t already catching on, then here is a clear analogy to describe the Steelers’ season: follow the bouncing ball.

It’s the hallmark of a team that is on the cusp of greatness. That showed when they fell one step short of a ninth Super Bowl appearance. They were almost there, but not quite.

One more step to climb.

Bryant is back, and will instantly elevate the receiving corps to new heights. Le’Veon Bell may hold out of training camp over the lack of a contract, but when he hits the field, he’s playing for his future — be it in Pittsburgh, or elsewhere. 2017 should be his finest season, and that’s saying a lot. And there’s little need to even mention receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Even offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva has signed an extension, and is locked in. Distractions are at a minimum. The offense, that struggled at times in 2016 due to lack of receiver depth, is healthy and as strong as ever. They have the ability to get there. To climb that last step.

Defensively, Cameron Heyward returns after a season-ending injury in week seven. Bud Dupree is healthy entering camp — he didn’t play a snap in 2016 until week nine due to injury. James Harrison is as much of a physical freak as ever, despite turning 39 years old a few months ago.

First-round draft pick T.J. Watt will push Harrison, and vice versa. Vince Williams rises to starter with the departure of Lawrence Timmons. Ryan Shazier brings another year of experience along with his off-the-charts speed and athleticism. The secondary is deeper and more experienced. There is little reason to believe this won’t be an improved unit over last season — and that unit stood on the threshold of the Super Bowl.

One more step to climb.

The coaching staff returns intact. Same head coach, same coordinators, same position coaches. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a magician. Defensive Coordtinator Keith Butler, as well as linebackers coaches Joey Porter and Jerry Olsavsky, have more personal experience to lean on in their budding roles. They, too, should be better than before.

One more step.

One thing is certain: 2016 was not the pinnacle for this team. It was a year in which character was built through difficult circumstances. They climbed the stairway to seven, and faltered. Knocked back? Perhaps. Knocked down? Head coach Mike Tomlin probably wouldn’t understand such a foreign question. He’s always been the type to push forward, to forge ahead.

One. More. Step.

Players have descended on St. Vincent College. Coaches have spent the off-season preparing. It’s nothing different than any other season. At the same time, it’s completely different. The off-season lacked the drama of years past, and you can see and hear the focus in the players. As their longtime quarterback approaches his career twilight, the urgency has increased. The time has not passed, yet — but the time, as they say, is now. It’s time to come together as a cohesive unit. It’s time to let go of past successes and failures. It’s time to look at the climb ahead. It’s almost done; the mountain of mediocrity, through two years of rebuilding and three seasons of pulling together, lies behind. The peak is near!

One more step.

Just one more.

Here we go.