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Cohesion might be the key for Steelers in 2018

Pittsburgh proved last season they’re good enough to be champions, but only when they accentuate the positive.

NFL: Preaseason-Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” (Benjamin Franklin)

Dozens of opinions have been rolled out to explain why the Pittsburgh Steelers fell short in their quest for the franchise’s seventh NFL championship last year. While many of them hold at least some kernels of truth, most pundits and fans will admit that the off-field distractions hounding the team in 2017 certainly didn’t help matters. And while the subtraction of Martavis Bryant from the Steelers’ locker room — while adding college football phenom James Washington — promises to remove one thorn from their side, the contract feud with Le’Veon Bell certainly hasn’t improved since 2017 and the relationship likely has worsened.

But even though they’ll kick off the 2018 season with a disgruntled, star running back, the Steelers arguably will field the most potent offensive roster in the league when they travel to Cleveland on September 9th for the first leg of the annual Turnpike Series. For all appearances, Washington is a pro-caliber talent with every tool necessary to make us forget about Bryant and his baggage of self-inflicted wounds.

Ben Roethlisberger, of course, has the capabilities to get more out of a budding NFL receiver than any quarterback in the league. Given the triad of Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and the rookie second-rounder, plus Bell’s anticipated contributions as a receiver, the Steelers’ offense looks like a veritable juggernaut in the coming season. With No. 7 pulling the trigger, should we be at all surprised if Washington winds up his first pro season as Offensive Rookie of the Year?

With all this offensive talent, the Steelers’ biggest challenge might be in keeping Brown and his youthful sidekicks happy throughout the season by a reasonable distribution of targets among them. Although the loss of Ryan Shazier means the Steelers’ defense isn’t as strong as it was prior to his injury, the offense might be sufficiently improved to make up the difference. And in the wake of the recent revelation that Stephon Tuitt was playing hurt throughout the 2017 season, even the defense might be better than they looked during the latter part of last season.

But beyond their promising rookies and overall athletic talent, cohesion is the one intangible element that could push the Black-and-gold over the hump this season. So far, and despite Bell’s pouting absence from the preseason activities, Roethlisberger and Brown have shown their leadership — striking the proper tone by emphasizing the key importance of showing up and, in the process, getting their new teammates excited about the challenges ahead.

If you analyze the Steelers’ 2018 draft picks closely, the emphasis on personal character is unmistakable. The raw talent is certainly there, of course, but it’s that personal motivation to contribute to the larger goals of the team that’s distinctive. This is a quality which all of the most beloved Steelers players in the past have had — whether you’re talking about Terry Bradshaw, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham — the list could go on and on.

This is the “hang together” personality profile that put six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at Steelers’ headquarters, and the team appears to have redoubled its efforts during this offseason to ensure that character remains front and center in its future success. It’s also why Bryant’s wish to play somewhere more tolerant of his dramatics was willingly granted by the Steelers during the 2018 NFL Draft. And make no mistake about it — for all of his prodigious talent, No. 26 also will be long gone if he continues to make unreasonable contract demands while portraying himself as a victim.

Nobody knows better than the loyal fans of Steelers Nation that, if an NFL team expects to become a champion, everyone needs to hang together and pull together when the going gets tough (as it invariably will). And no, this doesn’t mean that every player must agree with the team’s rules or give up their right to express opinions. What it means is that the team goal of winning a championship should override and modify those other considerations. In this respect, it certainly looks like the FO has done its homework in preparation for what promises to be an intriguing season of Steelers football.