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To reach Super Bowl LIII, the Steelers’ offense must live up to its advance billing

Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense might have looked unstoppable on paper, but it frequently misfired on the gridiron.

NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The faithful of Steelers Nation certainly had no reservations about opining on the touchy topic of why the Black-and-gold failed to scale the mountain last season in their quest for an elusive, seventh NFL title. Among the many reasons cited, the one I believe rings truest points the finger at a Steelers’ offense which, despite the 13-3 regular-season record, clearly fell short of the lofty heights foreseen during the 2017 preseason. So here we are again, standing at the threshold of a new Steelers’ season — only this time with a new offensive coordinator, plus an additional weapon in the person of second-round pick, James Washington.

But based on this offense’s historical tendencies, as well as what happened in 2017, it’s probably wise to temper our euphoria with a little reality check. For all of its undeniable talent, Pittsburgh’s offense managed to average only about 25 points per game last season, despite having had what most would consider a very favorable schedule. Furthermore, at least three of Pittsburgh's regular season wins last season (Week 10 versus Indianapolis; Week 13 versus Cincinnati; and Week 14 versus Baltimore), surely would have wound up in the loss column if Rooney U. hadn’t staged 4th-quarter rallies to pull out those victories.

Pittsburgh scored 11 unanswered, 4th-quarter points against the Colts in Week 10 to escape with a narrow 20-17 win. The following week versus the Titans, the final 40-17 score obscures the fact that, while the Steelers dominated play, they scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter after mostly sleepwalking through the first three quarters.

Again, in Week 13 versus the Bengals, the Steelers blanked Cincy 13-0 in the fourth quarter, winning the game by only three points (23-20). Finally, in the wild 39-38 win at Heinz Field over the Ravens in Week 14, the Steelers outscored Baltimore 19-7 in the final quarter to snatch a razor-thin victory.

So before allowing ourselves to become too giddy at the prospect of an offensive juggernaut this season, it might help to recall this offense scored 30 points or more last season in only five regular season games. Given the team’s significant and still-unresolved issues on the defensive side of the ball, it’s no secret that the Steelers' offense will need to compensate by delivering a substantially stronger and more consistent performance this year than it did in 2017. In particular, the nagging and long-standing tendency of this offense to inexplicably stall for extended segments during games — allowing their opponents to remain within easy striking distance — must be resolved if the Steelers hope to claim another championship. While we applaud those 4th-quarter comebacks as evidence of the team’s resilience, it’s a risky proposition anytime you’re unable to put an opponent away before the final quarter -- or even the final two minutes. As the Steelers found out the hard way when they fell so far behind the Jacksonville Jaguars in the early stages of their 45-42 playoff loss last January, your luck eventually will run out when you rely too much on staging late rallies.

In the past, substantial blame for the Steelers’ under-performing offense has been flung, like a sack of rotting fish, onto the doorstep of the incumbent Steelers’ offensive coordinator. But given the annoying quirks of Bruce Arians and Todd Haley in play-charting for the Black-and-gold during the past 11 years, perhaps it’s simply been too easy for fans to ignore other explanations for the offense’s failure to live up to its advance billing. But with the advent of the Randy Fichtner Era, it appears the central strategy these days is to give Ben Roethlisberger broader authority to determine the Steelers’ weekly plan of attack. If this turns out to be the case as the 2018 regular season unfolds, we might witness one of two possible scenarios:

Scenario No. 1 — If the Steelers’ offense meets expectations by running roughshod over and through opposing defenses in 2018, Roethlisberger will become an even bigger hero to Steelers Nation than he already is. And if Ben further proves he can run a more potent and consistent offense all by himself than either Arians or Haley achieved during their tenures, everyone might start wondering why the team ever bothered to retain this tandem of widely criticized OCs during the past decade.

Scenario No. 2 — If, on the other hand, the offensive inconsistencies persist, or perhaps worsen, No. 7 might find himself on the hot seat in post-game analyses even more frequently than Fichtner.

Big Ben always has distinguished himself for resourcefulness on the field, so my hunch is he’ll be a smash in taking on what looks like a significantly expanded role in the Steelers’ overall offensive planning. And if we’re honest, most of us probably would admit to thinking — at any number of points during the Arians-Haley Epoch — we’d have preferred to see the team simply toss out their scripted plays and let Ben call the plays himself. But I also respect the theory that maybe — just maybe — No. 7 shares some significant responsibility for the uneven showing.

The upcoming 2018 regular season is intriguing in many ways — none more so than in the opportunity it presents to perhaps answer these nagging questions about the whys and wherefores of the Steelers’ offense. As usual, Steelers Nation embarks on this new campaign with great and glorious expectations. Perhaps this time around, though, wintertime will find the faithful better satisfied with the movie’s climax — instead of heading home once again with the feeling we’ve seen this all before.