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A look back at 2017, with hopes the 2018 Steelers season will end differently

Sometimes you have to look backwards to move forwards, so it is time to review last season in hopes the 2018 team will take the next step in their progression.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

When a team that’s a heavy favorite to compete for the Super Bowl scores a touchdown on a blocked punt two minutes and 16 seconds into the 2017 regular season, one might be inclined to think the next 957 minutes and 44 seconds are going to be smooth sailing.

But while the Steelers’ 2017 campaign certainly was successful, the ride was far from smooth.

The bumpy road seemed to start mere days after a disappointing 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game to close out Pittsburgh’s 2016 quest for that ever-elusive seventh Lombardi trophy.

Two days later, on his weekly radio show, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger cryptically hinted at retirement, sending Steelers fans everywhere into panic mode.

Further frustrating the fan base was the reality that the front office had failed to land a high-profile free agent, a free agent who would presumably close the huge chasm between Pittsburgh and a Patriots team that came back from 25 points down in Super Bowl 51 to win its fifth championship since 2001.

Speaking of frustrating, star running back Le’Veon Bell chose yet another offseason to get under the skin of fans. However, unlike previous years, when rap songs and drug-related suspensions drew the ire of the faithful, high contract demands and a training camp holdout further alienated Bell from his supporters.

But while Bell wasn’t at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, preparing for the 2017 season, Roethlisberger alleviated the fears of many by showing up ready to work.

Even before training camp commenced, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the team’s first-round pick, had already earned a reputation for “being on the details,” as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say.

As camp got underway, one of the lingering questions revolved around receiver Martavis Bryant and when the NFL would finally allow him to join his teammates. Ultimately, Bryant, who sat out the previous season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy multiple times, didn’t get fully reinstated until mid-August.

Between injuries and suspensions, it had been a while since the Steelers’ vaunted and talented offense could boast of having all of its necessary parts. With Bryant joining Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger and (presumably) Bell, who was slated to report and sign his $12.1 million franchise tag before Week 1, the possibilities for yards and points seemed endless.

As for that high-profile free agent the fans had been clamoring for in the spring, it arrived in late-August in the form of cornerback Joe Haden, who was cut by the Browns and quickly snatched up by Pittsburgh.

Would Haden help a Steelers’ defense that was repeatedly victimized by New England just months earlier?

That sure was the plan.

Going back to that blocked punt to start the season, it occurred in Cleveland against a Browns team that had posted one lone victory the year before. Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich broke through to get the block, while outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo fell on it for the score.

It was a day on which the defense dominated, recording seven sacks to start a theme that would last the entire season.

As for the offense, it looked rather sluggish, particularly the just-returning Bell, and the Steelers couldn’t quite put the Browns away until late in the game, when Brown out-jumped three defenders for a 38-yard reception that preserved a 21-18 victory.

Actually, Brown wasn’t sluggish at all in this game, catching 11 passes (on 11 targets) for 182 yards.

But the Steelers’ offensive struggles as a team continued during the next two weeks, as they split a pair of games against NFC foes.

Seven days after an impressive 26-9 victory over the Vikings at Heinz Field in Week 2, Pittsburgh traveled to Soldier Field in Chicago to take on a winless and hapless Bears team.

This game epitomized frustration, as Pittsburgh trailed 17-7 at halftime due to a Roethlisberger fumble and a blocked field goal which led to 10 of Chicago’s points.

Pittsburgh crawled all the way back in the second half to tie the game late in regulation, but the offense couldn’t put the final nail in the coffin. After gashing the Steelers’ defense for 148 rushing yards over the first four quarters, Chicago took the opening kickoff of overtime and gashed Keith Butler’s unit for 74 more en route to a 23-17 upset victory.

A struggling offense. A defense that allowed 222 yards on the ground. A huge special teams gaffe.

If only these issues had been the strongest talking points following the Steelers’ first loss of the season.

Unfortunately, thanks to the ongoing national anthem protest controversy that began with Colin Kaepernick one year earlier — as well as President Donald Trump’s caustic remarks the day before — the Steelers found themselves in the middle of a political minefield confounding their plans prior to the Week-3 kickoff in Chicago.

Should the players stay in the locker room or should they all come out onto the field and let whatever happens, happen? As far as coach Tomlin was concerned, whatever his charges agreed to do--locker room, kneel or stand--they would do it as a team.

The Steelers agreed as a team to stand in the tunnel for the playing of the national anthem. This, in and of itself, was instantly criticized by fans on social media. But the sight of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a decorated former Army Ranger, standing alone outside the tunnel with hand over heart threw even more gasoline on the fire.

After being mostly immune to any sort of anthem controversy, the Steelers were suddenly front-and-center, as many fans vowed to never to watch them again.

But while the Steelers’ pre-game decision in Chicago remained a bone of contention with many fans during the rest of 2017, it was never really an issue again for the players.

Following a very businesslike 26-9 Week-4 victory over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium--the only sideline drama involving AB and a Gatorade cooler which he threw out of frustration--the Steelers were simply embarrassed in their second home game of the year, as the Jaguars came into Heinz Field and left with a 30-9 blowout victory.

Included in the carnage were five Roethlisberger interceptions--two of which were returned for touchdowns--along with 231 rushing yards by Jacksonville.

So, after five weeks, not only was the Steelers’ offense struggling to perform up to expectations, the defense had twice given up more than 200 rushing yards in losses to teams with quarterbacks who failed to put up even 100 passing yards.

Much like the debacle in Chicago, the locker room drama that followed the loss to Jacksonville might actually have been worse than the team’s performance itself. During his postgame press conference with reporters, Roethlisberger said of his five-interception day, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,

At 3-2 and in apparent disarray, how would the Steelers — presumably the AFC’s biggest challengers to New England — respond?

They would respond with an 8-game winning-streak that included a victory over the undefeated Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium one week after the Jags loss and four games won at the end of regulation, thanks to field goals by kicker Chris Boswell.

Unfortunately, even a two-month winning streak wasn’t without its controversies, injuries and even heartache.

The controversies included a one-game benching of Bryant, who reportedly demanded a trade earlier in the year and then dissed rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on social media. They also included Swear-gate, as folks spent the week following the Steelers 20-17 last-second victory over the Colts wondering if offensive coordinator Todd Haley swore at Roethlisberger during a tense moment late in the game.

Much like the loss to Chicago, if only the Haley/Ben controversy was the biggest concern after the win over the Colts. Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its ugly head, as Haden, whose veteran presence certainly seemed to be a stabilizing force for Pittsburgh’s young secondary, was lost indefinitely with a fractured fibula.

But the “controversies” weren’t all bad during the 8-game winning-streak. Take rookie receiver (and breath of fresh air) JuJu Smith-Schuster, who would go on to catch 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns for the season, including a 97-yard catch-and-run for a score against the Lions in the game when Bryant was deactivated for dissing him.

But even before Smith-Schuster would truly work his way up to a legitimate No. 2 receiver, he was making headlines for his stolen bike as well as the fact that, at age 20, he still hadn’t gotten his driver’s license.

Led by all-everything inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, the defense actually performed better than expected. But there was clearly a drop-off after the injury to Haden, as the secondary began to show cracks and allow the types of big plays it had prevented earlier in the year.

As mentioned, however, the defense did have a banner year in the pass-rush department, recording 56 sacks, a franchise record.

Veteran defensive end Cam Heyward had his finest year for the Steelers, recording 12 sacks and earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors.

Speaking of sensational rookies, Watt recorded seven sacks, and with 54 tackles, one interception and seven passes defensed to boot, he had the only such stat-line of any NFL linebacker.

As for the heartache portion of the 8-game winning streak, it occurred during a Monday night game against the Bengals on December 4 in Cincinnati, Ohio, when Shazier made a tackle on a Bengals player and then fell to the ground in obvious distress. Unfortunately, Shazier suffered a spinal cord injury and, not only would be lost for the rest of the season, it was iffy if he’d even walk again because, initially, the injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Six days later, Pittsburgh would host the Ravens at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

A win would earn the Steelers their second-straight AFC North crown.

The players were rightfully inspired to win this one for Ryan, and the offense certainly showed up, scoring two quick touchdowns to help forge an early 14-0 lead.

Sadly, without both Shazier and Haden, Pittsburgh’s defense, one that had perhaps been playing over its head even when totally healthy, was no match for Baltimore’s offense, yielding 413 total yards.

With only 6:44 left in regulation, Pittsburgh trailed 38-29. While a division title seemed inevitable even with a loss, the prospects of a No. 1 seed — and even a bye — were quickly slipping away.

But after a Bell touchdown made it 38-36 with 3:29 to play, Pittsburgh would get one more chance.

And who would come through with a clutch reception? The man who had been coming through all season long.

On 3rd-and-4 with just over a minute to play, Roethlisberger found Brown on a 30-yard pass down to the Baltimore 34-yard line.

Four plays later, the guy who had been coming through with clutch kicks all season — Chris Bowell — did so again from 46 yards away to put the Steelers ahead by one point.

With timing running out, Watt sacked quarterback Joe Flacco and stripped him of the football to preserve the victory and give the Steelers their second-straight divisional title.

So there the Steelers sat — at 11-2 and AFC North Champions, owning an 8-game winning-streak. As far as the regular season was concerned, there was only one more very important mountain to climb.

One week later, it was the much-anticipated Week-15 showdown with the Patriots at Heinz Field. The winner would have a clear path to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Speaking of controversies, coach Tomlin created another one a few weeks earlier when, during an interview with Tony Dungy on a Sunday Night Football telecast, he discussed the ‘elephant in the room,’ which was the team’s ongoing quest to oust the Patriots from the NFL’s throne. He even alluded to a possible rematch with New England in the fast-approaching postseason dance.

As for the game, Pittsburgh actually dictated the action all throughout the first half and led 17-10 at the break. Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its ugly head once more, this time in the form of a calf injury sustained by Brown near the end of the first half. Leaving the field to chants of “MVP! MVP!” one wondered if the loss of yet another important superstar would wreck the team’s playoff chances once again.

In the second half, thanks to press coverage by the secondary, a really good pass-rush and an opportunistic defense, Pittsburgh was able to build a 24-16 lead late in the fourth quarter.

Unfortunately, Tom Brady being Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski being Rob Gronkowski, the Steelers’ defense wasn’t keeping New England’s offense down forever, as the visitors scored 11 unanswered points and held a 27-24 lead with just 56 seconds remaining.

But when all hope seemed lost, there was that rookie sensation once again. Smith-Schuster took a seemingly innocent-looking crossing pass from Roethlisberger and managed to weave his way 69 yards down to the Patriots 10-yard line.

One play later, it looked as if the Steelers had taken the lead, when Roethlisberger found tight end Jesse James for the go-ahead touchdown with only 28 seconds remaining. However, after the mandatory touchdown review, it was determined that James didn’t maintain possession as he dived over the end zone, an extremely controversial reversal that would ultimately shift the fortunes and directions of many teams in the AFC playoff field.

Two plays after the James reversal, Roethlisberger tried to find a heavily-covered Eli Rogers in the middle of the end zone, only for his pass to be deflected and intercepted.

So, after overtime had seemed almost inevitable, the Steelers’ 8-game winning-streak came to an end in the most depressing and controversial way.

The following week, the Steelers took care of business with a 34-6 blowout on Christmas Day over the Texans down in Houston. The win clinched a No. 2 seed and a bye. It also saw the return of Haden, who gave a good accounting of himself while battling ultra-talented receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s victory was once again overshadowed by some controversy. Two days before the game in Houston, it was announced that the team had released veteran outside linebacker James Harrison. Harrison, who re-signed with Pittsburgh at age 39, saw very little playing time in 2017, as Watt and Bud Dupree garnered the vast-majority of snaps. In subsequent days, several teammates including center Maurkice Pouncey let it be known that Harrison had become disgruntled over his lack of playing time and said he was far from a great teammate in the locker room.

Pouncey and his teammates seemed especially upset and betrayed over Harrison’s decision to quickly sign with the hated Patriots just days after leaving Pittsburgh.

The Steelers ultimately finished with a 13-3 record, their best in 14 years, and headed to the playoffs as the second seed in the AFC. Not a bad place to be, but not ideal, given that the Patriots were No. 1, and the Jaguars, their likely divisional-round opponent, were the third seed.

Thankfully, Pittsburgh would have Brown back for the playoffs and, all things considered, were about as healthy as could be expected.

After holding off the Bills in the wild card round, the Jaguars were back in town for a divisional playoff showdown on January 14.

They say the matchup makes the match and, after dominating the Steelers in Week 5 thanks to the ground game and turnovers, Jacksonville quickly jumped out to first half leads of 21-0 and 28-7 on the strength of the ground game and turnovers.

Just when it appeared this would be a long day, Roethlisberger found Bryant for a 36-yard touchdown just before the half. The Steelers doubled down early in the second half and pulled to within 28-21 on a 19-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to Bell.

Following a deflected punt by Robert Golden, the Steelers found themselves at the Jacksonville 48 early in the fourth quarter. But on 4th-and-1 from the 39, Haley dialed up a toss sweep that went nowhere — the second such unsuccessful call in the same down-and-distance situation in the game.

Then, the Jaguars quickly reestablished a two-touchdown lead, theoretically putting Pittsburgh’s season on life support.

While there would be a token comeback, the Steelers’ season ended with a 45-42 thud.

So how might one categorize the Steelers’ 2017 campaign?

Despite struggling to find its way early on, the Steelers’ offense picked up the pace in the second half.

Roethlisberger rebounded from early season mediocrity to finish with more than 4,200 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. Brown eclipsed the 100-catch mark for the fifth year in a row and managed to lead the league in receiving yards despite missing the final 10 quarters of the regular season.

As for Bell, despite his slow start he totaled more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage.

But it just didn’t seem like enough, especially at the end of the year, when the defense was compromised, and journeyman Sean Spence was the only answer for the injured Shazier.

Despite an exciting regular season that included the first sweep of the AFC North since 2008, the 2017 Steelers never seemed in total control.

At the end of the day, it’s all about championships. The 2017 Steelers didn’t win one, so it’s hard to see their most recent season as anything but a disappointment.