The Pittsburgh Steelers exist in a perpetual state of contention. Under Mike Tomlin’s tutelage, they’ve won one Super Bowl, two AFC championships, and five AFC North titles. They also have a bunch of playoff appearances—they’ve made the postseason in each of the past four seasons—and have finished with a sub-.500 record precisely zero times. I’ve heard people accuse Pittsburgh of having the most entitled, spoiled fanbase in the universe, and while I’d first remind them that Boston still exists, I’m wont to agree: things are pretty good in these here parts.
With the very notable exception of Ryan Shazier, the 2018 Steelers will return the core components of a roster that finished 13-3 and, for the most part, looked every bit the Super Bowl frontrunner they were expected to be in 2017—the offense was characteristically prolific, the defense—particularly the secondary—showed flashes of fleeting but encouraging brilliance, and Chris Boswell, who the Steelers picked off the top of a pile to replace the dreaded Josh Scobee [A flaming Hellpit opens in my apartment’s kitchen, swallowing the dishwasher whole; the room is enveloped by cries of the damned. A demon emerges. “Josh Scohhhhh-BEEEE,” he roars. A swarm of locusts fly from his gaping maw.], nailed five game-winners, cementing himself as the coldest special teamer in the whole daggum AFC. ESPN therefore has the Steelers pegged as the league’s fifth-best team, which looks about right.
The four teams ranked ahead of Pittsburgh—Philadelphia, New England (duh), New Orleans, and Minnesota—are all loaded with top-end talent and quality depth players. Like, Philadelphia’s MVP-caliber quarterback blew his knee out last season weeks before the playoffs, and the Eagles managed to rally behind his backup and win the Super Bowl anyway. Nick Foles is fine, but that championship doesn’t happen without Philly’s stocked cabinet of offensive playmakers and their stellar defensive line that is legitimately eight-deep. The Saints—whose backfield of Mark Ingram (yawn) and Alvin Karmara (who is a blessing to the world and must be safeguarded at all costs) might actually be second-to-none in NFL history—were a fluke Hail Mary away from playing in the NFC title game last season, and the team responsible for said Fluke Mary, the Minnesota Vikings, started Case Keenum—Case Keenum!—in a conference championship game. And Tom Brady is still breathing, so the Pats are the Pats.
Now, I’d argue that the Steelers have just as much superstar talent as any of the four teams ranked ahead of them, but I think they are objectively thinner. While every team has its deficiencies, the Steelers’ foremost concern—their pressing lack of middle linebacker depth—was plainly exposed against the Jacksonville Jaguars (who are confusingly ranked 7th in ESPN’s list, but that’s neither here nor there) in the AFC Playoffs. Until that whole thing become less opaque (perhaps Matthew Thomas or L.J. Fort can help; check out Nick’s article) I think putting the Steelers around 5th is fair.