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Steelers News: Why the Steelers success in 2017 will rest on the shoulders of the defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is prolific, but the team’s ultimate success in 2017 will rest solely on the broad shoulders of their defensive unit.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense is lethal—there’s no debating that. But their defense is an entirely different topic. While the offense might be what lifts the Steelers to the playoffs, it’ll be the defense which will need to perform at a higher level for the team to win another Super Bowl.

All of this is lip service, but can the defense be better? Can the defense be good enough to win it all? Only time will tell.

Time to update you on the latest news surrounding the Black-and-gold outside the walls of BTSC:

To modify a line from late NFL coach Dennis Green, “Are they who we thought they were?”

That's a question worth asking about the 2017 Steelers as they prepare for their regular-season opener on Sunday in Cleveland.

Most fans and pundits I've encountered, both locally and nationally, predicted at the start of training camp that the Steelers would be at least a 12-win team. And most prognostications I've heard and read suggested the Steelers were no worse than a solid No. 2 choice in the AFC behind defending-champion New England.

I agreed. And even after a preseason marred by player absences due to contract disputes, veteran camp injuries that limited practice time and player-suspension red tape, I still think “they are who we thought they were.”

Well, almost.

Bump my prediction down one game to 11-5. But even at this record, the Steelers will win the AFC North and square off once again with the Patriots in the AFC title game.

All the way up to the outcome of that AFC championship game. Maybe a closer matchup, but with the same result.

To some this might sound like selling the Steelers short. But inferring that they'll be in the NFL’s final four for a second straight year actually is a pretty lofty prediction.

The off-season optimism that the Steelers might improve to a Patriot-esque level of 12 or 13 wins largely was based on the premise that, because the defense had improved substantially as 2016 rolled along, it would therefore take even greater strides in 2017.

After all, Cam Heyward is returning. The only major loss was Lawrence Timmons. First-round pick T.J. Watt looks like he'll be good, and last year's rookie trio of Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave appears promising.

But training camp and the preseason showed us the defense still cannot be trusted. And that's not my opinion; it’s what the team has been saying.

When the Steelers started the first half of their 2016 season with as many losses as wins, Ben Roethlisberger offered a two-word solution.

“Follow me.”

After contemplating retirement in the off-season, Roethlisberger says he had a singular motivation for returning

for his 14th season.

“Winning.”

What he wants to win is never in question, and it’s not just the opener on Sunday in Cleveland versus the Browns—against whom Roethlisberger owns a 21-2 career record.

It's Super Bowl-or-bust with the Steelers, which is why Roethlisberger's role on this team has never been more important.

Not just as the franchise quarterback, but also as a team captain for the ninth time. That's something Big Ben calls an honor—one he's taking more seriously than ever.

“The rich tradition and history that's here, I don't take that lightly,” Roethlisberger said. “That means a lot to me. I want to be a leader, both on and off the field. That's in the locker room, just any way that I can be, so I have to try and step up when it comes to that.”

Roethlisberger isn't just talking the talk. His locker is now surrounded by rookies. To the left is first-round pick T.J. Watt; to the right are third-rounder James Conner and second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster.

“It was kind of twofold,” Roethlisberger said. “One, I wanted those guys around so I could try to pass on some things that were passed on to me. And they're rookies, so I never anticipate them being at their locker very much so I can get more room.”

Big Ben was just joking, as he's long been surrounded by open lockers. But having once been more of a cautionary tale for fellow teammates because of boorish behavior, Roethlisberger is relishing his current role as leader of the old guard, passing the torch to the next generation of Steelers stars. This is the same mentor role which Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis filled for Ben years ago.

“I know he did it for a lot of people,” Roethlisberger said, “but he was a guy that I was close to and enjoyed playing with and passed all of those things on to me.”

It's a reminder of how Roethlisberger has gone from a rookie to the team's most tenured player in what seems like the blink of an eye. It's also an indication Big Ben is closer to the twilight of his career than to the beginning. That’s why it means so much to him to pass on what he calls “the Steeler tradition, the Steeler Way.”

Mike Mitchell did something rare for him on a football field this week. He kept quiet.

The Steelers free safety rarely shuts up in practice or in games. He sets the secondary before each play, which is one reason. The other is, well, Mitchell likes to talk.

But he let Sean Davis, their young, strong safety, handle those calls the other day.

“I was kind of making myself be quiet so I could hear him talk more just in case,” Mitchell said. “There’s a chance I might not be out there that much and he may have to take that role.”

Mitchell practiced for the first time this week since early on the first day in pads at training camp, when his hamstring popped. Don’t bet against him starting on Sunday in Cleveland, though. Mitchell hasn’t missed a start since arriving as a free agent from Carolina in 2014. He’s started all 48 games since then, plus all six playoff games.

That hasn’t been the case for the players around him during this time, because every other position in the secondary has been in flux, if not turmoil. While Mitchell was at free safety in every single game during those three seasons, 12 other players have started at the other three secondary positions. The names ranged from Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor to Antwon Blake, Cortez Allen and Brice McCain.

“It’s a bit of a challenge,” Mitchell said of playing with so many different people. “I have to play with who they put out there with me. And I’ve been very fortunate to play with some very good guys, guys I genuinely care about as people.

“Sad to see some of them go, sad to see some of them retire but this is the business, this is the game. I’m in my ninth year, so I’m used to it.”

The Steelers will bus to Cleveland on Saturday afternoon. They’ll wake up Sunday morning and prepare to play their season opener against the Browns. But for many players, their thoughts in the hours leading up to the game will be on their home state of Florida, which is bracing for Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

Second-year cornerback Artie Burns is from Miami, where the hurricane is expected to hit the hardest. His son and brothers live with him in Pittsburgh, but his grandparents and other members of his extended family remain in Miami.

Even though some predictions are that this could be the most devastating hurricane to hit South Florida in 25 years, Burns said they’re going to ride out the storm.

“They’re definitely getting some part of the hurricane,” Burns said. “How much they’re going to get? I don’t know.”

“They’re just going to ride it out, man. They’re going to see what it brings. Nothing we can say about it.”