If the Rooney family ever decides to sell the Pittsburgh Steelers, it might as well be to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who have essentially owned the Steelers for the past 15 years or so.
The Patriots defeated Pittsburgh 36-17 in the AFC Championship game last Sunday, giving Brady his 3rd victory against the Steelers in AFC Championship games and his 10th overall. The loss, Pittsburgh’s first since Nov. 13, was the biggest disappointment in what was otherwise a wildly successful season.
After sustaining an equally bitter loss to the Denver Broncos last postseason, the Steelers were pegged as early Super Bowl contenders. And the Steelers did contend, rattling off nine consecutive wins on their way to the AFC Championship game.
On Sunday, the Steelers lost a game that many people expected them to lose. From my perspective, the 2016 Patriots are the most complete, well-rounded team that Brady has ever commanded. There is no shame in losing to such a talented team, especially in their home stadium. More than anything, Pittsburgh’s incredibly bright outlook makes the loss much easier to digest.
2017 expectations: Stock up
The Steelers, barring some crazy offseason happenings, will return a virtually intact roster next season. The list of 2017 “key” free agents is as follows: Le’Veon Bell, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, DeAngelo Williams, Markus Wheaton and Landry Jones.
Bell, the biggest name on this list, is almost certainly going to receive the franchise tag. That locks him up at least through 2018, unless Pittsburgh wants to work out a long-term deal this summer. Harrison has already expressed interest in playing another season, so I would expect him to return, as well (though, due to his success this season, there could be competition for him from contenders if he would decide to test the open market. Again, though, I don’t see it). From this list, Timmons seems to be the lone wildcard, as he played well enough this season to command a reasonable salary from a contender. However, Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick, and there aren’t many teams in a better position to contend than Pittsburgh. Like Bell and Harrison, I expect Timmons to return, probably on a two- or three-deal with with basically a team option in the final year, similar to Harrison’s most recent contract.
In addition to retaining core players, the Steelers will welcome a number of rookies (including, almost assuredly, an outside pass rusher with one of their first two draft picks), a healthy Cameron Heyward and Martavis Bryant, pending reinstatement. Ladarius Green will also have a full offseason to recover from his most recent concussion, though you can never predict how well (or if) head injuries will heal.
Despite being decimated by the greatest quarterback in NFL history, rookie defensive backs Sean Davis and Artie Burns have looked like future stars in the secondary for the vast majority of the season. The same is true for defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who really elevated his play after Heyward underwent season-ending surgery for a torn pectoral muscle midseason.
New England will be excellent once again. Houston, Kansas City and Oakland will all be contenders. A Tony Romo-led Broncos team would also cause plenty of headaches throughout the AFC. The Steelers are every bit as talented as these teams, and they unquestionably have the tools to return to the pinnacle once again and claim their seventh Super Bowl title.
Oh, and most importantly, there is a zero percent chance that Ben Roethlisberger retires.
Coaching: Stock down
The Steelers have literally 15 years worth of Patriots game film at their disposal. Brady will find a way to be Brady, but defensive coordinator Keith Butler et al. have to implement a better strategy.
Since inheriting the his current post in 2015, Butler has faced New England three times, including Sunday’s AFC Championship. In those three games, Brady has completed 76 percent of his passes for 894 yards, nine touchdowns, and no interceptions. That is borderline inexcusable.
In each of Pittsburgh last three losses to New England, Brady has confounded Pittsburgh’s secondary by simply shredding their zone scheme. If you’re wondering, that base set is why Chris Hogan was open by 10-15 yards on every play. The Steelers have the players to run some different defensive schemes. The game plan they adopted was doomed from the start.
Todd Haley doesn’t get a pass, either. Aside from a baffling deep pass on third-and-short in the first quarter (which, in Haley’s defense, would have worked had Sammie Coates caught the ball), the Steelers failed to convert a first-and-goal from New England’s half-yard line with under two minutes remaining in the first half. Pittsburgh would settle for a field goal. Instead of calling for the 250-pound Roethlisberger to simply fall across the goal line, Pittsburgh opted to run a pair of very predictable dive plays to Williams and an ill-timed quick out to Eli Rogers. This isn’t to say that scoring a touchdown on that play would’ve changed anything; it probably wouldn’t have.
However, there is a silver lining here: the Steelers did not lose Haley to a head coaching job. He will likely be interested in fixing an offense that scored just two touchdowns in its last 20 drives of the season.
Young receivers not named Eli Rogers: Stock down
Had Cobi Hamilton not watched a perfectly-thrown Roethlisberger pass fall through his hands in the end zone, the aforementioned goal line squabble would have never transpired. Coates, in addition to dropping a number of pass, must become a better route runner this offseason if he wants to make any kind of impact moving forward.
With that said, however, Coates was tied for the NFL lead with six 40-yard catches (despite basically playing in only five games) and Hamilton’s drops were few and far between this season. Roethlisberger summed it up perfectly post-game: the moment simply seemed to be too big for some of the younger players.
Rogers, however, is going to be a devastating weapon in the slot next season, especially if Bryant returns to strength manning the outside opposite Antonio Brown.
Stock up: Rational thinking
Brown is one of the top two receivers in the NFL. He will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers next season and will not be cut or traded. He will score touchdowns, he will celebrate fabulously and he will use social media.