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Steelers face a lot of difficult questions as 2018 dawns

The 2017 season playoffs haven’t even started, but it’s clear the Steelers will have a lot of questions to answer as they navigate through the 2018 calendar year.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

With a new year upon us, it’s only natural to look ahead to see what the next 365 days have in store. Sports teams experience a great deal of change each year, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will be staring down the barrel of uncertainty in more ways than usual as the calendar turns over.

Sure, there is still football to be played. The Steelers will enter the playoffs no worse than the number-two seed, meaning they are guaranteed a week of rest. And it’s there that the questions begin.

Will Antonio Brown be ready for the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs?

When Brown went down, injured, against the New England Patriots, few could have foreseen the efficiency with which the offense would cover for his absence over the next six quarters: they were one incorrectly overturned touchdown away from beating the Patriots for the first time in a long, long time, and then put up 34 points last week when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spread the ball around to six different receivers. Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster has become Roethlisberger’s new favorite security blanket — not to mention a more-than-adequate “1a” receiver.

Still, there is no denying Brown’s impact on the team: despite missing a game and a half, he still maintains a 155-yard lead over the second-place receiver in the NFL, and is now the only receiver in NFL history to amass at least 100 catches in five consecutive seasons. His numbers don’t just rival those of Jerry Rice, widely regarded as the best receiver in NFL history; over the last five years, they have exceeded any five-year stretch Rice ever managed, and not by a slim margin, either.

The one positive his absence has brought is that Roethlisberger has learned to trust his other weapons more, and that’s got to be a scary thought for any AFC team still in contention as the playoffs loom.

Brown’s partially torn calf muscle is significant enough to have kept him out for the final two and a half games, and there is still plenty of speculation as to whether that time off, coupled with next week’s bye, will be enough time to heal and rehab the injury. If you’ve seen any of the videos of his rehab so far, you can definitely understand the uncertainty, though a recent one did how him jogging on a treadmill.

Will any Steelers coaches be considered for the numerous expected vacancies around the league?

There will be a large number of coaching positions coming up throughout the NFL. The other shoe has dropped for Detroit’s Jim Caldwell and Chuck Pagano of the Colts. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians retired Monday morning. Marvin Lewis, the league’s second longest-tenured coach behind New England’s Bill Belichick, has already announced he is leaving the Bengals, though there appears to be something strange going on there. The Raiders are likely to hire former coach Jon Gruden, going as far as offering him an ownership stake in the team, which required parting ways with current coach Jack Del Rio. And, of course, there is almost always a surprise vacancy that will pop up, as well as backfilling vacancies created by coaches switching teams.

The Steelers’ coaching staff has two former head coaches in offensive coordinator Todd Haley and offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Neither are expected to be among the top tier of candidates for open positions — Haley is known as a somewhat abrasive and stubborn coach, while Munchak has shown little interest in returning to a head-coach position — but they could certainly be among the plan-B options. Haley’s departure could end up coming via different means, as well, as his contract is expiring, and his offenses in Pittsburgh have gone through several extended lulls in production despite elite talent, year-in and year-out.

Will quarterback Ben Roethlisberger return for another season?

If you have the Magic Eight Ball that answers this question, you are in for a million-dollar payday.

After waffling for more than two months following the 2016 season, the second straight year in which the quarterback missed time with injuries, Roethlisberger committed to the 2017 season, but nothing more. Until the bye week, it looked for all the world like he was washed up and just going through the motions until he could finally hang it up.

Then, something strange happened: following the bye, Roethlisberger didn’t just improve, he may have suddenly started playing the best football of what is very likely already a Hall-of-Fame career. From week 11 to week 16, he was, statistically and even by the eye test, the best quarterback in the league in yards, touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentage, and in most cases it wasn’t even close.

How do you retire when you are at the top of your game?

Strangely, I think the one thing that could lead to Roethlisberger’s retirement is winning a championship. It’s possible, if the Steelers win the Super Bowl, he could choose to emulate John Elway — his childhood idol — and go out on top. Otherwise, if he stays healthy through the playoffs, I simply can’t see a reason why he would leave. And, given the state of the offense for 2018, even winning it all may not be enough to entice him.

Its possible that two other factors come together to convince him to suit up one more season: loyalty and money. The team stood by his side during his legal issues early inhis career, and he has been a consummate teammate since. His retirement would accelerate a good chunk of prorated signing bonus accounting, further handcuffing a team that is already going to have some tough decisions this off-season if they want to make any moves (and we will get to one of those in just a moment). It’s possible he could be talked into coming back, even if it’s not really his desire, just so he can help the team before he rides into the sunset. I don’t see it coming to that at this point, though. I think he will be back for at least one more year.

Can the Steelers make Le’Veon Bell an offer he can’t refuse?

This is going to be the enormous, smelly elephant in the room once the Steelers take their final snap of this post-season. Bell has played the 2017 season on a Franchise tender, earning him a tidy sum while he augments his case to be paid unlike any running back, ever. Despite starting slow, and posting a very pedestrian yards-per-carry this season, he simply isn’t used like other running backs. When the final whistle blew on the 2017 regular season Sunday evening, Bell ended it with the tenth-most receptions in the league. Not tenth among running backs; tenth among all players. He had more receptions than the leading receiver on 23 of the league’s other 31 teams. Two other runners -- New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey — were also over 80 receptions, but neither was within 500 yards of Bell as a runner, too. He was an enormous part of the team’s offense, and would be very hard to replace.

That doesn’t mean he can’t be.

Despite ending the season on the Reserve/Injured list, rookie James Conner showed promise as a runner, and has a his.tory as a receiver from his college years. He is a more-traditional one-cut runner, and isn’t nearly as good of a blocker so far, but it doesn’t mean he can’t be. But assuming he can replace Bell requires a great deal of imagination and faith. There could be other ways, though, to limit the effects of losing Bell, and part of that could be further increasing the utilization of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose rookie season was good enough to have him right in the middle of the conversation for offensive rookie of the year, even in a season when an unheralded rookie won the rushing title.

The problem with keeping Bell, of course, is cost. The Steelers will likely have to make some high-profile cuts to keep him. Mainstays like Ramon Foster could be on the block thanks to younger, cheaper, capable options behind them. Safety J.J. Wilcox is almost certainly not going to be back, despite having a year left on his contract. Even right tackle Marcus Gilbert could be gone, if the team was to chose to move forward with Chris Hubbard, who proved to be an absolute bargain while replacing Gilbert during his injury and subsequent suspension. Cutting Gilbert would save the team over $4 million, though he does carry more than $3 million in dead money if cut. That could be limited, though, by making him a June-1st cut.

The Bell contract situation is going to go a long way toward defining the team’s make-up in 2018, and is going to be both fun and nerve-wracking to watch.

All of this, and we are merely days into 2018.