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11 thoughts about the regular season, as the Steelers prepare for the playoffs

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As Pittsburgh’s title run begins, we look back at the most interesting parts of 2017

Cleveland Browns v'u2020Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Steelers’ 2017 season got off to an...interesting start. Le’Veon Bell had two of the worst performances of his career in Weeks 1 and 2, providing fans and fussy local media types with plenty of ammunition to support their he’s out of shape because he skipped training camp narratives. Ben Roethlisberger, who had openly pondered retirement in the offseason, played as if he already had one foot out the door, posting his poorest numbers in nearly a decade. The Steelers, as has become strikingly customary under Mike Tomlin’s tutelage, lost on the road to a lowly and vastly-inferior Chicago Bears team in Week 3. Shortly thereafter, Pittsburgh lost once again, this time to the Jacksonville Jaguars at home in Week 5, a game in which Roethlisberger inexplicably tossed a career-high five interceptions.

Yet the Steelers luxuriated in the chaos, keeping an ostensibly sinking ship afloat while most of us totally freaked out. They’ve lost just once since Week 5, a now-infamous home loss to the Patriots in which the replay officials either overstepped their boundaries or adhered to an ironclad policy, depending on your rooting interests. Roethlisberger has been just fine—in fact, with the notable exception of Tom Brady, Roethlisberger has been perhaps the league’s best passer during the second half of the season. Likewise, Bell finished just 38 yards short of the league’s rushing title despite a requisite benching in a meaningless Week 17 tilt against Cleveland. And while they’ve suffered a number of close calls, the Steelers have dispatched every lesser foe that’s awaited them.

When the dust finally settled, the Steelers found themselves where pretty much everyone expected them to be; neck-and-neck with the Patriots by dint of a volcanic offense and a usually-solid defense. To echo our intrastate rival’s longstanding rallying cry: trust the process. Here are, like, ten more thoughts about the 2017 season:

The Steelers won the 2017 NFL Draft

Well, they didn’t win—that honor belongs to the New Orleans Saints, who obtained a ridiculous haul—but they did manage to secure a pair of legitimate blue-chip talents. T.J. Watt, who was presumably set to assume James Harrison’s mantle down the road while splitting snaps in the interim, ultimately winded up securing a full-time starter spot at outside linebacker, very likely facilitating Harrison’s departure in the process. JuJu Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, became the most beloved athlete in the city of Pittsburgh and a fitting Hines Ward proxy, which is high praise for a guy whose selection, at the time, seemed to be more an indictment of the team’s lack of confidence in Martavis Bryant than their need for another receiver. Both Watt and Smith-Schuster are on the shortlist for Rookie of the Year, and both could very well come away with Super Bowl rings after just eight months of work. (Update: they did not win. Sad!)

Cameron Heyward is an absolute superhero

Heyward amassed a dozen sacks this season despite a) being a 3-4 defensive end, a position not known for generating voluminous sack totals and b) missing the season finale, a game in which his compatriots collected six sacks. I don’t want to sound like some contempible yinzer butthole who calls local radio shows to complain about Mike Tomlin’s coaching style and JuJu’s “antics,” but the fact that the clubhouse leader in sacks (one who ranked fifth in the league in that category) for a team that led the league in sacks and finished fifth in total defense DID NOT make the Pro Bowl is a felonious offense. Given the aforementioned credentials, Heyward has a strong Defensive Player of the Year case. (Update: Heyward was named a First Team All-Pro, so screw the Pro Bowl.)

Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL and I honestly don’t know why anyone even discusses this anymore

Brown, who essentially missed three games this season, finished fifth in the NFL in catches, fourth in touchdowns, first in plays of 20 or more yards, second in plays of 40 or more yards, second in first downs, and a distant first in receiving yards. His 2017 capped the most prolific five-year receiving stretch in league history, and he’s showed no tangible signs that he’s about to slow down anytime soon.

As far as pleasant surprises go, none were better than Vince Willams

When the Steelers offered little resistance in allowing Lawrence Timmons to sign with Miami this offseason, it seemed to be an acknowledgement of their faith in Vince Williams’ abilities; or, alternatively, their confidence in finding an apt replacement for Timmons—and enacting some revenge against the Patriots—in the form of Donta Hightower. As Hightower’s fateful meeting with Pittsburgh’s brass came and went, it appeared that Williams was penciled in as the default starter.

Perhaps that meeting with Hightower sparked something within Williams, because the former sixth-round pick who previously made his coin as an ace special teamer and solid backup linebacker has emerged as a capable blitzer and run stopper, and, since Ryan Shazier’s injury, the quarterback of Pittsburgh’s defense. Williams’ obvious physical limitations will prevent him from being the kind of all-purpose world-eater that Shazier was, but he has the acumen to anchor a championship defense.

Though Alejandro Villanueva has been nice, too

While I suspect Villanueva’s selection to the Pro Bowl was largely the result of some good old-fashioned jingoism, there is little doubt that he, you know, deserves the honor. Joe Thomas and Cordy Glenn are injured. Andrew Whitworth changed conferences. Can you name five offensive tackles from the AFC who are more deserving of Pro Bowl honors than Villanueva? Can you even name three? Regardless of your personal appraisal of Villanueva (as in, if you’re the type of person who brags about WATCHING THE TAPE), the fact that the Steelers have a Pro Bowl left tackle under contract for three more seasons at $6 million per is reason to celebrate.

Mike Tomlin’s seat is so, so cold

Tomlin just coached the best regular season of his career and did so with a team that he, not CAHHHHR, was primarily responsible for assembling. With the notable exception of Bill Belichick, there isn’t a safer—or better—head coach in the NFL.

Hot take: Pittsburgh’s coaching staff will undergo some changes this offseason

While Tomlin isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, his assistants just might. Namely, Mike Munchak is apparently on the Arizona Cardinals’ shortlist to replace Bruce Arians, which makes sense, because Munchak deserves another shot at a head job. His ability to cultivate the talents of offensive linemen is legitimately second to none, and, according to the aforementioned hyperlink, he is the kind of guy who steadfastly refuses to sell out players and assistants. That’ll win you friends in the NFL.

I thought for sure Todd Haley would secure a head coaching gig this offseason, too, but now I’m thinking that a lot of needy teams will hesitate to be known as the organization that signed the coach who vaporized his pelvis in a pseudo-barfight. I live in Pittsburgh, and I can say without compunction that Tequila Cowboy is home to some of the worst beings in the universe, and certainly no place for a 50-year-old professional football coach to hang out. But to each their own.

Oh, and Richard Mann is set to retire. He’ll be sorely missed in the WR room, where he’s helped develop former sixth-round pick Antonio Brown into All-World at his position.

Another hot take: the celebrations have been a very welcome addition

Seriously.

I think Ben will play again next season

In my dumb, mostly irreverent weekly “Stock Report,” I’ve been doing a Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index, which started as a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing to mock the prospects of Ben’s impending retirement. Two months ago, I believed that this would be it for Ben, regardless of how the 2017 ended. But as I sit here today, I think he will play for the Steelers in 2018.

First, Roethlisberger is due somewhere in the ballpark of $17 million next season, which is a significant chunk of coin to blithely leave on the table, even for a dude who’s already accumulated a considerable amount of wealth of the course of his career to this point. Second, Marvin Lewis just signed a two-year extension, meaning that, if Roethlisberger plays for another two seasons, he is guaranteed at least four total wins.

There’s also the whole open/closed window thing. So long as Brown and Bell are on the roster, the offensive line remains strong, the defense remains good enough, and the younger players continue to progress, the Steelers should be a Super Bowl competitor for the remainder of Ben’s career.