As the wheels are in motion, little by little, in the 2018 off-season, now is the time to emphasize what the Steelers need to focus on for a great season. Following a 13-3 season and a league-high 56 sacks, coupled with a first-round bye—only to be one-and-done in the playoffs—players and fans are still left scratching their heads. 2017 was supposed to be year of the “Men of Steel” upending the Patriots. Instead, their hearts are still left with deep wounds from a dominating — and unexpected — Jaguars offensive explosion.
Now, it’s back to the drawing board.
The brain trust of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert begins to become more scrutinized. Two out of the last four playoff appearances the Steelers have found themselves one-and-done.
You must wonder: With this collection of talent, how much longer is this championship window going to be open?
“We have to be better,” Colbert told Triblive. “I do not think we were better in 2017 than we were in 2016 because we got eliminated a round earlier, and I think that’s a reflection of the job that all of us did or didn’t do. How do we get better? We all have to figure out a way to not get eliminated in the first round. That is the process that we are in.”
With that, here are 3 key areas of focus that needs to be emphasized going into this season.
Red zone efficiency
Under Todd Haley’s tenure as offensive coordinator, their average rank was 20th in all five seasons, with 12th being the highest they achieved which was in Haley’s first year. Look at this year, for example. Until the Colts game, they were second-to-last in red-zone touchdown percentage.
It got to a point where Ben Roethlisberger and Haley’s relationship hit such a boiling point Roethlisberger requested quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner come down from the booth to the sidelines. Haley has gotten the best out of Roethlisberger as a more patient pocket passer but, more importantly, taking fewer hits. However, it seems to have reached a point where there was constant frustration, and unfortunately someone had to depart.
Now it is up to Fichtner to fix the red-zone woes — Job No. 1 for the new play caller.
It would be beneficial if Roethlisberger stopped calling out his own teammates through the media. He placed his foot in his mouth many times when referring to current teammates. Ben expressed his disappointment with Martavis Bryant getting cleared from his banned substance suspension,and for Antonio Brown’s outburst on the sideline during a frustrating game on the road in Baltimore against the Ravens.
We’re not asking them to be New England, but there comes a certain point where things need to be handled without dirty laundry being aired. It comes to a point in time where team unity needs to get stronger.
Legendary Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis even stated back in his playing days that his Steelers teams were trying to find their identity by winning a Super Bowl. “The one thing that we noticed about the older guys was how much of a family it was,” Bettis told Steelers.com reporter Missi Matthews at the Hall of Honor last November.
“They still came together and they were always a family and we understood that if we wanted to get to the heights and win a championship, we had to become a family the same way and I think we did that and, as a result of it, we were able to win a championship.”
Don’t get me wrong, but Tomlin has proven time and time again that he isn’t about ready to deal with nonsense. Roethlisberger has no doubt matured over his career, but he needs to be the table-setter and set the tone on the “Steeler way.” Fortunately, Art Rooney II hasn’t let anything deter him from keeping stars like Brown and Bell around.
I mentioned in an earlier article why fans should continue to trust the process on the defense. At some point and time, they must become a scoring defense. Six of the last 10 Super Bowl champions ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense. The Steelers’ last defensive touchdown was by William Gay back in 2015 against the Bengals in Cincinnati. The no-takeaway-for-score streak is now at two seasons. That, to me, is unacceptable if they’re going to open people’s eyes as a great team considered to be a Super Bowl contender!
Yes, everyone is well-coached and ready to go under Coach Tomlin, but I’ve also mentioned how we’ve witnessed the significant increase in missed tackles and worsening pass coverage without Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier. They managed to go 7-1 in the second half down the stretch. The Steelers were ranked No. 1 in pass defense at one point, but dropped to No. 4 at season’s end. Star players are still star players no matter how you cut it!
Here’s what this all boils down to: they must once again lock down their division (of course), beat New England, but more importantly, not take any days off.
Don’t get me wrong, Mike Tomlin chose to rest his guys on the last game of the season, but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for Roethlisberger, Bell, or Brown to at least tune up for a quarter or a half in the finale against the Browns. They got more rest with that bye, but it was clear they were too relaxed and not focused going against Jacksonville in the AFC Divisional Round playoffs. The theme needs to be, “win, or die trying!”
One thing we can all agree on is that time is too valuable a thing to waste.