The first trip to the playoff in three seasons was a moment of pure jubilance for fans of the Steelers, as the frustration from several mediocre seasons began to sour the hopes of Pittsburgh faithful. The jovial, glowing optimism of Steelers fans did not endure, however, as Pittsburgh fell to the Baltimore Ravens 30-17 in the Wildcard playoff.
Underplaying the significance and hurt of losing a playoff game to an archival would be erroneous. The Steelers, for sure, looked primed to make a playoff run, so the loss definitely hurts more when compared to others.
Luckily, the Steelers 2014 season, despite the playoff loss, should be viewed as a success, and it serves as a reminder of the resiliency and resergence of the Pittsburgh Steelers as a legitimate contender.
First of all, the Steelers, for all intents an purposes, have a historically good trio of offensive weapons, with Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown posting such prolific numbers their seasons can be judged with the likes of Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner or Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. Roethlisberger tied with Drew Brees for the league's passing yardage title, while Bell finished second to Demarco Murray in rushing and Antonio Brown led the league in receiving. No other trio in history has finished inside the top two in each category. Brown is entering the prime of his career and is coming off back to back seasons with at least 1,500 yards and at 22 years of age, Le'Veon Bell has already established himself as an All-Pro caliber player, and he will likely continue to progress. With players like Heath Miller, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton also aiding the offense, look for Pittsburgh to continue a torrid offensive pace in 2015 as one of the league's premier units.
Secondly, the Steelers offensive line, once considered among the worst in the league, has completely transformed. Not long ago, the Steelers running game was nonexistent as Ben Roethlisberger absorbed nearly 45 sacks. Roethlisberger's career passing season, as well as Bell's emergence as a top-tier running back can both be partially attributed to the Steelers' much-improved offensive line. The entire unit is young, full of talent and has proven the ability pass protect and lead the rush as well as any unit in the league. Maurkice Pouncey is an All-Pro, while David Decastro and Kelvin Beachum both had strong, breakout seasons. Even Marcus Gilbert, who was injured for parts of the season, was rewarded last year with a hefty contract extension, showing Pittsburgh is ensuring this unit is able to stay together. The significance of the Mike Munchack hire can't be understated or ignored, as the addition of the Hall of Famer aided the offensive line in their climb to the league's elite.
Speaking of Ben Roethlisberger's breakout season, the Steelers quarterback has reaffirmed his position as one of the elite NFL passers. With a pair of mediocre seasons clouding the eyes of the average viewer, it's easy to see why observers seemingly wrote off Ben as a premier quarterback, since Peyton Manning and Drew Brees had record breaking seasons last year while Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady continued to dominate for their respective teams. Even Andrew Luck's emergence has undervalued just how great Roethlisberger has been. Ben's 2014 campaign should leave no question as to his status among the elite passers in the NFL, as the 11-year pro has solidified his position as one of the best.
Worth noting is the fact the Steelers seemingly exceeded preseason expectations, and they certainly shocked everyone who wrote them off after a humiliating loss to the Browns in Week 6. Sitting at 3-3, Pittsburgh looked primed for another mediocre season but finished the season 8-2 to ultimately wind up 11-5 and AFC North Champions. An amazing turn around considering the early pessimism following an inexcusable loss to the dreadful Buccaneers, a nail-biting win against lowly Jacksonville and the aforementioned blowout against the Browns. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers showed their ability to be resilient and undeniably outperformed expectations this season.
While on the subject of Mike Tomlin, it's almost ludicrous to think at this time last season some were questioning the head coach's future with the team. With two consecutive 8-8 seasons under his belt, and his last playoff trip ending in humiliating fashion as Tim Tebow threw for over 300 yards in an overtime Denver win, the future of Tomlin seemed cloudy. In fact, the entire coaching staff was facing scrutiny, as Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau were questioned as well for the poor performances of the offense and defense. Haley was the orchestrator of the best offensive season the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever had, while LeBeau's defense, despite some obvious struggles, played well enough at times to be successful. Tomlin, as of writing, is still the second youngest coach in the NFL, has never had a losing season and is in possession of a Super Bowl ring. Tomlin is one of the better coaches in the NFL, and remains the right fit for the Steelers at the head coaching position.
Finally, the Steelers are still the Steelers. As one of the leagues best franchises, the Steelers have a chance to be in contention for a Super Bowl every single season. Sure, a Lombardi Trophy isn't expected every year (it certainly wasn't this season at the beginning of the year), but at the very least fans expect the team to compete. Pittsburgh seems to have gotten over that frustrating 8-8 hump and have shaken the image of a mediocre franchise. The offense will continue to dominate, the line will continue to perform and there's even reason to be excited about the defense, as Lawrence Timmons made the Pro Bowl, while young players like Cameron Heyward, Vince Williams and Steve McLendon all had good seasons. A quality draft and maybe even a free agent pickup could do wonders for a suspect Pittsburgh defense.
At the end of the day, the Pittsburgh Steelers remain one of the greatest franchises in professional sports. So while it's okay to mourn a tough playoff loss, try to remember the success and prosperity coming to Pittsburgh, and smile knowing the future of the Steelers shines bright.