Life in the NFL is fraught with uncertainties; just ask the Steelers’ Week-12 opponent, the Green Bay Packers, or the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, teams which have all lost their starting quarterbacks indefinitely. Undoubtedly, the greatest uncertainty currently hanging over the heads of the Steelers and their legion of fans is the availability of franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for the 2018 regular season and beyond. Only Ben and perhaps a few top-level people in the Steelers’ organization know the answer to the $64,000 question of when he’ll decide to hang up his cleats to pursue his life’s work. This fact alone dictates a strong sense of urgency for the Black-and-gold as they prepare for the home stretch of their 2017 regular season.
But even when considering the Steelers’ team as a whole, there might not be any better prospect in the foreseeable future for Pittsburgh to claim its seventh league championship than the one presented in the current season. While the Steelers’ annual picks in the NFL Draft invariably are the subject of hot debate on BTSC and elsewhere, it’s pretty difficult to make the argument that Tomlin, Colbert and company have failed in any significant way to improve the team during the past five years.
Building the perfect beast?
The Steelers’ offense has been justly criticized this season for not performing up to its capabilities. But few observers would attribute this circumstance to a dearth of talent on the roster. Last Thursday night at Heinz Field, these capabilities were on prominent display, despite a few residual misfires mainly during the first half. The addition of Le’Veon Bell (second round, 2013) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (second round, 2017) provided an already potent offense with a full stable of thoroughbreds enabling today’s Steelers to compete offensively with the strongest teams in the league.
It’s on defense, however, where the sheer star-power of high draft picks has begun to reach its full potential on the gridiron. In the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh grabbed Ryan Shazier, the freakishly athletic linebacker who has become the centerpiece and stalwart of a young, outstanding LB corps also including first-rounders Bud Dupree (2015 No. 1 pick) and T.J. Watt (2017 No. 1 pick). And let’s not forget Pittsburgh’s 2013 sixth-round pick Vince Williams who plays like he should have been a first-rounder.
The Steelers’ defensive line is anchored by 2011 first-round pick Cameron Heyward and his younger sidekick Stephon Tuitt (second round, 2014). Nose tackle Javon Hargrave (third round, 2016) also appears to be rounding into the kind of player that Pittsburgh has missed at the position ever since the departure of former standout Casey Hampton.
Pittsburgh’s secondary had become the butt of jokes in previous years, either because of its poor coverage skills or its stone-handed interception attempts (which the late/great sportscaster Myron Cope might have characterized as “doinks”). If defensive doinks were counted as an official NFL stat, Pittsburgh might have led the league back in those days. But the 2016 NFL Draft addressed these issues when Pittsburgh selected cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis with their No. 1 and No. 2 picks respectively. When they signed veteran CB Joe Haden—himself a 2010 first-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns—at the start of this season, all of the pieces (including the surprising Mike Hilton) had been put in place for the development of the defensive backfield as a team strength. Furthermore, outstanding depth in the secondary provided by players like William Gay, Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh represents a valuable buffer against untimely injuries such as the one Haden suffered in Indianapolis recently.
All in all, and despite occasional lapses, the Steelers’ defense is more solid today than it’s been at any time since their last Super Bowl appearance on February 6, 2011. In fact, had the Steelers’ offense been more productive and supportive of its defensive brethren during the first half of this season, Pittsburgh might be undefeated now.
No time like the present
Interviewed on the field after the Steelers’ 40-17 win over Tennessee on Thursday night, Antonio Brown graciously and correctly attributed his outstanding performance mainly to No. 7, a player Brown described as a “Hall of Fame quarterback” while expressing gratitude for being one of those NFL receivers fortunate enough to have the opportunity to catch passes from Big Ben.
While we’ve already heard what sounds like some preemptive denial of the obvious fact that Roethlisberger’s departure will create a massive void on this team, it’s plain enough to observe what happens to NFL contenders that temporarily lose the services of their starting quarterbacks—let alone a future Hall of Fame inductee. Given the paramount importance of the quarterback position in today’s game, that’s strictly a back-to-the-drawing-board scenario for the Steelers.
In an NFL with newly-emerging powers such as the Philadelphia Eagles, who rode into town on Sunday night to mop the floor with the Dallas Cowboys in their own house, there simply are no guarantees beyond what Pittsburgh might be able to accomplish this season. Father Time is ticking, and we might never see this same gang together again making another run for glory. That’s why it’s never been more true that the future is now for the Pittsburgh Steelers.