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Three of the biggest challenges awaiting the Steelers in 2017

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High expectations, uncertainty in the secondary, and prolific passing attacks could serve as major hindrances to Pittsburgh’s success in 2017

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to be among the NFL’s best teams in 2017. This is good news. The Steelers typically have Super Bowl aspirations, but this 2017 team could be, without exaggeration, the most talented group with which Ben Roethlisberger has ever played.

The road to a seventh Super Bowl title will in all likelihood run through New England, which is seeking its second title in as many seasons. This is not good news. Roethlisberger is 3-5 against the Patriots in his career, with one of his victories bearing an asterisk since it came against a Tom Brady-less Patriots team.

The Steelers will play the Patriots at least once in 2017 (at home, in Week 15) and could very well see New England again in the postseason, most likely at Gillette Stadium, where Roethlisberger has never defeated Brady. This is very, very bad news.

So, yeah. It kind of goes without saying that the Patriots represent Pittsburgh’s most daunting challenge in 2017. So, let’s discuss the specifics of the Patriots challenge, along with some other issues that could inhibit Pittsburgh’s success:

Expectations!

The Steelers play a ridiculously easy schedule (the fifth easiest, in fact, based on their opponents’ winning percentages in 2016). However, there isn’t much grey area: many of Pittsburgh’s opponents are either probable destinations for top-10 draft picks or Super Bowl contenders. Given Mike Tomlin’s objectively-poor record against sub-500 teams, the Steelers’ biggest opponents could very well be themselves.

Facing other top-tier passing attacks

Tom Brady’s utter dominance over the Steelers isn’t some cosmic happenstance (then, again, maybe it is)—Brady is simply an expert at identifying and exploiting flaws in opponents’ defensive schemes, independent of the level of talent within said opponents’ secondaries. Please consult the following list for further details:

  • 2007: Patriots def. Steelers 34-13—Steelers ranked 3rd in pass defense; Brady throws for 399 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions
  • 2010: Patriots def. Steelers 39-26—Steelers ranked 12th in pass defense; Brady throws for 350 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions
  • 2013: Patriots def. Steelers 55-31—Steelers ranked 9th in pass defense; Brady throws for 432 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions
  • 2015: Patriots def. Steelers 28-21—Steelers ranked 30th in pass defense; Brady throws for 288 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions
  • 2016: Patriots def. Steelers on two separate occasions, once in the regular season and again in the AFC Championship game—Steelers ranked 16th in pass defense; Brady averages 303 yards in those games, throws five total touchdowns and no interceptions

Keep in mind, Brady has not only done this against significantly different Steelers teams, but also against two different defensive coordinators.

Spacing is the most critical element of New England’s passing attack, which is why the Patriots place such a premium on guys like Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, or Troy Brown, who are experts at locating open patches of turf. Of course, field-stretching players like Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski enhance New England’s offensive capabilities, but as the Patriots proved last season by winning the Super Bowl, players who exhibit this skillset are not necessary elements of their attack. Derek Carr and the Raiders present a similar challenge. While the Steelers do not face Oakland in the regular season, the Raiders are likely to be among the AFC’s top contenders and, by extension, one of the Steelers’ primary roadblocks. Things don’t look any easier in the NFC, with Atlanta and Green Bay returning all the important pieces of passing offenses that finished no. 3 and no. 7, respectively, last season.

To put all of this in context: 11-5 or 12-4 or whatever (personally, I think Pittsburgh’s has a legitimate shot at 13-3 and a first-round bye this season) looks fine and dandy on paper, but the Steelers are going to have some major issues in the postseason against teams that excel in an area that represents their biggest weakness. Of course, defending these teams will be considerably less arduous if the Steelers can...

Find the right combination of pieces in the secondary

Tearing down Pittsburgh’s secondary isn’t entirely fair, as I’ve omitted a key piece of information: the secondary made great strides in 2016, especially in the second half of the season. Artie Burns learned how to tackle and looks like a future star, while Ross Cockrell held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL. This encouraging progression was derailed, smashed and rerouted by Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game, but Brady tends to do that to the Steelers, so it is kind of par for the course.

The 2017 Steelers are unlikely to field even a poor man’s version of the Legion of Boom, but they have some intriguing components. Depending on where you get your sporting news, Mike Mitchell is either the most underrated safety in the NFL or a total liability (the correct answer: both of these are true), but remains arguably the single most invaluable player in the defensive backfield. Should Mitchell miss an extended period of game action for any reason, Pittsburgh would be forced to insert Robert Golden or Jordan Dangerfield into the starting lineup. Yikes.

The cornerback carousel is marginally more promising than the deep secondary. Burns and Cockrell are entrenched as starters by virtue of their 2016 performances, but neither one of these dudes is Richard Sherman (at least not yet). William Gay could secure that no. 3 spot, but he played so poorly in 2016 that his position on the roster could be in jeopardy. Assuming Gay at least remains on the 90-man roster until training camp, he will have to fend off Cameron Sutton (a rookie), Senquez Golson (who is entering his third season and has played zero NFL snaps), Coty Sensabaugh and a bunch of guys who are either headed to the practice squad or free agency.

Implied pessimism notwithstanding, Pittsburgh has some interesting options here: Sutton probably would have been drafted much higher in any other draft except this one, which was one of the deepest classes for defensive backs in NFL history. Golson, despite having not played in two years, was a second-round pick, so it isn’t really fair to appraise his talent until he, you know, actually plays in a game. Furthermore, there is a real world possibility that Brian Allen, a fifth-round pick in 2017 who is almost the same size as Ryan Shazier, not only makes the 53-man roster, but earns a prominent role.

And that’s kind of where we are. The Steelers play a ton of Cover 2, so seeing five defensive backs on the field at one time will remain a common sight in Pittsburgh in 2017. For now, finding the right combination of players to execute Keith Butler’s defense (and, obviously, ensuring Butler and Tomlin design suitable defensive schemes) is assuredly one of the biggest challenges awaiting the Steelers.