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2017 Pittsburgh Steelers: A serious contender on the rise

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Pittsburgh kicks off the 2017 season as a contender with substantial upside.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With memories of January’s 36-17 beatdown at Gillette Stadium still fresh and more than a bit raw, the faithful of Steelers Nation might be tempted to entertain one of two extreme views. Some might consider the thrashing suffered in the AFC Championship Game as clear evidence of a huge gap in talent between the two teams— a gap presumably too wide to be bridged within the space of a single offseason. At the opposite end of the spectrum, others might fall back into the old trap of minimizing the challenges ahead while prematurely claiming title to a seventh Lombardi trophy.

While analyses will differ, there’s broad agreement about the catalyst for reaching the singular goal acceptable to Steelers Nation. Surely, this catalyst must be Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers’ just-completed 2017 Draft speaks volumes about the centrality of No. 7 in the team’s planning. Despite Ben being at the stage of his career where physical capabilities begin to decline, it’s obvious that he’s not going to drastically alter his core game or somehow morph into a Tom Brady clone. As much as we might detest the Patriots, there’s no point in denying that Brady is unique in the NFL, principally due to his utter mastery of the Pats’ diverse offense which changes cast members while delivering consistent results from year to year.

But when Big Ben is able to play the kind of field-stretching football for which he was originally drafted—and which he still clearly prefers—he’s a match for Brady or any other NFL quarterback. While the Steelers deserve plenty of credit for their successful 2016 season and for their impressive, late-season rally capturing the AFC Championship berth, it was apparent throughout the season that Pittsburgh never possessed the offensive weapons necessary to compete with a group of the Patriots’ caliber. In particular, lack of experience and the need to play musical chairs at wide receiver thwarted the efforts of Pittsburgh’s offense to become all that it might have been.

But looking at prospects for the coming season, there’s plenty of reason for hope that the Steelers can close the performance gap seen in their January playoff exit. With the anticipated return of Martavis Bryant, plus the selection of JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers undoubtedly will field a more potent and deeper receiver corps this year. Not only does Smith-Schuster appear to be a player with Pro Bowl potential, but his presence adds a new and essential level of competition at the position.

By drafting another punishing, north-south running back in the person of James Conner from Pitt, the Steelers addressed a pair of issues arising at inopportune times during the past two seasons. First, Le’Veon Bell has missed a number of games due to injuries and suspensions. Second, because Bell obviously is the Steelers’ workhorse at running back, he’ll be more effective and less prone to injury if he’s not toting the ball 30 times per game. Conner appears blessed with the capabilities to eliminate these concerns and to complete a dynamic duo at the RB position for years to come. Instead of looking for help from veteran free-agents during the offseason, Pittsburgh can focus on improving other positions.

The only question mark on the Steelers’ offense is tight end. We still don’t know who will emerge as the clear starter in the battle between Outlaw Jesse James and the talented-but-gimpy Ladarius Green. If the Cleveland Browns hadn’t drafted David Njoku in the first round at No. 29, it’s possible that we wouldn’t be hailing T.J. Watt’s upcoming debut at outside linebacker. If you look at what’s shaping up as a revitalized Steelers’ offense this season, the only position where the Patriots seem to have a clear advantage is with Rob Gronkowski’s return from injury. While it might seem that Gronk has tortured the Steelers forever, he’s actually still in his prime (he turns 28 this month).

New England obviously is the league’s dominant team, but we can’t ignore the fact that, for a substantial portion of Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons abused the Pats’ defense at will. If not for a second-half collapse which must surely live in NFL infamy, the Falcons would have won the league championship handily. So apparently the talent gap between the Pats and the rest of the NFL isn’t as enormous as some imagine. As for the Steelers, the 2017 NFL Draft solidified a couple of key offensive positions while adding yet another talented, young outside linebacker on defense. From this perspective alone—and regardless of any pleasant surprises possibly in store from draft picks such as Cam Sutton, Joshua Dobbs or Brian Allen—it seems likely that the marked improvement we saw during the second half of the 2016 season will extend into 2017.

All of which brings us back full-circle to the key component of Ben Roethlisberger. When you think about the qualities that define No. 7, his physical toughness, incredible arm and play-extending ability stand out above the rest. Despite myriad nicks and bruises accumulating during his NFL career, Ben retains these core qualities which make him one of the league’s most highly-regarded quarterbacks.

Once again, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Pittsburgh’s high hopes in 2017 and beyond hinge squarely on Roethlisberger’s ability to play the game to the hilt in his trademark fashion. From all appearances, and assuming that new cast members perform up to expectations, the Steelers have successfully addressed some key needs on a team already recognized as one of the NFL’s top contenders. That’s why there’s no question that Pittsburgh’s arrow is pointing in the right direction as Steelers Nation anxiously awaits the start of training camp and the rookie showcase of the preseason.