The 2017 offseason has been one of the quieter ones for the Steelers. When Artie Burns being arrested for what ultimately stems back to — gasp! — unpaid parking tickets is the biggest news for the team between February and July, it’s generally a good thing. Except for us writers, of course, but I digress.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential pitfalls perilously perched in wait to strike. The return of Martavis Bryant, as well as the addition of players like rookies J.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cameron Sutton, have a way of bolstering already high expectations, so it’s important to temper them a bit by accepting that the Steelers are no less prone to problems and distractions arising during the season than any other team.
For several years, the stories out of off-season workouts have centered around injuries -- and we haven’t even reached the first contact drills in practice in 2017. Past history indicates that at least one player who was being counted on for a significant role will end up hurt before the season begins. Sean Spence, Senquez Golson...Senquez Golson again...
The Steelers’ stars are far from invulnerable. Ben Roethlisberger has missed time due to injury in eight of his 13 seasons. Le’Veon Bell has played a full season just once. Cameron Heyward ended up on Injured Reserve in 2016. James Harrison is...well, okay, Harrison is probably made of Adamantium.
Several upcoming contracts could have the front office scrambling until the eve of the season, with no guarantee of resolution.
One that will be resolved, one way or another, in the next three days is that of Bell, who will otherwise play under the team’s Franchise Tag in 2017. But even that can serve as a distraction as the season goes on, as fans, the front office and Bell’s agent will be watching his performance closely all season long, should he choose to not sign a long-term contract by the end of the day on July 17. Every big play, and every missed opportunity, will be used as leverage next off-season.
Beyond Bell, several other players’ contracts will need to be dealt with. Defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt is the biggest name of the pending unrestricted free agents after the 2017 season, a list that also includes starters Ross Cockrell and Bell. Others will become restricted free agents, including kicker Chris Boswell, punter Jordan Berry, receiver Eli Rogers and starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Because the Steelers have a longstanding policy of not negotiating contracts once the regular season kicks off, getting as many of these players signed to long-term contracts as possible before the season begins will help clear away a good deal of distraction come game time.
Overall, the 2017 schedule is pretty easy on the Steelers. Just five games will be played against 2016 playoff teams, and the two likely to be the toughest — New England and Green Bay — will be played in Pittsburgh.
However, the Steelers face an uphill climb through the first half of the season. Five of their first eight games are on the road, including two against 2016 playoff teams (Kansas City, Detroit). They also play two division road games in the first four weeks, as they head to Cleveland for the opener and then to Baltimore in week four. They have consecutive road games in weeks three and four, mercifully sandwiched between eminently winnable home games against the Vikings and Jaguars.
On the plus side, the schedule makers did the Steelers several huge favors. Their bye week falls right in the center of the schedule, and precedes a stretch of five home games in eight weeks. And the farthest the team has to travel in 2017? Houston, Texas — which means zero games in the Mountain or Pacific time zones.
If the Steelers can make it through the first eight weeks above water — which they should, despite the potential pitfalls I just mentioned — this could be one of the most favorable schedules in recent memory.