It’s a matter of expectations.
I have little doubt that the 2017 Steelers defense will meet or exceed all that we expect. Injuries aside, the basic challenge here is youth. Pittsburgh’s defense is built on 4-5 recent drafts devoted to that side of the ball. Many or most of the key players are still on their rookie contracts or just beginning to hit their primes. Either way, they’re still young, and young players take time to truly gel. All preseason we’ve heard the emphasis on communications. That’s why. We’ve also heard consistent messages about the coaches’ delight at T.J. Watt’s learning curve and the problems that Sean Davis faced last year. Sending a message much?
Those clues make it easy to predict the overall pattern of this year's squad. The early part of the season will be a frustrating chorus of brilliant plays on the one hand, offset by knucklehead mistakes on the other. But the unearthly speed and athleticism Colbert has compiled is real and will show up. But so will the youthful and communication-related mistakes like untimely penalties, blown coverages, and missed tackles resulting from a lack of fundamental discipline. And so will those big opposition plays where we fans rush to blame Player A only to learn later on that "A" was doing the right thing and the problem arose because "B" failed to support him as expected. The coaching staff will also inevitably be forced to abandon a few particular schemes that we would like to see. The early part of the year will see a lot of time when Coach Butler gives up on the ultra-attacking style with man coverage, and defaults to his comfort level of merely-attacking with zone coverage behind. (Anyone who thinks he’s ever “passive” doesn’t know much about Coach Butts!)
The defense will start to evolve in a real way somewhere around Week 3, with the changes being noticeable in Weeks 5 and 6. Around Week 8, the unit will suddenly solidify and start to look positively good. Steelers Nation will give the credit to some particular player who's come in or stepped up (more Deebo time?), but the reality will be what the players always say: it's a team game and the actual improvement will stem from everyone doing his own job just a little better and a little more in sync. Then, by the end of the year, the defense will be putting up remarkable statistics, but we in Steelers Nation won’t quite believe it. The lingering bad taste from the early failures will still be there. But the improvement will nevertheless be very real and the squad will be every bit of a playoff-caliber defense. Maybe even better. And next year's defense will be even stronger.
Divide by the injury factor and you have the Steelers Defense 2017 in a nutshell. I’m calling it now.
But the offense might be dogged by fans’ lofty expectations. Who in Steelers Nation foresees anything but a path of blazing glory? We’re all looking for a 2017 version of the Greatest Show On Turf or the Saints' Super Bowl run. Barring catastrophic injuries, we see absolutely no way at all for this team to be significantly slowed, let alone stopped.
I hereby register my official doubts.
First, Ben can be streaky. When he's "on" there’s no one better—as in no one! But when he's "off," it drags the whole team down like a Ferrari with a backfiring engine. And each season we’ve seen a handful of games where Ben is off for several quarters in a row, especially on the road. He's personally dug the team into some hefty holes from time to time. So I foresee at least three or four games this year where the QB play is only average, probably when they're away. KC doesn't look like a particularly happy week based on what we saw on Thursday night.
The only real solution for a struggling QB is a dominant power-running attack. Our offensive line can do that, but it’s not their greatest strength. The Steelers’ run game seems to favor positional blocking and gash-em-for-gains over pure, blow-em-off-the-line power. Ditto for Le’Veon Bell. He's got power for sure, but he’s not a Csonka, Riggins or Bettis. Plus there's the fact that Haley isn't a coordinator who prefers to pound an opponent into submission. He’s also a gash-em-for-gains devotee. On the other hand, we’ve got a fine fullback in Rosie Nix. We have the ammo, it’s just that I doubt the team’s willingness to play this style early and often.
In any case, I expect the offense to struggle and disappoint our lofty expectations in the games when Ben is only average.
Second, the Steelers are perfectly willing to kill an opponent with the long ball. Field stretching specialists like Bryant and Hunter, plus AB of course, will only encourage that. But opponents that adopt the Patriots’ defensive answer to the Greatest Show on Turf (i.e. smother AB, bring pressure, and send dedicated LB's to abuse Lev Bell regardless of whether he gets the ball) can pose some real problems for this offense. (See what Belichick did vis a vis Marshall Faulk).
The fact is that long balls are risky in any case. Ben & Company will undoubtedly gut several teams by adopting this tactic. I can see as many as 6-10 games where Pittsburgh runs up a massive early lead because of 50+ yard TD passes. But there will also, inevitably, be a game or two when the dice keep favoring the other side. There will be early turnovers and consecutive 3-and-outs instead of early touchdowns. More holes that the team will have to struggle to escape. More dashed expectations.
Third, the other guys are on scholarship too. Somewhere, somehow, there will be a defense and a game plan that combine to give our offense fits. And there will be several defenses that play bend-but-don’t-break and force a series of field goals that keep things close. See the KC playoff game last year. That’s the other Achilles Heel of a quick-strike offense—a relative lack of success in closer quarters.
Plus injuries, of course.
So here’s the bottom line: I’m more worried about the offense than the defense because my expectations for the former are so high. I expect the defense to struggle early and then evolve into a Top 5-10 unit. At least “very good,” probably “excellent,” and maybe - just maybe - beginning a path to future greatness. That leaves some wiggle room. But I (we?) expect the offense to be Great with a capital "G," which leaves no wiggle room at all. And thus I'm likely to be disappointed. Poor me, boo-hoo.
Go Steelers! Three more years for Ben and a Super Bowl in each one!