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Three Keys for the Steelers return to the NFL’s Promised Land

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In the wake of another playoff disappointment, the Black-and-gold clearly needs significant changes before the 2018 regular season kicks off. But Pittsburgh also retains a solid nucleus to build upon.

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

There’s always a palpable sense of hopelessness when a Pittsburgh Steelers’ season goes down in flames at playoff time. Typically, the knee-jerk reaction is to go back to the drawing board—not only in terms of strategy but also with respect to personnel. So it came as no surprise that, no sooner had the Jacksonville Jaguars ended the Steelers season, the team bid a fast farewell to Todd Haley, the man widely panned for the under-performing ways of the 2017 Steelers’ offense. And as long as we’d already broken out the torches and pitchforks, what about Mike Tomlin, the head coach who, if insider reports are accurate, was apparently doing double duty as de facto coordinator of a ridiculously porous defense?

When the angry mob demands ritual sacrifices to assuage its dashed dreams of glory, only the brave or darned fools will stand in its way. Forget the fact that, out of 32 professional football teams, only one can claim the NFL championship in a given year. Ignore the harsh reality that every other team in the league will wind up their 2017 season as losers—the only difference being whether they faded into anonymity by missing the playoffs entirely or, as the Atlanta Falcons managed to accomplish last season, lose the Super Bowl before hundreds of millions of worldwide viewers in what surely will be remembered as a choke for the ages.

Come playoff time, you can pick your poison. Do you prefer a quick, merciful exit from the postseason in your very first playoff game or might you opt for the lingering, agonizing kind of torture suffered by fans of the Falcons, Jaguars and Steelers, one year ago in Foxborough? The Emperor Chuck Noll—himself no stranger to Super Bowl triumphs—once quipped, “A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning.” And the same applies doubly to hardcore football fans.

In short, we should never dismiss the positive aspects of a Steelers’ season simply because of the way it ended. Like it or not, the long and grinding road to an NFL championship bears closest resemblance to the epic trek of Frodo and Samwise through Mordor to Mt. Doom. While you hope for success against all reason, deep down in your gut, it still has the feel of a suicide mission.

For example, just one short week after the Jacksonville Jaguars reveled in knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs, they received a very tough-but-necessary lesson in what it takes to reach a Super Bowl. And as both the Steelers and Atlanta Falcons proved this season, it’s doubly tough merely to return to the same point where your quest ended in the previous season.

In this vein, Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said, “Glory is fleeting but obscurity is forever.” For Steelers Nation, the lesson must be to cherish those former, glorious triumphs, particularly in this season of disappointment. We must also bear in mind that—regardless of their accomplishments on the gridiron—teams such as the Falcons and Jaguars are still awaiting their first-ever taste of that ultimate glory. Whatever the future might hold for the Steelers, nobody can deny their storied or their six NFL championships—a mark which the New England Patriots might equal—but not eclipse—on Super Bowl Sunday.

This brings us to the Three Keys necessary to return the Pittsburgh Steelers to the only season conclusion acceptable for the City of Champions or to their legion of fans worldwide:

Key No. 1: Let Ben be Ben and damn the torpedoes

After 14 NFL seasons, we’ve watched Ben Roethlisberger long enough to know that, regardless of who happens to be serving as offensive coordinator for the Steelers, Ben is still going to be Ben—for better or worse. We know, for example, that No. 7 is going to drive us all absolutely crazy by holding onto the ball too long and sometimes taking costly sacks that take the Steelers out of scoring territory or create big turnovers for the opposition. We also know that Ben is invariably going to look for the big play downfield—often eschewing the higher percentage 5- or 6-yard dink pass to move the sticks. But that’s just Ben and nobody is ever going to change him.

But on the other hand, the brightest ray of hope at the end of this disappointing season was Ben’s commitment to return for the 2018 regular season and perhaps beyond. Given the right supporting cas, and assuming an improved defense which no longer resembles Swiss cheese, there’s no doubt that Ben still has the requisite qualities to lead the Black-and-gold to another championship. Knowing this, all that’s left to do is to enable Ben to play exactly the kind of game he most prefers by making sure he’s got the right supporting cast to pull it off. Given Ben’s natural competitiveness and incredible skills as a passer, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by trying to coach this guy. Ben’s a can’t-miss Hall of Fame quarterback. Your best chance is just to get out of his way and let him do his thing. Given the stature and sheer clout of No. 7 on this team, I’ve often wondered whether the Steelers even need to hire an OC.

Key No. 2: Keep the WR corps intact and settle on a first-string TE

A big part of the Steelers’ offensive struggles in recent years involves the fact that Ben has been working with an ever-changing cast of receivers. Besides Antonio Brown, with whom Ben has achieved a level of comfort and precision unparalleled in the entire league, Ben still isn’t entirely on the same page with his other receivers. But as the 2017 regular season progressed, Ben’s confidence in JuJu Smith-Schuster became a key factor in the Steelers’ offense. That’s all the more reason why it’s important now for the Steelers to put an end to their tight-end-by-committee arrangement and determine which player earns the steady starting job. This player might not even be one of those on the team’s roster when the season ended. If the Steelers get an opportunity to draft a highly-regarded TE, it might be the most important move they can make in the short term to bolster their offense.

Key No. 3: Draft a junkyard dog to bolster their defense

If you’re wondering why I saved the defense for last, it’s because, as years go by in the NFL, defensive football has become less and less crucial to a team’s success. As Exhibit-A, I’ll cite the New England Patriots, whose defense had been one of the poorer units in the league earlier in the season, despite the fact that they’re now heading for their second consecutive Super Bowl.

But speaking of defense, one quality the Steelers have been missing in recent years is that nasty, fearsome player in the middle who forces opponents to run the other way (maybe out of sheer terror). This player must not only be able to stuff the run, but he also must be able to collapse the pocket and contribute to the pass-rush. Because they’ve lacked such a player for several years, opponents have frequently gained big chunks of yardage right through the middle of the Steelers’ defense.

While inside linebacker is an obvious need given the uncertain future of Ryan Shazier, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch for the Steelers to draft a huge, space-clogging nose tackle in the mold of Casey Hampton—in short, a junkyard dog. But if the Steelers’ highest draft pick turns out to be a linebacker instead, then we ought to be looking for a speedy, 260-pound dude with roughly the same demeanor as former Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert. Yeah, I know—they broke the mold.