The Steelers almost had a magical season in 2017. They started the year with as much, if not more, overall talent than any team in the league. They started slowly, but as we know it isn’t how you start but how you finish, and they definitely seemed to be building momentum heading into the post-season.
Things appeared to be falling into place nicely as the team repeatedly squared off each week against opponents not playing at full strength. The Steelers faced a plethora of backup quarterbacks in 2017. Every team can use a little luck from time to time and the Steelers were taking advantage of theirs by squeaking out victories against weakened opponents. This trend was worrisome but, hey, they had even managed to stay relatively healthy heading into that Monday night game in Cincinnati when their luck changed—big time!
First, the career-threatening injury to Ryan Shazier, then Marcus Gilbert’s ill-timed suspension, Antonio Brown’s calf injury and, finally, Jesse James not being able to “survive the ground” inexplicably altering the team’s path to the Super Bowl. The pendulum had swung, and we learned how luck can be a fickle mistress.
You are never as good as you think you are, nor as bad as some would have you think. So what are some areas were the offense’s performance can be expected to improve heading into next season as it’s presently constructed? Since we know there will undoubtedly be personnel changes and additions, let’s only focus on the known commodities.
Seems reasonable to me that Ben Roethlisberger can continue to improve on what has already been a HOF-caliber career. There should be improved communications between the positional coaches and players after the removal of an abrasive personality within the coaching staff. Ben will be more involved in developing the weekly game plans and he’ll have more freedom to call plays he’s comfortable with, not only when he’s running the highly successful no-huddle. This might be enough to help him achieve the consistency needed to obtain the one accolade which has eluded him, the MVP award. Remove the career-worst 5-interception Jacksonville game from last season and he might have been playing in the season finale against Cleveland still in the running.
It’s unclear how the running-back depth chart will stack up heading into next season, but it seems reasonable to hope for far less drama off of the field moving forward, regardless of what happens with Le’Veon Bell. Perhaps the team could improve the yards-per-carry average and maybe break off a run longer than 20 yards every now and then. Hopefully, James Conner can return healthy next season and take advantage of the off-season to improve his pass-blocking. You have to love his heart and work ethic. The potential is evident.
The wide receivers are highly skilled and talented, but they also have room for improvement. That statement doesn’t apply to Antonio Brown, of course, as he’s not only the best receiver in the league but, arguably, the best player in the league last year. I feel he has already peaked as an all-time great player and now hopefully he can maintain his level of play for seasons to come. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant have yet to meet their great potential in this offense.
I feel it’s reasonable to expect JuJu to be able to improve his hand-fighting when pressed at the line, and placement at the top of his routes which will help him achieve better separation against coverage. This separation can also improve with cleaner footwork. He is such an accomplished young player considering how many tricks of the trade are only learned through experience. The sky is the limit with this kid. How hard is he willing to work for it?
Bryant is an absolute freak! If his head and heart are in the right place so to speak, and if he’s used correctly within the offense, he could be unstoppable. The closest thing to Randy Moss the league has seen. Sadly, the offense hasn’t utilized his immense skill set when he’s been available, which hasn’t been often enough mainly because of maturity issues. For a player blessed with height, speed, and leaping ability, he’s absolutely terrible at high-pointing the ball! He also is easily knocked off balance, and therefore can be covered and tackled by much smaller defenders. These issues can all be improved with technique and attitude. So just like JuJu, how bad does he want it, and what is he willing to sacrifice to improve? That’s a reasonable question, isn’t it?
I think it’s reasonable to expect the tight ends to continue to work hard to improve their blocking, route running and, most importantly, catching the danged ball! All the way to the ground! Then stand up without bobbling it and walk the ball over to the referee and hand it to him and get off the field. I feel that’s more than reasonable.
The offensive line has developed into a real strength on the team. They are extremely well coached and work together as a coordinated unit. They should only continue to gel with another year together, provided they remain relatively healthy.
Lastly, I guess Chris Boswell could work on improving his field-goal range, because his accuracy has proven to be more than reliable.
Next article, we’ll focus on reasonable expectations for the defense.