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Now is the time and the Pittsburgh Steelers are the team

Looking to secure their fifth consecutive playoff berth in 2018 — but having fallen tantalizingly short of the big prize the past two seasons — the Steelers have never looked more like they’re bound and determined to do whatever it takes to claim a seventh NFL championship

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

During the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2018 training camp, the many unknowns surrounding the team’s ultimate destiny this season will provide much of the grist for the perennial discussion mill. That’s exactly as it should be, but it’s easy to forget about some key knowns which Steelers Nation definitely can count on — because they happen nearly every season. But despite the obstacles invariably blocking our path this season, there’s never been a more propitious time for the Black-and-gold to scale the stairway to seven.

Slow starters

In 2017, the Steelers struggled with the lowly Cleveland Browns on opening day, were defeated in Week 3 by the Bears in overtime and, by the time the sun had set on October 8th, they owned a mediocre 3-2 record after being trounced 30-9 at Heinz Field by the Jacksonville Jaguars. But the Black-and-gold certainly atoned for that slow start by winning 10 of their 11 remaining games (if not for the Patriots stealing a 27-24 win at Heinz Field, the streak would have been 11 games).

In 2016, the Steelers started fast, but only during the first five weeks of play, when they posted a 4-1 record. By the time they had played seven games of that season, though, their record slipped to 4-3, and by November 13th — after losing a tough game at home to the Dallas Cowboys — they stood at 4-5.

In 2015, the story was very similar, as the Steelers were 4-4 after the first eight weeks of play. In 2014, they were 5-3 after eight games and, in 2013, their mark was 2-5 after seven games.

So in all likelihood, and based on the past five years’ experience, it’s probably wishful thinking to expect the Steelers to come roaring out of the gates in the first half of the 2018 regular season. As usual, we’ll likely see some of those dreaded “trap games” sprinkled into the mix here and there. For diehard Steelers fans, this probably means keeping one’s distance from the proverbial ledge, plus having the patience to suspend judgment on the arc of this team’s season until at least November. But of course we know that’ll never happen.

Off-field controversy

Like pumpkins ripening in the fields, it’s almost a certainty that, come this autumn, one or more members of the Steelers will present us with some publicity-gathering pratfalls. These days, NFL teams rarely get through even half a season without experiencing the dreaded distractions which not only can break a team’s focus, but also keep fans and pundits talking about everything except what’s happening on the gridiron.

That’s why it’s a good idea to prepare ourselves in advance and not freak out too much when the inevitable gaffes occur. But wait — who are we kidding? That’s never happening either.

Fire everyone, including the water boy

Because the Steelers of recent years aren’t exactly distinguished for starting their season as a dominant force in the league, this cultivates fertile ground for the boo-birds to sow their perennial seeds of doubt. So don’t be too surprised if Coach Tomlin and both his offensive and defensive coordinators have been thoroughly panned as rank incompetents by the time the team reaches the season’s midpoint (if not sooner). Yes, we’ll hear all of the usual, panicked calls for wholesale changes in the organization — you can absolutely count on it.

Ye olde injury bug

Partially due to the sheer brutality of professional football — and also because starting players today get little or no true game-conditioning during either training camp or preseason games — there will be injuries, you can count on it (jinx disclaimer: I wrote this sentence well after Ramon Foster pulled up lame with a bum knee in practice).

Ryan Shazier’s frightening and tragic spinal injury on December 4, 2017, in Cincinnati was a sobering reminder of the inescapable truth that every professional football player exists within a world of uncertainty in which they’re only a single snap away from potentially watching their career go down the drain. The huge question marks surrounding, not only No. 50’s NFL future, but — more importantly — his prospects for even being able to walk normally without assistance someday, underscore the hazards every NFL team faces as they embark on the regular season.

Here again, should Pittsburgh lose one or more key players for any extended period of time during the season, the team’s ability to plug-in adequate substitutes without adversely impacting their performance will be crucial to whatever championship dreams they hold. For the faithful of Steelers Nation, this means not taking the bridge (of which there are many choices in the Steel City) when the inevitable mishaps come to pass. After all, where would the Philadelphia Eagles be today if they’d lost heart when Carson Wentz suffered a torn ACL in Week 14 last season. Despite most of the football world writing the Eagles off as Nick Foles prepared to face Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, Philly found their way to capture the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl title.

Now for the good news

While some additional roadblocks — perhaps of the more bizarre and uncanny variety — might also be thrown into the mix, the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers nevertheless look like a group possessed of the requisite seasoning and resilience to bounce back when the chips are down, no matter what challenges might arise. They say the third time is a charm but, for the Steelers, this would be their fifth consecutive shot in the NFL playoffs (having been eliminated from the playoffs in each of the past four seasons). Clearly, this is a team beyond weary of continually knocking on the door, only to find frustration waiting on the other side.

Given the magnetic allure of that shiny hardware they walk past during visits to the Steelers’ front office — plus the fact that Father Time might very well be starting to shut a window of opportunity which may not reopen for quite awhile — it’s unlikely that anyone in the Steelers’ locker room this season is unaware that the 2018 season easily could represent this team’s best shot for some time to bring home a seventh Lombardi trophy.

Heading into the regular season, the Steelers look to have an offense — under the leadership of future Hall of Famer, Ben Roethlisberger — capable of hanging with any NFL opponent. Defensively, they’ve at least had enough time to adjust to the indefinite loss of Shazier, their former anchor, while bolstering a secondary which, speaking kindly, has been suspect in recent seasons. Furthermore, it seems likely the Steelers will make at least one significant personnel move prior to opening day, aiming to shore-up what still looks like a weak link at inside linebacker. I’m not starting any rumors here — just call it a hunch.

But it’s been awhile since I’ve felt the level of confidence I’ve got heading into this season. What I see taking shape is a team that’s ready — both in personnel and attitude — to take the next big step — not allowing themselves to carry their recent frustration for even one more year. But if the past is a reliable guide, any firm conclusions which might be reached prior to the advent of November football probably will look pretty foolish come Christmastime.