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The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the toughest NFL teams to figure out ahead of the 2016 season—in a good, potentially great, way.
Just after the 2015 campaign ended, had you asked if the Steelers would improve upon their 10-win performance and wild card berth the following year, the answer would have been a resounding yes. They would have Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell for an entire season. Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the most underrated great quarterbacks of all time. How could they not emerge as a dynamo on the back of perhaps the scariest offense in the NFL?
Well, a spanner or two (or three) has been thrown into those plans. Stud wide receiver Bryant is suspended for the entirety of the 2016 crusade after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Bell, the Steelers’ star running back, is also facing a four-game suspension for skipping a drug test. Multiple reports have the Steelers confident that the suspension levied will be overturned, and that Bell will, in fact, be available for their Week 1 sparring.
Still, these types of hiccups are troubling. You want your best players on the field every week, and the Steelers won’t have that luxury with Bryant watching from home all year. And there’s a chance they’ll be debilitated even further for the first 25 percent of the season with regards to Bell. Those losses would cripple most teams.
But the Steelers aren’t most teams. Not by a long shot. Bell’s backup, Deangelo Williams, shined as the No. 1 running man through the first few weeks of last season. Brown, meanwhile, is the best wideout in football. Having Bryant on the field, as one of the most lethal deep-ball threats in the game, makes his job easier; not having him on the field, though, doesn’t make Brown’s job impossible.
Brown caught more than 70 percent of his passes while racking in 136 total receptions and more than 1,830 yards. The last player to reel in at least 69 percent of his passes while clearing the 1,800-yard plateau? That would be Jerry Rice, during the 1995 season, as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, according to pro-football-reference. That’s some serious company, and it suggests that Brown can carry an entire receiving corps on his own.
He has a better chance than most one-man shows anyway. The Steelers’ running game, whether they are using Bell or Williams, will open up plenty of opportunities in the air, while Big Ben has the ridiculously strong arm necessary to capitalize on Brown’s speed against double coverage. Wide Receiver Sammie Coates has also stepped up in training camp and could be speeding toward a subtly spectacular season. Any production of Bryant’s that he can make up will make life exponentially easier on Brown and the rest of the Steelers’ offense.
The defense, of course, will need to tighten up as well. It was hot and cold last season, and appeared to cool off as the year progressed. The Steelers, nevertheless, ranked 11th in points allowed per game.
If they can stay right around that area, they’ll be just fine.
Pittsburgh’s passing prevention will most likely need to improve for that to happen. While the Steelers ranked among the top six defenses in total interceptions, they finished 30th in passing yards allowed and 19th in passing touchdowns relinquished.
Their secondary would often get burned taking too many gambles, so they’ll have to see if rookie cornerbacks Artie Burns out of Miami (first round) and Sean Davis out of Maryland (second round) can make an immediate impact. Anytime defenses are even slightly dependent on newbies in the secondary, the potential for some sort of regression exists.
And yet, there’s a reason why Bovada gives the Steelers top-five Super Bowl odds (+1200), in addition to the second-best AFC Title chances (+550), behind only the New England Patriots (+275). Even a slightly below-average defense puts you in a great position if you’re carried by a dominant offense. And we know the Steelers will have that, even without Bryant and, potentially, Bell.
Besides, regardless of what Pittsburgh’s secondary looks like, it will be buoyed by a stingy run defense. The Steelers ranked in the top five of both rushing yards allowed per game and touchdowns let up on the ground last season, and they didn’t lose any personnel that would suggest they’re do for a decline.
It helps, too, that the AFC isn’t exactly overrunning with powerhouses. You have the Patriots, yes. But the No. 2 slot in the conference is far from determined. Any one of the Cincinnati Bengals (+800), Denver Broncos (+900), Indianapolis Colts (+1100) or Kansas City Chiefs (+1100) could end up being Super Bowl contenders or pretenders. The Steelers, on paper, are easily the best team of that bunch. They have the best quarterback, in Roethlisberger, and it isn’t even kind of close, and their backfield combination of Bell and Williams leads the pack by a similar margin.
In any other season, given the absence of Bryant and the uncertainty of Pittsburgh’s passing defense, it might be tough to envision the Steelers as Super Bowl contenders. They would be playoff-bound, sure. But there would, presumably, be another team or two to slot ahead of them. That’s just not the case this year. The Steelers are a good-to-great football squad that will be propped up even further by the AFC’s shallow juggernaut pool—and there is, by no means, any shame in that.
We like the Steelers to advance to the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, where they’ll likely fall just shy of their ultimate Super Bowl aspirations. Then again, if a few things go their way, we could see the Steelers play Green Bay in an all-anticipated Super Bowl Final