With Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown in the lineup, the Steelers boast one of the league’s most devastating offenses. But the franchise, with a proud tradition of powerful defenses going back to the Joe Greene-led Steel Curtain of the 1970s, hasn’t been able to match on the other side of the ball. Now, with playmakers dotting the depth chart, Pittsburgh is trying to build its defense back up.
The Steelers have utilized a star-studded cast and an effective offensive line to power their way to the top of the AFC North. Pittsburgh ranked in the top 10 in scoring and total offense the past three seasons, earning three postseason berths and progressively better playoff results in the process. Each season ended the same way, however — with disappointment and big deficits.
In Pittsburgh’s last three playoff losses, opponents have put up an average of 29.7 points. The Steelers offense, suddenly deficient in the postseason, has been unable to keep up. The end result is a good, but not great, team approaching a crossroads. With Roethlisberger teasing retirement, how can Pittsburgh make the most of the waning years of his prime?
The Steelers are rebuilding their Steel Curtain defense
Pittsburgh has been traditionally stoic in free agency, preferring instead to develop its own prospects into superstars. That has paid off handsomely on the offensive side of the ball, but a handful of misses has left the Steelers’ once-fearsome defense treading water in the middle of the pack. Underwhelming returns from draftees like Ziggy Hood, Senquez Golson, Jarvis Jones, and Bud Dupree have mitigated the impact of homegrown standouts like Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and Lawrence Timmons (who departed this spring for a big payday with the Dolphins).
The jury’s still out on last year’s big additions, defensive backs Artie Burns and Sean Davis, but early returns and the performance of FCS nose tackle Javon Hargrave are encouraging. Pittsburgh doubled down in 2017, adding two high-ceiling defenders, T.J. Watt and Cameron Sutton, in the first two days of this year’s draft.
The end goal is to surround the veteran heart and soul of the defense — ageless workout monster James Harrison, defensive end Cameron Heyward, and Shazier — with young, elite prospects. If Watt and Sutton work their way into the starting lineup, the 2017 Steelers will feature eight defenders drafted in the third round or higher since 2013. That’s a lot of raw talent the team is hoping will jell into a championship unit.
The additions of Tyson Alualu and Coty Sensabaugh this spring were a bit of a departure from standard operating procedure — they are the only two non-Steeler free-agent defenders to sign multiyear contracts with the club since 2014. They’ll provide a safety net should players like Burns and Watt fail to live up to expectations. More importantly, they’re examples of the team’s newfound commitment to defense.
The Steelers’ offense still needs to level up in the postseason
Over the last three years, Pittsburgh has scored 26.2 points per game during the regular season. In the playoffs, that number falls to 19.3. The team’s only wins have come while holding opponents to 16 points or fewer.
A short drop-off is excusable as the postseason schedule brings a lineup of better teams than the Bengals and Browns that dotted the Steelers’ regular season slate. A loss of nearly one full touchdown and extra point is worrisome. For comparison, the Patriots scoring output in the same span actually rose from 28.6 points to 32.1 from the regular season to the playoffs. The Packers improved from 26.8 to 28.0.
Injuries have played a role in Pittsburgh’s postseason problems. Bell’s first playoff appearance didn’t come until 2016. While he shredded Miami and Kansas City for 337 rushing yards in his first two appearances, a groin injury limited him to only six carries in an AFC title game loss to New England. Brown missed his team’s 2015 divisional round loss to the Broncos after suffering a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Vontaze Burfict.
Roethlisberger, who plays with a perma-limp after Week 5 each season but still manages to hobble his “big ass” onto the field when his team needs him, has dealt with his fair share of maladies as well.
When healthy, Brown and Bell have performed admirably in the playoffs. Roethlisberger, however, has been much less consistent. Since winning his second Super Bowl in February of 2009, the veteran passer is just 5-5 as a starter. In that span, he has a rating of 81.8 — roughly the equivalent of 2016 Carson Wentz — and a 10:11 TD:INT ratio in the playoffs.
Roethlisberger’s regression to below-average quarterback in recent years can be traced to a lack of production behind his stars. In the last five playoff games where Brown was available, he’s been responsible for 55 targets, 34 receptions, and 545 receiving yards, or 42 percent of the team’s total passing output. In that same span, and including the game he missed in 2015, no other Pittsburgh wide receiver has gained more than 66 yards through the air.
The Steelers have taken steps to add playmaking depth but largely came up short in recent years. The team’s free-agent ventures returned past-their-prime athletes like Jerricho Cotchery, Lance Moore, and the second coming of Plaxico Burress. Draft acquisitions like Markus Wheaton, Limas Sweed, Dri Archer, and Sammie Coates have failed to make long-term impacts.
Emmanuel Sanders developed into a Pro Bowl scoring threat after his four seasons in Pittsburgh, but his career didn’t truly blossom until he was signed by the Broncos. Martavis Bryant looked like the perfect deep threat to complement Brown, but missed the entire 2016 season thanks to a drug suspension. The Steelers drafted USC standout JuJu Smith-Schuster this April to give the team some extra receiving ammunition, but so far all that has managed to do is turn Bryant and Coates against each other.
Pittsburgh has also struggled to replace fan favorite tight end Heath Miller after his 2015 retirement. The Steelers signed Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract last offseason and then cut him after only six games after he failed a physical this May. Although former fifth-round draft pick Jesse James showed signs of improvement in 2016, a failure to address the position in free agency or the draft may come back to haunt the team.
On paper, there are several players who have the talent to fill the No. 2 role Pittsburgh has struggled with since Sanders left. Coates, Bryant, and Smith-Schuster are all dynamic athletes who provide home run potential every time they touch the ball. In reality, playoff teams will still allow Brown to get his share of yards while daring the Steelers’ other contributors to beat them.
Tweaks aside, the Steelers still look like one of the league’s elite teams
Roethlisberger’s uncanny ability to play through injuries and remain upright behind a solid offensive line — Pittsburgh allowed sacks on just 3.22 percent of its dropbacks last year, a mark that ranked second in the league — will once again make him a potent weapon despite his advancing age. He’ll be surrounded by talent, starting with Pro Bowl interior linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and ending with Brown and Bell.
The biggest questions the team faces are on the opposite side of the ball, where the Steelers are still waiting for their draft investments to pay off. Pittsburgh has invested its five last first-round picks and three of its second-round picks on defenders. However, the franchise hasn’t fielded a top-10 defense since 2012. While that unit has been solid in stretches, merely “above average” isn’t the Steeler way.
Pittsburgh has been using its explosive offense to cover those shortcomings, rising from .500 squad to AFC Championship Game participant over the past four years. Having a healthy Bell and Roethlisberger would be a major boost when it comes to overcoming the scoring lapses that have plagued the postseason defeats. Getting the most out of players like Burns, Dupree, and Watt would be even better.