Season Preview: Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes Depend on Defense’s Improvement

The Pittsburgh Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7 begins on Monday Night Football against the Washington Redskins. Many already peg Pittsburgh as AFC if not Super Bowl favorites. But journalists don’t award Lombardi trophies, teams win them. So the question must be asked:

  • Are the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes legit?

Yes, Pittsburgh Steelers begin 2016 legitimate Super Bowl contenders. But, as Bill Cowher demonstrated in the 90’s, the chasm that separates contenders from champions is far wider than the one that splits pretenders from contenders.

The good news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have the talent to leap that chasm. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes depend on their defense….

steelers 2016 super bowl hopes, stephon tuitt, ryan shazier, keith butler defense, steelers defense

Improvement by defenders like Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier might key the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons, USA Today Sports

Steelers 2016 Offense – Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men….

235 days ago it all seemed so simple.

Against the hostile environs of Mile High Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers had fallen a fumble and a failed stop on a 3rd and 12 conversion short of beating the future Super Bowl champions Denver Broncos.

Yes, “The Standard is the Standard.” Mike Tomlin’s Steelers don’t do moral victories. But Pittsburgh’s “almost upset” came against the NFL’s best defense with Ben Roethlisberger playing below 100%, without Antonio Brown, without Maurkice Pouency, without DeAngelo Williams, and without Le’Veon Bell. Moreover, in consecutive playoff games Martavis Bryant had proven he could deliver.

  • Yes, it seemed simple.

Pittsburgh’s skill players would return to full health, and in 2016 the Steelers would field a fully armed and operational Death Star-like offense. Yes, 235 days ago it all seemed simple.

But then Heath Miller retired. And Martavis Bryant got suspended. Again. And Ladarius Green landed on the PUP. And Le’Veon Bell got suspended. Again. Suddenly, things aren’t quite so simple.

  • Make no mistake Steelers Nation, the Steelers offense will not regress in 2016.

If the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece vs. New Orleans offers any indication, Pittsburgh’s offense will be plenty potent in 2016. But realistically, the Steelers won’t field the type of offensive juggernaut that both fans and coaches envisioned last January.

  • For starters, the Steelers are a mess at tight end.

Ladarius Green was supposed to give the Steelers offense another vertical threat. Instead, he’s yet to catch a pass in practice from Ben Roethlisberger. Jesse James has shown some ability to catch the ball, but he’s a long, long way from matching Heath Miller’s uncanny dependability.

At this point labeling Jesse James’ blocking as “suspect” is charitable at this point. David Johnson is a better blocker and can perhaps provide some relief, but this is one case where quantity can’t make up for quality. And that’s a reality that will impact both the passing and the running game.

  • But the Steelers are hardly doomed on offense.

Assuming the Steelers stay relatively healthy on both the offensive line and at the skill positions, Pittsburgh should have the weapons to overcome their apparent weakness at tight end.

The 2016 Steelers will field an offense that is worthy of a legitimate Lombardi contender. But the offense will need help if Pittsburgh is to win its 7th Lombardi Trophy.

Defensive Improvements Drive Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes

At the beginning of the 2011 season Warren Sapp derided the Steelers defense as “Old, slow and done.” The Pittsburgh Steelers defense starts 2016 “Young, deep, and hungry.” Statisticians can quibble over whether and how much the Steelers defense improved from 2014 to 2015. But there’s one reality no one can dispute:

  • Keith Butler’s defense brought the big play back to Pittsburgh.

Measured in pure numbers, the 2015 Steelers 30 takeaways and 47 sacks were dramatic improvements over 2014. But more importantly, Keith Butler’s defenders revealed an uncanny ability to make splash plays with games on the line or when the opponent threatened in the Red Zone.

Steel Curtain Rising makes no apologies for defending Dick LeBeau, but the truth is his last several defenses had been starved for turnovers. In 2015, the defensive take away, once again became a weapon in the Steelers offensive arsenal.

  • It isn’t enough, however, for Keith Butler to find a way for the Steelers defense to continue these trends.

If the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes are to come true, the Steelers defense must improve on third downs. Turnovers were spare Dick LeBeau final years, but the Steelers defense ranked 10th on third down in 2014 and 5th on third down in 2012. Last season, the Steelers fell 21st on 3rd down. Not unrelated to that troubling trend is the struggle the Steelers had in stopping tight ends in 2015.

  • It says here that Keith Butler’s front seven will be up to the task.

Yes, Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave are nursing injuries. Yes Bud Dupree is on the injured reserve. But the Steelers have the depth to compensate at linebacker and on the defensive line. Ricardo Mathews provides an immediate upgrade from Cam Thomas, and Daniel McCullers should also deliver more in his third season.

  • During the past off season Bob Labrolia remarked that the “over previous couple of seasons, the Steelers had an obscene wealth of depth at inside linebacker.”

With Vince Williams, L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson and Tyler Matakevich backing up Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, the 2016 Steelers may actually be deeper at linebacker. On the outside, losing Bud Dupree hurts, but the Steelers should be able to pressure the passer by James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones and yes, Anthony Chickillo.

Steelers Secondary Gamble is Primary Factor in Super Bowl Success

Outside of William Gay and Ross Cockrell, the Steelers will field a completely new complement of cornerbacks in 2016. So be it. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin ripped their depth chart at cornerback to shreds following the 2015 season.

  • To put this into perspective, when the Steelers cut Doran Grant, he of one defensive snap, they cut their most experienced backup cornerback.

Given that neither Cortez Allen, nor Brandon Boykin, nor Grant holds a spot on an active NFL roster, no one in the NFL has second guessed his move. Still, attempting to completely rebuild the bottom 3 slots of your cornerback depth cart with untested talent counts as a bold move. The Steelers need this move to work. Put simply:

Carnell Lake must employ some combination of Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Justin Gilbert to improve the Steelers pass defense.

The Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes depend on it.

A Word about Tomlin and the Trap Games

Criticizing Mike Tomlin’s teams for giving up trap games has become somewhat cliché in Steelers Nation. Sure, 23 of Mike Tomlin’s 52 losses have come to teams with losing records. But he’s also won 92 games and many of those came against winning teams. Which would you trade for?

  • Fair enough.

But remember that in 2008 the Steelers dropped contests to the Colts, Giants, Titans and Eagles – all playoff teams, while cleaning up in the games they were “supposed to win.” The 2008 Steelers of course also won both contests against the Ravens. Those later two facts gave the Steelers a much-needed bye and home field advantage in the playoffs.

  • The fact is trap games trip up Mike Tomlin teams just as overconfidence self-destructed so many Steelers squads during the Cowher-Donahoe era.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window remains open, but it’s closing nears with each season, and that means that Mike Tomlin must find a way to keep his team from playing down to the competition.

If he can do that, and if the front seven builds on its progress it made in 2015, and if the secondary can achieve respectability, then the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes can be a reality, and Pittsburgh can climb the Stairway to Seven.

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