Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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