The Steelers 2017 season has finally arrived. When the Steelers kickoff their 2017 season opener against the Cleveland Browns, 232 days will have elapsed since their (latest) humiliating AFC Championship defeat at the heads of the New England Patriots.
Added the desire to wash that bad taste out of Steelers Nation’s collective mouth, comes the reality that the Roethlisberger retirement clock “officially” began ticking in the off season.
While the 2017 season might not be a franchise “Now or Never” moment, Ben Roethlisberger’s career is nearing its end. With that in mind, here are 7 Keys to a Seventh Steelers Super Bowl in 2017.
Mike Tomlin, Antonio Brown & Ben Roethlisberger at Cleveland in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com
1. Keep Ben Roethlisberger Healthy
This is a no-brainer. Landry Jones deserves more respect than he gets, but he’s no franchise quarterback. The Steelers have struggled without Big Ben in 2015 and 2016. 2017 will be no different.
Ben Roethlisberger must stay healthy for the Steelers to win Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Period.
2. Find a Way to Keep from Tolling the Bell Too Much
Le’Veon Bell is easily the best running back in the NFL, and he makes the Steelers offense truly dynamic. If all works out well, if Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant both stay healthy and play to their potential, the Steelers shouldn’t need to lean on Le’Veon the way they did in 2016.
- The Steelers need a healthy Le’Veon Bell to win a Super Bowl.
There’s a reason Le’Veon Bell’s first playoff apperance led to a Steelers AFC Champion trip. As previously discussed, limiting Le’Veon Bell’s carry count is simple on paper, but tremendously complex to execute in the heat of a game.
- Nonetheless, the Steelers must find a way to use James Conners and Terrell Watson to spell Le’Veon Bell.
Chuck Noll didn’t need to do it with Franco Harris, he split carries between the halfback and the fullback. The franchise talked about spelling Jerome Bettis during his prime, but really couldn’t make it happen (anyone remember George Jones? No? Point made).
Todd Haley needs to be the offensive coordinator who threads this needle.
3. Get There with Four
Keith Butler’s mantra as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with 4.” “There,” in case you haven’t noticed, is the quarterback.
Keith Butler’s goal is to use no more than four defenders to rush the passer, in an attempt to bolster coverage downfield, and particularly on the short and medium routes that form the soft underbelly of the Steelers Zone Blitz scheme.
- Thus far, this goal has eluded Butler.
In Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers have 3 down lineman who can pressure the passer. Bud Dupree must continue the growth he flashed in late 2016 while come combination of T.J. Watt, James Harrison and Anthony Chickillo must get the job done on the other side.
James Harrison tutors T.J. Watt. Hopefully the rookie learned something. Photo Credit: Pitt247 Sports
4. Man Up in the Secondary
This subtitle is perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration. After the AFC Championship debacle, the arm chair head coaches quickly second guessed Mike Tomlin for not playing more man coverage against the Patriots. Tomlin as much admitted that the Steelers didn’t have the secondary personnel to do so. And let’s remember something important:
- Playing man against the Patriots worked for about 3 quarters for the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
The problem is you need it to work for more than that. Regardless of whether it’s playing more man coverage when necessary, shifting seamlessly between 3-4 base alignments and nickel alignments that use more of a 4-3 base alignment, the Steelers secondary must improve in 2017.
Ryan Shazier intercepts a pass during his rookie preseason. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
That doesn’t mean that the secondary needs to be a shutdown defense like Bill Cowher’s Blitzgurgh defenses of the 1990’s or of the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl Championship run. But there’s no path to Lombardi Number 7 that includes allowing any playoff quarterback to shred their defensive backfield the way Tom Brady did in January.
- Point 4.b. to this list would be keeping Ryan Shazier healthy.
Ryan Shazier has shown the dynamic playmaking capability that has marked the great Steelers defenders of yesteryear. But he’s also been hurt a lot. Fans who scapegoat him or criticize him for this need to get over themselves.
But a lot of offensive coordinators will sleep very easily at night if the Steelers starting inside linebackers are Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort for an extended period of time.
5. Embrace and Overcome the Unexpected
The Steelers returned to the playoffs in 2014 but without Le’Veon Bell, the man who accounted for 1/3 of their offense. In 2015, they made it to the divisional round without Antonio Brown, without Ben Roethlisberger, and without DeAngelo Williams. If someone had told you a year ago:
“By December, our number 2, 3, and 4 wide receivers will be Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers. Oh, and Cam Heyward will have been lost since midseason. And Bud Dupree will just be working himself back into the line up.”
You’d have likely concluded that Steelers Nation was set, at best, to spend Christmas memorizing NFL playoff tie breakers.
Eli Rogers races for a first down in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Except that’s not what happened. Yes, the AFC Championship proved to be too big a stage for Rogers, Hamilton and Ayers, and you’d certainly prefer to start Cam Heyward over Ricardo Mathews across from Tom Brady.
- “The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse.”
Mike Tomlin has preached that since he arrived in Pittsburgh and over the last three seasons the Steelers have internalized his mentality. Injuries will happen in the NFL. It is the nature of the game. 2017 will provide no exceptions to that reality.
To win a Super Bowl, whenever the untimely injury, suspension or other off the field event strikes, whoever the Steelers proverbial “next man up” is must embrace it as an opportunity and his teammates must work to overcome the unexpected.
6. Secure Hope Field Advantage for the Playoffs
Cream rises to the top. The ‘80 Oakland Raiders, the ‘97 Denver Broncos, the ’00 Baltimore Ravens, the ’07 New York Giants and of course the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers entered the playoffs as Wild Card teams and exited as Champions.
- But there’s no denying that the extra week of rest that a playoff bye brings makes a big difference.
Case in point, the 2010 Steelers were the last team to secure a playoff bye and the last team to make the Super Bowl. So its critical that the Steelers secure first round playoff bye, even if they play in a more difficult division than some of the other AFC contenders.
- But getting a playoff bye alone isn’t enough.
If the Steelers are to bring home Lombardi Number 7 then in 2017 road to the Super Bowl must once again run through Pittsburgh. There are lots of obvious reasons for this, and one less than obvious reason is that at this stage of his career, Ben Roethlisberger is playing far better at home than on the road.
7. Don’t Get Hung Up on New England
Every self-respecting citizen of Steelers Nation relishes the idea of beating the New England Patriots in the playoffs. That’s fine for the fans, but the Steelers as an organization can’t allow beating New England to become their focus. To understand why, think back to:
- The 2011 Steelers win over the Patriots, the 1972 Redskins, and the ’11 Debacle in Baltimore.
The Steelers last win over the New England Patriots came in October 2011 at Heinz Field on a glorious Sunday to be a Steelers fan. Unfortunately it also marked the last time the Steelers looked like a Super Bowl contender until 2015. In fact, in the very next week the Steelers choked against the Ravens in a game that cost them the AFC North.
Troy Polamalu takes down Wes Welker in the Steelers last win over the Patriots in 2011. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via New York Times
That experience brings to mind the 1972 Redskins. Growing up in DC I can remember an NFL Films sketch on the 1972 Redskins that featured a wild post-NFC Championship Redskins locker room celebration that included a veteran form the team explaining that “When we beat Dallas in the NFC Championship when they were World Champs, that was like our Super Bowl….”
Except it wasn’t then, and won’t be in 2017. Fortunately, Mike Tomlin realizes that as evidence to his response to Peter King’s “How are you going to beat the Patriots” question:
I don’t think about that. I just know that it is less about the nameless gray faces that you play, and most of the time your issues and your solutions are in house. We gotta strengthen ourselves for the fight. It’s easy as a cop out for me to identify the outside variables. It’s a much tougher discussion with yourself to really get gritty and look within yourself and look at the things that are important and what you need to get done. It’s not a lack of acknowledgement of the dominance of the Patriots. But it’s really not that important. We better take care of our house. We better till our soil, as they say.
Mike Tomlin has the right mentality here. But, given that the Steelers play the Patriots in December and then, potentially a few weeks later in the playoffs, Tomlin needs to ensure that his team follows his lead.
Going into the 2011 season many in the press felt the Steelers had the Raven’s number. The fact that the Ravens had made so many last minute personnel changes only fueled the feeling. Mike Tomlin didn’t flinch and instead preached of the danger inherent in unfamiliarity.
Many potential paths to Pittsburgh’s 7th Super Bowl Championship include victories over New England, but none of the end there, and everyone in the Steelers organization much remember that.