Heading into the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a chance to reach the Super Bowl. Before we get ahead of ourselves, just how does their 2018 roster stack up to teams around the league?
The Steelers return one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger looks to be in great shape after losing some weight and becoming leaner in the offseason. With the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, former quarterbacks coach, Randy Fichtner has assumed the offensive coordinator role. While the overall scheme will likely remain the same, Fichtner’s offense gives Roethlisberger a little more control at the line of scrimmage. Analysts have wondered why more control was not given to Roethlisberger in years past. Ben traditionally is in full control of the “two-minute offense” where the offense appears to be clicking. It will be interesting to watch the differences in the Steelers offense this season, schematically.
One big change may be the personnel in the backfield to start the season. As the days countdown to the start of the season, Le’Veon Bell has yet to show up at the Steelers facilities. After a few cryptic comments from his agent, it appears as if Bell does not plan to be in a Steelers uniform at least for a few weeks. Bell’s status will likely be a yearlong story, which could cloud the team’s season. With the new comments from teammates Ramon Foster, among others, the running back’s future with the organization continues to complicate matters. Second-year player James Conner will receive an opportunity to really showcase what he can do in Bell’s absence. The team has exuded confidence him all preseason, where he has looked like a starting caliber NFL running back. Conner is in great shape; he looked quicker and more immersed in the flow of the game during the preseason. He also showed an ability to run between the tackles, as well as line up on the outsides and catch passes.
The real challenge for Conner will be his pass blocking ability. Bell has proven to be a great pass protector, while the young back has struggled in that area. For the sake of the offense, Conner’s improvements in this area need to carry over into the regular season.
The rest of the offense has a strong group of returning starters. The offensive line is still primarily intact and ready to clear the way for whichever runner gets the ball. The starting line including, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, and Al Villanueva, is one of the top units in the league with multiple pro-bowlers protecting Roethlisberger. Notable backup B.J. Finney is still with the team, while 2017’s fill-in right tackle Chris Hubbard followed Todd Haley to Cleveland.
Most of the 2018 receiving group returns as well. Lead by Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger will have plenty of receivers to target. The third receiver spot was vacated by the trade of Martavis Bryant during the draft, but the team is confident in Justin Hunter and rookie James Washington filling the void left by Bryant. Familiarity is also apparent at tight-end, where Ben will see the likes of Jesse James and Vance McDonald for another year.
To round out the impressive group of offensive weapons, kicker Chris Boswell, Mr. Clutch last year, looks to improve upon his pro-bowl season.
Overall the offense is in a great place to start the season. The real question mark for the Steelers will be the play of their somewhat inexperienced defense. Porous at times last year, the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier will continue to plague their defense. The Steelers used both the draft and free agency in an attempt to strengthen the defense. To try and fill Shazier’s void, Jon Bostic was brought in and projects to start along Vince Williams in the middle of the defense. The team also added two safeties who will see plenty of time around the line of scrimmage. Former Packer, Morgan Burnett, was added to start alongside Sean Davis, however, rookie Terrell Edmunds has earned the starting position for at least week one. Burnett has been dealing with injuries and Edmunds has looked good in the secondary during the preseason.
The Steelers return many of their best defensive players, including Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Joe Haden, and Artie Burns. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler and the defense looks to surprise some teams. A breakout year is possible for the Steelers’ defense, after showing flashes last year. Hopefully, the team can put it all together this season.
While a deep playoff run seems likely for the Steelers, a strong division may stand in their way from making some noise. The Ravens return a top-flight defense with a newly inspired Joe Flacco at quarterback. The Bengals hope to improve upon a bad 2017 campaign and to return to prior success, as a top team in the AFC North. Finally, to round out the division is the Browns. All the hype has been surrounding this team with the acquisitions of Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry, and Baker Mayfield. While I do not believe the Browns will be a playoff caliber team just yet, they will be much more competitive than years past. The Steelers open up the 2018 season in Cleveland, where the Browns hope to make a point by knocking off the divisional favorite Pittsburgh Steelers.
Outside of a tough division, the Steelers will also have to deal with top competition from both the AFC and NFC. Notable games against the NFC will be a week five match-up against the Falcons, week 10 against the Panthers and week 16, where the Steelers will visit New Orleans to take on the Saints. Notable games against AFC opponents include week 11 at the Jaguars and week 15 when Tom Brady and the Patriots visit Pittsburgh.
Based on key match-ups, team make-up and outside player distractions, a 10 or 11 win season seems about right. I expect the Steelers to finish 10-6, winning a tough AFC North.
We’ll see how the season plays out starting Sunday, September 9th, when the Steelers visit the Browns at 1 PM EST.
Scott Duda is a featured blogger for SportsTalkLine. Find more from SportsTalkLine on Twitter and Facebook.