Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and spent 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of “The Football Today Podcast.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers are an excellent football team. They advanced to the AFC Championship Game a year ago despite numerous injuries, and while they didn’t do much to improve in the short term this past offseason, they have one of the best rosters in football. This is clearly a stable and successful franchise all the way around.
The Steelers feature a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who’s still playing at a high level. They also possess the league’s best and deepest offensive line, and quite possibly the NFL’s top running back and wide receiver.
Pittsburgh even has one of the league’s truly elite receiver talents in Martavis Bryant returning from suspension, as part of an extremely deep group at the position after drafting JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round.
Last year – and this was especially true in the AFC Championship Game after Le’Veon Bell was injured – teams focused their pass-defense game plans around slowing down Antonio Brown. As a result, Brown saw heavy coverages leaning in his direction. That will be more difficult for Pittsburgh’s opponents to pull off now, assuming the team isn’t hit hard by injuries.
As for the defense, Pittsburgh has used a bevy of early draft picks to bolster that side of the ball. There’s good reason to believe the unit is primed for a big step forward as its young players come into their own and mature together.
The defensive line now goes four deep following the signing of Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave should be an even bigger contributor in his second season, while Cameron Heyward is already established as an upper-tier player and one of the top leaders on this team. His loss to injury last year had bigger ramifications than most realize.
Meanwhile, Stephon Tuitt is even more gifted than Heyward and very much primed to take a substantial step forward. This foursome should provide better internal pressure than what Pittsburgh had a year ago.
The edge pressure should also be improved. James Harrison refuses to age and remains a force, while Bud Dupree has gotten better and better and looks to be living up to his first-round billing. Pittsburgh then added another first-round edge player in T.J. Watt, who’s adapted quickly and should be playing quality snaps quicker than most anticipate.
Pittsburgh isn’t real deep at inside linebacker and could play a higher percentage of what looks like a 5-1-5 defense in 2017 with Ryan Shazier as the only true second-level player on the field. His talent level is off the charts, but he also has an extensive injury history.
Shazier is the defensive player Pittsburgh can least afford to lose, and much of the team’s fate on that side of the ball rests on his availability and potential excellence.
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The secondary should also be improved as players like Artie Burns and Sean Davis take steps forward. There are still questions on the back end of the defense and the coaching staff realizes it must transition to more of a man-coverage scheme, as Pittsburgh played more zone coverage than just about any team in the league last year.
The Steelers do also employ a lot of matchup zone principles, which is basically zone that quickly distinguishes itself into man. An enhanced pass rush would certainly help the Steelers’ coverage a great deal.
An extremely strong case can be made that Pittsburgh is the second-best team in the NFL. But there’s still a giant elephant in the room: New England.
Not only did the Patriots dispose of Pittsburgh in last year’s playoffs and then go on to win the Super Bowl, but New England is also noticeably better now than when we last saw the team.
Bell was injured very early in the AFC Championship Game and Pittsburgh was without Heyward, but the Patriots didn’t have Rob Gronkowski. The Steelers, as usual, didn’t make a big splash in free agency and kept the slow and steady approach of building through the draft (a philosophy that has treated them very well through the years by the way).
The Steelers are an excellent football team and if they can remain healthier than they have been in recent playoff appearances, they can hang with any team in the NFL. However, the Patriots have had Pittsburgh’s (and just about everyone else’s) number during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.
Anything can happen and a lot can change throughout an NFL season, but as it stands right now, the safest bet is that it will remain status quo between these organizations once again in 2017. And that is unfortunate for the Steelers.
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