Welcome back to our 2018 NFL season review series, where we’re going to be taking a look at all 32 National Football League teams and how they stack up heading into the new season.
Last time out we took a look at last season’s Super Bowl losers, the New England Patriots. The Pats will be looking to go one better in 2018, and with Tom Brady back again there’s no reason to suggest they’ll be anything less than a title challenger.
Today we’re turning our attention to one of the Patriots most daunting foes in the AFC; the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin’s team is loaded offensively and many feel they should’ve had enough to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl last season. Instead, they faltered in the divisional round against the Jags, but they’re coming back with even more offensive talent in 2018 and it’ll certainly be a pressure year for the coaching staff who undoubtedly have a championship or bust attitude.
Mike Tomlin’s 11th season at the helm followed what has become a predictable script in Pittsburgh over the past few seasons.
They blitzed through the division, going 6-0 against their rivals, and won key games against the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings. But, many of the in-division wins and the victories they picked up against weaker teams were made to look much harder than they should’ve been.
The main critique of Tomlin and his staff is the lack of organisation at times, and his often overly emotive nature that rubs of on his team. The Steelers had two ugly losses, at the Bears in week three and at home against the Jags in week five, in which they simply looked all over the place.
The lack of consistency, even in their victories, has been startling over the past few seasons and it’s cost them repeatedly in terms of losing home advantage in the playoffs and then once they’ve reached the postseason.
The 30-9 regular season loss to the Jags was a particularly bad one and it set the scene for what was arguably an even worse performance, at least defensively, in the AFC Divisional round. Blake Bortles marched into Heinz Field and dropped 45 points on a Steelers defense that looked entirely lost, and handed them yet another playoff defeat.
It’s the third time in the last four season’s they’ve been ousted before the AFC Championship game, and given the plethora of talent (10 Pro Bowlers in 2017) they’ve got on board that simply isn’t good enough.
The talent is there in spades, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. LeVeon Bell had another All Pro season, racking up 1291 yards and nine TD’s on the ground to go with a further 655 receiving yards and 2 TD’s to firmly establish himself as a top three rusher in the NFL.
Antonio Brown also excelled yet again, leading the league with 1533 receiving yards and earning his fourth straight first team All Pro selection.
The offensive line was amongst the best in the business with G David DeCastro, C Maurkice Pouncey and T Alejandro Villanueva all earning Pro Bowl nods. Big Ben was Big Ben as per usual, and he’ll continue to thrive even as he ages with the outstanding protection he’s afforded.
One can’t recap their year without giving mention to Ryan Shazier though. The inspirational linebacker suffered a life threatening spinal injury in the week 13 matchup with the Bengals, and his recovery served to inspire his teammates for the duration of the year.
It will continue to do so in 2018, as Shazier will not play this season whilst he continues his long road to recovery.
Free Agency Moves
The free agent period was relatively quiet in Pittsburgh, with the biggest name to enter the building being former Packers safety Morgan Burnett.
Former Giant Nat Berhe also joined up to strengthen that position following the exit of veterans Mike Mitchell and JJ Wilcox. Rookie safeties Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen should also help strengthen the middle of the defensive backfield.
Long serving cornerback William Gay, who spent ten years as a Steeler in two different stints, also left so the secondary will look vastly different in 2018.
Former Colts ILB John Bostic arrived on a two-year deal and has the unenviable task of trying to fill some of Shazier’s role.
Backup RT Sam Hubbard departed to the Browns, whilst enigmatic and distraction prone receiver Martavis Bryant was shipped out of town in a trade with the Raiders.
Bryant’s talent is shame to lose, but Juju Smith Schuster’s emergence as well as the drafting of promising rookie James Washington should make up for his absence and then some.
1) Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech
2) James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
3) Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
3) Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan
5) Marcus Allen, S, Penn State
5) Jaylen Samuels, RB, NC State
7) Joshua Frazier, DT, Alabama
Fans Eye View
In all our 2018 previews we’ll be speaking to a fan to get their opinion on the current state of their team. Representing the Steelers is Matthew Baldwin. You can check his views out on his Twitter page right here.
GMS: How would you rate your team’s offseason?
Not great. There weren’t many big time moves in or out, mainly because we didn’t need to. However the fact we still haven’t sorted out Le’Veon Bell’s contract worries me, because last year he didn’t turn up until Week 1 and we had a slow start, we can’t afford to do the same this year. I also don’t think we’ve addressed the middle linebacker spot as well as we could have. We are going to struggle without Shazier there this year.
GMS: What’s the general opinion of the job the head coach is doing?
I personally think Mike Tomlin is doing as good a job as you could ask for, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re in the same conference as New England. Some of his decisions on gameday COULD be better and he COULD be more authoritative with the players, but overall I wouldn’t trade him for any coach in the league & that includes the guy in Foxborough.
GMS: Your opinions of the offense? (What’s good, bad, different from 2017)
The best in the league by far. There’s not a single thing I would change on this side of the ball. The best thing is, even if Ben Roethlisberger decides to hang up his boots early, we’ve got a pass-happy QB in Mason Rudolph who is more than capable of filling in for him and with so many young wide receivers coming through, we are set in that department for the next decade.
GMS: Your thoughts on the state of the defense? (What’s good, bad, different from 2017)
Ever so slowly getting better until it came to a grinding halt against The Bengals when Shazier suffered his gruesome injury. We finally have a pass rush that measures up to the good old days of Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton & Aaron Smith. Our secondary improved when we brought Joe Haden aboard. Even our outside linebackers were coming good, particularly T.J Watt who is going to have a breakout year this year. It’s just the inside linebacker position that cost us. I firmly believe that if Shazier stayed healthy, we would have won the Superbowl.
GMS: What’s your deepest concern for 2018?
That we blew our shot last year and the rest of the AFC is about to catch us up. I can easily see the likes of Houston, LA, Kansas City, Denver & Baltimore being real challengers at the top of the conference. This could be the year we finally get the better of New England, only for one of the other teams to take advantage of it.
GMS: Give us a name to watch out for?
James Washington. The one thing the Steelers have rarely got wrong in recent years is drafting wide receivers. Given that most teams attention is going to shift towards BOTH Antonio Brown & JuJu Smith-Schuster this year, keep an eye out for him to come under the radar and put up some impressive numbers.
GMS: And finally…your crystal ball prediction for the season?
Le’Veon Bell will be traded. We are going to get to a stage where neither side will come to an agreement over the contract and we will put him up for the highest bidder. I love Bell and want him to stay, but you can’t get emotional about these things and if someone comes in with a king’s ransom, I wouldn’t turn it down.
Week 1: @Browns
Week 2: vs Chiefs
Week 3: @Bucs
Week 4: vs Ravens
Week 5: vs Falcons
Week 6: @Bengals
Week 7: BYE WEEK
Week 8: vs Browns
Week 9: @Ravens
Week 10: vs Panthers
Week 11: @Jags
Week 12: @Broncos
Week 13: vs Chargers
Week 14: @Raiders
Week 15: vs Patriots
Week 16: @Saints
Week 17: vs Bengals
The offense will be amongst the top three in the league in all categories and as such Steelers players will come at a premium.
Overpay for Bell and Brown, it’s worth it. And Big Ben is an obvious choice to be a top ten QB especially given the volume of passes they tend to throw in Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger has gotten his wish for his longtime position coach Randy Fitchner to take over as OC and he’s coming off one of his best fantasy years in a while. He threw for 300 yards and/or multiple touchdown passes in 13 of his 17 games and given the outstanding protection he’ll get once again, coupled with the plethora of weapons he’s got in the receiving game he should certainly be one of the top performing fantasy QB’s in 2018.
Antonio Brown has been the number one receiver in fantasy football for four straight years and he’ll make it five this season. He’s the best receiver in the NFL and it might not be close.
AB has topped 150 targets in five straight seasons, and there’s no reason to suggest that will change in 2018. There’s a legitimate argument for him being a number one overall pick, even ahead of Bell and the other multi talented backs in the league.
Speaking of Bell, he’s probably the safest bet as far as that number one pick goes. He influences the game in both facets of offense at a startling rate and he’s running behind an elite O-Line.
Bell topped 1850 total yards for the third time in four years last season and he’s coming in to the year well rested after holding out throughout camp. The three-time Pro Bowler led the NFL in 2017 carries with 321 whilst setting career highs in targets and catches in the passing game.
He’s becoming better and better as a route runner and is a legitimate threat lining up in the slot when other backs are in the game. Bell will undoubtedly be a top five fantasy scorer if he’s on the field for all 16 games and he’s a great pick atop any draft board.
The Steelers two young receivers Juju Smith Schuster and James Washington have a great chance to put up solid WR2 numbers playing opposite Brown. With the perennial All Pro receiving so much attention from defenses they’ll often get one on one matchups to exploit and rarely face a Pro Bowl level corner in those matchups.
Smith Schuster flashed Pro Bowl potential of his own in 2017 whilst Washington has balled out in the preseason and either guy could top 800-900 yards and 5-6 touchdowns in their own right this year. It’ll likely be Juju that earns those extra targets though and he’s a great pick as a mid-round WR2.
TE Vance McDonald is a favourite target of Roethlisberger’s too and though he’s not going to put up Gronk-type numbers at the position he could have some volume games where he gets the most targets outside of Brown.
Tomlin has to go one better this year, and it’s their best chance in a long time.
The Patriots will be their true test, but this roster is stacked offensively and they can outscore anyone on their day. The problem is their day hasn’t come often enough.
They consistently stoop down to the level of their opponents and unless there’s an obvious change in their organisation levels it’s hard to see them getting over that Brady/Belichick shaped hump.
They’ll easily clean up the division once again and their loss total shouldn’t exceed four, but they do face some tricky road matchups that could see them stumble. Week 11 at the Jags and week 16 at the Saints will be tough encounters, and when you throw in home games against the Pats, Chargers and Panthers all within 6 weeks, they could feasibly stumble.
Getting home advantage throughout the playoffs will be key, but despite their offensive strengths I don’t see that happening. The defense has so many question marks hanging over it from the secondary to the huge hole left by Shazier over the middle.
The pass rush will be excellent again but the Tomlin question looms large.
Does anyone really he believe he put together a game plan with enough depth and alternative plans in it to beat the Patriots in a playoff game, or that he can out coach Belichick when adjustments need to be made on the fly? My answer is no.
Tomlin is an outstanding motivator of men and he’s certainly a top ten coach all things considered. But you only have to look at what former Steeler turned Patriot James Harrison had to say about the difference between the two teams to realise that as long as Belichick and Tomlin are in charge, only one team is winning when it matters.
They simply must earn that home advantage in the postseason to have chance to reach the Super Bowl, and if they can avoid the Patriots then they can certainly do that.
All things taken into account, we predict a 12-4 season for the Steelers, ending in another playoff loss …you guessed it, to the Patriots.