For those that love the Black & Gold, this one is for you.
Our ‘State of the Franchise’ series moves onto Pittsburgh. Our resident fan, Dan Yale (@yaliekins), reviews how he saw last season and looks towards the upcoming 2018 season touching on the off-season changes made along the way.
Last Season’s Reflections
There is no way around it: the 2017 season was a massive disappointment for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Whether it’s fair or not, any season that ends without a Lombardi trophy in the Steel City will be judged as failure as they boast one of the best rosters in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Steelers are in no better a position to do that now than they were at the start of the 2017 season.
For a team with such a historical defensive pedigree, Kevin Colbert has been unable to fix a lumbering D which has been the Achilles heel of a Super Bowl run for the last 5+ years. Steeler fans are painfully familiar with having a secondary, slowly and painfully, taken apart by Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels in late January. Having a 40 burger dropped on them at home by Blake Bortles & co was a stark realisation that the Steelers are stuck in reverse trying to build a defense that can make stops and give the ball to one of the highest powered offenses in the league.
The primary goal of the 2018 off-season, Pittsburgh fans (for the most part) believed, would surely be focused on getting the defensive help that is ready to contribute right away. With the best players on the roster in their prime or twilight years, would the front office finally be aggressive and try to maximise the chance of returning the Lombardi to the Steel City in this limited championship window?
The state of the defense …
Although this article may be critical of the Steelers defense, it should be noted that the unit still boasts some high-level talent. Defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, nose tackle Jayvon Hargrave and slot corner Mike Hilton have all proven to be high-level producers at their position. Joe Haden at corner, edge rusher TJ Watt and versatile safety Sean Davis have all shown varying glimpses that they can be above average starters and Vince Williams has been a solid two-down linebacker under difficult circumstances.
The awful injury suffered by Ryan Shazier, the units most valuable player, forced defensive coordinator Keith Butler to get creative in terms of defensive personnel. So much of Butler’s 3-deep, zone blitzing scheme was reliant on the speed, coverage abilities and overall versatility that Shazier offered. Trying to replace one of the best linebackers in the game with a free agent like Sean Spence is never going to end well, and the Steelers lined up in a dime defense much more frequently to try and disguise the Shazier sized hole in the heart of it.
The list of defensive needs heading into 2018 is extensive and somewhat subjective.
On the offensive
With a hall of fame QB that played some of his best ball in the second half of the season, the best wide receiver in the game, a top three running back and a stellar offensive line, the Steelers did not need to focus on delving too much into acquisitions to bolster their attack.
The inability to get a deal done with LeVeon Bell has been a frustration for everyone involved though. Bell wants to be paid like a top end receiver, reportedly looking for an offer in the region of $16 million per year which is too rich for the Steelers taste. This saga has dragged on over two offseasons and an agreement of terms seems further away than ever between the two sides.
We’re (Steelers fans) all bracing for 2018 to be the final year of watching #26 run in the black and gold.
Changes During The Off-Season
The old school section of the football cognoscenti drill home the ‘draft and develop’ approach and hold teams like the Steelers and Packers as shining examples of why this is the optimal roster building approach. However, the most successful teams in recent years (Eagles, Falcons, Patriots) have not been afraid to get their hands dirty in the early days of free agency, paying a premium for quality starters as well as trading draft capital for players that can help immediately.
In a league where the Super Bowl window can be slammed shut in no time at all and with so many holes on the roster, you have to believe that Kevin Colbert would banish his usual approach of sitting on his hands for the first week and may sign one or two key contributors for a Steelers defense that desperately needs talent. The cap situation was tight but not dire and there were players available that would immediately upgrade the unit (I’m thinking Avery Williamson and Tyrann Mathiueu, for example).
Of course, that didn’t happen – the Steelers came out of free agency with linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett. Both signings are at positions of need and I would argue that Burnett should be an upgrade of Mike Mitchell at free safety (assuming that’s where he fits in). Bostic, on the other hand, has not shown that he can be a three-down linebacker that can cover in space and is not a permanent solution. As a back-up / spot starter, this would be a shrewd signing, but that is not the case here.
Draft day: Mack no matter what
The Steelers first choice was a shock. Terrell Edmunds was considered by every draftnik to be a second/third round safety. Although the player is very athletic, he struggles in man coverage and appears to be much more of a project than a day one starter. There is a chance that the Steelers believe Edmunds would be best suited to playing in a money backer role in their base nickel package, playing safety/slot corner in the dime set.
Day two was even more of a head-scratcher. The Steelers take wide receiver James Washington from Oklahoma State to replace Martavis Bryant (more on that in a moment) then draft Mason Rudolph, Washington’s QB at OKC St. with the pick they acquired in the Bryant deal. They finished the third round by taking a developmental offensive tackle. The third day of the draft saw the Steelers take a safety, running back, defensive tackle and offensive tackle.
Predictions For The New Season
From my perspective, I find it hard to believe that the Steelers have done enough to get better this offseason and overcome the AFC to get to the Super Bowl. Almost every decision makes sense in a vacuum (barring the Edmunds 1st round pick), but it isn’t joined-up strategic thinking and has done nothing to elevate the talent on the roster for this season.
Take the Martavis Bryant trade as an example. A third round pick for a player that has caused locker room issues, suspension history and struggled to get playing time ahead of a rookie with one year left on his deal is great value for Pittsburgh. On the other hand, they created a new need at wide receiver and the Steelers used a second-round pick on a wide receiver to fill the void. The value in trading Bryant is therefore diminished and the wide receiver room is worse than it was at the start of the previous season.
They also used the third round pick that they received from Mason Rudolph, who will likely not contribute as a starter for at least the next two years. Big Ben has recently said he believes he will play for three more years; so all being well, Rudolph would not see the field until he has one year left on his deal. This pick is also a tacit admission that the Steelers whiffed when they took a quarterback (Joshua Dobbs) in the fourth round of last year’s draft. I like the pick and the value associated with it, but a quarterback quite simply wasn’t a need when there are such gaping holes on the roster.
There were opportunities throughout this off-season to be aggressive and try to go all out to win a Super Bowl within the next two years. In the first round, the Steelers acquire draft capital by trading Bryant, so trading up is an option – particularly when there are top-level players at a position of need in the mid to late teens (Rashan Evans, Van Der Esch, Derwin James), but chose not to pull the trigger.
It is difficult to see a single position that the Steelers have improved on since the start of last season. That’s not to say that the Steelers don’t have a chance to win it all in 2018, but in my opinion, it looks a lot like an opportunity wasted.
Editor Notes: Steelers fans, let us know your thoughts and tell us whether you agree with Dan’s reflections an predictions. Leave a comment or contact us via social media below: