Steelers Spin: Summer 2017 Pittsburgh Preview

As we slowly climb the last, hot, summer tracks of the roller coaster ride up prior to plunging into the 2017 NFL preseason, Steelers Nation finds itself drinking a curious brew of the bitter end of last year’s playoff run spiked with a shot of enthusiasm for an anticipated championship run.

Are we entering another long, drawn out version of Groundhog Day, where the Pittsburgh Steelers minimize the value of the preseason, struggle in the first half of the year, and then streak their way into barely making it into the playoffs…only to be spit out by a more Super Bowl-worthy opponent?

Or does this year signal the culmination of a five-year master retooling of the Black and Gold by Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert as they usher the team triumphantly into their next era of NFL dominance?

With nearly every planet aligning for Pittsburgh’s hopes prior to the beginning of the season, the time of strategic patience is probably coming to a close for Steelers fans as they grow increasingly aware their future Hall of Fame quarterback is entering the last prime cuts of his career.

After gorging ourselves on six months of the fillers and artificial ingredients of the offseason in terms of news about free agency, drafts and mini-camps, it looks like meat is back on the menu with the start of the preseason nearing.

What is the State of the Steelers as the season of 2017 approaches? Here is a position-by-position breakdown in this special Summer preview edition of the Spin.

GETTING DEFENSIVE

In Pittsburgh, the molten steel of championships is forged by the defense and we’ll begin here with our positional overview. So many people believe Steelers Nation is over-obsessing about having to overcome the New England Patriots this year in order to be Super Bowl bound. After all, there are 32 teams in this league, the super-chill, anti-obsessors say. But the reality remains that Coach Bill Belichick has been stealing Mike Tomlin’s lunch money for years now, and based on Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live broadcast, Coach T is as obsessed about the bully as are Steelers fans.  There was a growing narrative toward the end of last season that the Steelers defense was clearly on the rise. But…that was before the Patriots receivers were open…and by this we mean…really, really open in the AFC Championship. Like…back to the drawing board open. Have the Steelers made the adjustments on defense necessary to defeat the Patriots and the host of other rising offensive threats? Has there been a shift in mindset, talent or scheme? The preseason will provide many of these answers.

Jackers

Linebackers have always been the Main Event in Pittsburgh, although of recent years, it’s fair to say they haven’t been as dominant as Steelers linebacking units of the past. The front office response is “out with the old and in with the new” as they invested a first rounder in J.J. Watt’s little brother T.J. Watt while allowing longtime star performer Lawrence Timmons to escape for brighter pastures in free agency.  Timmons was underappreciated league-wide, and although he was graying a bit at the seams, he’ll provide the Miami Dolphins with at least a couple of years of glory. Don’t be surprised to see him in the Pro Bowl as free agency does raise the profile of a player. As for his replacement Vince Williams, no one is doubting his thunder. Will there be enough lightning in his step to keep up with running backs? That will be the big test as the entire linebacking crew will rise or fall with the performance of Williams in 2017. Expect Watt to add intensity to the squad, but history tells us this year for him will be on training wheels. Then there is Bud Dupree. Can he stay healthy long enough to show he was worthy of a prior first round pick? Tellingly, there are more questions than answers that you would normally want regarding this critical unit.

Moshers

It seems far in the distant past when Steelers Nation was left to say, “Where’s the Beef?” when it came to the defensive line. After some Dark Ages following the retirement of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, it was a frustrating parade of Ziggys and Cams.  But now the Steelers have a front line that is not only uber-talented, but is healthy and deep as well. No one will be running over the Steelers this year.

Stickums

How many drafts has it been in a row where fans were screaming that the secondary was the position of greatest need? These shouts were answered this year with a…yes…third round pick in Cameron Sutton and a fifth rounder in Brian Allen. It’s clear that William Gay is winding down his career with the Steelers and safety Mike Mitchell won’t be that far beyond him. After that it’s the young and untested. Some say there is plenty of talent in Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Ross Cockrell, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh and maybe even Brian Allen to form a secondary of the future. The problem is…the team needs that secondary now. Should the team have dipped into free agency much more aggressively this offseason? This question will be answered all too soon as the team takes the field again.

OFFENSIVELY SPEAKING

Chuckers

If you dare mention that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had only a slightly above average season last year (for him) you’ll be attacked by the swarming team of velociraptors who defend him like he’s fragile eggs in their nest. The resigning of Landry Jones was cheered vigorously…throughout the Jones’ household, but perhaps not much further outside of the neighborhood. The Spin has always maintained that Jones could be the best third string quarterback in the league for years to come. He’s bright, hardworking and the ultimate team player. There’s just not enough there…there…to have him jog on the field if Big Ben goes down. Will the intriguing Rookie Scientist, Joshua Dobbs, give the Steelers more pizzazz at the number two spot…and perhaps even…gasp…provide a glimpse into the Steelers future at the position? Maybe not…but at least it’s somebody new to complain about for Steelers Nation. The greatest factor at quarterback is whether Big Ben will have the Biggest Season of his Big Career. That’s how it works when you’re the team’s franchise investment.

Grabbers

After years of worrying about wide receiver Marcus Wheaton’s crooked fingers, we now have Sammie Coates to be the next in line for that concern. Maybe Big Ben throws too hard. Coates was the heir apparent to Martavis Bryant before getting a bad case of the dropsies last season, a malady hopefully resolved by fingers that actually point north now. The big news is the return by the one he was going to be heir to, Martavis Bryant. In a team filled with “X” factors, Bryant may be the biggest one of them all for the Steelers. There is no question he was the turbocharger in the Steelers passing offense before having a year-long suspension last season. But was he as good as we remembered? And can he be more than a passing memory this time around? One of the greatest proponents of Bryant’s successful return is All-World Antonio Brown who will benefit from being freed from triple teams. There is also enthusiasm for rookie Juju Smith-Schuster as well as Eli Rogers and the rest of the talented squad. This…should…be…the most potent receiving corps in Steelers history. Keep your fingers straight and crossed.

Grounders

Anytime your running back squad includes a member by the name of Le’Veon Bell, you’re already among the league’s best. You add an intriguing change of pace prospect in third round selection James Conner to go with some steady performers and you’ve got necessary depth. Should the Steelers bring back super-sub DeAngelo Williams for added insurance? Considering what a great teammate and pinch hitter DeAngelo was for the team, it would seem to make good sense if the front office is serious about making a Super Bowl run.

Bookends

If Steelers fans thought the Ladarius Green situation was a headache last year, they’ll really have a migraine this season when they realize the potential he added to that roster position is gone. Jesse James has shown promise, but certainly isn’t being fitted for Heath Miller’s cowboy boots anytime soon. Will someone like Xavier Grimble be able take a huge leap and surprise everyone? Beyond that happening, this season may prove the Steelers need to select a tight end in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Blockers

They are healthy. They are exceptionally well coached and they know they have the chance to lead the way for the most prolific offense in Steelers history. The offensive line is a dream assembly of talent, attitude and teamwork. The spotlight continues to shine brightest on C Maurkice Pouncey and G David DeCastro but this season may reveal that the Steelers have the league’s best tackle combination in RT Marcus Gilbert and LT Alejandro Villanueva.

SPECIALTIES

Footies

Chris Boswell continued to display that he is one of the league’s brightest, young placekickers and has already received the hard-to-win confidence of the fans. He’ll look to add some more consistency in his play in 2017 as he did suffer from a few head-scratching misses and had one of the most embarrassing onsides kick attempts in NFL history. Aussie punter Jordan Berry had such a sensational camp last year, his regular season play seemed a bit of a letdown. Still, he showed enough promise he may end up being the Steelers punter long into the future.

Scurriers

Probably the biggest, underperforming position for the Steelers over the past few years has been kickoff returner. Can you remember the last time the Steelers have been a consistent threat to “take it to the house”? Actually, the bar is so low now there is some celebration when the team manages to merely get it past the twenty-five. Whether it’s scheme, talent, or a combination of both, the Steelers have been absolutely toothless on kickoff returns and this will have to change if they expect to dominate opponents on the scoreboard. After much controversy last year, Antonio Brown returned to his role as punt returner, and mostly to yawns. Who will tote the rock on returns this year? It’s probably not as big of a question as, “Who will block for the returners?” this season.

Roadies

Every rock star needs their roadies. Every championship teams needs their kick coverers. Although, the Steelers have been anemic with returns, they’ve been mostly strong in covering them through the past few years, which is probably the main reason Special Team Coordinator Danny Smith still has a job. With new, eager players to impose their will on Special Teams, there is no reason to believe the team won’t excel again in this area.

OTHER MATTERS

Whistle Blowers

There are two main camps in Steelers Nation in regards to Coach Mike Tomlin. One believes he is the “Great Untouchable”, a coach so talented and beloved by his players he is beyond any reproach…at all…ever. The other camp is in the “Super Bowl or Bust” category. This “What have you done for me lately” group believes a head coach for the Steelers should either be polishing a Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season, or be polishing their resume. The truth lies somewhere in between. Tomlin and his staff are undeniably loaded with talent…especially on offense. This is a team that not only COULD go far in the playoffs, but SHOULD go far in the playoffs. The coaching staff is talented…and stable, so there aren’t any excuses. Barring an unusual crush of injuries, the Steelers should come out of the gate in front…and ride this horse far. Otherwise…yes…you should blame the jockey.

Drama Queenisms

The most beautiful music played in Steelers Nation leading into the season is the “Sound of Silence”. That is, in terms of dramatic overtures. Remember last year? The Bell and Bryant bombshell disclosures and suspensions? The Antonio Brown contract. Last season was a year of Great Expectations. This year is no different, except that the team comes in much more focused…and much less distracted. Well…there was the whole Big Ben retirement saga. But, that’s pretty much Ben being Ben. No…all has been quiet on the Western front and this might have the greatest positive impact of all.

SO WHAT SAYS YOU?

The Steelers can already be declared Paper Champions…just like the 31 other teams entering the new season. For Pittsburgh, the paper prognostication is much more compelling. Yet, at this point, there are only questions. Will Roethlisberger be more focused on guiding his team to a championship than sifting through his 401K Retirement Plan? Will Bell be able to perform… without or in spite of the long term contract he is seeking? Is Bryant the next Randy Moss after all? Will he be around long enough for moss to grow? Can the young guns Watt and Dupree bring the sack back to Pittsburgh? Is Williams ready to show he is a Steelers-grade linebacker? Will Artie Burns and Sean Davis show the future of the Steelers secondary is bright? These questions and more…will begin to be answered in the preseason. Can’t wait to find out? Either can the Spin.

About the Author

Michael K. Reynolds

Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic and author of the acclaimed Heirs of
Ireland series. MichaelKReynolds.com

  • Gregg

    Great writeup Michael! I’d push people out of the way to get to one of your articles.

    A brilliant summary of the Steeler condition in 53 well-crafted words.

    “Are we entering another long, drawn out version of Groundhog Day, where the Pittsburgh Steelers minimize the value of the preseason, struggle in the first half of the year, and then streak their way into barely making it into the playoffs…only to be spit out by a more Super Bowl-worthy opponent?”

    ….don’t forget “ignore acquisition of free agent talent”

  • Rob H

    There are two things that are constants with your articles: they are always very well written, and there are always multiple things I disagree with.
    Don’t have the time or desire to list my points of contention at the moment, but hopefully I’ll remember to come back and elaborate. Appreciate the piece either way.

  • WeWantDaTruth

    Lots of “coulda, shoulda, wouldas” for this team over the last several years. Time to eliminate all the silly mistakes, FB lives, etc. and get the job done.

  • Craig M

    Very enjoyable article sir. 1st- “It is what it is” sounds like defeatist logic, as being an acceptable approach, this phrase should be banished from Tomlin’s vocabulary, IMO. 2nd- We appear to have a DB group that is bound for glory in the future I just hope they can rise to the occasion this season. 3rd- TE Green showed us what could be, now we need to step up for what is, (I’m hoping Odom will become the shadow of Green and our savior for the future, at TE). 4th- Our Off. line is solid/ sharp, from one side to the other, w/ depth, but the real strong point is their coach (without question). 5th- ST returners, is this Danny Smiths responsibility of catching up or Tomlin’s not using all the options (this season should tell). 6th- If we somehow miss the playoffs this season/ get our butts handed to us ANOTHER time by NE then Tomlin becomes a giant ? mark (and I hope it doesn’t come down to poor clock management or interfering w/ a play in progress). All/ everything may come down to that one un-accountable (Injuries). 16-0 wouldn’t be Immaculate but maybe Heaven Sent by the one great Steeler fan above- Rooney.

  • SilverSteel

    Really good article, but you were harsh with J James. He is not as bad as you think. Heath was awesome, but like JJ, not fleet of foot. Both catch really well and find the soft spot in the zone. JJ had a decent blocking year and if he keeps improving, can be every bit the TE Heath was and has quite a few inches on him in height. JJ is still growing into his body he is so young. He will be very close to a #1 TE this year. No ceiling yet.

  • SilverSteel

    I am also intrigued by Odom. The man is athletic (for his size) and can catch well and is a willing blocker for the most part. Raw, but really nice size. There will be some injuries this year (always is), so the rooks will get their chance to shine.

  • SilverSteel

    Great first sentence. I just kicked my cat cause she made me mis click. 🙂

  • Craig M

    I’m not sure but I think Alex said he is really raw on blocking. But I read recently he is fast for a big man and has good hands- I hope surely he makes the team.

  • Gregg…I’m gonna have to save this one in my souvenir box. Right next to my Rocky Bleier autographed football. Much appreciated!

  • Much appreciated and hey…I disagree with myself most of the time.

  • Craig…I forgot to mention the Dan Rooney factor. It is the big story of this season. Thanks for including that.

  • Hopefully I didn’t communicate that I am not a fan of Jesse James. I am. It’s just that Heath’s boots are too big to fill and we need two strong TE’s anyway. I was a huge Mark Bruener fan, so Heath was something special to make forget about Bruener so quickly. Jesse will have a tough job repeating that…and that’s not a knock on him, but an affirmation of the loss of Heath to this team in many ways.

  • renoir

    An article which shows both time and thought, many thanks for both…

  • SoCal Steeler

    Fantastic write-up, Michael! I was thinking that you should be a professional then I read your bio and saw that you are. I’m also of Irish descent so I’ll be checking out the Heirs too.
    Your article provokes some great speculation regarding the perceived strengths and weaknesses of each of the team positional groups, coaching staff included. Thank you!

  • will

    ” After all, there are 32 teams in this league, the super-chill, anti-obsessors say. But the reality remains that Coach Bill Belichick has been stealing Mike Tomlin’s lunch money for years now, and based on Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live broadcast, Coach T is as obsessed about the bully as are Steelers fans.”……………Yes, this is so true and it is a shame that AB let the NFL world know about it. It would have been best if this remained an internal team realization.

    Great article Mike!

  • will

    WOW!

  • will

    What would be Immaculate?………19-0?

  • Craig M

    That I believe would be a miracle. 🙂

  • Mark Tercsak

    Having played this game and coached many years ago.
    The problems with this team start with the Head Coach.
    Having said that should he be fired ? The Answer is No, but he must understand he must get his Sxit together, his House in Order, if not than he should have his Ass~Kicked to the Curb.
    When Mike Tomlin was hired, he said all the right things, We Thought we had the second coming of “Christ~Himself, Chuck Knoll”.
    He has yet to full fill that Dream.
    It does not matter who lines up,on offense or defense on Great Teams.
    What Matters is Team Discipline!
    What Matters is Unit Discipline!
    What Matters is Individual Discipline!
    what matters is are these guys who line-up a family? do they have each others backs, from the starters to the bench warmers?
    Quite Frankly the only Unit/sub Unit that showed the above in 2016 was the Offensive Line.
    Pittsburgh will always be a third and distant fiddle until Mike Tomlin decides to Grow-Up .

  • Alan Tman

    Well I know you can write, because you haven’t been attacked about saying Ben didn’t have a good year!!! Lol

  • Steve

    Nice Article Michael, always enjoyable to read something different on the Steelers. Tomlin does have a gift of Gab, but we heard differently in the live broadcast by A Brown. There is another side to Tomlins speech in the locker room, with the players and team. But if we are ever going to win the Lombardi again, Tomlin does need to work on his Time and Clock management and we have said this for the last couple of years. Hire someone for the job of managing the clock and time better if you can’t show us any improvement Coach. Going for the two point after a Touchdown needs to be a every so often play. This was done too much last year and could be costly in close games, if we don’t make the two.

  • RickM

    There’s no sense attacking him. He didn’t actually say initially that Ben had a bad year. He said it was “unfathomable” that Roethlisberger would mention he was contemplating retirement and he questioned his commitment in 2017 and in the past. He’s seemingly going to beat the ‘is he committed drum’ all season so why bother discussing it. The fact he doesn’t take Roethlisberger at his word is his business.

    Aaron Rodgers, two years younger than Ben, announced yesterday that he definitely has a retirement date in the back of his mind, without specifiying when it is. Strangely enough no one in Green Bay is throwing a hissy fit over him mentioning it, and questioning whether Rodgers will be more committed to football or golf this season.

  • Alan Tman

    So saying he had a slightly above average year as an elite QB is not a bad year? OK my fault.

  • RickM

    My comment was simply to indicate it’s repetitive to debate him on this column because he’s beating the same drum as last time – will Roethlisberger be committed? I’ve already had the discussion with him. I see the glass as half-full and feel his retirement in 1-3 years may motivate the team to greater urgency. He sees it as half-empty and wonders whether Roethlisberger will be truly committed to the game. We’re too far apart to debate it further. And on that note, it’s time to spin out of the room. The last word is yours.

  • Rick and Alan…I actually said, “that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had only a slightly above average season last year (for him)”. The “for him” was intentional because, as I refer later to Big Ben as a Hall of Famer, I think he had an above average season for a player I consider to be a Hall of Famer. I believe that you have to either believe he is a “Hall of Famer” and judge his seasons on that scale, or not refer to him as a Hall of Famer and grade him on the same scale as the other 50 NFL quarterbacks. As far as the “unfathomable” comment, I believe Rick is referring to an earlier article that I wrote. Yes…I was disappointed with the “retirement saga” by Big Ben. The team is literally a touchdown or two away from a Super Bowl, and you would want your whole (especially the leaders) to double down on their commitment to taking the extra step the next season. I don’t blame him for being disappointed and burned out on football after the loss, but airing it out publicly was a mistake in my opinion. I’ve never doubted Big Ben’s greatness, but I’ve always felt he’s had an additional gear that he doesn’t use as often as he could. I think five years after he retires, when he’s watching the reels and outsiders are debating whether he is “Hall of Fame worthy” then he’ll look back and wish he would shifted into that high gear more in his last few years. But that is just an opinion, and Rick and many others eloquently shared the opposite point. For me, I am grateful that people read these articles, and I enjoy the healthy debate. Thanks for your comment Alan.

  • Alan Tman

    I totally agree Michael, and I always find it hypocritical to call others out when he is 275 and can’t perform under center like he should. I agree Ben can do more film study, on field preparation with young wide receivers, and be in better shape. This IMO would lead to the extra gear. I always point to the game in 2011 when Ben was prepared and destroyed the Patriots from the pocket. If he could do that to the Patriots he should be able to do it to any team. Plus you can demand more of your teammates when they see how hard he is working. I hope this team can focus on the task at hand, and win this Superbowl.

  • Thank you! And let me know what you think of the Heirs of Ireland series. Have you made it to Ireland yet? It’s an amazing place to visit, especially if you have family from the old country.

  • Poor kitty…

  • SilverSteel

    Kidding of course. Responding to Gregg’s first sentence. 🐱

  • will

    Ok makes sense.

  • SoCal Steeler

    You’re welcome and I’ll be sure to let you know what I think of the Heirs series. We’ve been planning a multi family trip to Ireland for a few years now and haven’t been able to put it together. I told my wife that I’d give them one more year and then were going without them. I can’t wait for that trip!