The Steelers have six Super Bowl trophies. They’d likely have more but for the team that has won five in the last 16 years. And in a year that the Patriots hope to match the Steelers at six, the Steelers may be the primary impediment to New England.
But here’s the problem. In an offseason that saw the Patriots mash the gas pedal in an effort to get even better, what have the Steelers really done to close the gap?
So while the Steelers remain among the best teams in the NFL, the question is whether they’re good enough to get to No. 7 before the Patriots get to No. 6. And then to No. 7.
Biggest positive change: The return of receiver Martavis Bryant from suspension makes a great passing game even better, with one major caveat. Bryant still hasn’t been fully reinstated, and until he is there’s a chance he won’t be. And he wouldn’t be the first player closing in on reinstatement after a substance-abuse policy who then stubs his toe to otherwise trip over a blunt. So the Steelers and Bryant have every reason to keep him on the straight and narrow as he closes in on returning to the field and further diversifying one of the best offenses in the NFL. Failure would mean that the passing game, while still potent, wouldn’t be nearly as good as it could be.
Biggest negative change: The passing of legendary Hall of Fame owner Dan Rooney in April marked not only the end of an era but also raised questions about whether the Steelers of the past 50 years could eventually revert to the bumbling also-rans of their first 40. Though Dan Rooney didn’t seek credit or the spotlight, he was the common thread for a team that consistently contended after going through multiple decades of persistent failures. There’s no reason to think Art Rooney II will have a hand any less steady than his father’s, but the future of one of the few remaining franchises run by the family that founded it presents real questions with the man who provided perhaps one of the best foundations any NFL team has ever had now gone.
Coaching thermometer: It’s been seven years since the team’s last Super Bowl appearance, and the locals tend to gripe about Mike Tomlin whenever things aren’t going as well as expected. With high expectations for 2017, a rough start will commence the annual grumbling about Tomlin’s future. Ownership has been immune to the ups and downs and highs and lows of a franchise that contends often enough to make it easy to patient, but with Art II now running the show it remains to be seen whether the trend of three coaches since 1969 will continue indefinitely.
We’d like to have a beer with . . . . Todd Haley. The former Chiefs coach has helped transform the Pittsburgh offense into a juggernaut. Though very good before Haley arrived, he has presided over an unlikely swinging of the pendulum that has given the team an offense that currently is much better than the defense. It sounds blasphemous, but it’s true, and Haley’s ability to work well with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and to get a diverse group of personalities to perform well together and not whine about getting more opportunity should have earned him consideration for a second chance to coach a team by now.
How they could prove use wrong: If Le’Veon Bell boycotts training camp and the preseason and he’s either not ready to contribute from Week One or the Steelers catch a wild hair and rescind the franchise tender (not likely), the passing game will face more pressure — and the running game will hinge on guys like rookie James Conner or veteran Knile Davis. And if the defense can’t effectively make the switch to playing more man-to-man coverage (a device aimed at slowing down the Patriots), the Steelers could plunge from Super Bowl contender to team scrambling to get to the postseason. Which they were a year ago, until a Christmas Day win over the Ravens kept them from spending January at home.