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Tim Benz: Steelers defense holds key to season

| Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, 8:03 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier returns a interception against the Colts in the first half Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier returns a interception against the Colts in the first half Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 at Heinz Field.

To modify a line from late NFL coach Dennis Green: Are they who we thought they were?

That's a question worth asking about the 2017 Steelers as they prepare for their regular-season opening game Sunday in Cleveland.

Most fans and pundits I've come across, both locally and nationally, predicted the Steelers to be at least a 12-win team at the start of training camp. And most prognostications I've heard and read suggested the Steelers were no worse than a solid No. 2 choice in the AFC behind defending champion New England.

I agreed. And even after a preseason marred by player absences due to contract disputes, veteran camp injuries that limited practice time and suspension red tape, I still think “they are who we thought they were.”

Well, almost.

Bump my prediction down a game to 11-5. But it also remains the Steelers will win the AFC North and square off against the Patriots in the AFC title game. In other words, a repeat of last year.

All the way up to the outcome of that AFC championship game. Maybe closer. But the same result.

To some, that may sound like selling the Steelers short. But inferring that they'll be in the NFL final four for a second straight year is actually a pretty lofty prediction.

The offseason optimism that the Steelers may elevate to that Patriot-esque level of at least 12-13 wins largely was based on a premise that the defense improved substantially as 2016 rolled along. And that it would take even greater strides in 2017.

After all, Cam Heyward is returning. The only major loss was Lawrence Timmons. First-round pick T.J. Watt looks like he'll be good. And last year's rookie trio of Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargave appears promising.

But training camp and the preseason showed us the defense still couldn't be trusted. And that's not me saying that. That's the team saying that.

And that's not the team saying that through words. It said so through actions.

Obviously, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert felt the defense hadn't improved enough.

Why else would they swap out Ross Cockrell for Joe Haden, acquire J.J. Wilcox to improve safety play and perhaps move Mike Hilton up the depth chart into the nickelback role?

Applaud the Steelers for being aggressive in hopes of improving the team.

But when you stop applauding, cross your fingers in hopes they actually brought in better players. After all, Hilton, Wilcox and Haden were all shipped off by non-playoff teams such as Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland since the start of camp in 2016.

But what about the opinions of the Steelers themselves? Can they actually be a 12-plus win team this year?

“Ask me that question five or six weeks from now,'' receiver Antonio Brown said. “About six weeks in you'll see what kind of identity, what kind of patterns will be consistent.”

OK, A.B. That's not how this preseason prediction game works. You may be good at running, catching, dancing, Facebooking. But predicting isn't your thing.

Let's try someone else. How about Ryan Shazier?

“I feel like we can go 16-0,” Shazier proclaimed.

OK! Now we're talkin'. That's bold. Continue, please.

“At the end of the day, that may not be realistic in the NFL,'' Shazier said. “But honestly, I don't ever go into a season feeling that we are going to lose. But I definitely feel like we can win 12 or 13 games and maybe even more if we put our minds to it.”

Defensive end Cam Heyward echoed that sentiment.

“We don't worry about the number (of wins),” Heyward said. “We just worry about winning each individual game. I'm not saying we are going undefeated. But I don't see why we can't.”

Well, it was realistic for one regular season back in 2007 for a certain team the Steelers desperately are trying to surpass. But Tomlin is unwilling to dabble in the discussion surrounding whether this year's team is capable of exceeding the bar that was set last year.

“I'm not worried about last year's bar,'' Tomlin said. “We're trying to be world champs every year. We're all in on 2017. The things that happened in 2016 are irrelevant. The pieces, the roles played are irrelevant. I feel good about this group. We have to walk our journey.

“We're writing our story. So let's write it and try not to analyze it too much.”

Well, I'd love to write that story, too. For the team's sake, let's hope I'm writing the last chapter in Minneapolis in February instead of in Foxborough in January.

And some improvements still need to transpire, particularly on defense, to make that happen.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on Steeler Nation Radio, Steeler Wire, KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM. He does play-by-play for Robert Morris hockey and WPIAL broadcasts on XFinity On Demand.

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