Kevin Gorman: Steelers' Super Bowl hopes rest with Killer D
If there is such a thing as a window to win the Super Bowl, the Steelers have spent the past four seasons attempting to maximize theirs with a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
They surrounded Big Ben with the NFL’s best wide receiver in Antonio Brown and running back in Le’Veon Bell and one of the league’s best offensive lines, with Pro Bowl picks in Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, and a Pro Bowl kicker in Chris Boswell.
No NFL team can boast such a collection of talent at every important offensive position. What do the Steelers have to show for it? They lost once in a wild-card game while sandwiching two divisional playoff defeats around an AFC championship game loss.
When the Steelers start training camp at Saint Vincent this week, the storylines inevitably will focus on the offensive superstars who have perfected the art of providing distractions.
There is another anticipated absence by Bell, who was designated with the franchise tag for the second consecutive season. There is the battle at backup quarterback, with incumbent Landry Jones against 2017 fourth-round pick Josh Dobbs and ‘18 third-rounder Mason Rudolph. There is Big Ben’s hand-picked choice, Randy Fichtner, who will replace Todd Haley as play-caller. There is the competition to replace the mercurial Martavis Bryant, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders in April.
What we should be focusing on is the other side of the ball.
Enough of the Killer Bs already, the Steelers need a Killer D.
The Steelers might spend more money on the contracts of Roethlisberger ($21.85 million), Brown ($17 million) and Bell ($14.54 million) this season than any other NFL team will in a triumvirate, but they are just as heavily invested in their defense.
The Steelers are expected to start five former first-round picks, three second-rounders and a pair of third-rounders on defense this season — and that’s not counting rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, their No. 1 pick this past spring. Of those projected starters, the Steelers drafted all but cornerback Joe Haden, inside linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett, who were all free-agent signings.
Steelers president Art Rooney II acknowledged that investment, knowing the defense slipped from first in the NFL in 2010 and ’11 to as low as 18th by 2014 before climbing back to seventh last year.
Rooney called that improvement “making progress” but knows the Steelers’ past three Super Bowl teams had defenses that ranked third (2005), first (’08) and first (’10) while their offenses ranked ninth, 20th and 12th, respectively.
Defense might not win championships anymore in the NFL, but a great one will be required to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
“We have a lot of good young players on the defense. I think we need to get better,” Rooney said in February, in his annual end-of-season meeting with local media. “I think we can get better so, you’re right, we have made some investments there that we feel like still have upside ahead of them so we need to add people to it obviously.
“But, by the looks of things in the playoffs, it’s not easy to play defense in this league anymore, so it’s something that we are trying to adjust to. (There are a) lot of great offenses out there that we have to be ready to match them so it’s always a challenge now.”
The greatest challenge will be replacing Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker. Shazier was the centerpiece of the defense and team’s leading tackler when he suffered a spinal-cord injury last December at Cincinnati, and already is ruled out for the season. The Steelers have to hope the oft-injured Bostic, a former second-round pick of the Chicago Bears, can find a home with his fifth team in six seasons.
The Steelers set a single-season team record for sacks last season, but they will need better from their defense. They need an encore effort from All-Pro defensive end Cameron Heyward, who had a career-high 12 sacks last season, and inside linebacker Vince Williams, the former sixth-rounder who showed his strength in the inside blitz with eight sacks.
They need outside linebacker Bud Dupree to take advantage of his switch to the right side, perhaps a last-ditch effort to prove he can live up to his first-round billing. They need another former first-rounder, Artie Burns, to develop into the shutdown corner they projected him to be opposite Haden. They need Sean Davis, who led the team in tackles, to show he can lock down one of the safety spots now that he has competition in Burnett, Edmunds and fifth-round pick Marcus Allen.
The Steelers need a defense that lost its best player to be better than it was last season, as the 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed that it doesn’t matter how many points your offense scores if your defense can’t stop an opponent (although Roethlisberger did gift-wrap two touchdowns with turnovers).
The so-called Super Bowl window is closing on the Killer Bs. For a team that has its sights set on Super Bowl or bust, the Steelers need to develop a Killer D before that window slams shut.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.