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How do the Steelers Improve for Next Season?

February 21, 2018
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How do the Steelers Improve for Next Season?

With a fourth consecutive play-off appearance and a second consecutive Divisional title, no one can say that the Steelers had a bad season – disappointing is a better description.

There were two main reasons for the sense of anticlimax at the end of 2017. First, each of the previous three seasons had ended with the Steelers closer to the Super Bowl than the year before. This was not the case in 2017. And second? Well, it’s hard to overlook that 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in the Divisional game in which the Steelers defense was chaotic.

But that day had been coming for a while. Ironically, at the start of the regular season, it was the defense that was bailing out the misfiring offense. Just look at the performance in the first half against Kansas, the second half of the Bengals win, and their stirring effort against Detroit, when the Lions had 17 plays in the Steelers’ red zone and didn’t pick up a single point. While Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon BellAntonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant struggled, the Steelers defense was on fire.

But it didn’t last. With Joe Haden injured, Coty Sensabaugh was more exposed. Then Ryan Shazier picked up an injury, further weakening the defense. Though a defensive unit that includes Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort, and Arthur Moats looks good on paper, in reality it was less than the sum of its parts. The defense began to struggle just as the offense found their rhythm, and their poor play culminated in that loss to the Jaguars.

For those who like to place a bet, the Steelers will be seen as one of the leading challengers to the Patriots for next season. Steelers fans know, however, that the team needs work if they’re going to resume their progress towards being genuine Super Bowl contenders.

Sort out the ILB position

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the work needs to be done on the defense, starting by identifying a long-term partner for Vince Williams. It’s not inconceivable that Spence could be the answer to this problem, given a full off-season with the squad, but it’s more likely that a fresh player will be brought in to shore up this key spot in the defense.

Resolve the problem at free safety

Mike Mitchell didn’t have a great season in 2017, and at key moments he was caught out, apparently beaten for pace. Whether that is down to an age-associated deterioration or it was just the result of the accumulation of injuries that he suffered during the season – to his heel, ankle, and hamstring – is not clear, but if he is in decline, than a solution needs to be found. That could involve swapping positions with Sean Davis, or it could mean reinforcements.

Define OLB roles

The situation at OLB needs clarity. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt are likely to be the main men in this position next season, but beyond that, there is a worrying uncertainty. Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats will become free agents, leaving Keion Adams as the only certain cover in this position. The Steelers need to add more depth here as a priority.

Tight end

Offense is not a priority for the Steelers, in that there are no obvious weak points, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t upgrade, particularly at tight end. There’s no doubt that Vance McDonald is the team’s best blocking tight end, but he was poor in the play-off game and his hands cost the Steelers more than a few points last season. The other options are Jesse James, who is a reliable catcher but less effective on blocking, and Xavier Grimble, who offers the biggest vertical threat but is poorer on the block than McDonald and drops more passes than James. None of them are obviously weak links, but none could be described as a singular talent, and with James entering a contract year and McDonald often injured, there is the opportunity for the Steelers to reshape this part of the offense.

This is a tricky off-season for Pittsburgh. Wholesale changes are not necessary given their consistency over recent seasons, but there are clear weaknesses defensively that need to be addressed. As long as these are dealt with, there is no reason why the Steelers can’t return to their best form and make a big push for the Super Bowl next season.

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