Our continuing previews of the 32 NFL teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season resume as we conclude with the AFC North. Here, we preview the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division last season.
The Steelers were the class of the division last season, and that looks to continue in 2017. They were 11-5 last year, without having their full offense for much of the season, including star RB Le’Veon Bell missing a quarter of the season. One question mark entering the season is WR Martavis Bryant, who was suspended all of last season and is not yet fully reinstated for the coming year. He should be able to play starting in Week 1, but that’s not guaranteed if she slips up before then. Whatever Bryant’s status is, the team will have one of the league’s best receivers in WR Antonio Brown leading the receiving core as they try to make it back to the AFC Championship for a second straight season, and possibly even further. The team will be without some of the complementary offensive players from last year’s team, including TE Ladarius Green, WR Markus Wheaton and backup RB DeAngelo Williams, who performed well when filling in for Bell.
QB Ben Roethlisberger started 14 games last season, passing for 3,819 yards and 29 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Brown had a typically strong season, recording 105 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns. WR Eli Rogers added 48 receptions in limited playing time for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Jesse James had 39 receptions for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns. In his 12 games, Bell carried the ball 261 times for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns. He added an impressive 75 receptions for 616 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, who could be the No. 2 on the depth chart with Williams gone, only had 14 carries for 58 yards last season. Overall, the team was 10th with 399 points scored and while the defense allowed 327 points, 10th-best in the league, and ranked 12th in yards allowed.
Other than Williams, the Steelers didn’t lose any significant pieces of the offense and should get an extra four games out of Bell, who is one of the top players at his position. Roethlisberger is getting older and not as good as he was in his prime but still put up respectable numbers in 2016. Barring injury, you should expect him to put up similar stats as he did last season. If he does miss time, backup QB Landry Jones knows the system and should be able to put up serviceable numbers with guys like Bell and Brown around him. Bryant missed all of last season and hasn’t played more than 11 games in a season yet in his career, but he can put up numbers when he’s on the field — he has 14 touchdowns on 76 career receptions and averages 17.6 yards per reception. Assuming his reinstatement happens in time for the start of the regular season and his health allows him to play most, if not all, of the Steelers’ 16 games, he would be a tremendous No. 2 receiver behind Brown and give Roethlisberger another weapon to throw to in the passing game. Combine that with Bell’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and it should add up to one of the best passing attacks in the NFL to go along with the impressive rushing stats that Bell should put up.
Looking at the Steelers’ schedule, they open up with what should be a winnable game at the Browns in Week 1, then host the Vikings for Week 2. They visit the Ravens for a divisional battle in Week 4 and face the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 6. The Steelers get a Week 9 bye, sandwiched between road games against the Lions and Colts. The Steelers then have back-to-back primetime games at home — the first of four straight night games — against playoff contenders. The Titans come to town for a Thursday night game in Week 11, followed by a Sunday night contest against the Packers. In Week 13, they travel to the Bengals on Monday night, then have another Sunday nighter scheduled in Week 14 at home against the Ravens. Week 15 sees a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship when the Patriots come to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers travel to Houston on Christmas to take on the Texans in Week 16 before ending the season the same way it started — taking on the Browns, this time at home. The Steelers face a tough schedule, but they have good units on both sides of the ball so they should be able to overcome the challenging slate to come within a game or so in either direction of last year’s 11-win season.