Yes, it’s that time again. The anthology rolls on with its 13th iteration. Damn, I’ve been doing this since my son was small enough to be covered by a Terrible Towel. It has seen its ups and downs, its heartbreak and triumph, and still it remains constant. Some of you don’t like this thread. I don’t care. Don’t post in it then. Anyway, without further ado, here we go…
Preseason started last night with the Hall of Fame Game, a glorified scrimmage which still managed to do major damage. Shaun Suisham, the Steelers’ placekicker, is out for the year with a torn ACL. Some might wonder why that’s such a blow, given that he had been cut by the Redskins prior to his tenure with the Steelers and wasn’t ever considered one of the NFL’s elite kickers. Well, it’s a big deal because he excelled at Heinz Field, perhaps the toughest place in the league to kick. If there is any doubt of that, note that in the 13 seasons the Steelers have played there, there have been exactly 8 field goals of 50 yards or more, with zero, none, occurring at the open end. Suisham doesn’t have the big leg, but he knows how to kick there, a necessary skill when half the season is played there. The team is bringing in Jay Feely, Garrett Hartley, and Alex Henery for tryouts. I’d rather have Suisham, especially with the new long extra points.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the offense is amazing. I’m not sure whether or not we can credit that to Todd Haley or to the men responsible for some pretty good recent drafts. I’m going to try to give Haley the benefit of the doubt, but if we get another year of bubble-screen Heaven and 3rd-and-1 Hail Marys I’ll lose my mind.
Anyway, Le’Veon Bell is arguably the best back in the league, able to both run and catch passes out of the backfield. Antonio Brown is arguably the best receiver in the league. Ben Roethlisberger is a top-5 quarterback, finally having the numbers to prove it. Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant have developed into genuine threats. Finally, the offensive line, bolstered by the best center in the NFL, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Kelvin Beachum, is the best it’s been in a very long time. Ben said, perhaps jokingly, that they could score 30 points a game. I say seriously that it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Much depends upon whether or not they turtle up in the Red Zone like they have in the past, going super-conservative in the play calling and settling for a field goal.
The defense, on the other hand… the best I can say right now is that they have a TON of potential. Potential, however, doesn’t win games. They have so much talent at linebacker that whoever gets cut will be snapped up right away by some other team. Ryan Shazier showed some of what he could do in the Hall of Fame Game last night. If he stays healthy he’ll be a monster. Jarvis Jones and rookie Bud Dupree have to justify their 1st round selections. Sean Spence is really good as well considering two years ago his knee was essentially shredded. James Harrison is, well, James Harrison. Lineman Stephon Tuitt is looking good so far in camp and the game last night. Cameron Heyward is a stud. None of this is anything to really worry about.
No, the worry is the secondary. Pittsburgh has newly-acquired Brandon Boykin and who-knows-what defending the pass. If they can’t do even an adequate job the team will score 30 and give up 40. On the plus side, Goddamn Ike Taylor is gone. On the minus side, they signed Cortez Allen to a fat contract and then benched him because he sucked. Also, no more Troy Polamalu, although that was due, he’d lost so much from his best years that it was time. He’ll still be missed.
All of this is happening with a new defensive coordinator, Keith Butler. Dick LeBeau, thanks for the memories, but it was time. Good luck in Tennessee. Butler has a big task ahead of him, I can only hope he’s up to it.
Special teams, long the most special part of the Steelers, hasn’t changed. They’re still prone to giving up huge returns, plus the loss of Suisham.
Oh, and the best part? The Steelers have THE toughest schedule in all of the NFL. They get the AFC West, the NFC West, a first place schedule, plus their division. Ouch. Fortunately, everybody else in the AFC North plays those divisions too. The winner of the North this year could well have an 8-8 record. Simply brutal.
So, how will this all go? God only knows. I do know that anything less than a playoff berth with such a prolific offense will be a severe disappointment. I’m optimistic, though. I think they’ll put up 9-10 wins, win the division, and be the only representative from the North this year in the playoffs. They ought to beat the Patriots without Brady, but then again Bell is out for two weeks. The Niners are DOA this year, easy win. Same with the Raiders. The Rams? Better than they were but they can’t hang. The Seahawks, Broncos and Cardinals are ridiculously tough, anything could happen. The Chargers are tough. The division is tough. I just don’t know. So I’m going with 10-6 and sticking to it.
Having survived such a tough schedule, the Steelers will be poised for a deep run, culminating with their seventh Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50, probably against the Packers or Seahawks. Don’t act like you didn’t think I was going to say it. I may have kept this low-key compared to some of my past efforts, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think my Steelers are better than your favorite team or make me hate your boys any less.
So let’s get the season started already.