Steelers Hoping Killer Bs Strike Before Time Runs Out
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t talk like someone eyeing the finish line.
If anything, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback is doing what he can to push it further into the distance.
The 36-year-old overhauled his diet in preparation for his 15th season and points to the lack of time spent in the trainer’s room during camp as proof the choices he’s made are working.
Asked if he feels rejuvenated and Roethlisberger nods.
“I really like where this team is,” the two-time Super Bowl winner said. “I think if you didn’t have a good feeling about this team it probably wouldn’t be as exciting, but I am excited about this group.”
The feeling, however, could be fleeting. Eight months removed from a stunning home playoff loss to Jacksonville , the Steelers are well aware the missed opportunities in recent seasons are starting to pile up. While Pittsburgh has reached the postseason in each of the past four years, the Steelers have just three playoff victories to show for it.
Though Pittsburgh is heavily favored to win a third consecutive AFC North title, the window that once seemed so wide open could be starting to close. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell is likely playing his final season in black-and-gold after failing to come to terms on a new contract. The offensive line features three Pro Bowlers but also three starters in their 30s.
While Roethlisberger downplays any additional sense of urgency — he’s been around long enough to know that any season that doesn’t end with a victory parade through downtown Pittsburgh in early February is considered a disappointment — he’s also well aware the standard coach Mike Tomlin mentions so frequently has not been met.
“Winning games can lead to Super Bowl opportunities is always our ultimate goal,” he said. “There are 31 other teams doing the same, but that needs to be our singular focus.”
A focus that was lacking at times in 2017 even as the Steelers rolled to a 13-3 record.
There was the national anthem debacle in Chicago. The drama surrounding enigmatic wide receiver Martavis Bryant. The late season decision to cut linebacker James Harrison. The devastating spinal injury to budding star linebacker Ryan Shazier. Social media chatter of a rematch with New England in the AFC title game, chatter that looked foolish after the Jaguars beat the Steelers at Heinz Field for the second time in four months.
The front office has done what it can to limit the distractions heading into 2018. Bryant was traded to Oakland. Harrison is retired. Longtime quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner takes over as offensive coordinator for Todd Haley. Shazier is walking again and serving as a de facto coach/scout as his body continues to recover.
The message could not be clearer: the team that’s built to win now needs to win. Now.
“Time is running out for everybody,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “I know it’s all fun and games for everybody at the beginning but man it’s time to win. It’s been too long.”
Other things to look for as Pittsburgh vies for a fifth consecutive playoff berth for only the third time in franchise history:
REMODELED BACK END
The Steelers gave the secondary a massive overhaul after the Jaguars lit them up for 45 points in January, drafting safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round and signing veteran Morgan Burnett from Green Bay. The goal is to reduce the number of big plays allowed. Pittsburgh gave up 13 passes of more than 40 yards, tied for third-most in the league. Burnett’s sure tackling will help in the run game and Pittsburgh believes third-year safety Sean Davis’ athleticism will allow him to be an effective center fielder at free safety.
Pittsburgh exercised the fifth-year option on the contract of outside linebacker Bud Dupree in the offseason, a sign it believes the 2015 first-round pick’s best days are ahead of him despite uneven results in his first three years. The Steelers moved Dupree from the left side to the right side in the spring, confident he’ll be a more effective pass rusher attacking the quarterback’s blind side. Either way, Dupree understands he’s still in the “prove it” mode in his career and needs to become more consistent at a position that’s long been a focal point in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.
There may not be a player in the NFL with more at stake in 2018 than Bell. The 26-year-old believes he’s in a class by himself among running backs and wants to be paid accordingly. He’ll make $14.4 million this season playing under his one-year franchise tender, but thinks he’ll be even more valuable on the open market next spring. Bell shouldn’t lack for opportunities to show he’s worth a massive payday. He led the NFL in touches last season and Tomlin could opt to use him even more extensively knowing he’ll be out the door in the spring.
The Steelers are still trying to find a legit heir to tight end Heath Miller, who quietly stepped away in the spring of 2016. While Jesse James has evolved into a solid complementary player, Vance McDonald is the closest thing to a complete package Pittsburgh has at a vital position. One problem: McDonald has struggled to stay on the field. He missed practically all of camp with a foot injury. The Steelers need him to be a factor in the passing game to help take some of the attention off Brown and second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.