When you look at the AFC, there really aren’t too many strong teams that make you pause for concern. That might be one reason why Tom Brady seems to book his annual ticket to the Super Bowl, while a plethora of NFC giants take each other out before they can finally arrive at the big game.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers are an AFC giant in their own right. Any team facing them knows they have to bring their A game, or they will likely face defeat. The Steelers’ DNA is different than a lot of other teams across the league. Mike Tomlin has instilled a no-nonsense attitude that has certainly taken over their identity.
And for the most part, his players buy in. They buy that he has the recipe that can carry them back to the top of the football world. Why wouldn’t they? To his credit, Tomlin has done well for himself in Pittsburgh. In the 11 years as head coach of the team, the Steelers have one championship and eight postseason appearances. He’s never had a losing season with the team. Last season, the team posted their best regular season record of the Tomlin era at 13-3. But it was all for nothing, as they fell to a surging Jaguars team in the playoffs.
The truth is the Steelers know how to adapt. They draft great players, and then mold the team to their best players’ strengths. Early in Big Ben’s career, the Steelers won with their defense. These days, the team is loaded on the offensive side of the ball. Antonio Brown is in a tier of his own at the wide receiver position. And if that wasn’t enough, Le’Veon Bell is the top running back in all of football. That’s not to take anything away from David Johnson or Todd Gurley. It’s simply a long-overdue acknowledgement that Bell is the better player.
These guys are truly unstoppable. Defensive coordinators just have to pick their poison. And sometimes they don’t even get to choose. The Steelers are capable of coming on at a moment’s notice, or they can grind you away at will.
What’s even more impressive, is that Tomlin and the Steelers have primarily built this offensive powerhouse through the draft. This isn’t just a bunch of free agent stars glued together as a dysfunctional unit. These guys were hand selected by the same guys who then groomed them to become who they are.
Perhaps the best evidence is star receiver Antonio Brown. Brown was selected by Pittsburgh in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He was the 195th overall pick. He has become the best receiver in the game by a wide margin, and he has kept his record-breaking pace for about five years now.
Then, there’s the incredibly versatile Le’Veon Bell, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2013 draft. Bell piles on 400 touches each season like it’s nothing. The Steelers can, and do, use him in so many different ways. There are times when they decide to attack a matchup in the running game, and they can hand the ball off 30 times a game. If they want to get him into space, they’ll line him up in the slot (sometimes even outside), where he’s a total mismatch with a linebacker or safety in coverage. He can do it all, with his patient and almost slow-motion running style. And he creates huge plays for the team, off of play-action passes.
Now, with the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers finally feel they have found their missing link. The puzzle is now complete. Another game-breaking threat, who can make contested catches over the middles of the field, and has the ability to take over the game. But most importantly, he fits the mold of what it means to be a Steeler. This team really clicks when everyone buys in. That’s when they’re at their best.
There were rumors earlier this offseason that Big Ben was considering retirement. Of course, as long as his body cooperates, he shouldn’t even think about it. Roethlisberger is afforded the luxury of playing with two of the best players of their generation. He shouldn’t just walk away from that without maximizing the opportunity. It would be like getting the chance to play with Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith on the same team.
So just how far can this offense take the Steelers? When you really think about it, this could be the year. Pittsburgh has had New England standing in its way for the better part of the past decade. But the Patriots seem less threatening at the moment. A lot of talent left town this offseason, with rumors continuing to surface about the struggles of playing for Bill Belichick.
It’s all lining up for Pittsburgh this year. All the pieces are in place. On paper, this offense can take this team all the way to the Super Bowl. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen.