By Rachel Jones | Photographs from Pittsburgh Steelers / Karl Roser

You’ve seen the T-shirts and banners — Pittsburgh’s reputation as a city of champions is not a secret. But when the New England Patriots were crowned the Super Bowl Champions of 2016, their Lombardi Trophy tally got dangerously close to the Steelers’ record-setting collection.

Hungry to dethrone the Patriots and reclaim supremacy in the conference, the Pittsburgh Steelers spent the off-season preparing to give their all this year. “The Steelers got better this off-season, but so did the Patriots,” says Andrew Stockey, news anchor/sports director at WTAE-TV. “In many ways, this is similar to the 49ers-Cowboys battle of the ‘90s. They were clearly the two best teams in the NFC, and they basically prepared all year for the one game that mattered: the NFC Championship game, in which the teams met in three consecutive seasons. These two super powers are doing pretty much the same, expecting to play for a trip to the Super Bowl.”

With the triple-B offensive foundation of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown, and running back Le’Veon Bell; a stellar rookie class, starring former Pitt Panther running back James Conner and No.1 draft pick outside linebacker T.J. Watt; and a solid defense spearheaded by fiercely motivational inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, the potential is there.

“Quite simply, the Steelers are the best team out there,” says Bob Pompeani, sports anchor at KDKA-TV, “which doesn’t mean they can’t improve from last year. Better red zone numbers are essential. Last year, they talked about 30 points per game and fell short. This year, I think they can hit that goal.” 

We asked five local sports experts — KDKA-TV’s Bob Pompeani; WTAE-TV’s Andrew Stockey; and 93.7 The Fan’s Colin Dunlap, Chris Mueller, and Andrew Fillipponi — to weigh in on the 2017 season.

Pittsburgh Steelers, steelers.com. KDKA-TV, pittsburgh.cbslocal.com. WTAE-TV, wtae.com. 93.7 The Fan, pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/station/93-7-the-fan.


“Even with Le’Veon Bell’s unhappiness over contract negotiations, this is a team that offensively comes to the table loaded with talent and anxious to prove they are the best in the NFL.” — Andrew Stockey

“I strongly feel that if the Steelers somehow find a way to reach the Super Bowl, this will be Ben Roethlisberger’s final season.” — Colin Dunlap

“Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt will need to be superb at linebacker for this defense to reach its full potential.” Chris Mueller

“The Steelers must avoid losses to teams that they are expected to beat. We have seen this as a recurring theme over the last several seasons. They must also beat New England at home this year in the regular season. Owning the No.1 seed goes a long way into denying the Patriots a chance to even get close to matching the Steelers’ six Lombardi Trophies.” — Bob Pompeani

“Look out for a couple of road games at Detroit and Chicago. Those are the types of games that have cost the Steelers byes and home playoff games.” — Andrew Fillipponi


Players to Watch

Ben Roethlisberger

Andrew Fillipponi: “If he stays healthy, retirement talk will be just that: talk. If there’s a major injury, especially a concussion, it could accelerate his exit from the game.”

Le’Veon Bell

Andrew Stockey: “Next to Ben, he is the most important piece of the Pittsburgh machine. When he is running well, the Steelers offense cannot be stopped.”

AF: “Will he play well enough to justify the franchise tag and stay healthy enough to put himself in position for an extension or another tag?”

Colin Dunlap: “If Bell doesn’t perform well in the early going, it feels like the fan base might really take him apart.”

Martavis Bryant

Bob Pompeani: “I have been bullish on the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who so far has done everything to comply with the terms of his reinstatement. He seems highly motivated, as he should know this is make-or-break. I believe he will be a tough matchup, which will also benefit Antonio Brown. Plus, their overall receiving depth will be as good as it’s been since Mike Tomlin arrived here 10 years ago.”

AS: “He sounds like a changed man after a season-long suspension. He looks physically like a different player. If he has changed, the Steelers will have the NFL’s best receiving tandem. And it won’t be close.” 

James Harrison  / T.J. Watt

CD: “The amount of snaps James Harrison plays early on compared to T.J. Watt is something to pay close attention to.”

Stephon Tuitt

BP: “Looking for Stephon Tuitt to have a monster year. He showed a lot last year. After the injury loss of Cam Heyward, he played some of his best football. Their line will be talented and deep in experience. It will help all other aspects of their defense.”

Vince Williams

BP: “He replaces Lawrence Timmons, who signed with Miami. This is a big loss and how Williams plays will go a long way in the run game. Every time Williams has been given a chance to start, he has stepped up. I expect him to do the same this year.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Chris Mueller: “JuJu Smith-Schuster is an intriguing addition to the wide receiver corps. He’s tough, has good hands, and has a reputation for making tough catches in traffic. He was also the youngest player in the draft, so there’s plenty of room to grow. If he develops, the Steelers will have the best group of wide receivers in the league (assuming Martavis Bryant suits up every week).”

Sean Davis

CM: “On defense, Sean Davis seems poised to make a huge leap to stardom.” 


Games to Catch

CD: “To me, both games against the Bengals will be enormous. One comes after a game on the road against Kansas City and the other comes at the very end of the season, in the final week on a Monday night in Cincinnati. Both have the probability to deeply impact the AFC playoffs.”

BP: “The biggest key to this season is somehow overtaking New England as the top seed in the AFC. As they found out again last year, it’s nearly impossible to win in Foxborough in the playoffs. Oakland is also a team to be concerned with.”

AS: “The December contest with New England at Heinz Field is the most important game of the season and very well could define whether this is just a playoff team … or a Super Bowl team. The other key games involve a stretch of four-straight prime time contests, unusual by any measure, but a testament to the Steelers popularity. Between November 16 and December 10, Pittsburgh will play prime time games against the Titans, Packers, Bengals, and Ravens. It’s more about the pressure of the prime time spotlight than the opposition.”

CM: “New England in Week 15 (could decide home-field advantage in the AFC), Green Bay in Week 12, and Baltimore in Week 14.”

AF: “The Christmas night game in Houston. If the Texans go with DeShaun Watson, the upside is there for them to join Pittsburgh, New England, and Oakland as AFC Super Bowl contenders.”


Final Thoughts

CD: “I think the Steelers will go 12-4 in the regular season and, in that familiar refrain, lose to the Patriots in the AFC title game. It’s just a hump they cannot get over. The ‘losing to the Patriots in big games’ stain will end up being the mark on this era of the Steelers.”

BP: “I like the Steelers to go 13-3 and win the AFC North. I believe this will be another banner season for the Steelers. When they win divisions, it’s normally by a game and it always seems to be tightly contested. Not this year! To me, they are heavily favored to win the AFC North, as, in my opinion, the Ravens have slipped and are dealing with an injured Joe Flacco at QB. The Bengals will have their share of issues on defense and what I still believe is an inconsistent offense.”

AS: “For 2017, I expect the Steelers to return to the Conference Championship. What will happen in the AFC Championship? That, I cannot predict. But the home team will have a huge edge entering the game.”

CM: “12-4. I have to believe that the offense, especially if everyone stays healthy and eligible, will be lethal. The defense — again, health permitting — should be better and more dynamic. This team is favored, at the moment, in all but two of its games, and yet I can’t help but think that Mike Tomlin still might preside over a head-scratching loss and maybe a stumble against a divisional opponent. Finishing 12-4 is a tough mark for any team to achieve, but with the talent on this roster, especially offensively, that should be the minimum expectation.”

AF: “10-6, good enough to win the AFC North. The Ravens have the best defense in the division but no weapons on offense. Cincinnati will be better this year, but have an awful offensive line and a questionable defense.”


Season Schedule

September 10 @ Cleveland Browns

September 17 vs. Minnesota Vikings

September 24 @ Chicago Bears

October 1 @ Baltimore Ravens

October 8 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

October 15 @ Kansas City Chiefs

October 22 vs. Cincinnati Bengals

October 29 @ Detroit Lions

-Bye-

November 12 @ Indianapolis Colts

November 16 vs. Tennessee Titans

November 26 vs. Green Bay Packers

December 4 @ Cincinnati Bengals

December 10 vs. Baltimore Ravens

December 17 vs. New England Patriots

December 25 @ Houston Texans

December 31 vs. Cleveland Browns

 

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