7 Storylines Which Will Define and Determine Steelers' Season
An unfamiliar underdog status may help the Steelers get back to the playoffs and beyond.
OTAs are never definitive, but there’s likewise no disputing that the off-season sessions the Steelers commenced this week have been different.
“The team definitely feels a lot different,” offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva insisted. “This is going to be my sixth year, this is by far the most amount of change, positive change, that I’ve seen since I’ve been here, so everybody’s extremely excited.”
Villanueva is embracing all the perceived change, but he refused to elaborate on the specifics of its nature.
“It’s a lot of things,” was as far as he’d go. “It’s really good to be a Steeler right now.”
Perhaps, in retrospect, that’s what Brown has done for them.
Still, the trade of Antonio Brown hasn’t answered all of the Steelers’ questions.
OTAs and training camp won’t, either.
They may have cleansed the palate and cleared the air, but there’s still an uncomfortable uncertainty regarding how they’ll eventually get from here to there (“there” in this instance is back to the Super Bowl, not to New England for the opener in September).
The storylines worth monitoring along the way include:
- Getting Their Kicks: The impact of Chris Boswell’s decline from the 13-3, 2017 season to last season’s 9-6-1 can’t be overstated. The Steelers love the Boswell from two seasons ago but aren’t convinced they’ll be getting that guy back. They’ll be pondering options at the position for the time being, maybe even beyond New England. When they settle on a kicker eventually it’ll be a leap of faith.
- Next Man Up: No one’s going to miss Brown the malcontent. But when it’s fourth-and-15 potential distraction doesn’t matter; you have to throw it to a guy who can catch it. The 15 touchdowns Brown scored in 15 games last season will become easier to remember if they can’t find a player or players capable of scoring them with such relentless regularity this season.
- Putting the Puzzle Together: The Steelers addressed cornerback and inside linebacker in veteran free agency and in the draft. They’ve given themselves options. The next step is sorting them all out, particularly at inside linebacker, where Vince Williams, Mark Barron and No. 1 pick Devin Bush are currently sharing two positions. The perpetual rebuild of the defense won’t end until they figure out who plays where in sub-packages.
- Special Attention: Beyond kicker and punter, the coverage and return teams need to be better. This, too, was addressed in the draft. The team will be made in at least a couple of instances by those who can excel at and avoid penalties in the kicking game. Have they once and for all found those guys this time?
- Be Like Mike: The NFL’s best offensive line coach, Mike Munchak, has left for Denver. He’s been replaced by Shaun Sarrett, who has the Steelers’ confidence but neither Munchak’s Hall-of-Fame credentials as a player or wealth of experience and expertise as an NFL coach. Munchak might have been the Steelers’ most significant off-season loss.
- Tomlin’s Tenure: Will Mike Tomlin get the contract extension usually bestowed upon Steelers head coaches with two seasons remaining, or will such a commitment have to be earned via a bounce-back season? And whether or not he gets the former, will Tomlin have to change his ways, subtly or significantly, to achieve the latter?
And, last but not least:
- An Underdog Story: The Steelers are perennially perceived as favorites, or so it seems.
Not this season.
Not after missing the playoffs last season and all the drama, tumult and turnover of the off-season.
“To hear people not talk as highly of us has kinda put a chip on people’s shoulders,” cornerback Joe Haden maintained. “This team, they’ve never really been underdogs ever since I’ve been playing.
“Just having that chip on our shoulder, having that people are doubting us, I think that’s something we can use to our advantage.”
They might have to given all there’s yet to resolve.