If there was ever a loss that the Pittsburgh Steelers needed, the AFC title game might qualify.
Championship teams often learn in defeat from champions the type of focus it takes to get to that level. I observed that lesson some years ago watching the Detroit Pistons suffer heartbreaking playoff losses, first in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, a seven-game series that saw the Pistons give away Game 5 in the final seconds. After overcoming the Celtics, they lost to the Lakers in seven games in the NBA finals the next year, but those were lessons learned which propelled them to win back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. And during those championship seasons, a young superstar named Michael Jordan was forging his playoff toughness in Eastern Conference Finals losses to the Pistons that went six games in '89 and seven in '90. Those losses toughened those Jordan-led Bulls teams to go on to win six NBA championships.
The passing of the torch doesn’t always happen that way in sports, especially football. But it does occur, and the Steelers probably learned some valuable lessons from their AFC title game loss to the Patriots back in 2004.
I’ve wondered the same since the Steelers took their 36-17 beating from the Patriots in January. The hope here is that the Steelers learned the type of focus and preparation it takes to reach the level necessary to dethrone the Patriots.
Focus is a word that’s often mentioned but rarely described. To me, it represents those that can stay in the moment more consistently than others. The bigger the moment, the more someone who’s inexperienced can get caught up in things irrelevant to that moment. Losing focus of the now and thinking about what could be is a lesson young teams often experience before they take the next step.
The Steelers lack of championship focus started with Antonio Brown’s Facebook incident. Whether that led to a lack of execution on the field is subjective and immeasurable, but the Steelers were definitely not prepared for the what the Patriots were able to throw at them. So it was a learning experience for the coaching staff as well. I would think coaches and players alike would have picked apart the Patriots game plan to understand the type of preparation they are going to need the next time around.
There is talent there that wasn’t available for that game. No doubt a healthy Le’Veon Bell, Ladarius Green and a reinstated-motivated Martavis Bryant can go a long way toward closing the gap against New England. Ultimately though, the Steelers chances will reside on whether or not they've acquired to talent necessary to play man defense and increase pressure on the quarterback. I expect most of that pressure to be developed from within. Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave should be able to take another significant step in their level of play. The return of Cam Heyward will help improve the need to create pressure. The Steelers did little to address their secondary in free agency, which means to become man capable, they have to make that happen through the draft. The Coty Sensabaugh signing was more of a serviceable depth signing to help either on the outside or in the slot should the Steelers not have a draft pick or Senquez Golson provide what they intend.
Most of the damage the Patriots did in the passing game came over the middle against the Steelers' soft zones. When they did beat the Steelers deep or on the outside, it was due to blown coverages. So it’s not all that surprising to see the Steelers looking at a lot of first-round safeties and inside linebackers.
Whether the Steelers choose a safety to play more quarters or an inside linebacker, the Steelers still need an outside linebacker to groom behind James Harrison and a long press corner who’s capable of playing man or cover-two. The Steelers have four draft picks in the in the first 104 picks in a draft that is deep at all of their positions of need. The hope is they can duplicate the success of last year's draft with three impact defenders go along with a back-up running back who’s capable of carrying the load who allows the team to stay balanced should Bell miss time with an injury.
The success of this draft and the hopeful return of Heyward, Bryant, Green (and to an extent Sammie Coates) isn’t just about their chances in 2017. Should the Steelers find success in all of the areas they need to be address, it sets them up to draft Ben Roetlisberger’s successor in the first round of next year's draft.
The Steelers have done a good job in recent seasons of not doing too many salary restructures. It has led to some salary-cap wiggle room. Extending Alejandro Villanueva would keep the offensive line intact for an extended period of time. B.J. Finney is waiting in the wings as the successor to Ramon Foster. Because of their successful cap management, I don’t think the Steelers will have much issue in eventually extending core defenders Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier.
At most, I see Roethlisberger playing for three more seasons. Should the Steelers fill their remaining roster holes in this draft, a first-round pick who could develop behind Roethlisberger for two years would be the most ideal scenario. Should Roethlisberger retire after three more seasons, a lot of cap space would be freed up at a time when Dupree, Sean Davis, and Hargrave would all be set to become free agents. The Steelers could keep a talented roster together and hand reigns over to a talented young quarterback who would have three years left on a rookie contract which is plenty of time to chase more championships with a core that will pass its prime by the end of that rookie deal.
I think it’s more likely that Roethlisberger plays two more seasons. Drafting a talent and having at least one year to develop is important to keep the train on it’s tracks when Roethlisberger decides to hang them up. All could be possible with another quality draft and a successful return of talent that’s already on the roster. Successfully filling their needs not only could set the Steelers up next year, but for the next five or six years, which is why this draft is so pivotal.