When it comes to offseason moves made by the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have consistently stuck with one mantra: does this move help the Steelers beat the Patriots?
It’s a simple question, and of course, one that singles out a specific team as being a thorn in the side of the Steelers. I’m not ignoring other teams, but the Patriots have been problematic for the Steelers. Since 2005, the two teams have played each other nine times throughout the regular season and playoffs. The Steelers have won only two of those games, with the last victory having occurred at home in 2011.
The other win happened in 2008, as Pittsburgh has dropped four straights to New England since 2011. That would be two wins during the Ben Roethlisberger era, including some embarrassing losses in between.
That’s why the question must be asked about making moves. You cannot ignore your own division, but considering the Steelers have been crowned AFC North division champions in two of the last three seasons, it’s time to look beyond the Ravens, Bengals, and Browns to see how the Steelers can once again reach the Super Bowl. Right now, that road happens to go through New England: they are the defending Super Bowl champions. To achieve their success they had to beat the Steelers in the AFC title game. Following that loss, the questions started to surface. Each of those questions ends with “do this to beat the Patriots”.
But did the Steelers do enough to correct the problems which were stated as reasons they lost to the Patriots in the conference championship?
Let’s find out.
The Steelers play too much zone coverage
This has been an emphasis for the Steelers for some time now, as they continued to plug a leaky secondary with castaway corners and safeties. Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, and Brandon Boykin failed to fix the issue, as did draft picks such as Cortez Allen and Senquez Golson.
However, the first pieces of the puzzle appear to be in place with the selections of CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis. The next piece could be third-round draft pick Cameron Sutton, who can play press coverage like Burns. The Steelers also went after Utah CB Brian Allen in the fifth-round, as the team seeks to transition into a secondary that Tom Brady will have more trouble with in the future.
I believe the addition of CB Coty Sensabaugh will also upgrade the defensive backfield, and give Pittsburgh the tools to cover anything the opposing passing game can throw at them.
They need to get after the quarterback
Looking toward the future, the Steelers spent their first-round draft pick on Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt, who should be the heir apparent to Harrison.
Further upgrades were also made along the defensive line, where free-agent DE Tyson Alualu was signed to provide depth behind Heyward and Tuitt, something the Steelers lacked last season.
In all, the front seven appears to be as strong as possible to prepare for a long season.
Is there another receiver besides Antonio Brown?
The Steelers need a number two receiver!
Well, they had one. Actually, they had two, but neither were available for most of the 2016 season. Markus Wheaton hurt his shoulder, playing in only three games before being placed on IR. Martavis Bryant was suspended the entire season.
With Bryant tentatively back for 2017, the Steelers still made sure they added insurance should injuries (or suspensions) cripple their wide receiver depth chart this year. In free agency they brought in WR Justin Hunter, another big, fast pass catcher who much in the same vein as Darrius Heyward-Bey, never lived up to their high draft expectations.
Those expectations are mirrored with the team’s second-round selection of USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, who adds another dimension to a deep and diverse receivers unit.
Ditto for TE Ladarius Green, who suffered through a variety of injuries in his first year with the Steelers. His return adds yet another weapon to help top New England.
Hopefully, with the additions and avoiding the injury bug, Pittsburgh can put the “who else besides AB” question to rest.
If Bell goes down again
The Steelers added not one, but two potential backups to Le’Veon Bell this offseason. First was the signing of former Kansas City running back Knile Davis, who projects to be a kick returner first, third back second.
Third-round draft pick James Conner packs a punch; he’s a different style of runner and could shoulder some of Bell’s burden throughout the season.
I know some are compelled to want DeAngelo Williams back this season. Consider having a 34-year-old running back as the primary backup behind Bell, versus Conner or Davis: that’s where you land in the same situation as 2015, when the Steelers had to roll with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the postseason, due to Bell and Williams both being injured, and unavailable.
While Davis looks like the third man on the bench, he has starting experience and should be a more capable hand than anyone else on the roster aside from Bell (and yes, even Conner at this point).
Once again, the Steelers are prepping for the worst case scenario and appear to have another answer for the “does this help beat New England” question.