PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) – As hope ‘falls’ eternal with the start of the 2017 NFL season, The Pittsburgh Steelers sit poised on a perch to be one of the top contenders to reach Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Odds makers favor the Steelers as the fifth pick, with 10-1 odds at season’s start, to shoot for their record seventh Lombardi Trophy. And among AFC teams, only New England and Oakland have better pre-season odds to be the conference champion.
Why are the experts so high on Pittsburgh? Here are five reasons:
1. Offense, offense, offense
If they stay healthy, the Steelers have the makings for one of the league’s most prolific offenses. If the only way to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots is to outscore them, a healthy Steelers team has the capability to do just that. With future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the controls, with his two rings and three Super Bowl appearances, he’ll command a plethora of offensive weapons led by the incomparable All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. In addition to talent at the skill positions, Big Ben is fronted by an experienced, consistent front five that have played together long enough to create confusion and sheer havoc for opposing defensive fronts.
2. Three stars are back, missing from last year’s conference championship game
As mentioned above, this is a team fully capable of outgunning the Patriots. And because they would presumably have Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Cam Heyward healthy and contributing, three of their best players and three who were not available for last year’s AFC Championship, being back in black and gold, the upside is downright intimidating.
3. First round linebackers
Another reason the Steelers make Minneapolis this year is the emergence of Bud Dupree, a healthy Ryan Shazier and a young and blossoming T.J. Watt. In his third season with the Steelers, Dupree could equal his career sack total of 8.5 sacks in just this season. Shazier is a fourth-year backer who has shown signs of being the most dynamic player on the Steelers’ defense when healthy. Watt is yet another first-round linebacker selection and should only grow into yet another pass rushing monster under the tutelage of wily veteran James Harrison. The improved pass rush should take pressure off the secondary, which struggled all last season and make them look better and play better this year.
4. Antonio Brown, punt returner, wide receiver, choreographer
A.B. can do it all, and he’ll be asked to do it all in this go-for-broke season. There’s not a corner in the league that can cover him on a consistent basis, and if they do, Roethlisberger has the option to throw to Bryant, one of the league’s fastest men. Then there’s Bell, as dangerous on a passing route as he is running the ball. But success rides on Ben and A.B., who will once again return punts in critical situations, and will probably lead the league in celebration penalties with his unique and creative ways to showcase scoring six.
5. The Haden Factor
He may not wear No. 23, but new Steelers cornerback Joe Haden could play a major factor in getting the Steelers back to the Super Bowl. The former Pro Bowl cornerback from Cleveland has much needed insight of the AFC North. Ben Roethlisberger has already tapped the new corner regarding the Cleveland Browns and will likely do so for the other divisional opponents. Haden, if healthy, could be the wow factor Pittsburgh needs on the outside and inside the locker room.