By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers are heavy favorites to win the AFC North, yet again.
The Steelers have been picked to capture the AFC North flag for a second consecutive season by every major football publication, and the betting is good in Las Vegas. If the Steelers do accomplish that feat, it will be their third divisional crown in four years. Winning the division would ensure Pittsburgh its fourth successive playoff berth, which would be the franchise’s longest postseason run since they accomplished six straight appearances from 1992-97.
Pittsburgh has seemingly put all of its eggs into the basket for one final run at a Super Bowl crown with its current leaders. While the Steelers are not necessarily an old team, this could be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell’s final campaign with the franchise. Roethlisberger will be 36 prior to next season and has been hinting at retirement the last few years. Bell is playing under the franchise tag ($12.1 million) this season and if he and the Steelers organization can’t come to a long-term agreement, the 25-year-old back may be too expensive to afford. Also, veteran linebacker James Harrison is 39 years old, and cap casualties and injuries are always wild cards in how a roster is formed year-to-year. Additionally, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Pittsburgh has spent a huge chunk of change recently to put themselves in position to go for the Super Bowl LII crown. The Steelers recently added veterans J.J. Wilcox and Joe Haden to solidify their depth in the secondary. They also traded for tight end Vance McDonald to give one of the NFL’s most potent offenses another viable option.
Baltimore and Cincinnati are expected to battle for second place in the division with a chance of grabbing a playoff spot. Cleveland is much improved, but still a year or two away from competing for a playoff spot.
Tomlin unsure how many touches Le’Veon Bell will see against the Browns
Bell got his first taste of football action this week after officially signing his franchise tag on Monday morning. He has not been with the team since the Steelers lost in the AFC Championship game. The big question is: How much will Bell be on the field against Cleveland in Week 1?
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told the media during his press conference that he is unsure how much of a workload Bell will get in the season opener.
“He got on a moving train pretty quickly,” Tomlin said during his weekly news conference. “I don’t have a hard-fast plan as to his participation. We’ll continue to monitor the situation.”
For his part, Bell is ready to shoulder as much of a load the Steelers need.
“I’m working hard for 30 carries, whatever it may be, 30 touches, or whether it’s 10 touches, I’m ready to go out there and get the job,” Bell said during interview on Monday.
Bell, 25, is one of the best all-around backs in the game today. He has totaled over 1,200 yards and more than 75 receptions in two of the last three years. Bell has a career 4.5 yards per carry average and takes care of the ball, losing just two fumbles in his career.
If Bell, who is expected to start on Sunday, isn’t able to put in a full day’s work, rookie James Conner will likely get some carries. Azusa Pacific’s Terrell Watson, who is in his second season, is the only other running back on the team.
First round selection T.J. Watt to start at right outside linebacker
On Tuesday, Tomlin officially announced that rookie T.J. Watt, the younger brother of Houston’s J.J. Watt, will be the starter at right side linebacker. Watt earns the spot over James Harrison, who has been a spot starter ever since returning to the organization in 2014.
“He’s been in that position really since Day 0,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Watt. “You don’t like to anoint people. You like to watch them earn it. We didn’t put it on paper. But it won’t be like he’ll be in a new position when he gets here on Wednesday. He’ll be in the same spot in the huddle he was in yesterday.”