Pundits heap praise on 2017 Steelers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stood in an interview room after the playoff loss Sunday in Denver and praised his teammates for battling a season-long onslaught of injuries and suspensions to many of their top offensive players, including himself.

While the Steelers persevered, other teams around the league quit, he said.

They won 11 games — 10 in the regular season, one in the playoffs — and came oh-so-close to playing New England for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers did it despite playing the entire season without All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, 12 games without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, 12 games without left tackle Kelvin Beachum, four games and parts of two others without a battered and concussed Roethlisberger, five games without receiver Martavis Bryant, two games without Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams, and one very important playoff game without All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown.

Last week, after the final practice before heading to Denver, coach Mike Tomlin talked wistfully of walking down the hall at the South Side practice facility on occasion and seeing two of the best players in the league — Pouncey and Bell — in the training room. Adding them to what was the most explosive, big-play offense in the league — and avoiding the repeated absences of the other top offensive playmakers — should only make the Steelers more dangerous in 2016.

“I’m optimistic and encouraged,” Tomlin said of 2016. “But I always am.”

He should be.

Come the 2016 season, the Steelers will likely be hailed as the favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51.

People already have noticed.

Good impression:

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown wants to be a "Steeler for life."

The Steelers delivered an impressive performance for 3½ quarters last week against the Broncos, coming close to eliminating the AFC’s No. 1 seed without so many of their injured stars and a sore-armed Roethlisberger.

That they came so close only elevated their stature among a number of national writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. In an informal poll, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked each of them: Will the Steelers be the favorite to represent the AFC in next year’s Super Bowl? Nearly all agreed that, if not the favorite, they will certainly be in the conversation.

“Not only do I think they will be the favorite going into 2016, I would have picked them if they had beaten the Broncos to go to the Super Bowl this year because they would have had what they will have next year — almost everybody healthy,” said Judy Battista, a columnist for NFL.com who formerly covered the NFL for the New York Times. “And, if Antonio Brown had played, I don’t have much doubt they would have beaten the Broncos.”

“As long as Tom Brady is standing, it’s hard to project anybody but New England as a favorite,” said longtime NFL writer Clark Judge, who covers the league for talkoffamenetwork.com. “You pick the Patriots, and, more times than not, you’ll be right. But if there’s one team other than New England I like in the AFC it’s the Steelers. With all the injuries they suffered to their offense — losing playmakers galore — they still were within a fumble of going to the conference championship game.”

The Steelers should be in good shape under the salary cap as well next season because two former players who counted $13 million against the cap in 2015 — linebacker LaMarr Woodley ($8.5 million) and safety Troy Polamalu ($4.5 million) — are no longer on the books for 2016. Also, cornerback Cortez Allen, scheduled to count $5.75 million against the salary cap in 2016, likely will be released or possibly traded, saving them another $4 million.

Then there’s kicker Shaun Suisham, who spent the season on injured reserve and is scheduled to count $3.5 million against the cap next season. It is likely the Steelers will opt to keep Chris Boswell, who converted 36 of 39 field goals, including a perfect 7 for 7 in the postseason, and is scheduled to count $575,000 against the cap in 2016. He is 10 years younger than Suisham.

Factor in a projected $10 million increase in the overall salary cap next season, and the Steelers should be in decent shape if they want to sign, say, a cornerback in free agency. Or pay All-Pro guard David DeCastro, who will enter the final year of his contract.

Potent offense: “I can’t think of an AFC team that is better positioned for next season,” said Don Banks, who covers the NFL for SI.com. “With the wealth of offensive talent on hand, they only have keeping Roethlisberger healthy to really be concerned about.”

“Offensively, nobody’s shelves are stocked like Pittsburgh’s,” said NFL writer Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. “The Steelers are so loaded it’s almost unfair. If they can stay healthy — and that’s a big if — they should be able to put up 30-plus (points) on anybody.”

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, author of the multi-tiered “Monday Morning Quarterback” column and a member of NBC’s “Football Night in America,” said he typically doesn’t like to project favorites for next season’s Super Bowl before this season’s game is played.

But, he added: “I like the Steelers right now, because they’re explosive on offense and better on defense under (coordinator) Keith Butler than I thought they’d be. But will they draft a corner who can match up on the great receivers? Will they have an offensive line that can keep Roethlisberger clean? I like what I see right now.”

Of course, it’s possible the Steelers might not even be considered the overwhelming favorites in their own division. The Bengals won the AFC North with a 12-4 record this season, two games clear of the Steelers, even though they lost quarterback Andy Dalton, the NFL’s passing leader, for most of the final five games of the season.

The Steelers, however, beat the Bengals twice — both at Paul Brown Stadium — including the bizarre, incendiary wild-card playoff game.

“I don’t know if they are the favorites, but they will be one of them,” Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com said. “Remember, Cincinnati played without its quarterback in the playoffs. That’s huge. But the Steelers will be explosive again on offense, especially with Bell back and growth from Bryant. But to be the favorite, they have to fix the secondary. They bust so many coverages. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is chucking it around, they will be in the favorite conversation.”

Improving the back end of the defense will be the team’s top offseason priority. The Steelers tried this past season when they drafted three players, cornerbacks Senquez Golson (second round) and Doran Grant (fourth) and safety Gerod Holliman (seventh).

But Golson (shoulder) never made it to training camp and was placed on injured reserve, Grant was waived before being re-signed to the practice squad (he was later elevated to the 53-man roster), and Holliman was cut at the end of training camp. A greater emphasis will be placed on finding a starting cornerback.

“I love the strides Keith Butler’s side of the ball made as this season progressed, and the defensive front seven is growing into a formidable group,” said Banks of SI.com. “They have reacquired some of their missing swagger from recent seasons past.