The Steelers’ stated goal every season is to win the Super Bowl. So, more often than not, they end the season disappointed.
But the 2017 season was a little more disappointing than most because the team had gotten so close to its goal in 2016 and largely had its nucleus returning. That’s what made Pittsburgh’s 45-42 loss to Jacksonville in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last month so painful for the organization.
Assuring that doesn’t happen again in 2018 is the goal for this team now that the smoke has cleared. The Steelers made some coaching changes, with longtime defensive line coach John Mitchell stepping into a different role and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake resigning, but on-field changes could be coming.
“We have to be better and I do not think we were better in 2017 than we were in 2016 because we got eliminated a round earlier and I think that’s a reflection on the job that all of us did or didn’t do,” GM Kevin Colbert said Thursday. “And how do we get better? We all have to figure out a way to not get eliminated in the first round. That is the process that we are in. We know we have challenges defensively. We have to be better against the run, so how do we get better against the run?
“Is it adding players? (You are) hoping your regression is less than your progression with the guys that you have but you have to get fewer big plays defensively. That is something that we haven’t had in the past. Offensively, we have to pick up the ability to be more consistent and convert more opportunities in the red zone. So, I think collectively, all that stuff is what we need to do. Not so much a position.”
The Steelers saw their defense improve from 12th in total defense in 2016 to fifth in 2017, but to Colbert’s point, the run defense was spotty at times, allowing 222 and 231 yards rushing in losses early in the season to Chicago and Jacksonville, before settling down until Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was lost for the season in Week 12.
Colbert is currently in the process of evaluating the entire roster. And he wouldn’t take adding players at any position off the table. The Steelers obviously aren’t going to be in the market to replace certain players, such as Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown, but there are others currently on the roster who might not be with the Steelers once the NFL free agency period begins March 14 or soon thereafter.
So despite the fact the Steelers currently have 21 of their 22 starters from 2017 under contract for 2018 — Le’Veon Bell being the lone exception — changes could be coming.
“I think that the group we have coming back, most of those players, are either in their prime or they are on the rise,” Colbert said. “I do believe that group has a chance to get better. Does that mean we won’t add to it? If we don’t change the roster we had in 2017, what reason would we think there would be any difference in the results? So, we have to be ready to be better than we were last year.”
That statement would seem to point to an aging veteran or two not being part of the team’s future. And while Roethlisberger (35) and Brown, who turns 30 this offseason, are safe, the team has six other players who either already are in their 30s or will reach that age this offseason, including safety Mike Mitchell and cornerbacks William Gay and Coty Sensabaugh.
All could be looking for new jobs this offseason since the Steelers are going to need to clear salary cap space to make any significant improvements. Releasing those three players would clear $9.5 million in salary cap space, with Mitchell alone freeing up $6.3 million. The Steelers are currently $6.8 million under the projected salary cap, according to Spotrac.com.
“That’s always a possibility when we try to get this cap,” Colbert said of releasing veteran players under contract. “That is always a possibility when you are trying to get your team better in a under-the-cap situation.”
Also at issue is that one of the 21 starters the Steelers have under contract is Shazier. It’s highly unlikely Shazier, who continues to rehab from a serious spinal injury, will play in 2018. His $8.7 million salary, however, is fully guaranteed after the Steelers picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract last offseason.
The Steelers used Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort, Arthur Moats and Sean Spence at various times to replace Shazier. But none proved to be a competent replacement, though Colbert said Matakevich suffering a serious shoulder injury that required surgery to repair was a serious hindrance, as well.
Still, Colbert admitted the Steelers could be forced to look at the free agent market for inside linebacker help.
“That’s a potential,” Colbert said. “Obviously with Ryan’s injury and his situation we understand that. I think we lose sight of the fact sometimes that Tyler Matakevich was hurt within, I believe, it was the same quarter that Ryan was hurt. He was our No. 1 backup. Then, unfortunately we couldn’t play him at linebacker anymore because of further risk of injury. He was able to continue to contribute on special teams with his injury. We knew we would have to deal with it after the season. Tyler’s certainly in the mix. That gives you an option. And, again, we will continue to look at other options in free agency and the draft as well.”
Whatever moves the Steelers end up making will be with an eye toward reaching the Super Bowl for the ninth time and fourth in the Roethlisberger era. Roethlisberger has told teammates and the Steelers he would like to play at least three more seasons. But the Steelers also know with their franchise quarterback now 35, their window of opportunity is closing.
They also know that Roethlisberger’s skills could erode considerably at any moment, which adds to the urgency of trying to improve a team that went 13-3 yet lost its first playoff game.
“I think every player is different every year. And again, we always talk about progression of a player versus regression,” Colbert said. “Some guys are still on the upswing, some guys are in their prime, and some guys are still playing but they might be on the downside, doesn’t mean they still can’t help you but they might not be the player they were befor. So I think that group has the potential to get better just through more playing and learning from their mistakes, as I know they are willing to do, and they are working towards it.
“We have veterans in here this time of year. They can come in and work on their own, they can watch film on their own and they are doing that just so that they cannot be sitting here with a first round elimination (again next season).”