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Steelers can’t afford any more setbacks in Roethlisberger Era

Have all Steelers fans breathed their sigh of relief that Tom Brady won’t be in the Super Bowl?

Good. Let’s limit our reaction to just that, a sigh of relief. There’s no reason to celebrate.

We saw how silly the Bengals looked tweeting away after the Broncos beat the Steelers 23-16 in the AFC divisional playoffs last week. We don’t want to be like that, at least not anymore.

Sure, the Steelers’ record of six Super Bowl wins would have been in danger if the Patriots won their fifth this season. But the Steelers could have spared the world a week of nauseating Brady-Manning hype had Fitzgerald Toussaint just hung on to the football in Denver.

All that fawning over Brady and Manning wasn’t much easier to stomach than another Patriots Super Bowl appearance would have been.

The Steelers would have brought a fresh face to the AFC championship game. They haven’t been there since 2010. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been to all five conference championship games since the last time the Steelers advanced that far.

Deep playoff runs are the norm in New England. Just making the playoffs isn’t even the norm in Pittsburgh.

If the Steelers make the playoffs next season, it will be the first time Ben Roethlisberger or Mike Tomlin have been to the playoffs in three straight years.

Roethlisberger turns 34 on March 2. He doesn’t have time to miss the playoffs every third year if he wants to win a third and fourth Super Bowl ring and get a seat at the table with Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.

Next season looks promising for the Steelers if they again roll out one of the most potent offenses in the NFL and if the developing defense picks up where it left off in the playoffs. But there are no guarantees. Who’s to say that the rash of injuries the Steelers suffered in 2015 won’t happen again?

Injuries are hard to prevent and impossible to predict, but it sure would be nice if Le’Veon Bell could make it through an entire season healthy.

Bell missed the first three games of his rookie season. He played 16 games in 2014, but was hurt in Week 17 and the Steelers went one-and-done with him sidelined in the playoffs. His 2015 season ended in Week 8 courtesy of Vontaze Burfict.

The Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as an insurance policy for Bell, but he went down in Week 17. The Steelers have lost their top running back in Week 17 each of the last three years they’ve made the playoffs. Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL a week before Tim Tebow took out the Steelers in 2011.

Is it just rotten luck or can the Steelers learn a lesson from that team that’s made the last five AFC title games?

Bill Belichick drives fantasy owners crazy because he seemingly builds his game plan around a different running back every week. There’s no one featured running back.

Bell is arguably the most talented running back in the NFL, so as long as he’s healthy he won’t be part of any timeshare at the position. However, after running for more than 200 yards in the first two games while Bell was suspended, Williams didn’t get more than five carries in any of the five full games that Bell played this season. Even a slight bump in Williams’ workload would decrease Bell’s chances of sustaining a season-ending injury for the third year in a row.

Bell wasn’t the only Steeler to suffer an injury in 2015. A concussion kept Antonio Brown out of the playoff game at Denver. And no one needs to be reminded about the four games Roethlisberger missed, the 10 games Kelvin Beachum missed and the 16 games Maurkice Pouncey missed.

It’s not a stretch to assume that the Steelers would have had at least another win this season if they didn’t suffer so many injuries. It also would have been interesting to see how differently the season would have turned out if their second-round draft pick was healthy.

Cornerback Senquez Golson’s shoulder injury wasn’t bemoaned like all those other injuries, but maybe it should have been because the Steelers ranked 30th against the pass.

With Keith Butler running the defense and not Dick LeBeau, rookies can contribute. First-round pick Bud Dupree proved that in 2015. A first-team All-American who had 10 interceptions for Mississippi in 2014, Golson also could have been a factor.

The Steelers have the 25th pick in the first round of the 2016 draft. Another item on their off-season to-do list is to spend another early-round pick on a cornerback. They’ve done a better job drafting defensive players recently. Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and Dupree all are promising playmakers and a strong secondary is the missing piece that could make this a formidable defense.

There’s also a huge missing piece on special teams. Once again the Steelers were among the bottom 10 in punting. They were 29th in punting average and 24th in net average. Jordan Berry failed to average 40 yards on six punts in the thin Denver air. Not since 2011 have the Steelers cracked the top 20 in punting average, and even then they were a mediocre 18th.

The kicking competition between Chris Boswell and Shaun Suisham figures to be one of the top storylines of training camp. How about trading the loser of that battle for an established punter?

The Steelers also could sign a punter in free agency. They have about $6.7 million in salary cap space, according to Spotrac.com.

In recent years, the Steelers have gone into the offseason with so much work to do that it was difficult to figure out where to start. This year it’s not so daunting.

As heartbreaking as the playoff loss at Denver was, Mike Tomlin in his final press conference seemed to be looking forward to the process of putting together the 2016 team.

The franchise’s fortunes seemed to go sideways in the aftermath of The Tebow Game, but since taking a step back in 2012 the Steelers have played one more week of meaningful football every year.

They were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 16 of the 2012 season and in Week 17 of the 2013 season. They made the wild-card round of the playoffs in 2014 and the divisional round in 2015.

The Steelers need to keep that trajectory going in 2016, or at least still be playing when the Patriots’ season ends.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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1 comment

  1. Crash

    The last 4 years have been a setback. That happens when you hire an unqualified dope to run the offense.

    Fire Haley.

    Promote Fichtner.

    Win the AFC.

    It’s the “Steeler way”.

    #FREECRASH

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