By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers saw their fantastic 2017 season come to a stunning conclusion with a 42-45 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
Pittsburgh finished the season with a 13-4 record, tying New England, Philadelphia and Minnesota for the best record in the league. The Steelers claimed their second consecutive AFC North title, and third in four years, as well as the conference’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs. It was the franchise’s fourth-straight postseason appearance overall.
The Steelers scored the eighth-most points in the league (406), allowed the sixth-fewest points (308) and also finished with the seventh-best point differential (plus-98). Three of their losses came against teams that made the playoffs, with two coming at the hands of the Jaguars and another to AFC Championship participants the New England Patriots.
In addition to posting their best regular season record since going 15-1 in 2004, the Steelers went undefeated in division play for the first time since 2008. They were also 6-3 at Heinz Field and 7-1 on the road.
On Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff were selected to lead the 2018 AFC Pro Bowl squad that could consist of up to eight Steelers. Four of those selections were also tabbed as All-Pro first team choices.
Ben Roethlisberger, who set a few franchise playoff records in the loss to the Jaguars, hit his stride late in the season with an astonishing November and December. Over the last two months, the Steelers’ all-time leading passer tossed the ball for over 2,100 yards while completing around 67% of his passes to go along with a 18:5 touchdown/interception ratio. Roethlisberger topped the 4,000 yard mark for the fourth time in his career with 4,251 yards. He finished with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster were the stars of the offense. Bell and Brown were both named All-Pro’s and are pro bowl selections. Bell had the second-best season of his career, accumulating 1,946 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns. He ranked second in the NFL in scrimmage yards, third in rushing yards (1,291) and 10th in receptions (85).
Brown had another exceptional year. The 29-year-old wide receiver led the league with 1,533 receiving yards while also ranking fourth in touchdowns (9) and fifth in receptions (101). He posted his ninth 100-yard receiving game of the season against Jacksonville on Sunday as he hauled in seven of his 11 targets for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Smith-Schuster thrived down the stretch after breaking out with seven receptions for a season-high 193 yards and one touchdown against Detroit (Week 8). Following that performance, the 2017 second round pick hauled in 34 passes for 497 yards and three scores over his last six games. For the season, he had 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven scores.
While the “Killer B’s” (Ben, Bell and Brown) get all the credit, the Steelers offensive line was tremendous. As a result, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva are among the team’s Pro Bowl selections.
While the defense let the Steelers down when it mattered the most, it was that unit that carried the team most of the season.
Overall, the Steelers finished fifth in total defense, permitting 306.9 yards per game as they allowed 201.1 passing yards (fifth) and 105.8 rushing yards (10th). The Steelers’ biggest problem was giving up the big play. They surrendered 48 plays of 20-plus yards via the air, which tied for the 16th most, and 13 plays of at least 40 yards, which tied for the third most. The Steelers also gave up 10 running plays of 20 yards or more and three runs of at least 40 yards.
The good news was that Pittsburgh was very good at getting after the quarterback. The team led the league with 56 sacks. While the defense did not score a touchdown this year, they did record a safety.
The defense sorely missed star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who missed the final four regular season games due to injury, down the stretch. Shazier, the defensive leader, was named to the Pro Bowl as he racked up 89 tackles (68 solo) to go along with three interceptions and 11 pass defensed. He graded out as the 12th best linebacker in the league.
Fellow linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Williams also had strong games. Watt tied for fifth on the team with 54 tackles to go along with seven sacks and one interception. The No. 30 overall selection of the 2017 draft also had eight pass defensed, five tackles for losses and forced one fumble.
Williams had a career season with 89 tackles and eight sacks, which ranked second on the team in both categories. The fifth-year pro also picked off one pass and had two pass defensed.
Chris Boswell is one of the best kickers in the league, ranking fifth with 148 points. Boswell was tied for fifth in field goals with 35 and tied for seventh in extra points with 37. He was also fifth in field goal percentage at 92.1% (35-of-38).
Punter Jordan Berry averaged 43.2 yards per punt, which ranked 33rd in the league, on 64 kicks. His net punting average of 39.8 yards ranked 25th in the league. On a positive note, Berry pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 26 occasions, with just two going for touch backs.
The Steelers’ kick coverage was average throughout the season. They permitted an average of 21.1 yards per kick return, which ranked 15th, and 7.7 yards per punt return, which ranked 18th.
Special teams ace Tyler Matakevich led the team with 14 tackles and blocked one punt. Hilton was also a valuable special teams performer compiling 12 tackles, while fullback Roosevelt Nix had 10 tackles and reserve linebacker L.J. Fort recorded nine stops.
The good news is that Roethlisberger, Bell and Martavis Bryant have all said that they want to be with the Steelers next year. Roethlisberger, who has two years remaining on his deal, has said he has no plans of retiring anytime soon. Bell had previously said that he won’t play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive year, but recently reiterated his desire to be back with the team. Bryant has one year remaining on his contract worth $700,000, and while he previously said he wanted out of the Burgh, he has recently had a change of heart.
In addition to Bell, the Steelers have seven other unrestricted free agents. Reserve tackle Chris Hubbard is probably the most prominent of the remaining unrestricted FA’s. Hubbard did a fantastic job filling in for Gilbert and Ramon Foster. The 26-year-old versatile offensive lineman started 10 of the 16 games this year.
The Steelers also have seven restricted free agents. Six of the seven restricted free agents could feasibly be back with the franchise; Berry is the only one of the seven unlikely to return. Boswell, Eli Rogers, Fitz Toussaint and linebacker Anthony Chickillo are the most interesting restricted free agents.
Reserve center BJ Finney and tackle Matt Feiler are exclusive-rights free agents.