2017 NFL Preview: If you hate the Patriots, better root for the Steelers

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Pittsburgh Steelers might be the best candidate to stop the No. 1 team on our countdown (spoiler alert: it’s the New England Patriots) from rolling to another Super Bowl.

If you can imagine any team going into Foxboro and knocking off the Patriots in a playoff game, it’s probably an explosive Steelers team capable of putting up 30 or more points at any time. Heck, the Steelers might be the only team in the AFC capable of grabbing a higher seed than New England.

Maybe that’s asking too much of the Steelers, and they might be a little overrated on this list too. Pittsburgh was good last season, especially in the second half of the season, but not great. The Steelers were 11-5 and won the AFC North by inches last season, literally. But we all are drawn in by the siren song of offensive stars, and it’s easy to get excited about this group.

The Steelers have an incredible set of skill-position players. The challenge is actually keeping them on the field together. Thanks to suspensions and injury, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant have played 21 snaps together over the past two seasons. Bryant, one of the best deep receivers in the NFL, was conditionally reinstated from suspension (he was sitting out of practice early in camp waiting to be fully cleared by the NFL). Bell might not be happy playing on the franchise tag this season, and he is holding out of training camp, but he’s arguably the best running back in the NFL. Roethlisberger is probably going to the Hall of Fame someday. Brown has 481 catches since the beginning of the 2013 season, an NFL record for most catches in a four-year span. Now we finally (hopefully) get a chance to see what they can all do together over a full season.

Bryant’s return allows Steelers fans to dream big. Roethlisberger has played 19 games with Bryant in the lineup, and his numbers in those games have been phenomenal. Roethlisberger has averaged about 336 passing yards per game when Bryant is on the field, according to NumberFire.com. The Steelers have averaged 29.3 points per game with that combination in the lineup. Bryant, who averages 17.3 yards per catch over his career with 14 touchdowns, opens up the field. As Rotoworld’s Evan Silva pointed out, Brown’s numbers are much better with Bryant (8.9 catches, 113.7 yards, 0.8 touchdowns per game) than when Bryant doesn’t play (7.1-93.7-0.7). The Steelers offense was good without Bryant. It might be the best in the NFL with him back. And Pittsburgh’s defense improved a lot in the second half of last season, which was the catalyst for a long winning streak. Even though the Steelers lost the AFC title game, they had to feel the arrow was pointed up for this season.

The question is if the Steelers have enough to make it to a Super Bowl. That likely means they’ll need to knock off the Patriots. Dating back to the AFC championship game at the end of the 2004 season, the Steelers have lost eight of 10 meetings and four in a row. The Steelers were overwhelmed in a 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC championship game last season (and as we’ll talk about in the next preview, the Patriots have improved over the offseason). If the Steelers have closed the gap, it’s because Bryant will improve the offense and a young defense continues to get better. It would still have to be a big leap for a Steelers team that was 11-5 last season and needed a last-second stretching touchdown from Brown to beat the Baltimore Ravens for the division title.

But if the Steelers can’t knock off the Patriots in the AFC, who can?

Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell hope to lead the Steelers back to the Super Bowl. (AP)

Despite a decent amount of cap space, the Steelers were quiet in free agency. Defensive end Tyson Alualu and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh were the top two signings and they got $1.75 million and $425,000 guaranteed, respectively. The Steelers didn’t lose much either. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons was a good player for many years, but Vince Williams should be a suitable replacement. Backup running back DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned, and it appears they’ll count on rookie third-round pick James Conner to replace him. T.J. Watt was the team’s first-round pick and perhaps he can help the pass rush right away. Second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, a receiver from USC, might help the offense be even more explosive. Grade: C

Everyone loves the Steelers offense, but the defense quietly improved in the second half of last season. After a 35-30 loss to the Dallas Cowboys dropped Pittsburgh to 4-5, the defense (and Le’Veon Bell) helped the team reel off nine wins in a row until the AFC title game. If we remove a Week 17 game that meant nothing to the Steelers, they allowed 15.6 points and 268.8 yards per game over that winning streak. The only opponent to gain more than 310 yards or score more than 20 points in that stretch was the Ravens on Christmas. If that defensive improvement sticks – 10 starters return, including defensive end Cameron Heyward back from injury – the Steelers might be special. We all know the offense will be good.

I don’t blame the Steelers for their approach to Le’Veon Bell’s contract, and I don’t blame Bell for holding out either. Big, long-term investments at running back rarely turn out well, and Bell has a history of injuries and off-field issues. It makes sense for the Steelers to not overpay Bell on a long-term contract, which will lead to him playing on the franchise tag. It also makes sense why Bell wouldn’t want to risk injury in training camp and the preseason. However, you don’t exactly want one of your stars unhappy as the season starts. The Steelers rode Bell hard down the stretch last season, and by the end he was legitimately in the MVP conversation. Few players did more for their team than Bell did the final couple months last season. The Steelers need him. Also, maybe it’s anecdotal but how many times have we seen a player hold out and then struggle with injuries? The Steelers didn’t bring back DeAngelo Williams so rookie third-round pick James Conner looks like the top backup. If something happens with Bell, the Steelers offense wouldn’t be the same.

Ben Roethlisberger apparently seriously considered retirement this past offseason, which means the clock is ticking. This could end up as a Brett Favre situation and he plays for five more seasons, but once a player (especially one who has taken as many hits as Roethlisberger) lets retirement slip into his mind, that thought doesn’t go away. Roethlisberger is 35 and coming off a fairly typical season for his standards, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t be good this season. It’s what happens after this season that’s scary. If Roethlisberger walks away, the top two quarterbacks after him on the roster are longtime backup Landry Jones and 2017 fourth-round pick Josh Dobbs. When Roethlisberger retires, it might not be a pretty transition in Pittsburgh.

You could pick any of the offensive stars, but the Steelers could probably lose one and still be good on offense. The defense needs a pass rusher in a bad way, and Bud Dupree might be the best bet. Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick, suffered a groin injury in camp last year and played just seven games. He did get 4.5 sacks in those games, so maybe he can post a double-digit sack season with better health. The Steelers don’t want to have to rely so much on 38-year-old James Harrison, who led the team with five sacks last season. T.J. Watt is a first-round talent but still a rookie. A lot is riding on Dupree this season.

From Yahoo Sports’ Dalton Del Don: “Martavis Bryant enters the year as one of the bigger wild cards in fantasy football, as he hasn’t played a snap since 2015 and is one misstep away from another lengthy suspension. But he’s still just 25 years old and will immediately retake the WR2 role on an explosive offense. He’s being drafted aggressively despite the layoff, inherent risk and having played just 21 games during his career, but the upside is evident. Bryant has turned 140 career targets into 14 touchdowns, as 18 percent of his catches have gone for scores, which is the highest rate in the NFL since 2014 (he’s added a rushing TD for fun as well). Bryant has ranked top-15 in fantasy points per game in each of his first two years in the league, and he possesses legit top-five upside if Antonio Bryant were to go down. He might be the biggest risk/reward player drafted in 2017 fantasy leagues.”

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The last time the Steelers had a losing record was 2003, when Ben Roethlisberger was in his last season at Miami (Ohio). The last time they won more than 12 games was 2004, Roethlisberger’s rookie year. And they haven’t reached 12 wins since 2011. We pretty much know what we’re getting from the Steelers year after year. But to get over the hump and make it back to the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh might want to break from tradition and put up a 13- or 14-win season. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s probably what it will take to avoid playing in Foxboro in late January.

HOW DID THE STEELERS BUILD UP SUCH A GOOD OFFENSIVE LINE? 

The days of the Steelers worrying about problems on the line are ancient history. Pro Football Focus lists the Steelers as the third-best line in the NFL (PFF also has Dallas ranked ninth, so I’m not sure what to make of the list). By any account the Steelers have turned a weakness on the line into a strength. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was a great story as an Army veteran off the practice squad, but he was a question mark as a player. Fortunately for the Steelers he proved he was more than capable, and the team rewarded him with a four-year, $24 million deal. Ramon Foster was signed as an undrafted free agent, and became a good left guard. Center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro were home-run first round picks, and 2011 second-round pick Marcus Gilbert has settled in at right tackle. The Steelers did a good job drafting and developing, and also finding gold at a couple spots. Pittsburgh has a great offense and don’t forget to include a very strong line when talking about it.

The Steelers could go into New England and win in the playoffs. But they’d probably rather that game be in Pittsburgh. A Dec. 17 showdown against the Patriots could be a huge game in the AFC playoff picture. That regular-season meeting is in Pittsburgh. A lot could happen between now and then and maybe one or both teams aren’t even in the mix for the No. 1 seed like we expect. But if we’re trying to make a realistic prediction on how the season will go, it would seem Pittsburgh probably needs home-field advantage to make the Super Bowl, and at very least they’ll have to beat the Patriots in Week 15 to get it. There aren’t many teams you can realistically see winning a Super Bowl outside of New England, but the Steelers are one. It’s very important the Steelers have a great regular season and avoid the hard road through the AFC playoffs.

The Steelers look great on paper, and the way they finished last season should provide plenty of optimism. But it’s still a team that was 4-5 in mid-November last year. If Antonio Brown’s stretch against the Ravens was a few inches shorter, we’re bemoaning how a talented Steelers team missed the playoffs last season. Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell have significant injury histories. Bell and Martavis Bryant have histories of getting in trouble off the field. The defense improved last season, but there’s still a lack of true blue-chip talent, especially if Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt aren’t great rushing the quarterback. It’s hard to see the offense being bad (unless Landry Jones becomes prominently involved due to a Roethlisberger injury … and it’s a good time to point out Roethlisberger has played 16 games just twice over the past eight seasons) but if the Steelers are still floating around 10-11 wins this season and lose in the AFC playoffs nobody in Pittsburgh is going to be happy.

Here are the last four meetings between the Steelers and Patriots:

• The Patriots blew out Pittsburgh 55-31 in 2013. New England gained 610 yards.

• In the first game of the 2015 NFL season, the Patriots had a 21-3 lead early in the third quarter and cruised to a 28-21 win. Pittsburgh scored with two seconds left to make the final score look better.

• Last regular season the Steelers played without Ben Roethlisberger and were competitive for a while, but lost 27-16.

• New England won last season’s AFC title game easily over Pittsburgh 36-17.

That’s practically four double-digit victories for the Patriots over the Steelers in four recent tries. I’m not sure why it will be much different this season.

We’re probably getting ahead of ourselves in even discussing Pittsburgh vs. New England in the playoffs, because it’s not very often the NFL is that predictable. Still, it’s really hard to believe the Steelers’ road back to the Super Bowl won’t go through New England at some point. And nothing short of a trip to the Super Bowl will be considered a success. Unless the Steelers catch the Patriots on the right day or New England deals with major injuries in January or Tom Brady suddenly falls apart at age 40, it’s hard to see this season ultimately being a success in Pittsburgh.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs
7. New York Giants
6. Seattle Seahawks
5. Dallas Cowboys
4. Green Bay Packers
3. Atlanta Falcons

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!