2018 NFL Preview: It might be now or never for the Steelers' stars

Yahoo Sports 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 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Mike Tomlin seems to be on the hot seat. Le’Veon Bell probably has one more season left with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger has considered retirement recently. Antonio Brown just turned 30, and he wondered aloud why he’s playing football.

It seems like it’s now or never for this Steelers group. The Steelers have potential Hall of Famers at quarterback, running back and receiver, and that group has mostly produced heartache.

The Steelers lost a Super Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, with Brown as a little-used rookie and Bell having just finished up his freshman season at Michigan State. We keep waiting for a return to the Super Bowl, but something always gets in the way. Many times it has been ill-timed injuries. Last season it was the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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A Patriots-Steelers rematch in the AFC championship game never happened. The biggest impact of the Jesse James catch-rule non-catch was that the Steelers had to play the Jaguars in the divisional round. For the second time last season, the Jaguars thumped them. The final score made it look like the game was closer than it was. The Steelers were blasted by the Jaguars in the regular season and in that playoff game, both times in Pittsburgh. For the first time in a long time, a team other than New England made the Steelers look overmatched.

It was a rough end to a promising season, and it increased the pressure on Tomlin. His decisions in that game were picked apart. There was a report from Pro Football Talk that some of the Steelers’ limited partners wanted him fired, a report the Steelers denied. Tomlin survived, but he comes into this season needing to restore confidence around Pittsburgh. That’s unfair for someone with a 116-60 record and a Super Bowl ring, coming off a 13-3 season. However, that’s what happens when you have championship expectations yet go 3-4 in the playoffs over the past four seasons.

“Anybody who wants to look at Mike’s track record since he’s been our coach, I think the record speaks for itself,” Steelers owner Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. ” … I’m very comfortable that Mike is our coach and happy that he’s our coach and I think he’s one of the best coaches in the NFL.

“I mean [a postseason record] is part of it, but you look at Mike’s record overall and you start to look around, it’s always easy for people to say, ‘Well, you should get rid of your coach.’ Well, OK who are you hiring next? There’s another part to that question that people don’t want to get into.”

It didn’t help Tomlin that the Steelers seemed to be a mess in the locker room last season. The offseason story was Roethlisberger flirting with retirement, then he wondered aloud after the first Jaguars loss if he’d lost it. There was the national anthem fiasco, when nobody was on the same page. Martavis Bryant took shots at JuJu Smith-Schuster when he wasn’t happy with his playing time. Bryant was traded to the Oakland Raiders this offseason. A franchise that has been built on stability became a soap opera.

And still, when January started the Steelers seemed like a good bet to win the Super Bowl. The failure against the Jaguars was shocking. As a result, the Steelers go into this season with a few more questions than usual.

Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to get past the Patriots, and now the Jaguars look like a bad matchup too. There’s uncertainty, with Tomlin, Roethlisberger, Bell and maybe even a bit with Brown. Maybe, because Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls, Tomlin won one and Brown was a bit player for an AFC championship team, the Steelers won’t seem like the 1980s Chargers if this group doesn’t wind up in a Super Bowl. But it will be a disappointment. It’s not often a team has arguably the best running back and best receiver in the NFL, with a Hall of Fame quarterback. And that group’s best result is a 19-point loss to New England in the AFC championship game two seasons ago.

Maybe Bell signs a long-term deal after the season, Tomlin saves his job, Roethlisberger sticks by his new promise to play a few more years and Brown continues on his Hall of Fame pace for a while. But the Steelers might want to approach this season like it’s the last chance for this group, just in case.

Antonio Brown hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since he was a little-used rookie in 2010. (AP)

The Steelers didn’t add too much in free agency. Safety Morgan Burnett was a good addition, and linebacker Jon Bostic helps fill a need. But that was mostly it. I didn’t like the Steelers’ draft. Safety Terrell Edmunds was a reach in the first round. Since most mid-round picks at quarterbacks end up being a waste, I can’t assume Mason Rudolph is the long-term answer out of the third round. Ben Roethlisberger was right when he said the Rudolph pick could have been better used on someone who could help the team now. The biggest move of the offseason might have been trading Martavis Bryant to the Raiders, but that might be addition by subtraction. Either way, it’s hard to say the Steelers are better now than they were at the end of last season.

GRADE: C-

We spend a lot of time talking about Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, but the other guys on offense are pretty good too. JuJu Smith-Schuster was a steal late in the second round of last year’s draft, James Washington is an interesting receiver prospect from this year’s draft, tight end Vance McDonald came on late last season and they have a top-five offensive line. The offense isn’t just three superstars and some stand-ins around them. It’s a complete unit.

It’s not a fun topic, but Ryan Shazier’s neck injury had a massive impact on the Steelers’ defense. Shazier won’t play this season at least, and Jon Bostic isn’t anywhere near Shazier’s level. Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability covered up a lot in the defense (for proof, go back and watch him make play after play in Pittsburgh’s Week 4 win at Baltimore last season). The Steelers allowed 33.5 points per game after Shazier’s injury, if we discount a game against a Texans team that was incompetent on offense without Deshaun Watson. With some time in the offseason to rework the defense without Shazier, maybe the results will be different. However, there’s reason to be concerned.

Ben Roethlisberger said he seriously considered retirement, wouldn’t commit to more than one season about this time last year, then got upset when the Steelers drafted a quarterback. By this point, any prediction on how long Roethlisberger will play is a total guess. He now says he wants to play three to five more years, but who knows. Roethlisberger is 36 and has taken a lot of punishment. Roethlisberger played well last season so the Steelers can assume another quality season from their quarterback. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

The offense is so loaded with talent, you can remove one of the stars for a few weeks and the Steelers would still put up points. The defense isn’t as deep. That group made strides last season, at least before Ryan Shazier’s injury, and a main reason was defensive end Cameron Heyward. Heyward has been a good player for a while, but he was great in 2017. He had 12 sacks and made first-team All-Pro. The Steelers have some good players on defense – end Stephon Tuitt, outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, inside linebacker Vince Williams – but Heyward is the star. The Steelers need him to repeat his excellent 2017.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “At 36 years old, Ben Roethlisberger has flirted with the retirement while also scoffing at the addition of Mason Rudolph. Whether or not he plays for another ‘three to five years,’ is immaterial because the Steelers are clearly making plans for life after Big Ben. His play has diminished over the past three years and his home/road splits continue to infuriate the anti-crutch argument set. If a bargain basement grey beard is what you’re chasing, consider Philip Rivers who has outperformed Roethlisberger for three consecutive seasons and is being selected behind his 2004 draft classmate.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Steelers.]

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The Steelers won a league-high eight games by seven or fewer points last season. They had an unsustainable 5-1 regular-season record in games decided by three points or less. Fans don’t like hearing that luck plays a major factor in the NFL, but we’ve all seen how a fluky bounce in a close game ends up deciding who wins. The Steelers were 13-3 so they would have been good even without that great record in close games. But a regression to the mean might mean the difference in a first-round bye, and I’m not sure Pittsburgh wants to play at Jacksonville and New England in consecutive playoff weeks. The Steelers do well in close games for reasons other than pure luck — starting with a quarterback who seems to enjoy high-pressure situations — but they can’t count on winning eight one-possession games again.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH LE’VEON BELL?

If Bell reports before the season opener and is good for another 400-plus touches, just like last season, that’s a fine outcome for the Steelers. I don’t think Bell holds out into the regular season, but it has to be a slight possibility after he got the franchise tag for a second time. It’s probably more valid to wonder if the contract issues weigh on Bell’s mind. Because Bell’s final numbers last season ended up looking good, it has rarely been mentioned that Bell went from 4.8 yards per carry in 2014-16 to 4 yards per carry last season. He’s coming off a 431-touch season, including playoffs, and most backs with that workload take a step back the next season. Anticipate for Bell to be great again, but there are warning signs.

Bell’s agent already indicated this is Bell’s last season with the Steelers, and we have to assume that’s the case after two franchise tags. All the Steelers can do is worry about what Bell provides this season, then worry about the future later.

If everyone bands together, understanding that this season should hold some extra urgency, perhaps that anticipated Super Bowl run will finally come. The Steelers have a great offense (JuJu Smith-Schuster was awesome as a rookie, yet he’s probably not a top-five player on Pittsburgh’s offense when you count the linemen), a good defense if it can replace Ryan Shazier and the special teams are pretty strong too. I don’t anticipate anyone mounts a challenge to the Steelers in the AFC North, the Patriots lost a lot of talent in the offseason, and Jacksonville’s track record tells us that a 2017 repeat is no guarantee. The talent is there for Pittsburgh to win it all, of course, and the road might be easier than it seems.

If we start hearing more off-field stories about issues in the locker room, like last year, maybe that’s a sign this group is ready for a breakup. The Steelers won’t collapse unless injuries hit hard, but perhaps we saw the cracks forming last season between the drama and the lopsided losses to the Jaguars. Anything short of a Super Bowl is bad for the Steelers because major changes seem imminent, no matter the team’s record this season.

If you watched both Jaguars-Steelers games last season you can’t rank Pittsburgh ahead of Jacksonville. The Jaguars were clearly the better team in each game. That adds another hurdle in the AFC for the Steelers. I’d love to see this group make a Super Bowl because these Steelers are a lot of fun to watch. I just don’t think it will happen. Pittsburgh will be good, and again not good enough in the playoffs. Then we’ll likely see Bell leave town in free agency, and perhaps there will be other major changes in Pittsburgh. There’s a chance this team looks dramatically different in 2019.

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

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!