Consistently winning in professional sports is tough—particularly in a league like the NFL, with a hard salary cap, free agency and a draft that can provide impact players immediately. With the Pittsburgh Steelers coming off back-to-back 12-4 seasons, staring at a tough schedule, with injuries at several important positions and with the Cincinnati Bengals a trendy preseason pick in a tougher AFC North, many are expecting the Steelers to take a step back this year.
While there are reasons Steelers fans should be worried going into the 2012 season, here are four reasons why the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders:
1. A Healthy Ben Roethlisberger
Nothing is more important to the Steelers' prospects than a healthy QB Ben Roethlisberger. When Ben is healthy he can extend plays, giving his receivers time to get open, and allow the deep threat to develop, which stretches opposing defenses.
Ben was hobbled by injuries last year which limited his mobility, his ability to extend plays and took away the HR ball that Roethlisberger loves to throw.
This season, at 30 and entering his prime, Roethlisberger is healthy and poised to have a big year. If he can stay healthy (and that will depend a lot on the Steelers' offensive line) and if he can avoid conflicts with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, then Ben can lead the Steelers deep into the playoffs.
2. Best WR Duo in Football
Much of the preseason for the Steelers was marred by off the field issues—most significantly the holdout of WR Mike Wallace. Wallace, however, is now back in the fold and for reasons I laid out here, the holdout may actually benefit the Steelers in the short term.
Wallace and WR Antonio Brown constitute arguably the best WR duo in all of football. Wallace and Brown are both coming off years where they logged over 1,100 receiving yards and combined for 141 receptions.
Wallace gives the Steelers one of the best deep threats in all of football—forcing defenses to key off the speedster, leaving plenty of opportunities for the hard-working Brown to get open.
3. Defense Will Force More Turnovers
The Steelers' defense had a deceptively good year last year—deceptive in a bad way. The 2011 Steelers' defensive squad led the league in allowing the fewest points and in allowing the fewest yards en route to being, statistically, the No. 1-ranked defense in all of football.
Despite being the No. 1-ranked defense, the 2011 Steelers' defensive squad finished last in the league in forcing turnovers (15), giving the Steelers a horrific minus-13 turnover ratio.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has emphasized the need to force more turnovers throughout the preseason. In an interview with Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan, LeBeau said, “We have to turn the ball over more than we did last year and I’m confident we will.”
LeBeau continued, “We have in the past and I just think that it was a very atypical year in that regard… but I am still stressing it with the team.”
So far, LeBeau’s emphasis on forcing more turnovers has paid off—at least in the preseason. The Steelers' defense had six interceptions and forced two fumbles in their four preseason games, giving them a stout plus-six turnover ratio.
A Steelers defense that forces more turnovers can help put points on the board and shorten the field for the offense, and will be a big part of any 2012 Super Bowl run for the Black and Gold.
4. Schedule Allows Steelers Time to Win and Get Healthy
While the Steelers' schedule is tough down the stretch, the first half of the schedule is substantially easier and should give the Steelers the opportunity to win even without a couple of key players lost to injury.
The Steelers open at Denver, a team with mile high expectations but big question marks, particularly about the health, durability and arm strength of QB Peyton Manning. In Week 2 the Steelers face the New York Jets, a team in turmoil that may already be staring at a QB controversy in just the second week of the season.
In Week 3, the Steelers travel to Oakland to face the Raiders—a team that has gone nine seasons without making the playoffs. The Steelers get an early bye in Week 4, which give the Steelers a chance to get healthy. Week 5, against the Philadelphia Eagles and the first game after the bye, could be the target return date for several Steelers hobbled by injury.