The Steelers have been the 2nd best team in the NFL over the last 15 years, winning a pair of Super Bowls and often being the last team standing between the Patriots and a Super Bowl berth. I have no doubt the Steelers will win their division and get a Top 3 seed if healthy. They have a Top 3 QB, RB, and WR combo and a defense that plays better against non-New England teams.
The Steelers will score a lot of points, mainly through their Killer B’s. Ben Roethlisberger has easily been the best QB in Steelers history setting many records in franchise history and being the only QB not named Terry Bradshaw to win them Super Bowls. He has a solid supporting cast with the game’s 2nd best running back and receiver in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. In the 2017 AFCCG, they were both able to be neutralized and the rest of the Steelers offensive options were unable to take advantage of 1-on-1 opportunities.
Bell is the Steelers primary offensive engine. How he goes is how the Steelers offense goes. Bell runs with a patient running style, often waiting for a seam to open up behind the OL and quickly work through that hole. That style works against attacking, 1-gap defenses, but is counter-productive against Belichick’s read-and-react, 2-gap scheme. In addition to the running abilities, he’s also a receiving threat out of the backfield a la James White. Bell can run routes with the skills of a WR, creating a matchup problem against base defenses in the passing and running the ball against nickel and dime defenses.
On the other end, the Steelers love to take downfield shots to Antonio Brown. Brown is a threat on all levels and every time he touches the ball he’s a threat to score a touchdown. The Patriots have traditionally always placed Devin McCourty in an over the top role on Brown and the last two years have had Malcolm Butler cover him underneath. That strategy has worked, preventing Brown from making many impact plays. However, he’s less important than Bell in terms of who the Patriots should stop in the passing game because his value is mostly related to if Roethlisberger can stand on 2 feet.
Defensively, the Patriots haven’t had many issues the last 10 years against the Steelers, with Tom Brady having 0 interceptions against a Mike Tomlin defense. The Steelers zone blitz defense hasn’t been the same as it was 10 years ago with players who were perfect fits aging and retiring. The Steelers have gone more towards a pure zone defense with the occasional fire zone blitz or blitz. In a head to head matchup against the Patriots, it’s not going to work against a QB who has seen and ripped apart that defense multiple times and as recently as January.
In terms of defensive personnel, the Steelers best players are Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Ryan Shazier. They have a couple bit players beyond those 3, but it’s a very young defensive unit. It looks like first round pick TJ Watt could line up either inside to replace Lawrence Timmons or they may play him on the outside similar to his role at Wisconsin. I think it will be more towards the latter. They have a young secondary with Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and Sean Davis still on rookie contracts and the two veterans in Mike Mitchell and William Gay. Mitchell is average overall, but nothing to scare New England and William Gay is a solid slot corner when he isn’t matched up against Julian Edelman in zone.
Overall I do think the Steelers will finish Top 10 offensively and defensively in points per game, but could be a case of the offense sucking up the clock to hide a defensive unit that’s average in terms of giving up points per drive. The Steelers play a lot of bend but don’t break style, stopping teams once they get in the Red Zone. It’s an effective strategy against non-New England teams because the Patriots are willing and able to take the short stuff and the free yards to march down the field to score points. Overall I’m pretty confident to say the Steelers are the 2nd best team in the AFC and the team that’s most likely taking on the Patriots in the AFC title game in January.