Recent history suggests the Pittsburgh Steelers may find a third-straight trip to the postseason difficult. Pittsburgh earned an AFC wild-card spot in 2015 for a second consecutive playoff berth, the fifth time in the last 15 years the Steelers have completed the back-to-back feat. However, Pittsburgh hasn’t managed to make it three-in-a-row since 1997, the last of six concurrent postseason berths.
Yet, owning arguably the best aerial combination in the NFL behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers can make it three years running.
The Steelers were ranked third in total offense and tied for fourth in scoring last season, and there’s reason to believe the offense could be even better next season. Here’s three reason why the Steelers will make the playoffs in the upcoming NFL season.
After running back Le’Veon Bell went down with a serious knee injury, veteran DeAngelo Williams stepped up. While Pittsburgh was only 16th in total rushing, Mike Tomlin's squad was tied for sixth with 16 rushing scores last season.
With Williams posting the best year of his career, and Bell one of the top multi-faceted backs in the league, Pittsburgh should have an effective attack behind Roethlisberger. Packages that include Bell and Williams on the field together should provide plenty of offense, and open up opportunities for the passing game.
"There are definitely going to be packages where me and 'D-Lo' are going to be out there at the same time," Bell said according to NFL.com. "I'm ready for that."
Since Williams will be entering his 11th season, the Steelers won’t ask him to carry the ball 200 times like they did last season as long as Bell’s healthy and in top form. Bell’s entering a contract year, so the pressure is on the 24-year-old to have a strong season.
Protecting Big Ben
Roethlisberger missed four games last season due to an MCL injury, which was caused by his left knee rolling up, and he also labored through a shoulder injury in the postseason. But Pittsburgh’s offensive line did an overall solid job last season, and general manager Kevin Colbert worked to keep the group together.
The Steelers re-signed Ramon Foster, who started all 16 games last season at left guard while Pittsburgh’s starting offensive line experienced a rather healthy year with only left tackle Alejandro Villanueva missing any games.
Pittsburgh also refortified the line by stealing left tackle Ryan Harris away from Denver, a line that did allow 39 sacks but was protecting a mostly immobile and dwindling Peyton Manning rather than a scrambling and powerful Roethlisberger who can still avoid pressure with his feet.
Last season, while he only appeared in 12 games, Roethlisberger took a career-low 20 sacks behind his current line and his sack rate also dropped to 4.1 percent, another career-low. There’s little doubt another healthy year from his line will keep Roethlisberger in the MVP discussion throughout 2016 and Pittsburgh in the postseason hunt.
The addition of offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, a fourth-round pick from LSU, might be one of the biggest steals of the Steelers' draft. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak has high praise for the rookie and it wouldn't be surprising if Hawkins makes an impact early in the season.
Welcome Ladarius Green
The retirement of Heath Miller could have left a gaping hole in Pittsburgh’s offense, but Colbert did his job by signing Green to a four-year deal. The former Charger could be the dynamic tight end the Steelers have been missing for some time.
At first glance, Green’s stats don’t suggest he’s a dominate force. However, he should garner far more attention from Roethlisberger than he ever did with San Diego’s Philip Rivers. Over his 11-year career, Miller was targeted on average 75 times a season, whereas Green’s spent first four years in the league behind Antonio Gates and mustered only 122 total targets.
Still, Green’s made the most of his limited looks and averaged 14.1 yards per reception. He’s also, when healthy, considered a stronger athlete than Miller ever was and could be a unique playmaker in the red zone.
Pittsburgh led the NFL with 11 two-point conversion attempts and were successful eight times, the highest success rate in the league. Green, 26, is another solid weapon for a loaded arsenal.