This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Buoyed by an improved defense, the Steelers posted a 13-3 record in 2017, their best mark since 2004. The nucleus of the team's offense is intact for now, but it remains to be seen how long Big Ben will stick around and whether the team with go all in on a Le'Veon Bell extension.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
SHOWING BELL THE MONEY
The Steelers were unable to work out an extension with Le'Veon Bell before the July 16 deadline, meaning the 26-year-old will play under the team's franchise tag (worth $14.5 million in 2018) for a second season in a row. Last year, he skipped training camp, a scenario he's expected to repeat. Furthermore, Bell and his agent have mentioned that he'll report to the team in time for Week 1, just as he did last September. A three-time Pro Bowler, he's undeniably one of the best backs in the league, having rushed for more than 1,200 yards and adding more than 600 receiving yards in both of the past two campaigns. The question isn't whether he deserves to be paid, but rather how much. Last July, Bell turned down a five-year deal that would have made him the highest paid back in the league. Instead, he earned $12.1 million under the tag. Now that a long-term pact with the Steelers is off the table, Bell is poised to play his final campaign in Pittsburgh as one of the Killer B's with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and do-it-all wide receiver Antonio Brown. In the unlikely scenario that Bell holds out, the Steelers will turn to second-year pro James Conner out of the backfield, with some combination of rookie Jaylen Samuels, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley handling the rest of the workload.
DOES BIG BEN STILL HAVE IT?
Ben Roethlisberger has been one of the more effective quarterbacks in the league for some time, so retirement chatter over the past few years generated a degree of concern throughout Steeler Nation. The team took the notion seriously enough to select Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and then a shaky start last season led many to wonder if Big Ben was still among the league's elite. Roethlisberger looked inconsistent through the first eight games, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but after the team's Week 9 bye, he turned things around, subsequently posting an 18:5 TD:INT ratio. This offseason, the 36-year-old stated a hope to play three to five more seasons. That is, if he can stay healthy and his offensive line remains stout. The veteran's declaration didn't stop the Steelers from using a third-round pick in April on Mason Rudolph. Roethlisberger will be working with a new offensive coordinator in 2018, as former quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner replaces Todd Haley. The transition should be smooth, though, as Fichtner has worked with coach Mike Tomlin for the last 11 years and has an excellent working relationship with Roethlisberger. Under Fichtner, look for continued usage of the no-huddle offense, in which Roethlisberger thrived down the stretch last year.
DEFENSE IS NO LONGER CURTAINS
The Steelers have tended to make heavy investments in their defense over the past few seasons, and that trend continued into the 2017 NFL Draft when they spent a first-round pick on outside linebacker T.J. Watt. His addition along with defensive end Cameron Heyward's return from injury aided the team's jump from 38 sacks in 2016 to a league-leading 56 last year. The consistent pass rush helped the team finish among the leaders in passing yards allowed (fifth), total yards allowed (fifth) and points allowed (seventh). However, the team's ability to contain the run took a hit when inside linebacker Ryan Shazier went down with a season-ending spinal injury Week 13. The Steelers allowed more than 100 rushing yards in four of their final five games after only doing so twice in their first 11. Because Shazier won't be back in 2018, Pittsburgh signed Jon Bostic, who racked up 97 tackles for the Colts last season, to fill in at middle linebacker. While it's still concerning that the linebacker position wasn't addressed in the draft, the Steelers did add Terrell Edmunds in the first round, not to mention fellow safety Morgan Burnett in free agency. Both should provide valuable run support from the back end. All told, the Steelers still have the pieces in place to rank among the league leaders in most defensive categories.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Antonio Brown
Brown was pacing the NFL in targets and receptions in 2017 until suffering a lower-leg injury Week 15. He still finished with his fifth consecutive 100-plus catch effort, nine touchdowns and a league-leading 1,533 receiving yards, despite playing in just 14 games. The consistently stellar wideout is signed through 2021.
RISING: JuJu Smith-Schuster
The impressive effort turned in by Smith-Schuster in 2017 enabled the Steelers to feel comfortable about trading the mercurial Martavis Bryant. A decent portion of Bryant's 84 targets should go to Smith-Schuster.
FALLING: Ben Roethlisberger
Though Roethlisberger is coming off another productive season, his body has absorbed plenty of punishment over the years. Meanwhile, the Steelers have selected possible successors in consecutive drafts.
SLEEPER: Vance McDonald
It's time to end the tight-end-by-committee approach and give McDonald the job. A serious threat in the passing game down the stretch, he had 10 catches for 112 yards in the team's playoff loss to the Jaguars.
KEY JOB BATTLE – BACKUP QUARTERBACK
With all of the team's core offensive pieces returning, the Steelers' main position battle on that front is less about playing time this season, and more about the long-term future of the team at the quarterback position. With two years remaining on what seems sure to be Ben Roethlisberger's final contract, Pittsburgh must identify and groom his successor. Landry Jones enters camp looking to retain the top backup role, having done a serviceable job behind Big Ben, but the team selected Josh Dobbs in the fourth round last year and then used a third-round pick this year to add Mason Rudolph to the mix. Jones knows the playbook, and Dobbs possesses great athleticism, but Rudolph appears to have the most upside. One of the three is poised to be the future of the team, while one is unlikely to be on the 53-man roster in Week 1.
James Washington – WR (Rd. 2, No. 60 – Oklahoma State)
Disappointing combine results but a productive receiver in college.
Terrell Edmunds – S (Rd. 1, No. 28 – Virginia Tech)
Bolsters the secondary though may not start right away.
Jon Bostic – LB (from Colts)
Coming off his best season as a pro but injury-prone.
Mike Mitchell – S (FA)
Releasing the big hitter freed up valuable salary-cap space.
William Gay – CB (to Giants)
Defensive fixture had lost a step but played every game for 11 seasons.
THE INJURY FRONT
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR – Limited with a knee injury this offseason, Smith-Schuster insists the issue will not impact his sophomore campaign. In the wake of the departure of Martavis Bryant, Smith-Schuster figures to improve upon his rookie performance, which amounted to 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns through 14 games in 2017.
James Conner, RB – After totaling just 32 carries in 14 games last season, Conner underwent surgery to repair the MCL in his left knee last December. Now fully recovered, he showed impressive speed during offseason workouts. He'll thus compete with rookie Jaylen Samuels as well as veterans Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint for a spot in the Pittsburgh backfield behind starter Le'Veon Bell.
Ryan Shazier, LB – Following last season's spinal stabilization surgery and his continued rehabilitation, Shazier was placed on Pittsburgh's reserve/PUP list and will not play this coming season.