2016 NFL Preview: Steelers can score enough to win a Super Bowl

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

No. 5: PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Pittsburgh Steelers have put together one of the great offenses in NFL history, on paper. And we might never see it on the field.

Ben Roethlisberger. Le’Veon Bell. Antonio Brown. Martavis Bryant. Ladarius Green. Some high-level complementary pieces like DeAngelo Williams, Markus Wheaton and a good prospect in Sammie Coates. All-Pro linemen David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers offense is absolutely loaded.

And they can’t stay out of their own way.

Last season we saw Roethlisberger, Bell, Bryant and Brown on the field at the same time for 21 snaps. When Bell and Bryant were finally coming back from suspension, Roethlisberger was hurt. Right after everyone got healthy and eligible, Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury. So 2016 was supposed to be the year this offense took off.

Then Bryant got suspended for a year. Bell is facing a four-game suspension. Maybe 2017 will be a more convenient time for them to stay out of trouble.

Still, the pieces are in place to make a deep run. Multiple teams every year can look back and say if this or that happened they’d have been in the Super Bowl. For the Steelers it’s unmistakable.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Steelers, without Brown (concussion), Bell (knee) or Williams (foot), led the Denver Broncos 13-12 with 10 minutes left in a divisional playoff game. They had the ball at Denver’s 34. Then Fitzgerald Toussaint, a second-year back with 24 career regular-season carries, fumbled. He was only playing because Bell and Williams were injured. The Broncos recovered, went on a 13-play touchdown drive and ended up winning a Super Bowl. The Steelers have to feel that if Bell or Williams (or Brown for that matter) could have played, they would have won and moved on to the AFC championship game. But those are the breaks — and the Steelers caught about a dozen breaks the week before in their playoff win at the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers can’t do anything about the past, but they can look back at that game and feel pretty confident for this season. If they could go on the road and nearly beat the eventual champs without their top two running backs and arguably the NFL’s best receiver, then why can’t 2016 be their year?

The Bryant suspension hurts, but Wheaton and Coates might be able to replace him. I don’t think Bell’s suspension will affect Pittsburgh too much, and it could help him stay fresh late in the season. However, Bell is in danger of becoming a constant off-field worry for the Steelers, like Bryant is. Once Bell returns the offense will be mostly intact, and it should be incredible.

The defense isn’t terrible either. The Steelers will probably line up four first-round picks at linebacker, and there are other promising pieces elsewhere on the defense. The defense played a little better late last season. Nobody will confuse it for the 2015 Broncos, but the defense just has to be good enough. The offense will do the heavy lifting.

Defenses can win championships, but teams have won Super Bowls with average defenses before. A great offense can win a championship, too. And the Steelers might have the offense to get that done.

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown hope to lead the Steelers back to the Super Bowl (AP)
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown hope to lead the Steelers back to the Super Bowl (AP)

As wonderful as Heath Miller was, Ladarius Green is an interesting replacement for the retired tight end. Green has talent but was stuck behind Antonio Gates with the San Diego Chargers. Maybe he can break out now that he has a shot to shine in a great offense, though he’s still recovering from offseason ankle surgery.

Losing starters like offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, cornerback Antwon Blake and nose tackle Steve McLendon doesn’t help, but they should be replaceable. The draft could bring some immediate help for the secondary. The team took cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and cornerback/safety Sean Davis in the second. Grade: C

The Steelers and Arizona Cardinals were the only teams in the NFL to average 6 yards per play last season, and they both averaged 6.3. The Steelers’ offense was marvelous last year, and that was with Le’Veon Bell playing only five full games. Nothing against DeAngelo Williams, who was great for most of last season, but Bell is arguably the NFL’s best back when he’s healthy. The “when he’s healthy” part is key, as Bell has suffered two straight season-ending knee injuries. But the Steelers had one of the best offenses in the NFL with Ben Roethlisberger and Bell on the field together for roughly four quarters all season. The Steelers have to dream about what might happen if Roethlisberger and Bell can both be healthy one of these postseasons.

The secondary wasn’t that bad last season, but it’s still a concern. The Steelers gave up 4,350 passing yards, third-most in the league. They were a little better in yards-per-play allowed and middle of the road in passer rating allowed, but it’s clearly the weakness of the team. William Gay, the No. 1 corner, turns 32 on Jan. 1. Ross Cockrell, the presumptive starting corner on the other side, has seven career starts. He was cut by the Buffalo Bills before last season. There’s uncertainty at safety as well. Some young players could come along quickly and help out, but the pass defense might unravel the Steelers’ Super Bowl hopes.

After starting all 16 games in 2013 and 2014, Roethlisberger missed four games last year. And it was terrifying for the Steelers. Mike Vick proved to be finished as an NFL passer and Landry Jones was below average. The Steelers’ title hopes end if Roethlisberger is out, and in a competitive division they can’t afford for him to miss much time. The problem is exacerbated by the left tackle position, where unproven Alejandro Villanueva (10 career starts) will be protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side. We all know that Roethlisberger will hold the ball longer than most quarterbacks, looking to extend plays, but his top priority this season has to be staying upright.

I’ll pick two, because they have a similar story. Outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree are former first-round picks who have yet to show much in the NFL. Jones has five sacks in three seasons and Dupree had four as a rookie last year. There’s a reason James Harrison was playing so much last season at age 37. There’s also a reason the Steelers declined to pick up Jones’ fifth-year option. Jones and Dupree are still young and could have a big jump in them, and if either one does it could have a huge impact on the Steelers defense.

Cosell: “It’s not profound, but pass rush and coverage last year weren’t there. Jarvis Jones was a first-round pick in 2013 and he hasn’t become the pass rusher they had hoped. This year, I’d assume they’d like to start Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree at outside linebacker with the idea those guys can be edge pass rushers. Dupree showed flashes last year and he’s big and really athletic. But this is a defense, that from the outside linebacker position, needs pass rush. And then we know about their secondary — it’s still a question mark.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Steelers and the rest of the AFC North.]

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “With Martavis Bryant suspended for the year, Le’Veon Bell likely to miss the first four games of the season and Ladarius Green nursing a nagging ankle injury, there’s room for a Sammie Coates breakout. A stellar combination of size (6-foot-1 and 212 pounds) and speed (4.43-second 40-yard dash) the Auburn product has drawn rave reviews this offseason. He’s someone to keep an eye on as the preseason ramps up, and is worth a late-round flyer in leagues with 12 or more teams.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Antonio Brown played 12 games with Ben Roethlisberger last season. In those 12 games he had 119 receptions, 1,599 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s a 16-game pace of about 159 receptions and 2,132 yards. That’s not from “Madden,” that’s real life. The NFL records for a season are 143 catches and 1.964 yards. Can Brown break both records this season?

He has a good chance if Roethlisberger stays healthy for 16 games. Brown’s receptions the last three years have gone from 110 to 129 to 136. His receiving yards have gone from 1,499 to 1,698 to 1,834. He just turned 28 so he shouldn’t be slowing down. If Brown hadn’t wasted a quarter of last season catching passes from Mike Vick and Landry Jones, he might already have both records. Maybe the Steelers decide to spread the ball around a little more, though losing Martavis Bryant for the season doesn’t give them a huge incentive to do so. I think Brown breaks at least one of the records this season. And if he comes close to 150 catches and 2,000 yards, he might win an NFL MVP award.

HOW MUCH DID MARTAVIS BRYANT MEAN TO THE STEELERS OFFENSE?

This is a great stat I’d like to borrow from Rotoworld’s Evan Silva: In Bryant’s 22 games, Ben Roethlisberger averaged 331.2 yards with 43 touchdowns. In his last 22 games without Bryant, Roethlisberger’s average dips to 269 yards with 35 touchdowns. That’s a big difference.

Bryant has rare explosion, especially for a big (6-foot-4) receiver. Bryant averages 17.3 yards per catch. Among those who qualify, only 43 players in NFL history have averaged more. Bryant doesn’t qualify yet and we’re dealing with a small sample size, but his impact is clear. He can stretch a defense like very few others can.

The Steelers could employ Ladarius Green as more of a vertical threat than Heath Miller was at tight end, but they’ll have to mostly hope that Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton can replace Bryant’s production. Wheaton had a nice finish to 2016, starting with a 201-yard game at Seattle. He had 50, 65, 62, 41 and 57 yards in the five regular-season games after that. Wheaton averaged 17 yards per catch. Wheaton should be productive again, but the spotlight will really be on Coates. Coates only had one catch as a rookie last year, but was a third-round pick and a nice prospect of coming out of Auburn. He’s big and explosive, like Bryant. If Coates’ good offseason and impressive start to camp carries over to the regular season, maybe the Bryant loss won’t be so bad.

The Steelers play in one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, so just winning the AFC North will be tough. If they do, they can also win a Super Bowl. Nobody will want to play the Steelers, who have the ability to score 500 points this season. This will be a special offense if they can stay relatively healthy and out of any further trouble. If the defense is just average they’ll have a chance to win it all.

If Bryant is tough to replace, Bell is just one of those guys who can’t stay healthy and Williams slows way down at age 33 after a pretty good amount of work in 2015, the offense might be just good and not great. Then the defensive deficiencies will become an even bigger concern. It’s pretty easy to envision the Steelers making a Super Bowl run. It’s also possible they finish third in their own division.

I wish we could have seen a full-strength Steelers offense. That would have been fun. Even without Martavis Bryant for the season and Le’Veon Bell for four games, I still think the Steelers offense is good enough to get the team a top-two seed in the AFC. Then all the Steelers would have to do is win two games to make the Super Bowl. I have them falling just short of that, but they’ll be exciting to watch along the way.

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

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!