There have been few years during the Ben Roethlisberger era when the Steelers weren't the favorites to win the AFC North, and beyond that, among the handful of teams that could realistically challenge the Patriots for a chance to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. But the 2018 season could be Pittsburgh's best chance yet to upend New England and in the process find its way back to the title game for the first time since the 2010 season.

Since 2004, when Pittsburgh took Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick, the Steelers have have won the division seven times, made the postseason 10 times, appeared in three Super Bowls, and won the Lombardi Trophy twice. Over that same stretch, only one team -- surprise, surprise, it's the Patriots -- has a better record. Pittsburgh is 163-82, a 66.5 winning percentage, while New England is 196-59 (76.9 percent).

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But whether it's the 2004 AFC Championship Game, the Anthony Smith game in 2007, giving up 55 points in a 2013 get-together that dropped Pittsburgh to 2-6 on the season, or the four consecutive losses since (including both the 2016 AFC Championship Game and the Jesse James catch-no-catch affair), the Steelers have been unable to solve Tom Brady and the Pats' offense.

But a confluence of events could finally make 2018 the year this all changes. We've been parroting similar talking points for several years now but let us explain why this feels different.

It's all about the defense

This might seem like a weird thing to write; when Roethlisberger arrived in Pittsburgh, the defense was regularly a top-5 unit. That was the case when the Steelers won the Super Bowl after the 2005 season (the unit ranked third, according to Football Outsiders' metrics) and '08 (they finished No. 1). But players got old, draft picks didn't pan out and by 2012, the slide into mediocrity began. The defense ranked 13th that year, then fell to 19th and bottomed out at 30th in 2014. Then Keith Butler replaced LeBeau as defensive coordinator in 2015 and a scheme change, along with an infusion of youth, saw the group get faster and more athletic.

The unit ranked 11th in Butler's first two seasons at the helm and improved to 9th in 2017. On the surface, it's hard to argue the defense will be better this season because it will be without inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, one of the league's best young players who suffered a serious spinal injury last December. But there are still reasons for optimism.

First, defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are dominant, disruptive and nearly unblockable; T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are among the most athletic outside linebackers in the NFL; Vince Williams, the other inside linebacker, was second on the team with 8 sacks a season ago and just signed a long-term deal; and the secondary, which ranked 7th in 2017, should be even better.

Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden are gone, former second-round pick Sean Davis has been moved from strong safety to free safety, the Steelers signed former Packers safety Morgan Burnett, and the team drafted another safety, Terrell Edmunds out of Virginia Tech.

Edmunds was a controversial selection, partly because he didn't play inside linebacker, but also because the mock-draft cognoscenti didn't have him on their collective radars. So when his name was called with the 28th overall pick, the social-media meltdowns ensued. Edmunds fits the prototype of a Mike Tomlin defender in that he's fast, physical and smart and although he struggled in the Week 2 preseason game against the Packers -- particularly in trying to cover Jimmy Graham in the end zone ...

Edmunds showed his playmaking abilities a week later against Marcus Mariota and the Titans:

Joe Haden and Artie Burns are the starting cornerbacks, Mike Hilton, who was one of the NFL's best slot corners a season ago, returns, and for the first time in years, Pittsburgh has quality depth at the position with Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

Yes, there's still the matter of trying to replace Shazier. The Steelers signed veteran journeyman Jon Bostic during free agency, but no one's under the impression that he can fill that void. And despite reports that the team loved Rashaan Evans and Leighton Vander Esch in the draft, both players were off the board before Pittsburgh went on the clock. The Steelers did sign rookie free agent Matthew Thomas, an incredibly athletic inside linebacker from Florida State who went undrafted in part because of off-field issues. Thomas has been impressive in training camp, and didn't look out of place playing with the first team in the Week 3 preseason game.

Fans no doubt remained scarred by how the loss of Shazier immediately transformed the Steelers' defense over the final month of the season. The unit allowed 96 rushing yards per game before Shazier's injury in Week 13. Over the final five games, including the home playoff loss to the Jaguars, the Steelers gave up a whopping 134.2 rushing yards per game.

Shazier's backup, Tyler Matakevich, injured his shoulder in the same game that ended Shazier's season, and he was unable to play. Instead, Pittsburgh was forced to replace Shazier with Sean Spence, who as a street free agent had been watching football from his couch up till that point. Not surprisingly, Spence wasn't ready to step into a starting role and the Steelers' defense suffered.

But here's the thing: Run defense might be overrated.'s Evan Silva suggested as much in a tweet earlier this week in response to remarks that Aaron Donald ran away with Defensive Player of the Year honors last season despite the Rams ranking 30th in yards allowed per run attempt.

Consider this: The Rams were 6th in total defense in '17, according to Football Outsiders, which isn't a surprise. They were No. 3 against the pass and just 21st against the run, but along with Sean McVay's high-powered offense went from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 last season. Relatedly, the Saints, who ranked 31st in defense in 2016, improved to 8th last season. And like the Rams, they were dominant against the pass (5th) and decidedly less so against the run (23rd). New Orleans was 11-5 and a fluke play away from playing for the NFC Championship. Same holds for the Jaguars (1st overall defense, 1st against the pass, 27th against the run, 10-6 record) and, for our purposes here, the Steelers (9th overall, 7th against the pass, 18th against the run, 13-3 record).

If you're looking for a bright spot, this is it. Furthermore, the Steelers' problems with Brady and the Pats has never been their inability to slow down New England's running backs. It's always been figuring out how to make Brady uncomfortable to the point that he makes enough mistakes to give Pittsburgh a chance to win. Obviously, having Shazier on the field helps immensely in that regard, but it's not like the balance of power atop the AFC suddenly shifted when he joined the Steelers in 2014; Pittsburgh last beat New England in 2011.

In that 2011 game, one that has been referenced countless times as the blueprint to slowing down the Pats' high-powered offense, the Steelers ditched the zone defense they are known for and relied heavily on a man-to-man scheme that disrupted Tom Brady's ability to get the ball out quickly. The ability to get after Brady -- he was pressured for much of the game and was sacked three times -- also was critical to Pittsburgh's success.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The Falcons had a similar game plan against Brady in Super Bowl LI and it worked to perfection until about midway through the third quarter, when Atlanta's defense started showing signs of fatigue and Brady capitalized. When it was over, the Falcons defense was on the field for 99 snaps, which works out to about a game and a half. They were gassed, and worse, there wasn't much they could do about it.

But the theory was sound. The key to slowing Brady is jamming his receivers at the line of scrimmage and making it difficult for them to get into their routes. Simply put: If timing is integral to the Patriots' offense running smoothly, disrupting that timing is key. Also key: not leaving your defense on the field for 75 percent of the game.

Interestingly, the Steelers are 0-5 against the Patriots since that win in 2011. The differences from then to now include playing in Gillette Stadium (0-3), playing without Big Ben (0-1), getting Jesse James'd (0-1) and featuring zone-heavy defensive game plans (0-4). So while this might be putting the cart well ahead of the horse -- it's February, after all -- the coaching staff might want to spend some time on how to utilize a man-to-man scheme in anticipation of Brady coming to town.

It's worth noting that in that frenzied Week 15 matchup from last December, the Steelers did in fact mix in some man-coverage concepts. And Brady did struggle at times to adjust. Yes, he still finished 22 of 35 for 298 yards but he managed just one touchdown and tossed his first interception against the Steelers in 12 years.

And this brings us back to the Steelers' secondary heading into the 2018 season. It is the most athletic group in the Mike Tomlin era, and we should expect Butler to incorporate even more man-to-man looks in the coming months, especially in the Week 15 rematch against the Patriots, who'll return to Heinz Field 364 days after their last meeting.

Finally, and perhaps this is more a media-created storyline than reality, but this offseason, more than any that has preceded it, has been about the reported friction between Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady, didn't show up for voluntary workouts and has been testy with reporters and radio hosts when the topic of his personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, who was reportedly forbidden from flying on the team plane last season but found his way back onboard in recent weeks.

If history is any guide, Brady, Belichick and the Patriots will be unaffected by distractions, real or imagined, and the Steelers will have to beat them on the field, something they've had little success with this century. But this Steelers secondary, unlike previous iterations, is the best-equipped to make a run at the perennial AFC champs.

There's still that offense

We've spent nearly 2,000 words on the 2018 Steelers and only now are we getting to one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. This group is stacked, which isn't news to anyone half-paying attention. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is gone but Roethlisberger seems to be as efficient as ever -- and even more comfortable -- with Haley's replacement, Randy Fitchner. A brief rundown of the rest of the offense includes one of the best lines in the league, the best wide receiver in Antonio Brown, one of the best young wide receivers in second-year player JuJu Smith-Schuster, a potential breakout star in rookie second-pick James Washington, who will team with Justin Hunter to replace the deep-threat skills Martavis Bryant took with him to Oakland this offseason.

One of the biggest additions that flew under the radar last season was trading for tight end Vance McDonald. He appeared in just 10 regular-season games in '17 because of various injuries but when he was healthy down the stretch he immediately became one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets. 

There was some question whether the Steelers would bring back McDonald and his $3.7 million base salary for 2018 fter he managed just 14 receptions for 188 yards during the regular season. But he exploded for 10 catches for 112 yards in the playoff loss to the Jaguars and general manager Kevin Colbert said this spring that he expects McDonald to benefit from a full offseason working with Big Ben. Unfortunately, McDonald has been sidelined with a foot injury this preseason and his status for Week 1 is in doubt, but when he's healthy he's another legitimate playmaker in a long line of them for the Steelers.

And we haven't even talked about Le'Veon Bell.

One of the league's best running backs, Bell's versatility -- he had 1,291 rushing yards last season to go along with 85 receptions -- means he wants to be paid for his contributions beyond the running game. That's perfectly reasonable but an offseason after Bell reportedly turned down a five-year, $60 million deal -- and months after turning down a reported $70 million -- the running back enters what will likely be his last season in Pittsburgh. Don't be surprised if Tomlin runs the wheels off Bell over the next four months. Partly because this could be the organization's best chance to get back to a Super Bowl, but also because Bell will almost certainly be elsewhere in a year's time.

The common wisdom is that the Steelers will only go as far as Big Ben takes them but it might be more accurate to say that Pittsburgh's defense, which is one of the youngest units in the league, could be the catalyst to another title run.