Here's how the Steelers can surpass the Patriots as the AFC's best team in 2018

Just over a year ago, we wrote about what the Steelers, fresh off being manhandled by the Patriots in the conference championship game, would need to do in 2017 to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The blueprint was simple: Pittsburgh would need to get away from its zone-heavy scheme and feature more man-to-man looks to slow Tom Brady and New England's highly efficient short passing game. Home-field advantage was also a must since the Steelers have yet to beat the Patriots with Brady in Gillette Stadium. And while Pittsburgh's offense would be stacked, the defense needed a lot of work, especially at pass rusher and in the secondary.

To the Steelers' credit, they addressed nearly every concern cited above; they drafted outside linebacker T.J. Watt and signed cornerback Joe Haden; both players were immediate upgrades at their positions. The offense not only welcomed the return of Martavis Bryant but got an unexpected boost from rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. And when the Steelers hosted the Patriots in Week 15, they featured more man-to-man looks. And unlike previous meetings, when Brady stood comfortably in the pocket picking the defense apart, he was sacked twice and completed just 63 percent of his passes with a single touchdown. He also threw one interception -- his first to a Steelers player in 12 years.

But the Steelers would lose that game after Jesse James' go-ahead touchdown was overturned and instead ruled incomplete.

The implications of that play: Pittsburgh would lose out on home-field advantage to New England. A month later, the Steelers would get blown out of Heinz Field by the Jaguars in the divisional round while the Patriots stomped the Titans. Had the Steelers won the Week 15 matchup, they would have hosted the Titans, a team they rolled 40-17 in Week 11.

But as the old saying goes: Excuses are for losers.

The good news is that the 2017 Steelers went 13-3 (including 6-0 in the division) and were better than the 2016 version that finished 11-5 before inevitably losing to the Pats in the playoffs. The team spent last offseason adding athleticism in the secondary (Haden, third-round pick Cameron Sutton) and at outside linebacker (Watt) and more firepower to the offense (Smith-Schuster, third-round running back James Connor, tight end Vance McDonald). Now can the Steelers continue to fine tune their roster to finally get past the Patriots and back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season?

Defense still has a ways to go

Keith Butler's unit last season was much better than the 2016 version. And two seasons ago, this defense wasn't bad. It ranked 11th overall, according to Football Outsiders' metrics -- 11th against the run and 12th against the pass -- but was 19th overall in sacks per pass attempt. Last season, the Steelers ranked ninth overall in total defense (eighth against the pass, 18th against the run) and catapulted to first in sacks per pass attempt. For some perspective, Pittsburgh improved its sack total from 38 in 2016 (tied for ninth in the league) to an NFL-best 56 in 2017.

What no one could have accounted for was the loss of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a serious spinal injury in Week 13. He was placed on injured reserve and general manager Kevin Colbert has already said that Shazier won't play in 2018 while he continues his rehabilitation. The 2014 first-round pick was one of the Steelers' most dynamic players, able to use his speed and athleticism to shoot gaps, blanket tight ends and chase down running backs trying to turn the corner. There is only one Ryan Shazier, so replacing all that production was a non-starter. Pittsburgh did the best it could, signing 2014 third-rounder Sean Spence, who had spent the previous month out of football. Predictably, there was a huge drop off, opponents took advantage and the Steelers were left with a gaping hole in the middle of their defense.

Rectifying that problem is at the top of the offseason to-do list.

Even though Colbert downplayed it at the combine, this draft is deep at inside linebacker. Early mock drafts have Pittsburgh landing Alabama's Rashaan Evans with the 28th overall pick. Evans has drawn comparisons to Lawrence Timmons, the former Steelers standout who was coach Mike Tomlin's first draft pick in 2007.

Before the combine, Colbert talked up former seventh-rounder Tyler Matakevich, who suffered a shoulder injury in the same game Shazier was hurt and wasn't completely healthy the remainder of the season. The reality is that Matakevich lacks the athleticism of Shazier or Evans and is probably better suited to a backup role. Which is why the Steelers could also choose to address the position in free agency.

Titans linebacker Avery Williamson hits free agency Wednesday and the 2014 fifth-round pick fits the prototype for what the Steelers are looking for. The 6-foot-1, 236-pounder started 59 of 63 games and logged 11.5 sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He's also coming from a Dick LeBeau defense, which would make his transition to Pittsburgh's scheme easier than other places. The only issue is that Williamson won't come cheap; Spotrac.com pegs his market value at four years, $36.4 million ($9.1 million annually). Meanwhile, Pro Football Focus, via ESPN, wrote last month that the Steelers should target Zach Brown, who played for the Redskins last season.

[Brown's] 84.6 coverage grade ranked ninth among all linebackers in 2017, as he surrendered just one score while picking off three passes and breaking up another eight. Brown posted his best season against the run last year (87.7 run defense grade), and in past seasons, he has been outstanding in coverage, with 2015 being his best effort (61.0 quarterback rating against on throws into his coverage).

Brown should come cheaper than Williamson too; last offseason, Brown signed a one-year, $4.7 million deal with the Redskins.

Whatever happens in free agency likely won't affect the Steelers' draft plans to address Shazier's absence. The only question is whether it will happen in Round 1 or subsequent rounds.

Continue to solidify the secondary

The Steelers made huge strides last offseason when they signed Haden and unearthed slot cornerback Mike Hilton, a former undrafted free agent who had previously been released by the Patriots. Hilton proved to be everything Pittsburgh thought it was getting in 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson, who never played a regular-season snap because he couldn't stay healthy. Last season Hilton ranked 11th among all cornerbacks, according to PFF, and led all cornerbacks in sacks with four. The team is also high on 2017 fifth-rounder Brian Allen, the 6-3 converted wideout who played exclusively on special teams as a rookie. The hope is that he can develop into a fast, physical cornerback and contribute in 2018.

And while the Steelers love strong safety Sean Davis' potential, they would like to upgrade at free safety. Mike Mitchell is entering the final year of his contract and the team has reportedly indicated that they would like him back but well below his $8.1 million cap hit. Whatever happens with Mitchell, the Steelers will be looking outside Pittsburgh too.

In free agency, there's Morgan Burnett, Eric Reid, Tre Boston and Kenny Vaccaro, though each has their shortcomings and all have a market value north of $8 million a year. Alternatively, Pittsburgh could turn to the draft. Justin Reid (Eric's brother) has made his way onto the mock-draft radars after a strong showing at the combine. The former Stanford standout is 6-1, 204 pounds and blazed a 4.40 40-yard dash in Indianapolis. He played in the slot in college but is destined for safety at the next level, and his play-making abilities would be welcome in Pittsburgh's secondary, where Mitchell never quite lived up to expectations (four interceptions since 2014, none last season).

Adding another young playmaker to the defensive backfield would make Haden, at 28, the elder statesman of the group; 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns is 22, Sutton is 23 and Davis, Hilton and Allen are 24. Mitchell, meanwhile, will be 31 in June.

Keep getting the most out of the offense while Big Ben is there

The Steelers have made incremental improvements since the 2015 season and should they bolster the inside linebacker and safety positions in the coming months, they would make a convincing case for the favorites in the AFC, even ahead of the Patriots (normal caveats apply: Home-field advantage is critical, etc.) But that doesn't mean Pittsburgh shouldn't also continue to get better on offense.

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 last season because of various injuries but when he was healthy down the stretch he immediately became one of Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets. 

We saw it in Week 14 against the Ravens, when McDonald flashed his athleticism and finished with four catches for 52 yards, including this swing pass in which he beat a defensive back to the corner for a 20-yard gain.

We saw more of that athleticism against the Texans two weeks later. Here he is on the Steelers' first drive:

And on the next play, this:

There was some question whether the Steelers would bring back McDonald and his $3.7 million base salary next season after 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 Colbert said recently that he expects McDonald to benefit from a full offseason working with Big Ben. 

Then there's Smith-Schuster, who set the Steelers rookie record for receptions (his 58 catches were nine more than Santonio Holmes had in 2006) and will be an even bigger part of the offense in 2018. He's equal parts Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin -- and he's also fast. Here's a two-play sequence that exemplifies why Smith-Schuster is so good:

Any remaining skeptics should consult this play from Week 10 when Smith-Schuster outran 11 Colts to the end zone:

How good was Smith-Schuster's rookie campaign? He ranked sixth in total value among all wideouts, according to FO, and was first in value per play, 10 spots better than all-world teammate Antonio Brown.

There were rumors ahead of the combine that the Steelers might trade Martavis Bryant, who played his first full season in two years, after being suspended for the entire 2016 season. Not surprisingly, Bryant struggled early, partly because he went 18 months between games but also because Roethlisberger didn't trust him to be in the right place on the field. No such concerns existed between Big Ben and Brown (and to a lesser extent, Smith-Schuster and even McDonald), which is a big part of why they've been so dominant. But as the season progressed, Bryant and Roethlisberger became more comfortable with each other. First, take this interception from Week 10:

That looks like a horrible throw from Roethlisberger but only because Bryant was supposed to win on the inside -- and he didn't. Now take this play from five weeks later, when Big Ben drops a ball between the defender and the sideline and Bryant does this:

Bryant's potential -- even with the headaches -- is why the Steelers are in no hurry to trade him.

And this makes sense; Bryant will make $705,000 in the final year of his rookie deal and if he approaches his potential the Steelers' offense will be even better than it was a season ago.

This brings us to 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 a year after Bell reportedly turned down a five-year, $60 million deal, the Steelers have again used the franchise tag on him. And if the two sides can't agree on a long-term contract by July 15, Bell will play the 2018 season on a one-year deal that will pay him $14.5 million. For some perspective, that would be a 75 percent increase over the $8.25 million average salary Devonta Freeman, the closest back, earns.

Bell has again threatened to hold out. A year ago, he skipped training camp and was rusty for the first few weeks of the season. And while the Steelers don't need Bell in peak form in September to help make their Super Bowl run, at $14.5 million, he should be. Pittsburgh drafted running back James Conner in the third round and he flashed in limited duty. His season ended after a Week 15 knee injury but on 32 carries he rushed for 144 yards (4.5 per carry). Expect him to get a heavier workload in 2018 and don't be surprised if the Steelers draft another running back too. 

There has even been speculation that Pittsburgh could target a running back in the first round, though that seems ambitious.

There is only one Le'Veon Bell and he won't be replaced by one player. But as we wrote above, the Steelers have bigger needs at linebacker and in the secondary. Addressing those needs, even if Bell doesn't get a new contract, could give Pittsburgh its best team in recent memory -- and its best chance at finally surpassing the Patriots.

CBS Sports Writer

Ryan Wilson has been an NFL writer for CBS Sports since June 2011, and he's covered five Super Bowls in that time. Ryan previously worked at AOL's FanHouse from start to finish, and Football Outsiders... Full Bio

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