NEW ORLEANS – A good bit of the time since that first rainy day in Latrobe has been spent listing what they don't have. Such as a set of proven playmaking defensive backs. A No. 1 tight end. The kind of outside pass rushers that could make this 3-4 defense as frightening to opponents as some of their previous editions. Backups at every position with the potential to develop into quality starters. Martavis Bryant for a calendar year. Le'Veon Bell for the first three of the 16-game regular season.
All of that is true, and some of it just isn't going to get fixed between now and Sept. 12, that being the date of the regular season opener, which for these Steelers will happen inside FedEx Field against the Washington Redskins. It's not all going to get fixed, because it can't. There's no such thing as an NFL team without issues, or without potential issues that are only a couple of injuries to key personnel away from blooming into calamities.
As Vince Lombardi once put it, "The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have," and as the Steelers embark on a season in which they plan to contend for another one of those silver footballs named after him, what they have are some difference-making individuals to go along with some units that could provide a winning edge against some opponents. It will be how they balance those against what they don't have, coupled with the adversity that becomes an inevitable part of every team's season, that will define them in 2016.
There still is one game remaining on the preseason schedule – that coming on Thursday night in Charlotte against the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers – but for all intents and purposes the final warm-up took place last night in the Superdome and ended with the Steelers posting a 27-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints. It's fair to call that the final warm-up because the evening against the Panthers will be for the guys on the bottom of what by then will be a 75-man roster, while the players who will make the most impact on the soon-to-be-here regular season will be spectators by the end of the first quarter.
What these Steelers have as they prepare to embark on this journey is a set of stars who have established themselves as difference-makers on the field and as professional examples to their teammates off the field. It starts with Ben Roethlisberger, because he's not only an individual difference-maker for the Steelers at his position, but he's also the ultimate difference-maker for this team because he makes other individuals better.
Game action from the Pittsburgh Steelers' third preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.
"He arrived in shape, and he's doing a great job of being him and doing the things required for him to do," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "The thing that sticks out the most is the pinpoint accuracy of his deep ball. His deep balls have been uniquely accurate, even for him. And that's exciting."
Roethlisberger's accuracy has been to the level where it can transform former-defensive-lineman-turned-fullback Rosie Nix into a deep threat – I saw it myself during the Friday Night Lights practice – which indeed is exciting, but even more than that has been Roethlisberger's understanding of what Tomlin means when he says, "doing the things required for him to do."
Roethlisberger has evolved from being a quarterback to being the quarterback, and the list of guys in the league today who legitimately are the quarterback for their teams is a short one. Always good when it was bombs-away, Roethlisberger also has become deadly accurate in the game of pitch-and-catch, and his abilities to operate in the no-huddle are as good as there are in the NFL today.
These Steelers are more than a one-man show, though, with Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Le'Veon Bell all knowing what it's like to be voted first-team All-Pro. On defense, there is William Gay, whose combination of work ethic, demeanor, professional approach, and on-field production give him a presence that is both undeniable and very valuable. But even acknowledging everything Harrison brings to this team and is for this team, Cam Heyward is the leader of this defense. Last year, Heyward was a player who set the tone for his fellow defensive lineman, but now his influence has spread to all corners of the locker room. And the strength of that locker room will help these Steelers in ways only those within it ever will know.
"It's a highly conditioned group," said Tomlin about the 2016 edition. "They do a good job of communicating. They appear to have the makings of a group that's legitimately close, and by legitimately close I mean it's beyond spending time together being friends. It's about challenging one another, telling each other the truth, being accountable to one another. I saw many positive signs of that development, and that's as critical a part of our team development as becoming good fundamental tacklers and protectors of the ball on offense or any of the other things that are central to team development."
Last night's game here didn't count in the standings, but it did provide a sneak peek of the kind of team the 2016 Steelers will be. The defense did allow 19 first downs and a 46 percent conversion rate on third downs and 360 net yards of offense, but Roethlisberger and the offense neutered the impact of those statistics with a couple of touchdown drives in the first quarter that allowed the Steelers to play from ahead, and then three takeaways by the defense late in the game preserved the lead and sent the team home with a victory.
They will play as a team, because they are a team in every sense of that word. They will challenge one another and be accountable to each other. They will embrace the physical aspects of the sport, and they will bond together to fight the adversity they are certain to face. They will do it with these players and these coaches, with the strengths and weaknesses of this roster.
And in the end, the measure of who they are will have been determined by what they did with what they had.