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Labriola on the 2018 Steelers

Seventy-four points; 1,151 total net yards of offense; 143 offensive plays; 277 yards rushing with a 5.7 average per attempt; 58 percent conversion rate on third downs; nine touchdowns and one punt. The team that finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in the league in defense allowed 505 passing yards. All of this is a statistical description of Super Bowl LII.

Here’s more: That No. 4-ranked defense belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles, who gave up 33 points, to go along with 613 total yards, and didn’t force a single punt.

In fact, the Eagles made just one defensive play in the whole game:

With the Eagles trying to protect a 38-33 lead, the Patriots were looking at a second-and-2 from their own 33-yard line. Philadelphia defensive end Brandon Graham, who led the team with 9.5 sacks during the regular season, got a half-step on the offensive tackle, and got close enough to Tom Brady to slap the ball away for a sack-strip that was recovered by Derek Barnett. Ballgame. Dump the confetti.

That bit of history is recounted here as a way of making the point that this might not be the worst era in NFL history to be the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

After completing a 3-1 preseason with a 39-24 victory over the Carolina Panthers last night at Heinz Field, the Steelers will enter the 2018 NFL season looking very much like a team that could find itself in a lot of games like Super Bowl LII, a team that will have to depend on its offense, particularly through the early stages of a year in which it will have to depend on its defense to continue to develop and improve through autumn and then into the winter.

As the 2018 offseason program ended and training camp loomed on the horizon, the issues with the Steelers offense were few, and by the middle of the preseason most of those question marks had been re-formed into exclamation points.

James Washington emerged as the sure-handed deep threat at wide receiver the Steelers needed to replace Martavis Bryant, who was traded to Oakland for a third-round pick during the draft. In addition to making plays regularly during practices, Washington had seven catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns during the preseason. Clearly, he is capable of filling that hole.

At the start of the 2017 season, Le’Veon Bell wasn’t quite Le’Veon Bell after missing all of the offseason, training camp, and the preseason, but James Conner wasn’t ready. A rookie who had missed a lot of time himself during the offseason and training camp with nagging injuries, Conner was behind Bell on the depth chart but unable to be the runner-receiver-blocker the position demands. This year, Conner is exponentially better in all three areas.

The offensive line issues came in the depth category, where Jerald Hawkins’ injury during OTAs meant there was a need for a swing tackle, and Ramon Foster’s knee injury in Latrobe thinned the interior depth because B.J. Finney became the starting left guard. But Matt Feiler emerged as a guy who potentially could play all five spots up front, while rookie Chuks Okorafor looked less and less like a guy who would need a redshirt year as the preseason progressed.

One of the consistent aspects of the camp/preseason phase is that the focus tends toward the new players who often are viewed as keys to improvement and ultimately success, but so often if that door is to be unlocked it will be done by the returning stars.

In that respect, the Steelers’ offense is entering the regular season in good shape. Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp was described by Coach Mike Tomlin as “awesome,” and by all accounts Antonio Brown’s transition into a thirtysomething has been as smooth as humanly possible. With the exception of Foster’s MCL sprain, the offensive line is showing no evidence of decline, and once Bell signs his franchise tender and reports to the team – believed to be on Labor Day – the band will be back together.

Therefore, it’s believed that whether these Steelers will be able to make beautiful music this season will depend upon their defense. Once again. As it has been since Ryan Shazier sustained that injury to his spine last Dec. 4 in Cincinnati.

There has been a lot of speculation on how the Steelers plan on getting this job done, and through this preseason there has been little tangible evidence of the plan and therefore scant evidence that the plan can and will succeed. Part of that has been because of the series of nagging injuries dogging several of the key components during the training camp phase – T.J. Watt, Sean Davis, Bud Dupree, and Morgan Burnett – while another part has to do with the natural reticence to put too much on video for opponents to study before the start of the regular season.

What is somewhat baffling is the continued issue with tackling, even though there has been some improvement over the final two games of the preseason. During the offseason, the Steelers sought unrestricted free agents who had a reputation as being solid tacklers, they found and hired a defensive backs coach with a reputation as a good teacher and a stickler for proper tackling technique, and then during their three weeks at Saint Vincent College they tackled every day in practice.

That has to be cleaned up, first and foremost, because only then can some of the other elements fall into place. Which sub-packages will be utilized most often? What personnel grouping will be on the field in those sub-packages? Is the switching of the outside linebackers – Bud Dupree to the right side and T.J. Watt to the left side – going to have the desired impact? Can this secondary improve upon the 11 interceptions its members posted last season? Will the rush-and-coverage combination force offenses to do more than simply pitch-and-catch?

The preseason is over, and the opener in Cleveland against the Browns looms in the near future. Understood is that the team in the black jerseys at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept. 9 still will be a work in progress, but while working on their shortcomings, the Steelers must find ways to win games, because five of their first eight will be against AFC North opponents.

Winning the division is first on the to-do list, and all of that other stuff is too far into the future to be concerned about right now. Over the next couple of months, these Steelers will line up each week, compete, try to improve and get out of as many stadiums as possible with a victory. Then come mid-December, the idea will be to be playing their best football of the season as they qualify for the playoffs, and then see how things unfold from there.

But today, this looks to be a team that will go as far as its offense will carry it. And as far as its defense will allow it.

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