The announcement of the retirement by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt marked the departure of all but five players from the 2017 Steelers. This was a team that most believed should have ended the season as the Super Bowl LII Champions. Tuitt’s surprising retirement leaves only T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Cameron Sutton, and Chris Boswell remaining from a team that should have finished the season with glory rather than in ignominious fashion.
The 2017 Steelers may have been the most talented Steelers team since the 1970’s dynasty teams, while admitting that most talented does not necessarily equate to the best. Nonetheless, they finished in the top 10 in both scoring offense and defense and in the top 5 in offense and defense. The 2017 Steelers were stacked with 8 Pro Bowlers, 4 First Team All-Pros and the best offensive/defensive line combination in the league. They were fresh off appearing in the 2016 AFC Championship Game and appeared to unravel the blueprint of defeating the arch nemesis New England Patriots. So, what happened and why did that team fail to win and fall apart so quickly?
2017 Steelers Drama, Bad Luck and Misfortune
Drama followed the 2017 Steelers all throughout the season and it would not end. Where did it begin? That is hard to say as we don’t know exactly how much was being carried over from the Antonio Brown “Facebook Live” issue following the 2016 AFC Divisional Playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs. There was the Le’Veon Bell contract situation and inability for the two sides to reach a deal.
On the field, it clearly manifested in the Week 3 loss vs. the Chicago Bears, as the national anthem controversy engulfed the entire NFL. The Steelers were unable to present a united front, as Alejandro Villanueva was the only Steeler to come out and stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. The players admitted to the distraction and the Steelers came out sluggish vs. the Bears, giving up a 17-7 lead at half only to rally and lose in OT 23-16.
A Steelers Legend Forces His Way Out
James Harrison was clearly unhappy the entire season as he was a key contributor to the to the 2016 Steelers run to the AFC Championship Game. However, with rookie T.J. Watt performing at such a high level and the emergence of 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree developing, the 2017 Steelers opted for a youth movement. Harrison wanted to play and contribute, but after seeing his role diminished (inactive for 6 games, 2 DNP), it bred resentment by Harrison who stated on his Instagram that “I didn’t sign up to sit on the bench” and created a feud with Mike Tomlin as he stated that he felt he was lied to by the coaches and blasted the former coach by saying on FS1 that Tomlin only won a Super Bowl with a Bill Cowher-based team.
Only days after being surprisingly cut, he signed with the nemesis Patriots, receiving criticism from the 2017 Steelers locker room, with Maurkice Pouncey and Dupree being the most vocal, in that he forced his way off the team and ruined his Steelers legacy.
Bud Dupree is says he doesn’t want the media to turn James Harrison into “the victim” or portray that the Steelers “made him leave.”
“He chose to leave. He chose to leave, and he did.”
— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) December 27, 2017
Tomlin was interviewed on Football Night in America by Tony Dungy prior to the December 17 matchup vs. the New England Patriots. The 2017 Steelers and the Patriots were battling neck and neck for the #1 seed in the AFC, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that the winner of that game in Heinz Field would take ownership of the coveted home field advantage. That was not the surprising part, it was Tomlin’s comments that were stated a month before the game:
Mike Tomlin to Tony Dungy, per Football Night in America – November 27, 2017:
“Man, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room, it’s going to be fireworks, It’s probably going to be part one, and that’s going to be a big game. But, probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second is really going to be big. And what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, and determine the location in the second one.”
The comments got Steeler Nation riled up, as under Tomlin the Steelers have a well-earned reputation of playing down to their opponents and overlooking them. As the 2017 Steelers were eliminated in the Divisional Round, there was no question this overconfidence was felt by the team.
A Wide Receiver Rivalry
Martavis Bryant was looking like one of the up-and-coming wide receivers in the NFL following an incredible 2015 playoff showing. But he was suspended for the entire 2016 season for violating the NFL drug policy and had to earn his position back entering the 2017 Steelers season. While he started the season, he wasn’t performing at the same level, while second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster was beginning to take the city of Pittsburgh by storm. Bryant was becoming unhappy with his diminished role and a month into the season, he began pushing to be traded. Things hit a boiling point when the attention that Smith-Schuster was receiving led to Bryant taking shots at his teammate in the media.
— Chase Williams (@chasepwilliams) October 23, 2017
A Devastating Injury
Ryan Shazier was emerging as a legitimate All-Pro caliber ILB and was the class of the Steelers defense in 2017. The Steelers simply had no one else who matched his sideline-to-sideline big play ability against the rush and defending the pass. He had a Troy Polamalu-like ability to generate turnovers and made his teammates around him better, in particular his ILB partner Vince Williams. Then came the dreadful night against the Cincinnati Bengals that changed his life forever.
In the 12 games with Shazier, the 2017 Steelers only surrendered two 100-yard games and held teams to 17.5 points per game. In the 5 games after the Shazier injury, the 2017 Steelers surrendered 3 100-yard games and the average went up to 28 points per game.
Even Shazier questioned how the season outcome would have resulted if he didn’t get injured, but never more than after the painful playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Ryan Shazier, per Walking Miracle:
Ben Roethlisberger did what he could, throwing for five touchdowns and passing for nearly five hundred yards. But in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles did a Tom Brady impression. The Steelers led the NFL with fifty-five sacks, but we couldn’t get to Bortles once.
For a moment after that loss, my mind was hijacked by those “what if” thoughts. What if I hadn’t gotten hurt? What if it had just been a stinger? What if I hadn’t played in that Monday night game, as Michelle had suggested? I could have been on the field in a playoff game, helping my teammates.
The Jesse James “Catch”
Tom Brady gave the Pats a 27–24 lead with fifty-six seconds remaining, targeting Rob Gronkowski where a heathy Ryan Shazier would have been a clear difference maker in coverage. But Ben Roethlisberger put some big plays together, including a huge pitch and catch to Smith-Schuster for 69 yards and then hit Jesse James with what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown with :34 seconds left. But, even though no defensive player so much as touched him, the referee ruled the pass incomplete, saying James’s control of the ball did not survive his contact with the ground. It was a mind-boggling call that flew in the face of what we’d all seen: a catch. The NFL even revised the rules to remove the interpretation of how obvious the call was. The butterfly effect of this one call led to the 2017 Steelers falling behind the Patriots for the #1 seed and arguably cost Ben Roethlisberger the MVP, as he would have been the clear favorite with his season and leading the #1 record in the league.
The 2018 Steelers season broke down into a drama filled season that saw the Steelers implode. They haven’t been able to recapture the magic since. The Antonio Brown saga, the Bell hold-out, and the Roethlisberger elbow injury were the most notable, but one cannot overlook the retirements from Pouncey, David DeCastro, Williams, Tuitt, and Ramon Foster, the free agency defections of Dupree, Mike Hilton, and Hargrave, or the departure of Mike Munchak.
The 2017 Steelers had all the elements to win Super Bowl LII, but they also had bad luck and a lack of the sense of team that brings championships. However, when you compared them to the 2005 Steelers who won Super Bowl XL with far less individual talent, you can see just how much a unit prepared to do anything to win as a team can do. The question is, how far away was that 2017 Steelers team from achieving greatness and how much of it fell on their own shoulders?