Peter King of Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and five of ESPN’s football experts pick the Steelers to win the Super Bowl.
Ten more of ESPN’s gridiron gurus pick the Steelers to lose in the Super Bowl, as does Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview edition.
Las Vegas isn’t quite as enthusiastic, but has the Steelers listed at 10-1 to win the Super Bowl, tied with Arizona and Carolina but behind Green Bay at 6-1, New England at 7-1 and Seattle at 9-1.
These are all very educated opinions.
But I just don’t see it.
King et al. are legitimate experts, more well-versed in NFL expertise than me. Their predictions give me pause.
But I still don’t see it.
The NFL is all about passing. The two most important positions are quarterback and cornerback.
The Steelers are all set at QB. Ben Roethlisberger is among the league’s best, and is aided and abetted by football’s top receiver, Antonio Brown. Seven of ESPN’s experts pick Roethlisberger to win NFL MVP.
But the Steelers’ cornerbacks don’t cut it. How can anyone say otherwise?
If they’re part of a good secondary unit, Willie Gay is a nickel and Ross Cockrell doesn’t get off the bench. There’s no semblance of a shutdown guy.
The safeties aren’t much better. Mike Mitchell did well in 2015 and brings physicality. But Robert Golden is a career special-teams player who has started just three games in his four-year NFL career (all last year).
Even if those players perform to the best of their capabilities, that’s not a Super Bowl secondary. That’s difficult to even remotely consider.
But my imagination is vivid, and works overtime. Let’s play the what-if game.
The Steelers drafted University of Miami cornerback Artie Burns in the first round for a reason. They got 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert from Cleveland for a reason.
If that reason is to coach ‘em up, play ‘em and trust first-round pedigree over whatever it is they see in Gay and Cockrell, that could burnish the Steelers’ chances. Fix Burns and Gilbert, and use them to fix the cornerback position.
Gay, by the way, should get snaps. He just shouldn’t be your best corner. As noted, Gay should play nickel.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake needs to elicit improvement from Burns and Gilbert. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler needs to have the guts to use them. Everybody concerned must understand that the Steelers’ secondary, as currently comprised, just won’t be good enough.
It wouldn’t hurt if second-round pick Sean Davis jumped up the depth chart at safety, either. He’s currently slotted as the nickel.
New faces being fast-tracked to playing time isn’t the Steelers’ way. That violates the sanctity of the defense’s complexity, which – they think – ranks somewhere between quantum physics and Zen philosophy. A donut with no holes is a Danish.
But it’s not just what you know. It’s what you can do. Talent should always be trusted most. The Steelers don’t necessarily feel that way.
I’m predicting the Steelers go 10-6. If that’s good enough to win the AFC North, the attendant advantages give them a shot at a decent playoff run.
But the Steelers won’t win the Super Bowl.
Roethlisberger and Brown would have to go beyond expectations that are already sky-high. Even then, I just can’t see Cockrell and Golden running out of the tunnel at Houston’s NRG Stadium as starters on Feb. 5. That’s incomprehensible.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).