“We real familiar with this right here!” Tomlin yelled, leaning his back against the goal post.
In the eight years since they last won the Super Bowl, the Steelers have been acquainted with the territory of close, but not quite there. The Steelers have arguably been the AFC’s second-most successful team over the span. Relying on the coach-quarterback stability of Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have experienced no losing seasons, advancing to the playoffs five times and thrice winning the AFC North.
But their finish last season typified their general place in the AFC: better than everybody except the New England Patriots, from whom they are separated by a wide margin. The Patriots waxed Pittsburgh, 36-17, in an AFC championship game less competitive than the score indicated. In what Roethlisberger has hinted may be his final season, the Steelers know they will again have to confront the Patriots, to whom Roethlisberger has lost in both of their playoff meetings.
“For us, the Patriots are sort of like the last boss in a video game,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “You still have to go through a very tough regular season, with a lot of teams in the AFC North who have improved tremendously. I worry about whatever it’s going to take us to get there.
“The challenge of playing the Patriots will be the challenge for that week. If you think you need to beat the Patriots, then the Cleveland Browns are going to come and beat you.”
The Steelers had a quiet yet productive offseason. Their defense, stocked with recent draft hits such as Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier and Artie Burns, remains intact, plus the addition of this year’s first-rounder, T.J. Watt.
The brother of Houston Texans defensive terror J.J. Watt starred in the preseason and gives the Steelers another way to pressure quarterbacks without blitzing. As defenses have shown over the years, and the Atlanta Falcons proved in the first three quarters of the Super Bowl, the only way to slow Tom Brady is to pressure him without bringing extra rushers. Watt should help.
“We’re not just looking to beat one team,” Heyward said. “I know they’ve gone on to win some championships, but it’s a new year. Our goal is to win the Super Bowl, not just to beat the New England Patriots. If it comes down to beating them in the AFC championship, so be it. But you don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
On offense, where they boast elite players in Le’Veon Bell — the franchise-tagged running back who didn’t report to the team until the conclusion of Pittsburgh’s preseason schedule — and Antonio Brown, the Steelers will receive a significant in-house addition in the form of Martavis Bryant, a big-play threat who missed last season on a suspension. The Steelers looked upon their offensive arsenal and decided to add more, signing former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter and drafting wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, the first time they selected an offensive player higher than the third round since 2013, when they took Bell in the second.
The Steelers, then, have built a roster better equipped to slow Brady and more capable of keeping up with the Patriots on the scoreboard. The Steelers insist they aren’t worried about New England, but they know at some point, they’ll have to be.
“We can’t focus on last year,” Brown said. “We can’t worry about no opponent right now. We’re just sharpening our sword so when it’s time to go to battle, we’ll be ready.”