When the Pittsburgh Steelerssigned Ben Roethlisberger to a new five-year, $99 million deal, they locked up one of the best quarterbacks around -- and they started the clock on their window to compete for a Super Bowl.
Below is my five-point plan for Pittsburgh to maximize this five-season opportunity:
1) Upgrade the defense
The Steelers' defense had gotten very old over the past few years, as mainstays like Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton aged out of their prime, and the unit declined accordingly, dropping out of the top 10 in yards allowed in 2013 for the first time since 1999 and slipping from 13th to 18th last season. Poor defense held the team back in 2014, most notably in the shocking loss to the Bucs in Week 4 and the wild-card loss to the Ravens. Yes, Pittsburgh has been working on this problem, spending first-round picks on defensive players in three of the past four years, but given the fact that the Steelers are in a division with two pretty good quarterbacks in Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton, improving the defense must continue to be a top priority.
As we've seen, this process isn't a quick one; Pittsburgh likely still will need a few more drafts to get things back up to snuff. Of course, they can speed things up significantly if they can find an outside linebacker who can rush the passer, especially in the wake of Jason Worilds' departure. Jarvis Jones -- one of those first-round defensive picks -- was selected two years ago to be just that, but he's been a disappointment production-wise, lacking the speed and explosiveness to fill that role. It's no coincidence that Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert have been seen at almost every pro day featuring playmaking pass rushers, like Shane Ray of Missouri.
And then there's the secondary, where the absence of veteran cornerback Ike Taylor looms. In his heyday, Taylor was a very good blitzer who also excelled in coverage; he was a big guy who tackled well and had a knack for bodying up receivers. The Steelers must find someone to replace both Taylor and Polamalu, who, though he is still on the roster at this point, did not contribute much in 2014 and is all but donein Pittsburgh.
There are some good, young players on defense, particularly lineman Stephon Tuitt, the Notre Dame product who puts in the work necessary to be a factor. Ryan Shazier played well when he was on the field as a rookie last season, but injuries limited him to just nine games. The 2014 first-round pick is definitely talented, but I wonder about his ability to hold up at linebacker.
2) Hold the offense together
The defense might be an issue, but when it comes to offensive firepower, Pittsburgh is sitting pretty, coming off a high-flying campaign in which it ranked among the top five offensive teams for the first time since 2002. Of course, it's important to make sure the key pieces stick around.
Running back Le'Veon Bell dazzled as a second-year pro, piling up 1,361 rushing yards -- only DeMarco Murray had more in 2014 -- and serving as a load-bearing element of the Steelers' prolific attack; consider the impact of his absence for that playoff loss to the Ravens. Presuming he stays healthy, productive and out of trouble, it'll be crucial for Pittsburgh to lock up Bell with a long-term deal before his current contract runs out following the 2016 season.
As for the receiving corps, Antonio Brown -- who just posted the second-most receptions ever in a single season (129) -- is one of the top players at his position in the NFL: quick, speedy and able to catch the ball coming across the middle. It is very hard to stop him, and he should be racking up the yardage for Pittsburgh for at least the next three seasons, as the 26-year-old All-Pro is under contract through 2017. Then there are the two promising young receivers behind him: Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.
The Steelers have always been fair when it comes to contracts. And they're usually pretty good about getting their guys signed before they reach the open market, because they know who to target and seem to prefer retaining their own over searching for free agency help. Though they still have two years to work something out with Bell, I'm sure they're already planning out what they'll do.
3) Find a young tight end
The only spot on offense where the Steelers really need to get younger -- the only real weakness of the unit -- is tight end. Heath Miller is 32 and Matt Spaeth is 31. That said, Miller did catch 66 passes last year in his 10th pro season, so it's hard to say he needs to be replaced immediately. But this is definitely something Pittsburgh will want to pay attention to going forward.
4) Keep a steady hand on the tiller
Stability is a hallmark of this organization, which has had just three head coaches since 1969 -- and it's important for that stability to continue, even in today's increasingly demanding climate. Mike Tomlin is really a special coach, an even-keeled guy who is very knowledgeable about offense and defense. However restless the fans and talking heads might get occasionally, Tomlin must be kept in place if the Steelers are to get the most out of Big Ben.
This organizational strength goes beyond just the head man. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has now settled in; he did a great job in 2014 giving Roethlisberger his best chance to succeed. Big Ben didn't run around as much and got rid of the ball more quickly -- things that will keep him upright and healthy. When it comes to coaches with innovative and creative ideas, Haley is one of the best. The Steelers finished as the second-best offense (and second-best passing offense) in the league -- and Haley was rewarded with a two-year extension.
There's a new-ish face at defensive coordinator, with Keith Butler replacing Dick LeBeau, who is now with the Titans. Of course, Butler's role is really the only new thing about him, given that he's been with the team since 2003. Butler, whom I've known since his days on Memphis' staff, brings a great deal of enthusiasm to his work. He has a unique ability to both relate to his charges as a former player and be tough enough to get them to maximize their efforts. From a schematic standpoint, I don't think much will change following LeBeau's exit.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the contributions of offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who does as good a job as anyone in the league. Under his guidance, the unit cut down its sack total from 43 in 2013 to 33 in 2014, while players like David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum really came into their own. There's plenty of youth on this line, which looks primed to protect Roethlisberger for the foreseeable future.
5) Let Big Ben do his thing
As much as we talk about all these other factors -- and make no mistake, they are important, as no man can win by himself in the NFL -- having a franchise quarterback is such a meaningful advantage. When you have one, you have a chance; when you don't have one, you're not likely to go anywhere, no matter how good the rest of your team is. The Steelers are now guaranteed to have one for the next five seasons, and after they've done everything they can to support him, it all comes down to what he can do.
I think Roethlisberger has realized that if he's going to take the Steelers back to the Super Bowl stage, he's going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and I think he's prepping himself in the offseason to stay in better shape. It's tough to say this, given that he's coming off a career year, setting personal bests in completion percentage (67.1) and passing yards (4,952) and tying one in touchdown passes (32), but I think he could be even better in 2015.
One thing that can happen to quarterbacks as they get older is that they also get smarter; think of how Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are able to win in their late-30s. I think Big Ben turned that corner last season. So when I look ahead to the end of his current contract, I'm not at all worried about how he'll perform. Yes, he'll be 37 in 2019 -- when the final season of this deal begins -- but I think he'll still be one of the top quarterbacks in the game.