Pittsburgh Steelers confident in Super Bowl goal

By The Sports Xchange  |  Sept. 1, 2017 at 2:16 PM
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2017 season with Super Bowl or bust expectations. If there was any doubt about that the events of the past week proved it.

On Wednesday, the Steelers signed former Cleveland Pro-Bowl cornerback Joe Haden just hours after he refused to take a pay cut from the Browns. It was an unusually bold move by general manager Kevin Colbert, who had shied away from spending big on corners.

Haden comes with a $7 million price tag for this season, but many view the signing as the final piece to their championship puzzle. That remains to be seen, but the Steelers showed they are going to be aggressive in going after their seventh Lombardi Trophy.

That was on display a day earlier when, unhappy with the play of his tight ends, general manager Kevin Colbert acquired Vance McDonald and his $2.6 million 2017 salary from the 49ers.

The Steelers came close to reaching the Super Bowl seven months ago. They reached the AFC Championship Game before falling to eventual Super Bowl champion New England.

And there are plenty of reasons to believe the Steelers have what it takes to make that next step toward a championship. They have a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, who remains at the top of his game. They have current or former All-Pros at nearly every position on offense, including receiver Antonio Brown, running back Le'Veon Bell, who reported to the team and signed his franchise tender Friday, and linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro.

And then there is the return of Martavis Bryant, the talented receiver who missed last season on a drug suspension. Bryant has All-Pro potential and he could be the missing link in an offense that is looking to go from good to great this season.

But for the Steelers, the burning questions don't revolve around the offense. The questions about this team's ability to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February center around the defense, specifically the ability to defend the pass.

That's where Haden comes in. He will be paired with second-year corner Artie Burns as the outside corners in a defense that would like to diversify. A zone team for decades, head coach Mike Tomlin would like to play more man coverage, and Haden and Burns have experience doing that. Haden did it for years with the Browns, and Burns did it in college while at the University of Miami.

The cornerback position had been a big issue for Tomlin during training camp. A week ago, he announced a competition between Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh for the starting right corner job. That's a moot point now that Haden was acquired.

On top of that, there are indications veteran slot corner Will Gay could give way to either Mike Hilton or rookie third-round pick Cameron Sutton.

It might take some time for Haden to get acclimated, but the Steelers do have the benefit of easing into the season with a road game against the Browns, who finished last season with a 1-15 record.

The Browns are going to start rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, and the Steelers have a history of making life difficult for first-year signal-callers. They also have a strong recent history against the Browns, winning eight of the past nine meetings.

The Browns have been bad in recent years, but they have compiled a number of high draft picks, including a couple who will make their professional debut against the Steelers. Outside linebacker Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, will line up opposite left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. They'll also get a look at Jabrill Peppers, who appears to have won a starting safety job.

For the Steelers, look for rookie first-round pick T.J. Watt to start at right outside linebacker. He's likely the only rookie to play a big role against the Browns. Rookie second-round pick, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Sutton struggled through training camp injuries and might need some more time to get comfortable before their roles expand.

Notes: Cornerback Cameron Sutton, who missed most of training camp with a lower body injury, left the final preseason game against Carolina with a right hamstring injury and did not return. The Steelers were hoping Sutton could challenge for the starting slot corner job. ... Safety Jordan Dangerfield left the game with an ankle injury and did not return. Dangerfield took reps with the first-team defense in practice earlier this week and was being considered as the starter at free safety until Mike Mitchell returns from his hamstring injury. ... Safety Malik Golden, an undrafted rookie, injured his groin and did not return to the game. Golden was a long shot to make the 53-man roster. ... Tight end Vance McDonald, who was acquired in a trade with the 49ers Tuesday, played 14 snaps in the first half. ... Cornerback Joe Haden, who was acquired in a trade Wednesday, watched the game in street clothes.

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