PITTSBURGH -- A disappointing end to an outstanding season is how head coach Mike Tomlin framed the 2017 season. The Steelers did everything they could to put themselves in position to win the Super Bowl. They went 6-0 in the AFC North. They were 13-3 overall and earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. But one bad performance in a 45-42 loss to Jacksonville put a damper on an otherwise stellar season.
Tomlin said the hope is the setback strengthens the team as it moves forward and tries to win a seventh Lombardi trophy. The Steelers have to find a way to get the defense up to speed with the offense. The defense started strong, but that unit faltered in the second half of the season after the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier and the performance in the playoff game was preceded by some alarming trends in the second half of the season. The defense gave up an inordinate number of big plays. They were susceptible against good running teams and they were undisciplined at times.
All of those things were evident in the loss to the Jaguars, too. The front office has to act quickly. Ben Roethlisberger will turn 36 in March, and even though he said he wants to play at least three more years, there is no telling how much longer he will be among the game's elite quarterbacks. The same goes for All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, who will enter his ninth NFL season in 2018. The window is beginning to close for this group to win another championship.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Steelers found ways to win. Early in the season the defense was great while the offense struggled to find a rhythm. In the second half of the season, the offense carried the load as the defense struggled with injuries. Through a myriad of distractions, the coaches and players won 13 games, tied for the most of any team in the league.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The defense failed the Steelers in the end, surrendering 45 points to a Jaguars team that had trouble scoring throughout the season. The Steelers have to find a way to get their younger players up to speed with the veterans as many of them made big mistakes in the playoff loss. With the offense likely returning intact, or close to intact, the Steelers must address their defensive needs and get that unit on par with the offense.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Bud Dupree, the No. 24 overall pick in the 2015 draft, was expected to develop into one of the top outside linebackers in the league in his third season. But his pass-rush skills remain unrefined and he's a liability in the running game. The Steelers have to decide by May if they want to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: JuJu Smith-Schuster led all rookies in receiving yards and emerged as the No. 2 receiver behind All-Pro Antonio Brown. Selected late in the second round, Smith-Schuster is a versatile receiver who can play in the slot or outside. He was a big-play machine for a Steelers offense that needed another playmaker in addition to Brown.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner could be the new offensive coordinator should the Steelers part ways with Todd Haley, whose contract ran out at the end of the season. An original member of head coach Mike Tomlin's staff and the quarterbacks coach since 2010, Fichtner has a good rapport with Roethlisberger and can help him succeed in the final years of his career.