Of the many words that could be used to describe the season that the Pittsburgh Steelers put together, disappointing and failure should not be among them. Their season ended with a loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, which ultimately boils down to a very good team losing to a great team. The fact that the Steelers made it as far as they did, following a 4-5 start, is a testament to the heart and character possessed by the coaches and players, because when everyone was writing them off, they still believed that they were just getting started. Facing multiple losses to injury, the season long suspension of their number two receiver, Martavis Bryant, the three game suspension of LeVeon Bell, and the need to start three rookies on defense, the Steelers believed in who they had available to them, and set out on a journey that ended just one game shy of the Super Bowl.
Even though the Steelers season didn’t end with the hoisting of the franchise’s 7th Lombardi Trophy, it deserves to be celebrated nonetheless, not only for what was accomplished, but for what it could lead to in the near future. It should be appreciated considering what the state of the roster looked like just four short years ago. Remember back in 2012-2013, when the Steelers were facing a need to rebuild the offensive line and an aging defense? With salary cap constraints that left Omar Khan, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin very little room to work with, these three men have done just that. Back then, having a 2016 type of season seemed like a pipe dream that was years away, yet here the Steelers are already, a young and hungry team on the verge of Super Bowl greatness once again, without having suffered through a looking season. Even in the years the Steelers failed to make the playoffs, with 8-8 records, they were in contention to the end.
What will define the success of this season, will be the contributions of several players who either took their game to the next level, such as Ryan Shazier, or who unexpectedly stepped up to replace the injured, as did Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers. Then there was the three rookies on defense who grew up and were playing like veterans by the end of the season, Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns, and Sean Davis. Without the production of these young players, it’s highly unlikely that the Steelers would have even qualified for the postseason, let alone reach the AFC Championship game. The coaching staff deserves much credit for the development of this talent, and for keeping the team focused when things seemed to be falling apart.
There were many moments during this season where it became evident that these Steelers have the potential to be great. All of those moments have made this a memorable season, with the defining moment being provided by Antonio Brown in a week 16 game against the Baltimore Ravens. With about 15 seconds left in a game the Steelers had to win to make the postseason, Antonio Brown caught a pass on a quick slant at the two yard line. Immediately he was swarmed by three Baltimore Ravens defenders, but there was no way he would be denied. Brown fought hard and willed his way inside the one yard line and stretched his arm out for all it was worth. With 7 seconds left in the game, the Steelers were the AFC North Champions and were headed to the postseason.
The “Immaculate Extension” epitomizes what the 2016 Steelers are all about, because like Antonio Brown at the goal line, the Steelers never quit when it looked like it was all over for them. These Steelers fought hard and never gave in, even as everyone said they were done. Sitting at 4-5, with no margin for error the rest of the way, they got up, dusted themselves off, and went on a nine game winning streak before bowing out one game shy of their ninth Super Bowl appearance. Sometimes you can judge a team, not by their final destination, but rather by the journey that took them there. The Steelers final destination may have only been the AFC Championship game, but throughout their journey the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers played with the heart of a champion.