Who Are Pittsburgh Steelers' Most Important Players Down the Stretch?

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 7, 2017

Who Are Pittsburgh Steelers' Most Important Players Down the Stretch?

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    With a 10-2 record and only four regular-season games left to play, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear poised for another postseason appearance.

    However, in order to keep hold of their home-field advantage in the AFC, their opportunity for a first-round playoff bye and a deep run in the postseason, certain key players will have to continue to play at a high level. 

    Here are the most important players for the Steelers as the final quarter of the 2017 winds down ahead of the playoffs in the new year.

6. James Harrison

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    Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison has appeared in just four games this season, playing a total of 29 defensive snaps and earning only one sack and three tackles.

    He has missed time with back and knee injuries recently, and the emergence of young pass-rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree has meant the Steelers haven't required the 39-year-old's services all that often.

    As the regular season turns into the postseason, though, Harrison could be one of the biggest keys to Pittsburgh's continued defensive success.

    Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin addressed Harrison's early-season lack of playing time in September. He said:

    "We appreciate James. We know what James is capable of. James will ready himself. There will be a time in the season where we'll call on his services, and he'll deliver and he'll deliver in a big way. Much like he did in the latter part of 2016." 

    That was the case a season ago, when Harrison went from playing anywhere for 30 to 50 percent of the Steelers' defensive snaps in the first part of the season to 100 percent by its end.

    While the disparity is far greater this year, given how many games he has seen precisely zero playing time, it's also easy to believe Harrison is being saved for a late-year unleashing.

    Harrison is a highly experienced veteran who knows what playoff football feels like. He also knows what regular-season football feels like, which is why he hasn't needed the snaps in order to prepare himself for what is to come.

    Do not be surprised if Harrison is as much a fixture on the field in the weeks to come as he has been on the sidelines in the weeks prior.

5. Vince Williams

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    Inside linebacker Vince Williams has made the most of his promotion from backup and situational player to full-time starter this year.

    The 27-year-old is the Steelers' second-leading tackler, with 67 combined, and his seven sacks are second only to defensive end Cameron Heyward.

    His ability to rush the passer from an interior position and work as an effective run-stopper have helped the Steelers boast a top-10 defense in both points and yards allowed this year. He will be an integral part of the games ahead.

    Williams' role will be even more crucial now that fellow starter Ryan Shazier's season is likely over after he suffered a serious spinal injury in Monday night's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Shazier is the Steelers' leading tackler and the heartbeat of their defense; he's since returned to Pittsburgh for further treatment but little further information is yet available.

    But with Shazier likely not playing again this year and backup Tyler Matakevich also dealing with a shoulder injury, Williams' importance to the defense will be magnified.

    Run-stopping and rushing the passer have been two hallmarks of Pittsburgh's defense this year, and Williams has been a major key to the success of both areas. That should continue through the regular season and into the playoffs.

    His patience has paid off and now, in his fifth season, he's finally gotten a chance to show exactly how good a player he is.

4. The Offensive Line

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    While an offensive line is comprised of five men, the goal for the quintet is to work as one in order to keep their quarterback protected from would-be pass-rushers and establish and keep open lanes for the running backs.

    The Steelers' unit has done an impressive job of both this year, even with starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert missing time with a hamstring injury earlier this year and now in the midst of a four-game suspension. 

    The line, which features Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle, David DeCastro at right guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro at right guard and Chris Hubbard at right tackle in Gilbert's stead, has earned high marks this season, ranking seventh in run-blocking and fourth in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

    Pittsburgh's run game is averaging 3.7 yards per carry and has earned the team 70 first downs, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken only 16 sacksjust 3.5 percent.

    While the prowess of Pittsburgh's skill-position players is a major reason why the Steelers have seen such offensive success this year, none of it would be possible without the offensive line playing at such a high level.

    These five continuing to do that—while staying as healthy as possible—will heavily influence just how far the Steelers can make it into the postseason over the coming months.

3. Ben Roethlisberger

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    The Steelers have a top-10 offense this year as far as yardage is concerned, and much of that can be attributed to the team's passing game behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    Though the 35-year-old hasn't been as impressive as he was in 2016, when he finished with 29 regular-season touchdowns thrown to 13 interceptions while taking 17 sacks, he's still a major reason why the Steelers have won 10 games to this point.

    And he will be a major key to any future success Pittsburgh has moving forward; there's no question the Steelers would not be in this position had Roethlisberger's backup, Landry Jones, been forced on to the field for any appreciable length of time.

    This season, Roethlisberger has completed 62.8 percent of his passes, for 3,288 yards. He's thrown 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions while being sacked 16 times.

    While his inconsistencies are evident—he's only avoided throwing an interception in just four games this year and the offense has surpassed 30 points twice—his level of experience cannot be denied; it also cannot be downplayed during this most crucial point of the year.

    Roethlisberger is a veteran QB who has reached the postseason nine times in his career and is likely to add a 10th to that once the 2017 regular season wraps. That kind of been-there, done-that history can only serve the Steelers well over the final quarter of the season and into the new year.

2. Antonio Brown

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    Though Roethlisberger will be a critical member of the Steelers' remaining season, there's no question his performance this year can be heavily credited to the form of his top receiver, Antonio Brown.

    Of the quarterback's 3,288 passing yards, 1,296 belong to Brown, as do nine of Roethlisberger's 22 passing touchdowns. 

    With 88 receptions, 1,296 yards and nine scores, Brown leads all NFL receivers in each statistical category through 13 weeks. He also has accounted for 375 yards after the catch and 63 of the Steelers' 159 first downs earned via passing.

    It's been nearly a month since he was held to under 100 yards in a game, and it's been the same amount of time since he was held to a zero-touchdown performance.

    Brown is not only Pittsburgh's best receiver, he's also the best (healthy) receiver playing professional football.

    Though the Steelers aren't lacking for talent at the position, thanks to the emergence of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and the continued presence of Martavis Bryant, Brown is irreplaceable.

    His form over the next four-plus weeks will determine the success of Pittsburgh's offense, if not the team as a whole.

1. Le'Veon Bell

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Not only do the Steelers have the league's leading receiver in Brown, they also have the league's leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell.

    The 25-year-old is far more than just a running back, though, which is why there is no more crucial player to the Steelers as the season comes to a close.

    Bell has rushed 270 times for 1,057 yards—both league-leading numbers—and has scored all five of Pittsburgh's rushing scores to date. He's having such a dominant year that his primary backup, rookie James Conner, has rushed just 27 times this year for 125 yards.

    Bell is averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and though that's one yard lower than his average a year ago, it hasn't appreciably affected his overall performance nor the Steelers' ability to win games.

    But Bell's contributions as a receiver are almost as impressive. His 66 catches and 82 targets are second only to Brown, while his 502 receiving yards are the third-most on the team, behind Brown and Smith-Schuster.

    He has 22 receiving first downs to go with his 59 earned via the rush, and he's the team's leader in after-catch yardage at 461. This year, the Steelers have a total of 4,411 yards of offense; 1,559 of those yards are in Bell's name. He is accounting for an average of 129.9 yards of offense, per game.

    No other player on Pittsburgh's roster can provide the same kind of air and ground threat as Bell; there are few others in the league who are so versatile and consistently high-performing at the same time.

    The only hope is the heavy workload Bell has already shouldered through 12 games does not end up wearing him down too much in the weeks to come. Without him, Pittsburgh's offense looks drastically different and thus drastically less threatening.