Mike Tomlin (USA Today Sports)
Mike Tomlin (USA Today Sports)

2018 win total (via Bovada): 10.5

2017 ATS record: 7-9

Optimist view: Last year’s win total has no carryover effect whatsoever other than to indicate that, yep, this is a talented team that can clean you out in a jiffy. Despite Le’Veon Bell’s holdout and Ben Roethliberger’s early-season struggles, along with a run defense that had troubles at various points throughout the season, the Steelers finished 13-3 and beat six teams with winning records.

They really had a chance to go 15-1, too, and the one blowout loss to the Jaguars in the regular season had a bit of a fluky element with Jacksonville scoring two defensive touchdowns. Three of Pittsburgh's four losses came vs. the teams representing the AFC championship game.

After the bye, Roethlisberger went on a fairly stunning run. In his final seven regular-season starts and the playoffs loss — in essence, half a season’s work — he completed 232-of-344 passes (67.4 percent) for 2,658 yards with 23 TDs and six interceptions. Tyrod Taylor (2,799 yards) and Jay Cutler (2,666) each started 14 games and barely surpassed Roethlisberger’s final eight-game yardage total. Eighteen quarterbacks started 10 or more games last season, including Drew Brees and Cam Newton, and didn’t throw as many TD passes as Ben did during that stretch.

Throw in Bell and Antonio Brown, and you might have the best offensive trio in the league. Supporting them are a good offensive line, breakout WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and some solid tight end options. Defensively, the Steelers laid a few eggs but were strong over the course of the season. They ranked seventh in points allowed, fifth in total yards allowed, fourth in first downs allowed and first in sack percentage.

Pessimist view: Frankly, the Steelers were lucky to win some of those games last season. They had an “expected record” of 10.5-5.5, thanks in large part to narrow victories over teams such as the 0-16 Browns (both games), Colts and Bengals. Overall, the Steelers were 8-2 in one-score games last season, lost twice to the Jaguars at home and once to the Bears on the road, and they earned seven victories over non-playoff teams. This was not a bad team at all, mind you, but your typical 13-3 club? Perhaps not.

There are depth concerns on both sides of the ball, and another year of Bell threatening to hold out continues to loom, especially with new offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner calling the shots now. Roethlisberger’s hot finish seemed to put to bed any talk he might have started about retirement being close, but his annual inconsistencies — especially in home (good) vs. road games (less good) — can’t be ignored. The offensive line might be an injury or two away from being a shell of its typically stout self, too.

Defensively, the questions begin in the middle. The rush defense fell apart after Ryan Shazier’s career-threatening injury in Week 13, and the pass defense really wasn’t much better. It’s one thing to watch Tom Brady dice them up down the stretch in Week 15, but it’s quite another to see Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer and Blake Bortles have big days against this Steelers defense.

They’ve added help on that side of the ball, but are the Steelers any more than a decent defense? We’ll find out, as there are a few potentially powerhouse offenses on their schedule this season.

On schedule: The most fascinating element of the Steelers’ schedule is the fact that they face five of their six division games in the first nine weeks of the season. That leaves just one AFC North opponent in the last half of the schedule, so in theory the Steelers could have the division wrapped up well prior to facing the Bengals at home in Week 17.

Right now, the Steelers will be favored in each of their first seven games — all by four points or more. They see the Browns twice in that span and might catch a break by getting Patrick Mahomes in what could be his third NFL start. (And the Steelers completely shut down that Chiefs offense in Kansas City a year ago for the first three quarters of the game.) But could the bye week have fallen in a slightly better position than in Week 7 between games against the Bengals and Browns? For sure it could have.

In another strange quirk, the Steelers will face eight teams that have players suspended to start the season, but all of the matchups will come after those players can regain eligibility. They also must run through a gauntlet of talented quarterbacks, including Jameis Winston, Joe Flacco (who at least has a history of big games against them), Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Bortles (who beat them twice last year), Philip Rivers, Brady and Drew Brees.

Revenge games will be a key theme. They face the Jaguars team that beat them twice at Heinz Field, but this time the game comes in Jacksonville in Week 11. The Steelers also get Brady in the same Week 15 slot in which he broke their hearts last season. And longtime tormentor Vontaze Burfict could be back on the field just prior to the first matchup against the Bengals, so you can expect some bad blood there.

Prediction: Under

The Steelers don’t draw a lot of terrible teams this season, especially if the Browns and Buccaneers are improved. A tougher November and December slate shouldn’t be overlooked either, even if that’s typically when they play their best ball under Mike Tomlin (30-12 record in those months the past five seasons).

Once more, we expect them to be the toast of the division and right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt. But this feels more like a 10-6 season than an 11-5 team. Is that a pretty thin line? Absolutely. And betting under 10.5 victories would not be our strongest, most confident wager we’ve ever made by any means.

It’s just that we fear that the defense might never be a top-tier unit without Shazier and that the offense is a very good group but perhaps not an elite one. This is a soft “under” recommendation, but it comes because this team appeared to overachieve last season and conjure a win total that belies their true prowess.

Previous projected win total breakdowns

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