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Mark Madden: Bell factor makes prediction difficult, but Steelers go 10-6 |

Mark Madden: Bell factor makes prediction difficult, but Steelers go 10-6

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell stiff-arms the Ravens' Eric Weddle during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

My super-genius IQ of 166 shines bright 24/7 but especially so when it’s time to make my annual Steelers prediction. In the last six years, I have been exactly right four times. The other two years, I’ve been one victory off.

But this season is difficult because of the Le’Veon Bell factor.

When will Bell report? What kind of shape will he be in? Will he start slowly? Will he be engaged or checked out? Can James Conner be an adequate fill-in? How much will Bell’s absence squeeze the versatility out of the offense?

If he doesn’t report until he absolutely has to — before the Steelers’ ninth game, given their option to put him on the exempt list for two games — it’s hard to believe Bell playing hooky won’t impact the Steelers in the standings.

Yet that’s exactly what I’m expecting.

I had the Steelers at 10-6 before Bell didn’t report. That’s a big drop from last year’s 13-3. But those Steelers won five games by three points or fewer, three more by four to six points. Some of those close decisions won’t favor them this year.

But even without Bell for potentially a significant portion of the season, I don’t figure a team quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger will dip from 13-3 to 9-7.

So despite Bell’s stance, severe concerns on defense and an offensive line that has nowhere near last season’s depth, I predict 10-6. That won’t get a bye or home field, so the Steelers’ postseason chances won’t be terrific.

Conner will run the ball fine. (Bell averaged just 4 yards per carry last year. That’s not rarefied air.) But Conner will lack in receiving and pass protection.

One can’t help but feel Bell’s no-show and the subsequent locker-room excrement show was the kickoff for another season of turmoil. Two days later, Antonio Brown went on social media and threatened a reporter. The Steelers haven’t had the focus or precision of a champion for quite some time.

If the defense will be better, we’ve seen no sign of that. Not in terms of improved personnel and not schematically.

Predicting 10-6 sans Bell might be a bit generous, but it also reflects the paucity of teams that legitimately can challenge the Steelers in the AFC North.

I’ve also got a few mini-predictions. Prop bets, so to speak.

• Brown and Roethlisberger will start slowly, reflecting a league-wide malaise that results from many starters playing minimally in preseason. But both will have Pro Bowl-caliber seasons.

• Cornerback Artie Burns will be feast or famine from week to week, perhaps from play to play.

• Guard B.J. Finney will usurp Ramon Foster’s job by midseason.

• Inside linebacker Jon Bostic will be mostly off the field by Week 4.

• Outside linebacker T.J. Watt will approach dominance. Bud Dupree will not.

• Safety Terrell Edmunds will make big plays and allow big plays. Hopefully, Edmunds will be a plus player. Using him is definitely worth the risk.

• The Steelers finished 18th in red-zone efficiency (53 per cent) last year and won’t be much better in 2018. They lack a prototypical red-zone receiver.

• Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will improve only marginally at football, if at all. But his dancing will get better by leaps and bounds.

Starting 1-0 with a win at Cleveland seems likely if Browns pass-rusher Myles Garrett doesn’t decapitate Roethlisberger. Never mind keeping Roethlisberger clean. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva needs to keep him out of intensive care.

In a pinch, the Steelers can count on new Cleveland offensive coordinator Todd Haley to outsmart himself. Like always.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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