Our 2019 NFL Preview concludes it’s romp through the AFC North, making the final stop in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers look to regroup after missing the Playoffs for the first time in five years. It was a tumultuous campaign for the two-time reigning Division Champions, thanks in large part to the season-long holdout of Pro-Bowl Tailback, Le’Veon Bell, and the antics of All-Pro Receiver, Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh has since parted ways with both personalities, with Mike Tomlin hoping that a quieter team will be a more successful one. With Ben Roethlisberger now entering what should be the latter stages of his illustrious career, will the Steelers manage to reopen their championship window? Or have their days of contending in the AFC indeed come to an end? Read on and find out for yourselves, folks…
The Youth Movement
It’s been said that money is the root of all evil, and in sports, it often can be traced back to being the origin of most internal conflicts. This was absolutely the case in regards to Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, with the former sitting out the entire 2018 campaign in protest of the Franchise Tag, and the latter acting overly immature in search of a lucrative contract extension. Unsurprisingly, neither player will be plying their trade for the Steelers in 2019, with Bell signing with the Jets in Free Agency, and Brown traded to the Oakland Raiders in March. For most teams, parting ways with such top-tier talent is counterproductive, but for Pittsburgh this may not be the case, for Mike Tomlin & Co. unearthed those players’ replacements in 2018, namely James Conner (215 CAR, 973 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 12 TD) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (111 REC, 1,426 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD). At the age of Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three respectively, these two gems figure to play major roles in the Steelers’ plans moving forward, with the fact that they’ll each be doing so on very affordable contracts making the all the more appealing to the club’s hierarchy. After overcoming cancer in college, Conner, a local product out of Pittsburgh, absolutely flourished in Bell’s role, with the Tailback proving to be every bit as productive as his predecessor, racking up 1,470 Total Yards from Scrimmage and Thirteen Touchdowns on 270 Total Touches. His role should only expand with more reps in the Offense. As for Smith-Schuster, who was voted as the team’s Offensive MVP in 2018, more than doubled his receiving output as a Sophomore, with the Wideout proving to be Roethlisberger’s new preferred target, which infamously irked Brown, who then took to publicly criticizing his teammate. It’s rare that a team can replace such prolific players without missing a beat, but the Steelers have been afforded that luxury, with the presence of these two young stars likely extending the career of their veteran Quarterback.
Big Ben’s Twilight
Speaking of their veteran Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (67.0%, 5,129 YDS, 7.10 NY/A, 34 TD, 16 INT, 73.0 QBR) is coming off the most prolific season of his venerable career. The 37-Year Old led the league in Passing Completions (452) and Attempts (675), along with Passing Yards (5,129), and Interceptions (16), all the while throwing a career-high Thirty-Four Touchdowns. However, Big Ben didn’t escape the team’s storm of chaos, frequently coming into conflict with the aforementioned Brown, particularly after a crucial 17-24 loss at the Denver Broncos, in which the Signal-Caller threw an Interception deep in the Red Zone in large part to Brown blowing the route. Conflict aside, the Franchise unsurprisingly sided with their Quarterback, jettisoning the mercurial Receiver and signing the two-time Super Bowl Champion to a hefty, two-year, $68 Million Contract Extension that if he sees it through, will in all likelihood keep him in Western Pennsylvania for the rest of his career. Now the question remains: what can we realistically expect from Roethlisberger moving forward? With so many of his contemporaries playing at such a high level so late in their respective careers, there is little reason to believe that he won’t follow suit, particularly if he remains healthy. After all, those prolific statistics that he provided in 2018 came with an All-Pro Tailback sitting out the entire season, and with another year working with the likes of the aforementioned Conner and Smith-Schuster it would be unlikely that he would all of a sudden hit the proverbial wall so quickly. In an attempt to avoid such a fate, it may be prudent for Tomlin and his Staff to take a page from the likes of the Patriots and Saints, who have managed their Hall-of-Fame Quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, effortlessly by relying on the running game far more. As prolific as he was, much of Roethlisberger’s production was due to a woefully unbalanced Offense; Pittsburgh ranked Second in Passing Offense (323.4 Y/G), but just Thirty-First in Rushing Offense (90.3 Y/G).
While they’ve spent the majority of the last five years as a legitimate contender in the AFC, the Steelers had previously been held back from returning to the Super Bowl due to their Defense, which had eroded during the middle of the decade. However, Tomlin oversaw a renaissance of sorts in 2018, with Pittsburgh ranking Sixth in Total Defense (327.2 Y/G), Tenth against the Pass (231.1 Y/G), and Sixth against the Run (96.1 Y/G), while also sharing the league lead in Sacks (52). As encouraging as that sounds, there is still plenty of room for improvement; even with all that pressure, the Steelers struggled to take the football away, generating just Fifteen Turnovers (29th Overall), while generally succumbing to their opponents in the Red Zone, where they permitted a Touchdown on a middling 59.2% of opportunities (17th Overall). In his second year with the club, T.J. Watt (68 TKL, 12 TFL, 21 QBH, 13.0 SK, 6 FF, 3 PD) emerged as a terror off the edge, while veteran Defensive End, Cameron Heyward (51 TKL, 10 TFL, 18 QBH, 8.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD) joined him at the Pro Bowl. Furthermore, Joe Haden (63 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 2 INT, 12 PD) proved he still has plenty of gas left in the tank at Cornerback, with 2018 First Round Pick, Terrell Edmunds (78 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 PD) set to take on an even greater role in the Secondary alongside him. And speaking of Draft Picks, this year’s First Rounder, Devin Bush, figures to factor heavily into their success, with the Inside Linebacker out of Michigan looking well-suited to step into the position vacated by the injured Ryan Shazier. For a team that has long been associated with stellar play on the defensive side of the football, they’ll need to keep building if they hope to keep their championship window open longer.
2019 Forecast: 10-6
After missing the Playoffs for the first time in five years and parting ways with a pair of supremely-talented Pro-Bowlers, it would be easy to write off the Pittsburgh Steelers as a fading giant in 2019. However, there is plenty of optimism for a team that for all intents and purposes has gotten much younger, and should benefit greatly from a quieter, less chaotic atmosphere. There were plenty of moments during last season’s 9-6-1 meltdown in which the controversy and conflict permeating from the aforementioned Bell and Brown visibly infected the team. With them both gone, Tomlin & Co. should revert back into the tight ship they were during the earlier stages of his tenure with the franchise. Though he’s certainly getting up there in age, the argument can be made that Roethlisberger is better than he’s ever been, which is really saying something, and as long as he remains healthy the Offense should be among the league’s most prolific, particularly given the emergence of both Conner and Smith-Schuster. If the young Defense continues to improve, then Pittsburgh could very well take a page from the Seattle Seahawks last season, who underwent a similar purge of personalities only to make a concerted comeback to the Playoffs a year later. Yes, the Ravens remains menacing, and the Browns have improved dramatically, but the schedule in it’s entirety is far from the most formidable, which should translate into a revitalized team, one that could return to claim the division and challenge for a trip to the Super Bowl.