Antonio Brown's future with the Steelers will be addressed in the coming months
The Pittsburgh Steelers head into a critical offseason following a disappointing 9-6-1 record and no trip to the NFL playoffs. With a loaded offense led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL’s best receiver in Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh was a trendy pick to win the Super Bowl for the 2018-19 season. Instead, Mike Tomlin’s team underachieved. The Steelers opened with a tie at Cleveland and fell to Kansas City 42-37 in Week 2. Wins in seven of the team’s next eight games placed the Steelers in control of the AFC North. However, Pittsburgh proceeded to lose four of its last six, including road defeats to the Broncos and Raiders (a combined 10-22 in 2018). Losses to teams with a losing record have been a problem under Tomlin’s watch in the Steel City and were ultimately a reason why Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
While the 2018 season ended on a bad note for the Steelers, five of the six defeats came by five points or less. A minus-11 turnover margin and seven missed field goals by kicker Chris Boswell certainly played a role in those close defeats. The good news for Pittsburgh? This team is capable of another run in 2019, but Tomlin and the front office have some big decisions to make. The coaching staff is going to look a little different after two assistants (Joey Porter and James Saxon) did not have their contract renewed. Additionally, offensive line coach Mike Munchak – arguably the best at his job in the NFL – departed for the same position in Denver. Shaun Sarrett was promoted to fill Munchak's old spot, but the former assistant will be missed. Former Bengals assistant Teryl Austin will join the staff to work with the secondary. Also, Tomlin could use some help in the game management department. The Steelers have lost his last 10 challenges.
How can Pittsburgh get back on track in 2019? Here are three priorities for the team to address:
3 Biggest Offseason Questions Facing the Steelers
1. Decide on Antonio Brown and address the supporting cast
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is entering the final year on his contract but talks of an extension popped up after the regular season ended. Although Roethlisberger will be 37 next year, he’s still playing at a high level. He led the league with 5,129 passing yards, averaged 321 yards per game, tossed 34 touchdowns and completed 67 percent of his passes. With Roethlisberger playing at a high level, the staff will have another offseason (or two) to groom Mason Rudolph as a potential replacement down the road.
But in order for Pittsburgh to challenge for the Super Bowl next season, the supporting cast has to be solidified. Obviously, the biggest question in the Steel City is what happens with Brown. Will the Steelers trade the All-Pro receiver or can his differences with the team be reconciled this offseason? Brown will be 31 next year, but he’s recorded six consecutive 100-catch seasons, so there’s no question about his level of performance. Development from James Washington as the team’s No. 3 receiver to alleviate pressure on Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster was already a priority for next season. If Brown is traded, this position becomes an even bigger concern for Pittsburgh. A free agent and a high draft pick could be an option here if Brown is dealt. A decision must also be made on tight end Jesse James (unrestricted free agent).
The Le’Veon Bell saga should be over in Pittsburgh this offseason. After sitting out the 2018 season, Bell isn’t likely to be tagged again. The Steelers are set with James Conner (973 yards), and Jaylen Samuels (256) showed promise as the backup this season. Adding a third running back to replace Stevan Ridley wouldn’t be a surprise. The offensive line could look a little different in 2019. Guard Ramon Foster is a free agent, and tackle Marcus Gilbert could be a cap casualty.
The Steelers have missed Ryan Shazier since his injury late in the 2017 season and were unable to land a replacement in last year’s draft. Jon Bostic was signed prior to ’18 and had a solid year, and L.J. Fort helped the defense on passing downs. However, there’s no difference-maker in the middle to team with Vince Williams. Adding a fast linebacker who can help on passing downs should be a priority.
On the edge, the Steelers have a rising star in T.J. Watt. He recorded 13 sacks in his second year and was instrumental in helping the defense share the NFL lead in sacks (52). Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler need more out of Bud Dupree (5.5 sacks), as he heads into a critical 2019 season for contract purposes. Adding depth here is likely, especially if Anthony Chickillo leaves as a free agent.
3. Defensive backs
The Steelers are set at one cornerback spot with Joe Haden entering the final year of his contract. However, former first-round pick Artie Burns has struggled, and the front office needs to decide if he can turn things around in 2019. Coty Sensabaugh started opposite of Haden in ’18 but is a free agent. Cam Sutton showed flashes of potential in 2017 but didn’t take the next step as a major contributor in his second year. Sean Davis led the team with 80 tackles after switching from strong to free safety. He’s set to return next year, along with Morgan Burnett, who battled injuries throughout the season. If Terrell Edmunds continues to develop at safety, the Steelers should be set at this position. However, Pittsburgh has a glaring need for one (maybe two) cornerbacks – a position this team has not drafted well at in recent years.