Steelers have lost some of their stars but retain high expectations
No one in the NFL is testing the theory of “addition by subtraction” more than the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers fell well short of their goals in 2018, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years. They were without star running back Le’Veon Bell for the entirety of the season, but it mattered little. Other flaws and distractions brought down the Steelers.
Bell, who signed with the Jets in March, is officially gone, and so is receiver Antonio Brown, who forced his way out of Pittsburgh and landed with Oakland via trade. Just a few years removed from posing the biggest offensive triple threat in the NFL, the triple B’s are down to a single B, veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Still, the expectations haven’t changed in Pittsburgh. In fact, coach Mike Tomlin called it a “cleansing” for a locker room that is still chock-full of talented veterans at most positions.
This team will go as far as Roethlisberger takes it. The Steelers made that loud and clear shortly before the NFL Draft, when they inked the 37-year-old veteran to a hefty extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2021. He got the money, security and respect Bell and Brown thought they deserved. Now, he’ll look to prove that the Steelers can be just as good, if not better, without them. For his part, Roethlisberger is coming off his first season without missing a game since 2014. He avoided the nagging injuries that plagued him throughout previous seasons, and he finished with career bests in passing yards (5,129) and touchdowns (34). Roethlisberger appeared refreshed under new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, his longtime quarterbacks coach who took over for the combative Todd Haley. How Roethlisberger handles the loss of Brown, his No. 1 target since 2011, will determine just how potent Pittsburgh’s offense can be.
Fortunately, there’s a No. 1-caliber wide receiver waiting in the wings. The time has arrived for third-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose magnetic personality has made him one of the NFL’s most popular young players. His performance on the field has something to do with it, too, as he’s coming off a second season that was so good — 111 receptions, 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns — that he earned team MVP honors in a vote by his teammates. Certainly, a good chunk of his success can be credited to Brown’s presence, but there’s a belief that Smith-Schuster is talented enough to thrive even while drawing the most attention from the opposing defense.
There won’t be a No. 2 of the same caliber as Smith provided, but there are options. Donte Moncrief, who is coming off a solid rebound season in Jacksonville, is the top veteran option, while the Steelers are hoping to strike gold with either second-year pass catcher James Washington or rookie Diontae Johnson, a third-rounder from Toledo whom the Steelers selected with the pick they acquired from the Raiders in the Brown trade. With the departure of Jesse James, veteran Vance McDonald, who is coming off a career year, stands alone as the top receiving option at tight end.
James Conner helped Steelers fans forget about Bell from the moment he made his starting debut Week 1 of the 2018 season. Injuries limited Conner down the stretch, keeping him out of three pivotal games, but he looks the part of Pittsburgh’s bell cow for years to come. To avoid the kind of drop-off that occurred when Conner went down last year, Pittsburgh added some much-needed depth with the fourth-round selection of Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. While Snell is more of a thumper, second-year back Jaylen Samuels gives the Steelers another pass-catching option out of the backfield to complement Conner.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been one of the most stable groups in the AFC North over the past few years, and it’s poised to return four of its veteran starters in 2019. The lone departure is right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was traded to the Cardinals. A three-man competition to replace him featuring Chukwuma Okorafor, Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins is expected to unfold in training camp. The bigger loss, though, will be felt behind the scenes after the departure of longtime offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who now holds the same position with the Denver Broncos. Pittsburgh maintained a bit of continuity by promoting Shaun Sarrett to the position, but replacing Munchak is easier said than done.
Pittsburgh took an uncharacteristic route toward filling the biggest hole in its defense, but it was necessary. The Steelers parted with some vital draft capital, a first- and second-rounder in 2019 and a third-rounder in 2020, to move up 10 spots in the first round to nab Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. For the past two years, the Steelers struggled to replace inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, arguably the best player on the entire unit, and the overall defense struggled as a result. It remains to be seen if Bush can play the position as effectively and violently as Shazier, a two-time Pro Bowler, but he certainly has the talent and potential. Bush comes from a football family — his father played defensive back in the NFL from 1995-2002 — and has the instincts and attitude Pittsburgh loves in the middle of its defense.
In front of Bush, the Steelers are set to bring back all of their significant contributors, including Cameron Heyward, who is coming off a second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. The starting trio of Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave combined for 20 sacks in 2018 — a big, impressive number for a group that primarily operates out of a 3-4 base.
The addition of Bush and free agent signing of Mark Barron give the Steelers a few more options than they had last season at linebacker. Vince Williams played well on the inside last season, finishing third on the team with 76 tackles, and he should only benefit from the increase in talent around him. The pass rush off the edge will come from the same place it did last season, as T.J. Watt looks to build off a breakout 2018 campaign in which he registered 13 sacks. On the other side is Bud Dupree, who hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that came with being a first-round pick but has proven to be a capable player after battling through injuries during the first two years of his career. It will be a contract year for Dupree, as the Steelers opted to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie deal.
The Steelers made it fairly clear how they’ll look at cornerback this season when they signed Kansas City’s Steven Nelson to a three-year, $25 million deal at the start of free agency. He’ll line up on the opposite side of Joe Haden, who continues to flourish in Pittsburgh after being cast aside by the Browns before the start of the 2017 season. In the slot is Mike Hilton, one of the league’s best nickel backs. Adding Michigan State’s Justin Layne in the third round sets up a competition for a couple of the final spots on the 53-man roster. Nothing will be handed to former first-round pick Artie Burns, who struggled mightily last season. At safety, the Steelers are hoping for Terrell Edmunds, their first-round pick from 2018, to make a jump in the wake of veteran Morgan Burnett’s departure.
Chris Boswell earned a big contract for his Pro Bowl-worthy 2017 season, but he nosedived in 2018, missing seven field goal attempts and five extra points. He’ll have to earn his job in 2019, as the Steelers are hoping he can rekindle the automatic feeling he once provided. Ryan Switzer is the top return specialist.
The Steelers have rebounded from disappointing seasons before, and they’ve been able to recover from the loss of talented players at various spots all over the field. They can certainly do the same in 2019, but it will require another age-defying season from Roethlisberger and an immediate impact from Bush on a defense that might be tasked with carrying Pittsburgh while it adapts to life with just one of the Killer B’s.