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The Pittsburgh Steelers, held up for decades as the standard of stability and poise in the NFL, became something else the past couple years.
Team Turmoil. Team Drama.
“Ah man, we are — Kardashians. We have, I mean, we’re something,” tight end Jesse James, who left for Detroit in free agency, said after last season.
While there has been a steady dissection of Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership and a breakdown of a social media feud between Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster — the Steelers might have the most volume written on them of any NFL team other than the Cowboys, and you need something to talk about — the theme of the Steelers’ offseason seems to be that everything has calmed down.
Le’Veon Bell, whose holdout last season created a season-long debate, is off to the Jets. Brown was traded for quarters on the dollar to the Oakland Raiders, while the Steelers took on a huge salary-cap hit in the deal. Giving away one of the greatest receivers ever makes no sense from a football standpoint, but the Steelers had to fix the locker room. After Brown had a confrontation with Ben Roethlisberger and practically went AWOL before a Week 17 game, the Steelers felt they had to move on.
You can’t assume the Steelers are better on paper without Brown and Bell, two generational talents. But they might be a better team.
“Things have changed pretty well around here,” guard David DeCastro told the Tribune-Review before minicamp. “Just coming back and seeing it, talking to people. I’m excited. I really am – just to play football.”
“We want to show we are here, dedicated to this team, dedicated to having a great season,” Roethlisberger said, according to the team’s site. “We are all about each other.”
“I feel like we are closer now than we ever have been,” offensive guard Ramon Foster said, according to the Tribune-Review.
Chemistry can’t necessarily replace talent in football, but it’s important. And it’s not like the Steelers don’t have talent.
Smith-Schuster’s numbers were better than Brown’s last season, aside from touchdowns. James Conner did a good job in Bell’s tailback role. Roethlisberger had a 5,000-yard season and talk of his retirement seems like it never happened. The offense is one of the league’s best. The Steelers weren’t bad on defense last season and perhaps fixed a lingering problem by trading up to draft inside linebacker Devin Bush 10th overall.
This is Mike Tomlin’s biggest test. Many Steelers fans have turned on him. On one hand it’s unfair. Among coaches with 100 wins through NFL history, Tomlin’s .654 winning percentage ranks eighth. Six of the seven ahead of Tomlin are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the seventh is Bill Belichick.
Yet, Tomlin hasn’t been able to get command of a locker room that was out of control at times. The Steelers have a high standard and since making Super Bowl XLV at the end of the 2010 season, Tomlin has just three playoff wins. Not making the playoffs last season, with a roster that underachieved, wasn’t a good look.
Now the Steelers turn the page, with less talent but (hopefully) less drama too. A lot falls on Tomlin, and Roethlisberger too. Roethlisberger has had to fight criticisms of his leadership, and seemingly wanted to change that image. He hosted a bonding trip at his lake house in Georgia, for example. Roethlisberger is likely going to the Hall of Fame no matter what else happens in his career, but winning after Bell and Brown have departed would add a huge chapter to his legacy. It’s his team now, there can be no doubt about that. His huge offseason contract extension drove that point home.
The Steelers are happier. Calmer. Quieter. That could change once the season starts or Brown sends some more mean tweets, but for now this seems like a better mix for Pittsburgh. We’ll find out if addition by subtraction works for the Steelers.
The biggest addition the Steelers made came in the draft. They traded up to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush 10th overall. It was a big price to pay, but the Steelers’ defense hasn’t been the same since Ryan Shazier’s injury and Bush was one of two elite inside linebacker prospects in the draft. Receiver Diontae Johnson, an Antonio Brown clone, and running back Benny Snell could contribute as rookies. In free agency the Steelers invested a three-year, $25.5 million deal in cornerback Steven Nelson, formerly of the Chiefs, and also added linebacker Mark Barron and receiver Donte Moncrief.
All right, now let’s talk about the losses. Brown is going to the Hall of Fame some day and Le’Veon Bell might too. Trading Brown to the Raiders for a third- and fifth-round pick seems way too light for a player of his ability (but it’s also telling that no other team offered more). Bell left in free agency, though the Steelers already played without him last season. While the above section talked about chemistry, here we’re just going to look at the football side of things, and the Steelers said goodbye to one of the best running backs and receivers in the NFL.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Steelers were better than their 9-6-1 record and can improve through some better breaks. Pittsburgh was minus-11 in turnover margin, and it seems hard to believe that will repeat. Though, the Steelers will have to find some playmakers on defense to turn that around. Pittsburgh lost three of four down the stretch, all of which were by seven points or less and they all came down to the final two minutes. Flip a couple of those tight results and we’re having a much different conversation about Pittsburgh. Also the Steelers’ schedule lightens up, from fourth toughest last season (via Football Outsiders) to one projected as the 13th easiest (via Warren Sharp).
We can’t entirely write off thee Steelers’ minus-11 turnover margin to bad luck. First, Ben Roethlisberger needs to cut down on his 16 interceptions. But most importantly the defense needs to improve. It managed only eight interceptions, tying a franchise record for fewest picks in a season. Only one player, cornerback Joe Haden, had more than one. Highly drafted defensive backs like safeties Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds, and cornerback Artie Burns all disappointed, to varying degrees. Forcing more turnovers was a focus of the offseason, and the Steelers need to make more plays on defense if they’re going to succeed.
Patrick Mahomes’ 5,000-yard season got all the attention, but Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards. He had 5,129 yards, his first 5,000-yard season (he had 4,952 in 2014). Remember when Roethlisberger seemed to have a foot out of the door, contemplating retirement? That has flipped. Roethlisberger is 37, but is playing very well and just got a two-year, $68 million deal. Roethlisberger was obviously helped playing with Antonio Brown, who was at a Pro Bowl level from 2011-18, and it will be fascinating to see if he can replicate his success without Brown.
Among the many candidates (JuJu Smith-Schuster is the obvious one, though he already performed like a No. 1 receiver last season), rookie linebacker Devin Bush stands out. The Steelers defense hasn’t been the same since Ryan Shazier’s devastating neck injury, and the Steelers must feel Bush can fix that. Bush and Devin White, who was drafted fifth overall by Tampa Bay, were the only ready-made inside linebacker prospects in the draft. Pittsburgh moved up from No. 20 to No. 10, sending a second-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick to Denver, to make sure they got Bush. Bush isn’t perfect but he seems like a very good bet to be an impact player on all three downs (read Eric Edholm’s draft profile of Bush) and the Steelers must believe he can turn around their defense.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “James Conner’s production tailed off slightly in the second half of 2018, but he was still plenty good after Halloween — 4.25 yards per run, about 91 total yards per game. If you prorate his second-half pace into a full season, we’re looking at 997 rushing yards, 464 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns. That’s enough for first-round consideration, and a welcome roster addition in Round 2.
“You will occasionally hear some whispers about the Steelers wanting to significantly scale back Conner’s role, but I’m going to write that mostly off to preseason optimism. It’s common for teams to speak in flowery terms of its support players. Alas, there’s nothing major pushing Conner. Jaylen Samuels is a talented but unusual back — remember he played a lot of tight end in college and had about two-thirds of his yardage through the air — who could turn into something of a third-down specialist. Benny Snell was a touchdown collector at Kentucky, but he also was the 122nd pick in the draft for a reason — like Conner, he’s on the slower side.
“When push comes to shove in the games that count, I expect the Steelers to rely on what they know. The key for now is to try to ignore the summertime noise. Conner is slotting around 11th in most Yahoo drafts, two picks cheaper in NFFC orbits.”
Over the past six seasons, Antonio Brown averaged 171 targets. The fewest he had in any of those seasons was 163. There are a ton of targets to go around with Brown in Oakland, and JuJu Smith-Schuster already had 168 last season. He’ll get more targets this season, but how many more can he possibly handle? Those 10-11 targets per game have to go somewhere. New addition Donte Moncrief has generated buzz this offseason, and second-year James Washington has to improve from a quiet rookie season. Washington seems like a good bet to emerge as the season goes on, if he doesn’t right away. Tight end Vance McDonald might really take off this season as he’s coming off a 50-610-4 year on just 72 targets. It’s not hard to imagine McDonald adding as much as 50 percent to his target share, with a corresponding rise in production.
WILL JAMES CONNER BE A WORKHORSE AGAIN?
The Steelers are one of the few teams that doesn’t seem to believe in a tailback committee. Le’Veon Bell played nearly every snap when he was Pittsburgh’s starter. When Bell held out, Conner rarely came off the field. Before he suffered an ankle injury, Conner played at least 79 percent of the Steelers’ offensive snaps in nine of 11 games. But Jaylen Samuels played well when Conner was out with that ankle injury, and rookie Benny Snell has promise too. There’s a question about how much the Steelers might change their backfield distribution.
“I think it’ll be spread out pretty evenly,” Conner told the Tribune-Review.
It’s hard to believe Conner’s workload gets cut that much because he is a quality, all-purpose back. Perhaps the Steelers will follow the trend and mix in Samuels and maybe Snell more than we’re used to seeing from Pittsburgh backups. Conner should still get plenty of touches, just not as many as he handled early last season.
The Packers got better after Sterling Sharpe retired. The Lions improved by two wins and made the playoffs in their first season without Calvin Johnson. The 2001 49ers went 12-4, up from 6-10 in Jerry Rice’s last San Francisco season. It is possible to lose a great receiver in his prime and thrive right away. Antonio Brown is undeniably great, but that doesn’t mean the Steelers can’t do better without him. There is a lot of talent on hand, Mike Tomlin’s resume is really good and Pittsburgh was a bit unlucky last season but still went 9-6-1. This is a team that could still win a Super Bowl if everything fits better this season. And don’t you think the Steelers might be motivated to succeed without Brown and Le’Veon Bell?
I don’t believe this is true, but what if Ben Roethlisberger was propped up by Antonio Brown most of this decade? Throwing to someone as great as Brown 170 times a year is a nice arrangement. Losing a target like that at age 37 isn’t ideal. The Steelers defense hasn’t been special in a while, and Pittsburgh might struggle to reach .500 if the defense doesn’t get better and the offense slips without Brown. JuJu Smith-Schuster put up great numbers, but it’s worrisome that he and the Steelers struggled with Brown inactive in Week 17 last season. Brown occupied a lot of defensive attention, and Smith-Schuster benefited from that. The Steelers presumably want to show the world they can win without Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but it’s possible we look back and see the Steelers made a mistake not figuring out a way to keep both around.
The Steelers aren’t being written off completely, but the expectations are lower than they’ve been in a while. Via the Westgate in Las Vegas, the Steelers’ over/under win total is nine, and they’re 18-1 to win the Super Bowl. Those numbers are the lowest on Pittsburgh in a few years. The Steelers are being touted as a sleeper, not a contender. I understand why people think the Steelers will take a step back, but there are reasons to believe they’ll improve, starting with chemistry. They’ll be in the AFC North mix all season, and even though I’m conservative on them in these rankings, it wouldn’t surprise me much if the Steelers improved by a couple wins this season.
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