2019 season preview
2018 / 2019
An offseason full of drama for the Pittsburgh Steelers eventually caught up to them during the regular season with Le’Veon Bell opting to sit out the year and Antonio Brown deciding to miss the final game of the season because of a bruised ego.
Ben Roethlisberger’s ill-timed comments on his local radio show only serving to sow the seeds of discontent with certain teammates. Unfortunately, the dysfunction in the locker room would impact the product on the field throughout the year.
With 2017 Pro Bowl kicker Chris Boswell hitting on just 65 percent of his field goals, the Steelers would finish in second place in the division and out the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
The trade of Brown to the Oakland Raiders for relative pittance was the most significant move of the offseason in Pittsburgh. But for a team that seldom makes moves during the draft, a trade with the Denver Broncos to move up 10 places in the first-round to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush comes a close second. The selections of wide receiver Diontae Johnson and cornerback Justin Layne were two more solid additions in round three.
The loss of Bell during free agency came as a surprise to no one. Really the only unexpected aspect of his departure was the destination and the size of the contract he agreed to. A deal that was noticeable less than he had been offered by the Steelers in 2018.
In typical Pittsburgh fashion, the signings made during free agency were generally less glamorous than most. Former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson is arguably the highest profile name of the group. Veteran wideout Donte Moncrief should be a welcome addition to a relatively young receivers room. Linebacker Mark Barron is expected to help a unit that has struggled in coverage as of late.
The decision to let tight end Jesse James walk without offering him an extension may yet come back to haunt a team that made no effort to replace him this offseason.
Despite the obvious losses, very little is expected to change on offense for the Steelers in 2019. Pro Bowl running back James Conner returns as the starter without the spectre of Bell’s impending return hanging over his head. He is supported by an offensive line that effectively returns all five starters from the year before.
Having replaced him for 10 games last season due to injury, Pittsburgh opted to keep Matt Feiler at right tackle. That allowed them to trade veteran Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals ahead of the draft. The former undrafted free agent played well in Gilbert’s absence last year. Hopefully, he should continue to improve as part of an offensive line that is among the best in the NFL.
The obvious challenge on offense with be replacing Antonio Brown. A task that is likely to fall to a variety of wide receivers rather than just one man. JuJu Smith-Schuster will assume the role of the No.1 receiver, but the 168 targets Brown saw in 2018 will be shared by a committee of Moncrief, James Washington, Johnson, Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers.
The selection of Devin Bush should provide the Steelers the sort of impact player at the position they have been missing since Ryan Shazier suffered an unfortunate injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017. For a player expected to be an opening day starter, he will need to make a quick adjustment to life in the NFL.
If T.J. Watt continues to improve, the Steelers will have a genuine star on their hands at outside linebacker. However, the chances of Bud Dupree ever justifying his draft status are extremely slim as he enters a contract year.
A defensive line of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave gives Pittsburgh one of the more underrated three-man fronts in the league. Unfortunately, if the secondary cannot improve on previous performances, the Steelers struggles against the pass will doom them once again in 2019.
Much will be expected of Nelson, who was frequently targeted in Kansas City, but if he can recreate the four interceptions he recorded last year, the coaching staff will be ecstatic. An inability to generate turnovers has been an issue for Pittsburgh for some time and is the focus for the defense heading into the season.
Writing off the Steelers has become a popular pastime this offseason. However, reports of their demise are somewhat exaggerated. On paper, the defense should be noticeably improved on 2018 as several younger players settle into their roles. If the new additions can make an immediate impact as well, a deep playoff run could be on the cards.
How well Smith-Schuster copes with being double-teamed will be critical to the success of the offense, but the depth of the wide receivers group suggests the loss of Brown can be managed. With depth at most positions except safety and tight end, Pittsburgh should be capable of overcoming most challenges, but question marks still remain about the overall quality of the secondary.
Record Prediction: 10-6