For a franchise that prides itself upon being steady and without drama, the 2018 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers was far from the norm.
The seemingly never-ending Le’Veon Bell saga loomed over the team all season long, with numerous members of the team sounding off publicly about their missing teammate. Then, to make matters worse, Antonio Brown blew up at seasons end as it became abundantly clear the discord between the star wideout and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. As a result, the Steelers missed the playoffs and failed to reach at least 10 wins for the first time in five years.
Questions started to be asked: has Mike Tomlin lost control of the locker room? Tomlin is only the third head coach employed by the Rooney family in the last fifty years, emphasising the classy reputation the franchise has. But it is fair to say that if this team fails to rebound significantly in 2019, Tomlins seat may start getting a little warm at the very least.
Well, two of the ‘killer bees’ are now gone, with Bell residing with the Jets in New York and Brown on the Oakland Raiders. Brown has continued to strengthen his reputation as the premier ‘diva’ in the NFL, even threatening to retire if he didn’t get to wear his own outdated helmet. So, there is a feeling amongst those close to the Steelers that losing Bell, and especially Brown, could amount to a case of addition by subtraction and result in a better team chemistry.
James Conner showed in his second year in Pennsylvania that he could replace Bell in the backfield whilst ensuring there wasn’t a huge drop-off in production. Conner racked up 973 yards at 4.5yds per carry, along with 497 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Conner is capable but huge credit has to go to the offensive line playing in front of him. That unit was one of the best in the league again and Tomlin will be confident that the consistent quality and durability of Pouncey, DeCastro and Villanueva will reproduce again in 2019.
The line was a huge help to Conner and played a big part in Roethlisberger tallying a career best 5,129 yards in the passing game. Despite Conner playing well, there was a large amount of pressure placed on the shoulders of Big Ben, as the Steelers had the second fewest rushing attempts in the league. Expect that to change this year, as offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner looks to the lessen the burden on Roethlisberger. Despite the toxic ending of his Steelers career, the absence of Brown will undoubtedly impact the Steelers offence in 2019. Juju Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, catching 111 passes for over 1400 yards and 7 touchdowns, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to maintain that production now that opposing defences will key on him now that Brown has gone. If he can continue to produce at that level, the Steelers have reason to be very confident about their offence again.
On the defensive side of the ball, improvements have to be made. A horrendous spinal injury to leader Ryan Shazier in 2017 continued to devastate the Steelers linebacker corps in 2018, so GM Kevin Colbert moved swiftly in the draft, trading up to swoop for Michigans stud linebacker Devin Bush. Bush has earned rave reviews in training camp and is expected to boost the defence massively, filling the large void left by the loss of Shazier who will be missing again this season. Marc Barron was added in free agency too, adding another tool to a D looking to improve on a season where they ranked 16th in points allowed. The Steelers did lead the league in sacks last year, led by the emerging T.J Watt and Cameron Heyward. That pass rush could be even better still playing with an improved secondary, a unit that struggled in 2018. The Steelers will hope that 2016 first round pick Artie Burns rebounds after a mightily disappointing campaign last year, but the signing of Steven Nelson from the Chiefs and the emergence of Cameron Sutton will give them belief that the secondary is on an upward curve. Michigan State corner Justin Layne adds depth to a unit in dire need of it.
The distractions of Bell and Brown are both gone, Big Ben is healthy and there is still an awful lot of talent on this roster. The Browns took all of the offseason headlines in the AFC North and are undoubtedly the darlings of the NFL in this moment, but the Steelers are battle tested and have far more experience than their rivals. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record in twelve years at the helm, a very impressive record that shows he and his team should not be written off just yet.
Alongside Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, the Steelers represent a major part of the incredibly competitive and intriguing AFC North. If the locker room is harmonious and free of distractions, look for this team to thoroughly embrace the underdog tag and be a contender in the playoffs once again. To crown the Browns AFC North kings now would be mightily premature.