As our 2018 Steelers season review concluded, Pittsburgh took a step back last year, today we look at whether the Steelers can take a step forward in 2019. That certainly seems like a strange question to ask here on the weekend of Super Bowl LIII, but consider:
- Who saw the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier after an ugly playoff loss to the Jaguars?
- How many pundits predicted a 15-1 ’04 season that ended in the AFC Championship after a 6-10 2003?
- Did anyone think the ’01 Steelers would finish 12-4 following a playoff-less 9-7 finish in ’00?
- Heck, the 1989 Steelers suffered their 3rd shut out just before Thanksgiving, but finished a fumbled snap away from the AFC Championship
Yet, if the “Steelers can take a step forward in 2019”storyline seemed promising going into the Bengals game, Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and impending trade complicates things, to say the least.
We ask the question nonetheless. Examine the situation below.
Rejuvenated Running Game?
Le’Veon Bell is on his way out of Pittsburgh. That means that, assuming the Steelers don’t do anything stupid like trying to use the franchise or transition tag on him, you’re going to hear lots of Gloom and Doom stories about the devastation wrought to the Steelers over the loss of one of their best players.
- Don’t fall for it Steelers Nation.
Yes, it probably would have been better had Le’Veon Bell signed the deal his agent and the Steelers agreed to in the summer of 2017. And as detailed, franchising Le’Veon Bell a second time was a mistake. But what’s done is done.
- James Conner and Jaylen Samuels showed that there is life after Le’Veon for the Steelers rushing game.
We’ll say it again here and in the future, the Steelers absolutely must commit to finding a better third running back in 2019. But both men not only showed that they can rush the ball effectively, they’re also double threats.
- Another thing to ignore is all of the talk of the Steelers resisting the rushing revolution.
Yes, the Steelers did pass at an insane rate in the 2nd half of 2018, but they almost certainly did so by necessity, not by choice, because the Steelers didn’t want to run James Conner into the ground.
Improvements on Defense (No, that’s not a Misprint)
Don’t let the headline lead you to think I’ve gone delusion. The Steelers defense still has a long way to go even to approach its mid-2017 form, let alone progressing beyond that. And the stark truth is that there are roadblocks in the Steelers way that don’t include finding some way to replace Ryan Shazier.
- The Steelers defense gave up 4th quarter touchdowns with alarming regularity.
- The pass rush, while overall strong, couldn’t deliver at critical moments.
- Artie Burns looks like a total loss, and Cameron Sutton did not appear to take a step forward.
Yet, if those warts are real, the 2018 Steelers defense did make some legitimate improvements.
- Moving Sean Davis to free safety has helped limit the long plays that doomed the ’17 Steelers
- Tackling and yards allowed after catch/contact dropped dramatically
- T.J. Watt looks to be budding into a legitimate threat as a defensive playmaker
- Javon Hargrave also made some noise and the coaches appear to be finding ways to get him in the game
- Terrell Edmunds revealed tremendous athleticism and flashed potential
Moreover, if “Heinzsight’s” film analysis from 247 Sports Pittsburgh is accurate, the Steelers defense was much more sound schematically this year than in prior years, even if execution continues to be an issue.
Emerging Weapons on Offense
The Steelers offense also offers promise for 2019. Vance McDonald emerged as a legitimate weapon and, equally importantly, was able to stay healthy. Eli Rogers arrived late, but made almost an immediate impact. JuJu Smith-Schuster showed that his rookie season was no fluke. James Washington started slowly, but his work ethic is spectacular and he began flashing late in the season.
The offensive line will undergo changes, without a doubt, as Ramon Foster could be gone, and Marcus Gilbert is likely gone. Losing Mike Munchak is a blow without a doubt, but the Steelers have a strong core, and Shaun Sharret shouldn’t be sold short.
Most importantly, while Ben Roethlisberger‘s play was hardly flawless, he showed few, if any signs of losing a step to father time.
Filling In The Blanks For A Better 2019
The Steelers certainly have some holes to fill before the 2019 season.
And there may be even more holes, if the organization really goes through with its reported desire to trade Antonio Brown.
As for Brown’s mindset, and whatever it is that has been going on in his life from a personal and professional standpoint since before the start of the 2018 campaign, he also appears to desire a new home in 2019. Will the two sides work things out? Will the Steelers trade their star receiver–a man who has caught over 100 passes for six-straight seasons?
- The answer to that question will determine just what actions the Steelers will take in order to improve their fortunes for next year.
Let’s face it, if Brown is no longer the focal-point of Pittsburgh’s offense, that would leave the unit without both he and Bell, two of the game’s top play-makers in recent years. As much as fans may want to see those guys gone, it directly contradicts their long-held desire for Super Bowl success. If Brown does join Bell as an ex Steeler, will Smith-Schuster, a man who caught over 100 passes and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, be able to carry the torch for Pittsburgh’s offense?
That’s one problem. Another is finding a play-maker for a defense that finished 2018 with just 15 takeaways. Yes, the unit did show signs of improvement at times, but it’s hard to be a truly great defense if you can’t take the football away. Maybe the answer lies in really going for it in free agency and finding a true replacement for Shazier. With more room to work with under the cap during the upcoming free agency period, we may get the answer.
- Finally, can the Steelers take a step forward in 2019?
If you’re looking for solace, for comfort in the future, just know that the organization will do just about everything in its power to take that step forward. Some organizations are fine with some of the issues Pittsburgh is dealing with right now. The Steelers aren’t one of those organizations.