Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
This is a time of tremendous change in Pittsburgh. For many generations, the Steelers have stood as one of the model franchises in the NFL. The Rooney family built a culture of stability that has filtered down to the football field. Only three teams (the Packers, Bears and Giants) have more NFL championships than the Steelers, who were the first team in league history to capture six Super Bowls. And while Pittsburgh continues to win, lately the team has created more of a stir with off-the-field drama than anything it’s accomplished on the field.
How the Steelers got here
Let’s take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
— James Conner stepped up when needed. With Le’Veon Bell away from the team (more on that below), Conner was a major player for the offense. He totaled 13 touchdowns before a lower-leg injury limited him down the stretch.
— Losing four of their last six. The loss at New Orleans in Week 16 was a also tough one to swallow, setting up a must-win game in the season finale. They won that game, but they didn’t get the help they needed to advance to the playoffs.
Head coach: Mike Tomlin. Look, the Steelers are consistent winners. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 last year, but they did finish with a winning record (9-6-1). So Tomlin’s a good coach. But recently, there just seems to be something missing. The Steelers are the kind of team that hangs around the main event scene, but they haven’t been in a championship match in quite some time. They won the Super Bowl in 2008. Lost it in 2010. And they haven’t been back since. They are like the Sheamus of the NFL. The pedigree is impressive. But do you expect Sheamus to be in the title mix at any point in the future? He hasn’t been the same since the League of Nations days.
Now, there are things that have gone wrong that aren’t Tomlin’s fault. I mean, the Bell situation wasn’t his fault. Untimely turnovers aren’t really his fault, either. But there has seemingly been a drama-filled atmosphere around the team in recent years. And at some point, there needs to be an adult in the room who doesn’t let these things build up. Maybe Tomlin has done his best in that regard, and we can’t say whether the team’s struggles at times are a direct result of off-field drama. But this is a narrative he needs to slay for good.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger. It wasn’t long ago that he was openly talking about retirement. Then, last year, the Steelers drafted quarterback Mason Rudolph, and Roethlisberger was all, “Oh no, I’m staying to play forever.” He’s kind of like that friend who responds “maybe” anytime you send him a party invite, mostly because he wants everyone to beg him to attend. Like, “No, dude. It won’t be the same without you.” But when you finally start to ignore that person and say, “Cool, we’re going with these other people,” he’s suddenly all in to go. Even promising to drive and everything. It is as exhausting as it is annoying. But Ben looks locked in now. And really, he has to be. With all of the stuff that went down with Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger will now be on a mission to prove he’s the best teammate in the world, which will only benefit those around him. He’s a very talented quarterback and has proven he can win on the biggest stage. If this is what it took to get him to lock in, well, results over process, I suppose. Go prove them wrong.
He could start by not turning the ball over as much. Roethlisberger passed for a career-high 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns last year, which is great. But he also threw a league-high 16 interceptions.
Projected 2019 MVP: JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver. JuJu looked like a stud last year. All he wanted to do was go out there and be the best receiver in the game. And he’s well on his way, coming off a Pro Bowl campaign. I understand there are those who have reservations about him being the No. 1 guy now and wonder if some of his success stemmed from playing alongside AB the past two years. You’d be obtuse to believe having AB as a teammate doesn’t help. Not only does he draw the top corner, but he also throws a mean block, as you can see right here on this 97-yard touchdown reception. But Pittsburgh has a long history of moving on from star receivers and being just fine (Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and now AB). And if you think Ben isn’t going to pepper JuJu with a seemingly endless supply of targets, like a groomsman at a wedding reception trying to grab as many Bud Lights as he can right before the open bar switches to a cash bar, then you just aren’t paying attention.
2019 breakout star: Vance McDonald, tight end. He finished with a career-high 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdown catches in 2018. But he’s going to be counted on even more this season. I mean there are 168 targets to replace from AB’s departure alone, and tight end Jesse James left for the Lions in free agency. Roethlisberger is going to look for some familiarity. Plus, McDonald once delivered a stiff-arm I’ll never forget to former Bear Chris Conte.
A low-key candidate to get some targets: Diontae Johnson, wide receiver. Oh, don’t think I can’t see what’s going on here with the Steelers. So you trade a talented former MAC receiver and then go out and draft a talented former MAC receiver? I’ve seen divorcees be less transparent once they get back out in the dating pool. I kid (barely), but Johnson — a third-round pick out of Toledo — could end up moving into that No. 2 spot behind Smith-Schuster on the depth chart as a rookie. Veterans Donte Moncrief, Eli Rodgers and James Washington also figure into the mix. But I’m going with the rookie.
Another new face to know: Devin Bush, linebacker. The Steelers made the bold move to jump up to the No. 10 spot in the draft and select the talented linebacker from Michigan. It was kind of an anti-Steelers move, because they normally let the draft come to them. But they had to get Bush on the roster. The Steelers have had a need at the position ever since Ryan Shazier suffered his spinal injury in December 2017. The lack of speed over the middle has been evident in the aftermath, so the team spent its 2018 first-round pick on safety Terrell Edmunds and now grabbed the former Wolverine. This fills a massive need.
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. It’s the Steelers. The expectation will forever be a Super Bowl title. There is no avoiding it. And after missing the playoffs last season, Tomlin needs to win this year.
Will the Steelers be able to …
Put all of the nonsense behind them? You think about everything the Patriots have had to endure over the last decade. I mean, Tim Tebow was part of the team for a while, and even he couldn’t create a true media circus in New England. But the Pats always overcome, putting that stuff aside and moving on (to the playoffs and usually the Super Bowl). Now it’s time for the Steelers to do the same thing.
Continue to get great production out of James Conner? This guy right here. He was such a find for the Steelers. But again, Pittsburgh has a history of letting talented players like Bell leave and still finding a guy who can step in. Conner is the latest, and he’s one of the players I’m concerned about the least. In fact, I question my own sanity for even bringing this question up. But I felt it was still kind of important to do so.
Play some defense? The Steel Curtain is no more, which is strange. How can Pittsburgh not be great at defense? It’s like the International House of Pancakes trying to sell itself as a burger joint. You do pancakes. Keep doing that thing that made you famous (though the TV ads are fantastic). But there is help out there. Mark Barron should help Edmunds and Bush up the middle. The team paid a lot of money for free-agent cornerback Steven Nelson ($25.5 million over three years). Cornerback Mike Hilton should be great in the slot. This might not be the rebirth of the Steel Curtain, but it should at least be a steel dashboard shade.
Three key dates:
— Week 1 at the Patriots. Oh, boy. You’d probably prefer to saunter into the season with a nice matchup against the Bengals or something. No such luck here. But the Patriots did lose to the Chiefs in Week 1 two years ago while coming off a Super Bowl championship, so you have that going for you.
— Week 5 vs. the Ravens. This will be a telling little stretch of the season. The Steelers will play host to the defending AFC North-champion Ravens and then follow it up with a game in Los Angeles against the Chargers, a team that came back from a 16-point halftime deficit to win in Pittsburgh last season.
— Week 10 vs. the Rams. This comes on the heels of a game against the Colts. So, again, not an easy stretch. The good news is the Steelers have a bye in Week 7 before beginning a three-game homestand that wraps with the Rams game. The Steelers won’t be on the road for about a full month until they travel all the way to Cleveland in Week 11.
One storyline people are overlooking: The Steelers‘ need to divvy up the workload at running back. I love Conner, as mentioned above, but I feel like the Steelers (and I have observed this in a dorky, fantasy enthusiast way) have a way of burning out their running backs as the season goes on. Conner averaged 18.9 carries per game through Week 9 last season. He never topped 15 carries in a game following that and missed Weeks 14-16 with a lower leg injury (he averaged less than 13 carries per game in the second half of the season). Sure, game script could be one of the explanations for the lighter workload, but it always seems the Steelers are far too willing to overuse their running backs in the early part of the season and find themselves in kind of a rut at the position come December and playoff time. It’s like a kid who eats his lunch right when he gets to school, and then sits there hungry when everyone else is eating lunch at lunchtime. Tomlin has always had a workhorse to lean on (Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell and Conner), but maybe this year will be different (Conner seems to think it will). Thankfully, the team did draft a powerful back in Benny Snell Jr. this year, and 2018 fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels is in the mix, too.
One storyline people are overthinking: It’s the Steelers, so everything. I mean, I’m sitting here questioning a coach who makes the playoffs seemingly every year and a quarterback who is probably going to the Hall of Fame. Has there been a winning team that has been questioned so much? I ask knowing I’m part of the problem.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Steelers MUST …
— Be in the headlines for the right reasons.
— Get back to the playoffs. Like I said earlier, the Steelers missed the playoffs in 2018 for the first time since 2013. I thought about saying this team needs to win the Super Bowl for its 2019 season to be a success, and I understand why fans really want to get another Super Bowl. You basically are in a race with the Patriots to see who is going to be the first to get to seven Super Bowl titles. But just getting back to the playoffs would have to be considered a success.
I feel like there will be no middle ground with this team. Either they will fold in horrific fashion — maybe win five games or something — or go completely the other way: Roethlisberger throws 60 touchdowns and JuJu catches 30 of them as the team wins a seventh Super Bowl. It feels like one or the other. Because it would be disappointing (even a little sad) if they just meander around again for another season. At least make it exciting and newsworthy.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.