Last Updated: 2019-06-05
The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t done yet. Ben Roethlisberger contemplated retirement for the 10th straight offseason, Antonio Brown left for Oakland, and Le’Veon Bell is back playing football in a different uniform, but the Steelers are still very much a part of the race in the AFC North. They went 9-6-1 last season and fell short of the playoffs, but a +0.8 yards per play differential suggests that the team could have had a different fate.
A -11 turnover margin was one of the reasons why the Steelers didn’t have a different fate. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and just the fourth time in the Mike Tomlin era. Despite an offense that ranked sixth in points and fourth in yards and a defense that ranked 16th in points and sixth in yards, the Steelers failed to win 10 games for the first time since that 2013 season.
A lot of torch passing took place last year that should help the Steelers going forward, at least in some respects. Four losses in six games down the stretch took the 7-2-1 Steelers from contenders to pretenders and had to leave a sour taste in everybody’s mouth going into the offseason.
With a new challenger emerging in the AFC North, and the rekindling of what has been a one-sided rivalry, the Steelers may have gotten the wake-up call that they needed.
Super Bowl Odds: +2500
Odds to Win the AFC: +1200
Odds to Win the AFC North: +190
Season Win Total: 9
(lines Weeks 2-16 from CG Technology as of May 16, 2019)
||@ New England
||@ San Francisco
||@ LA Chargers (SNF)
||@ Cleveland (TNF)
||@ NY Jets
Total Expected Wins: 9.01
Despite rumors about Mike Tomlin’s job security, he will get to give it another go this season. So will offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and defensive coordinator Keith Butler. The Steelers and Ravens stayed status quo in that regard, while the Browns and Bengals made changes.
The record will show that Le’Veon Bell is a departed free agent from Pittsburgh, but he didn’t play last season. Jesse James went to Detroit and Morgan Burnett defected to Cleveland. The Steelers traded away Marcus Gilbert and Antonio Brown and got back the draft picks that became Ulysees Gilbert, Diante Johnson, and Zach Gentry.
Steven Nelson came in to help in the secondary and the Steelers also picked up wide receiver Donte Moncrief. All in all, aside from Brown, it has been a quiet offseason.
The Steelers really picked over the Ohio Valley and the Midwest in the 2019 NFL Draft. They took Devin Bush from Michigan 10th overall. Diante Johnson came from Toledo. Justin Layne from Michigan State. Kentucky product Benny Snell Jr. should get a long look as a complement for James Conner. Zach Gentry is also from the University of Michigan. Sutton Smith put up big numbers at Northern Illinois and Ulysees Gilbert did the same in the MAC at Akron. Only Alabama’s Isaiah Buggs and Maryland’s Derwin Gray came from different parts of the country.
The aforementioned torch passing mostly took place on offense. James Conner didn’t put up Le’Veon Bell-esque numbers, but accounted for 13 total touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards of offense. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team in both receptions and receiving yards, the first person to do that over Antonio Brown since Mike Wallace in 2011. Vance McDonald emerged as a legit tight end option.
Somebody still has to make up for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns from Antonio Brown. Maybe it will be Diante Johnson, but it probably won’t be, so somebody is going to have to step up and give Ben Roethlisberger a window to throw into in his age-37 season. Roethlisberger actually had his best completion percentage since 2015. Unfortunately he also led the league in completions to the other team with 16 interceptions. He did throw for 320.6 yards per game to lead the league.
That will be something to watch this season. The Steelers threw the ball 689 times last season, which led the league. They ran the ball 345 times last season, which ranked 32nd. With a -11 turnover margin, the Steelers were dead last in average starting field position, yet finished sixth in points and ninth in points per drive. Any talk of this team being over the hill or an afterthought is way too premature.
Defensive leader Ryan Shazier missed all of last season after suffering one of the scariest on-field injuries we’ve ever seen. He will miss all of this season as well and will probably never play again. Life in the NFL goes on and it went on with a breakout season from TJ Watt, who had 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The Steelers used a by-committee approach at linebacker to get a lot of contributions from a lot of different guys and finished sixth in yards per play allowed and tied for the league lead in sacks with 52.
There are a lot of reasons to believe this defense will be even better this season. Star defensive back Terrell Edmunds was second in tackles in his rookie year at age 21. Watt may have just scratched the surface of his potential and it’s pretty clear that Keith Butler knows how to utilize guys like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree. The addition of Devin Bush certainly doesn’t hurt at the second level and Michigan State defensive backs have carved out nice careers, so Justin Layne could be a real player.
Notes & Nuggets
The Steelers have three long road trips to San Francisco, Arizona, and Los Angeles on the schedule. Five of the last seven games are on the road, which could be tough late in the season.
This season could really go either way for the Steelers. They have nine games with a line of +/- 3 points and a couple others with the hook. Those AFC North games, sans the ones against the Bengals, look extremely competitive.
While everybody is riding the Browns hype train all the way to Miami Gardens (the site of Super Bowl LIV), the Steelers look like the favorites to me on paper and with the schedule in the AFC North. Not only do I like the +190 on them to win the division, but that would create some value when it comes to Super Bowl and AFC Championship odds.
If you haven’t guessed, that means the over 9 from a season win total standpoint as well. There is still a ton of talent here, a much improved defense, and an offense free of Antonio Brown, which may not hurt as much as you would think.
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