The Baltimore Ravens snuck into the playoffs and the Cleveland Browns have all the buzz, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are the team to watch.
How can a team lose two of the best offensive players in the same offseason and get back to the playoffs?
This isn’t a riddle for the Pittsburgh Steelers; they already have the elegantly simple answer.
They’ve upgraded significantly in literally every other way.
Replacing Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell isn’t as daunting of a task as it seems, and the Steelers already found the solution to filling the running back’s shoes. In his first season as a starter, James Conner had 12 rushing touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage as a first-year Pro Bowler. His backup, Jaylen Samuels, had three receiving touchdowns, an 89.7% catch rate, and 4.6 yards per carry on the ground.
Combined, Conner and Samuels had over 1,900 yards from scrimmage, averaged more than 5.5 yards per carry, and surpassed 15 touchdowns.
Le’Veon? Consider him replaced.
On the surface, it seems like accounting for a perennial 100-catch receiver in Brown would be an insurmountable task, but the Steelers might benefit from parting ways with the NFL’s most prolific wide receiver.
In 2016, the Detroit Lions had to face life without Calvin Johnson, who was the NFL’s best receiver at the time. Yet without Johnson, both the Lions and Stafford were better. The Lions made the playoffs after a 7-9 season, and Stafford averaged more yards per pass attempt with a lower interception percentage.
The Lions improved as a team because they got better defensively. And they didn’t miss a beat on offense, because they focused more on spreading the wealth in the passing game.
Pittsburgh can easily follow this blueprint, albeit with even better players around Roethlisberger, who is better than Stafford.
JuJu Smith-Schuster looks ready to step into the No. 1 receiver role after leading the Steelers with 1,426 receiving yards in a breakout season. Smith-Schuster averaged more yards per reception and had a higher catch rate than Brown.
The key, though, will be the pieces around him. Between Donte Moncrief and sophomore James Washington, the Steelers have at least one breakout player at the wide receiver position. Beyond them, the Steelers have a decent slot weapon in Ryan Switzer, third-round deep threat Diontae Johnson, and a former 594-yard rookie in Eli Rogers.
Not only are they deep at wide receiver, but they also have two capable pass-catching backs and a talented tight end in Vance McDonald. Chris Conte’s worst nightmare, McDonald averaged a whopping 8.5 yards per target and has received heaps of praise this offseason as another breakout candidate.
Bell and Brown’s departures are more about the other men on the roster who will receive opportunities to shine, and Ben Roethlisberger has always been at his best when he’s been able to spread the wealth. When Roethlisberger last had a QB Rating over 100.0 in 2014, he had five pass-catchers eclipse the 500-yard mark. Last season, only three did, despite the fact that Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards. Maybe that’s why the 37-year-old Hall of Fame signal-caller also led everyone with 16 interceptions. When the offense feels more congested, it’s easier to force passes to the same receivers and turn the ball over.
A cleaner, more flexible passing attack could go a long way in helping the Steelers bounce back. They’re just one season removed from a 13-3 campaign, and they were still a winning team in 2018 with a 9-6-1 record.
But what could really push the Steelers over the edge is their defense. Although Pittsburgh was just 16th in the NFL in points allowed, they were quietly sixth in yards allowed. The Steelers were in the top 10 in yards per pass attempt and yards per carry allowed on defense, indicating that they were unlucky not to be recognized as a borderline top-five unit. Furthermore, they only got better on defense this offseason.
The Steelers pass rush is excellent. Last season, they had five players with at least 10 QB hits, and nobody was more of a terror for opposing offensive linemen than 13.0-sack artist T.J. Watt. At 24, Watt will only get better next season. In front of him is the menacing trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave, which just may be the NFL’s best front three; they had 20 sacks and 46 QB hits among them.
That core pass rush will now get to work a potential game-changer at inside linebacker in Devin Bush. The secondary looks better on paper, too, with Steven Nelson joining the squad to form a strong cornerback trio with Joe Haden and rising star Mike Hilton.
If the Steelers secondary can force more interceptions behind an elite pass rush, this defense will be on its way. And if not, that will put more pressure on Roethlisberger to cut down on his interceptions.
Due to all the hype surrounding the Browns, it’s easy to forget that the Steelers were the AFC North’s unquestioned powerhouse in 2017. Despite losing Brown and Bell, the Steelers are deeper than ever on offense, have their own franchise quarterback, and have only improved on defense since then.
Pittsburgh’s defensive improvements have been the most overlooked, since most of the focus has been on the other side of the ball. This could be the year it all clicks for the Steelers defense again, especially with young talents like Watt, Hilton, and Bush ready to make big plays.
It seems weird to think of the Steelers as underdogs in comparison to the Browns, but that’s the dangerous – to the rest of the AFC – position they find themselves in. They have all the pieces to return to the playoffs, and nobody should be surprised if the conference’s sleeping giants hold off the Browns for at least one more year.