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Football NFL

NFL Team Previews: Pittsburgh Steelers

2018 Season Review: 8-7-1 (2nd in NFC North)

The Steelers had a disappointing 2018 season, after going 13-3 in 2017. Steeler fans were hoping for redemption after losing in the Divisional Round at home against the Jaguars. Well Steeler fans were let down yet again, and they had to deal with Le’Von Bell holding out all year, and then Antonio Brown bitching and moaning all year before demanding to be traded at the end of the year.

The Steelers like 2017 played up and down to their competition all year. In Week One they tie a bad Browns team, then the next week they still lose, but play with the Chiefs. They play a close game with the Buccaneers and then exchange blowouts in a loss to the Ravens and win over the Falcons. Hell the Steelers lost at Denver and Oakland later in the year but still managed to beat the Patriots in Week 15 and almost beat the Saints in New Orleans in Week 16.

You couldn’t really blame the loss on aspect of their team at all either. Their offensive finished 6th in scoring and their defense finished 16th, just average but good enough that this team still should have made the playoffs. This team was just in its own head too much and never got up for certain games.

Although Pittsburgh’s defense was average in scoring, they were awful in forcing turnovers. They only managed to force 15 turnovers which was tied for 29th in the league. While their offense gave the ball up 26 times on 17 INTs and and 9 lost fumbles. Overall that led to a -11 differential which was 28th in the league.

Where Pittsburgh excelled on defense was getting after the QB. They were tied in the league in sacks with 52 on the year. Another highlight for the defense was only giving up 96.1 yards rushing per game, only seven teams did that in the NFL last year. They also were in the top 10 in pass defense, only giving up 231.1 yards per game.

T.J. Watt led the Steelers in sacks with 13 and also had 12 TFL, and 21 QB hits. Cameron Heyward came in second on the team with 8.0 sacks, 10 TFL, and 18 QB hits. Both of those guys made the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, as individuals go thats where the highlights stop. The Steelers didn’t have a game change anywhere else, although Joe Haden is a great CB for them. The Steelers were really missing Ryan Shazier, who was a great leader and could play all three downs at MLB. Shazier was everyone on the field and was able to run down RBs and TEs. It was obvious watching the Steelers on the defense they missed that type of player.

On the offensive side of the ball, the loss of Le’Von Bell was felt even though James Conner ran for 973 yards, and 12 TDs while also catching 55 balls for 497 yards and 1 TD. Connor did that in just 13 games, but it seemed like he was a little run down towards the end of the year.

At WR the Steelers were phenomenal. JuJu had himself a hell of a year with 111 receptions for 1,426 YDS and 7 TDs. Antonio Brown on the other hand had 104 receptions for 1,297 YDS and 15 TDs. Somehow, AB was pissed off and demanded a trade from the Steelers at the end of year, basically getting pissed off that JuJu was voted team MVP and he was getting all the attention.

Big Ben for what its worth threw for 5,129 yards, 34 TDs, and 16 INTs. His relationship with Brown deteriorated throughout the year. Its been rumored that AB was running his own routes at times, and by watching games you could just see Big Ben was missing AB when he was open at times, or not even looking his way which frustrated AB to the point he needed to get out of Pittsburgh.

Overall Pittsburgh’s season ended ugly. They lost a close game to the Saints in Week 16 that ended their season and then then the Week 17 game against the Bengals meant nothing and they barley won by three.

Key Off Season Acquisitions

ILB Mark Barron (2 Years, $12 Million)

I love this pickup. I am not sure if Barron will start opposite Devin Bush but he is another guy that is in that Ryan Shazier mold. Barron is a true hybrid S/LB and that can play a lot of areas. Even if he doesn’t start, he’s going to get enough snaps to make a good impact on this defense.

CB Steven Nelson (3 years, $25.5 Million)

Nelson comes over from Kansas City where he started all 16 games and had 4 INTs, 15 Pass Deflections, 68 total tackles, and 2 TFL. Nelson is going to be the starter opposite Joe Haden and creates depth with Artie Burns moving to a backup position, and rookie Justin Layne in the mix also.

WR Donte Moncrief (2 years, $9 Million)

Moncrief was so close to breaking out in Indianapolis but injuries to him, Andrew Luck, and last year the awful QB play in Jacksonville did him no favors. Moncrief is a solid WR that is a good deep threat who could surprise in Pittsburgh with Big Ben. I think Moncrief will win the No. 2 WR job over James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson. Moncrief is a guy who could put up 800+ yards and 5+ TDs with Big Ben throwing to him. Solid pickup to help replace Antonio Browns production.

2019 NFL Draft

Round 1 Pick #10: LB Devin Bush

Love this pick by the Steelers and they desperately needed a guy like Bush. Since Ryan Shazier’s awful injury two years ago, the Steelers have lacked that MLB who can be all over the field badly. Devin Bush is built in the same mold of Shazier. He was an absolute beast at Michigan, he plays with a ton of swagger, he plays all over the field, and has the speed to run down TE’s and RB’s. He’s going to immediately make the Steelers defense better.

Key Off Season Departures

WR Antonio Brown (via trade to the Oakland Raiders)

With JuJu on the roster, this loss doesn’t hurt as much but it still hurts. Brown played on the outside versus JuJu who played mostly in the slot. Without Brown that is going to change things for JuJu where defenses can focus on him. It takes away a great target for Big Ben, but it also takes away off field distractions. With Bell and Brown gone, this team shouldn’t have those off field issues anymore.

TE Jesse James (via free agency to the Detroit Lions)

This is more of a depth issue because Vance McDonald is more than capable of being the guy at TE for the Steelers. James leaving just doesn’t allow the Steelers to have those two TE sets with two good receiving TEs out there. If anything, this departure could allow McDonald to break out.

2019 Preview

There are a few questions I have of the Steelers coming into 2019 that will determine if they’ll make it back to the playoffs this year. I believe the AFC North is going to come down to them and the Browns. The Bengals are going to be at the bottom of the league, and in the Ravens preview coming out you’ll get my thoughts on them.

For one, the Steelers are now without the distraction of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Those two guys for a few years were the best at their positions, at could still prove to be this year but with other teams. How much of their success was due to the Steelers system, the Steelers good OL, and Big Ben? They are great players but were also big distractions on and off the field. How will losing that talent, but also losing those personalities positively effect this roster. This Steelers team is now 100% Big Bens and Mike Tomlin. Hell Mike Tomlin just got an extension a few weeks ago, and he might be able to reassert himself into that locker room with AB gone. Obviously the Steelers made up for Bell last year with James Connor, but now they’re gonna have to find a way to replace 15 TDs and 1,300 yards. Losing the attitude and distraction of AB is going to help this team, but I’m not sure they have the pieces to fill in for his production.

Speaking of filling in production, James Connor had over 1,300 all purpose yards last year but it was clear his slowed down a bit towards the end of the year. As good as Connor was, he was no Le’Veon Bell. Can Connor improve on what we did last year, stay healthy, and stay fresh deep into the season for a potential post season run for the Steelers is the big question? Behind Connor the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell Jr. Snell Jr. is sneaky pick to have an effective rookie year, right now he’s getting no publicity but I think he eventually takes over as the #2 back for the Steelers. Regardless, the Steelers have three backs who they can utilize and hopefully keep each guy fresh as the season wears on.

Now that AB is gone, all the focus will go onto JuJu. JuJu had a great year but it’s important to not just look at his production and play in 2018 and just assume he’s going to repeat that. For one, he was playing along side the best WR in the league. That left JuJu with a lot of one on one opportunities, most defenses didn’t focus their scheme on JuJu, they were focused on stopping AB. Lastly JuJu did most of his damage from the slot where he’s not getting press coverage, where he’s getting mismatches, and where he’s not seeing the opposing teams best corner. This year is going to be different, JuJu is going to be asked to play on the outside more, defenses are going to focus on him, and he’s going to see the top corners in the league. JuJu is gonna have his work cut out for him. I don’t think he’ll have another almost 1,500 yards receiving but he’ll still be a top guy in the league. The other Steeler WRs are going to have to help JuJu out and that starts with newly acquired Donte Moncrief and second year guy James Washington.

Expect Vance McDonald to also have a big year with Jesse James out of the fold. McDonald is a TE that can do it all for the Steelers. Along with a very good offensive line, the Steelers should be set on offense going into 2019.

The final question for this team is on defense and Devin Bush. The Steelers were average on defense and couldn’t force any turnovers. A lot of that was due to missing Ryan Shazier who was the best and most important player on that defense. Devin Bush is very much made in the same mold of Shazier and if Bust can be 80% of what Shazier was, this Steelers defense will improve in scoring and turnovers. Outside of Bush I like getting Steven Nelson at CB and Mark Barron at ILB. Both those guys will help majorly in the pass game. Also drafting Justin Layne out of Michigan St. creates more depth in the CB room.

Schedule

The AFC North plays the AFC East and NFC West this year. The Steelers finished second in their division so they also draw the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers.

The Steelers get five Prime Time games this year. They open up Week One in New England on Sunday Night Football, they play the Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 4, at the Chargers on SNF Week 6, MNF against the Dolphins on MNF, and a big Thursday Night game at the Browns in Week 11.

The Steelers also have a few of those late afternoon games that could be the main late that week starting in Week 3 at San Francisco, Week 10 at home against the Rams, and Week 13 at home against the Browns.

The Steelers do have some oddity in their schedule. First off they play 6 home games in the first 10 weeks of the season, that means from Weeks 11 to 17 they only have two home games and their bye comes during Week 7. They also get the Browns twice in three weeks in Weeks 11 and 13. Plus with the Week 11 game being on Thursday Night, that means they play the Browns twice in just 18 days.

Fantasy Player You Want

I sense a sneaky good year from TE Vance McDonald. He had 50 catches last year for 610 yards and 4 TDs. This year, Antonio Brown is gone. Jesse James is gone. That is 207 targets gone, and McDonald is going to get a good portion of those from Big Ben. Plus, you can get McDonald in the 9th or 10th round.

Fantasy Player To Avoid

I’m gonna say an off the wall answer here in RB Jaylen Samuel. He’s the backup to James Connor and will get some good playing time early on, especially on 3rd downs. I just have this sneaky feeling that rookie RB Benny Snell Jr. is going to eventually steal this role from Samuel.

Ceiling

The Steelers have a toughs schedule and if they don’t get hot early, those away games at the end of the year could hurt them. Having said that, the Steelers should be the favorite to win the AFC North and I can see this team winning 12 games.

Floor

The Steelers won eight games last year, if the Bengals and Ravens are somehow better than I think they are, then maybe they split with the Steelers. This team is too talented and I like what they’ve done to fix their defense. The Steelers win at least 9 games.

Steelers during training camp via Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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