Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Steelers finished last season 13-3, tied for the best record in the NFL, but they lost at home in the divisional round to the Jacksonville Jaguars, after their first round bye. They had a strong season, but they were not as good as their record suggested, as they went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They finished the season 6th in first round rate differential at 4.67% and 7th in point differential at +98, good, but not as good as their record would suggest.

The offense had another strong year, finishing 4th in first down rate at 37.01%, and on paper they look like a strong offense again, returning almost everyone from last season. Much of that depends on Ben Roethlisberger continuing to play at a high level in his age 36 season. Roethlisberger completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.58 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2017 and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback.

Now going into his 15th season in the league, Roethlisberger has finished in the top-9 among quarterbacks on PFF in 8 of the past 9 seasons and he has finished in the top-3 in 3 of the last 4 seasons. In the past 10 seasons, he ranks 7th in passing touchdowns, 6th in passing yards, 5th in YPA (minimum 2000 attempts), 9th in completion percentage, and 9th in interception rate. He’s made 198 regular season starts in his career, though he’s only played in all 16 games three times in his career. He’s never suffered a major injury, but he usually misses a game or two with some sort of injury.

Given his injury history and his age, the Steelers have been proactive adding talent behind him on the depth chart, taking quarterbacks in the mid rounds in each of the last 2 drafts. They took Josh Dobbs in the 4th round in 2017 and then drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round in this past draft. Roethlisberger reportedly was not happy when the Steelers took Rudolph, but the addition of Rudolph says more about what they think about Dobbs long-term more than Roethlisberger. Rudolph was also reportedly very high on their board, so they probably would have selected him regardless of anything to do with Roethlisberger or Dobbs. Rudolph was expected to go in the top-50 picks and, when he fell in middle of the 3rd round, the Steelers moved up to 76 to stop his slide.

Landry Jones has been their backup for the past 3 seasons, making 5 starts, but he’s been pretty underwhelming. He’s completed 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, but he has 7 interceptions to 8 touchdowns and much of his production comes from playing with such a strong supporting cast. The 2013 4th round pick has never finished with a positive grade on PFF in 5 seasons in the league. Rudolph could easily beat him out for the backup job and, given Roethlisberger’s history, that means he could easily make a couple starts in 2018. If he plays well in a couple spot starts and helps this team keep their playoff seed, Roethlisberger may like the pick more. Rudolph is not close to being an immediate threat to Roethlisberger’s job, but could ultimately end up being his successor. For now, Roethlisberger remains a franchise quarterback.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Roethlisberger is far from the only reason why this offense is so consistently good, as he’s had a great supporting cast for years, led by running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Le’Veon Bell’s long-term future with the team is up in the air though, as he goes into his 2nd straight season on the franchise tag without a long-term deal. Between the two franchise tags, Bell will make 26.664 million combined in 2017 and 2018, but he wants a long-term deal worth 15+ million annually.

Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy are the two highest paid running backs in terms of average annual salary at 8.25 million and 8 million respectively, so what Bell is asking for is a steep price for a running back. Bell’s argument is that, not only is he the top running back in the league, but because he gets so much usage in the passing game, he should be paid like a top running back and a #2 wide receiver combined.

It’s not a bad argument. Bell gets a ton of use and should be compensated well beyond the top running back in the league. In his career, he’s averaged 398 touches per 16 games (317 carries and 81 catches) and last season he had 406 touches in 15 games (321 carries and 85 catches). He’s played 84.3% of the snaps in games he’s played in his career, including 90%+ in the past 2 seasons, and frequently stays on the field as a receiver in obvious pass situations (67 slot snaps, 48 at wide receiver in 2017). He’s finished in the top-3 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and has averaged 4.34 yards per carry in his career. He’s also still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season.

My concern with giving Bell such a big contract is whether or not he can stay on the field. Between suspension and injury, Bell has missed 18 games in 5 seasons in the league. He’s potentially one drug suspension away from a yearlong minimum suspension and running backs who consistently get 400+ carries per season don’t usually hold up well long-term. The Steelers may not want to pay him what he wants with that kind of risk involved. He’ll be owed the quarterback franchise tag value in 2019 if he’s franchise tagged a third time (upwards of the 23.189 million it was in 2018), so, if the Steelers can’t reach a long-term agreement with him this off-season, this could easily be his final season in Pittsburgh.

He’s also unlikely to report until week 1 if he isn’t extended. Because players are not technically on the roster until they sign the franchise tag, the Steelers can’t fine him for missing the off-season, so he can holdout until the start of the season without any financial penalty. It’s the same path he followed last off-season, but it might not have done him any favors, as he averaged 4.02 yards per carry and finished 11th at his position, both his worst marks since his rookie season in 2013. He could continue struggling by his standards in 2018 if he misses the off-season again.

James Conner was drafted in the 3rd round in 2017 to potentially be a long-term replacement, but he saw very little action as a rookie with Bell playing so many snaps. He ran pretty well, averaging 4.50 yards per carry on 32 carries, but didn’t catch a pass and is still very unproven. If Bell gets hurt, Conner will likely form a committee with 5th round rookie Jaylen Samuels, a hybrid running back/fullback/tight end that can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. The Steelers will obviously be hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Antonio Brown, fortunately, is locked up long-term, as the Steelers gave him a 4-year extension last off-season ahead of the final year of a bargain 5-year, 42 million dollar extension that Brown signed after just 2 seasons in the league back in 2012. He’s now signed through 2021. His new contract is a steep raise, as he’s now the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary with a 4-year, 68 million dollar deal that pays him 44.2 million through the end of 2019, including a 19 million dollar signing bonus.

It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it, though his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 30 season. Over the past 5 seasons, Brown leads the NFL with 582 catches for 7,848 yards and 52 touchdowns and has finished in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-2. He’s very durable, missing just 3 games in the past 5 seasons, and should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons.

The Steelers also have good talent behind Brown on the depth chart, after using a second round pick on a wide receiver in back-to-back drafts. JuJu Smith-Schuster put up a 58/917/7 slash line as a rookie, despite only playing about half the snaps in the first half of the season and missing two games down the stretch. On the season, he averaged 2.16 yards per route run (9th in the NFL) on 424 routes and led the NFL with a 134.0 QB rating when targeted. He also got better as the season went on, as he caught 41 passes for 686 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games of the season.

He needs to get more disciplined, as he had 7 penalties (second most among wide receivers) and was suspended for a game for a personal foul penalty, but he finished 14th among wide receivers on PFF in pass catching grade and has a sky high upside, only turning 22 in November. He’ll be an every down receiver in his 2nd season in the league in 2018 and could easily top 1000 yards.

Martavis Bryant actually finished 2nd on this team among wide receivers with 703 snaps, but he averaged just 1.35 yards per route run and totaled just 603 yards. He was traded to the Raiders for a 3rd round pick during the draft, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. The Steelers then used their 2nd round pick (60th overall) to draft his replacement, Oklahoma State’s James Washington. Washington didn’t have the best combine, with a 4.54 40 at 5-11 213, but he plays bigger and faster and compares to Smith-Schuster on tape. He’s a great fit in Pittsburgh and could have an immediate impact as the 3rd receiver. Between these 3 receivers and Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger has plenty of good options in the passing game.

They are hoping for more out of the tight end spot though, after Jesse James, Vance McDonald, and Xavier Grimble combined for 62 catches for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns on 96 targets last season. The Steelers did not add a tight end this off-season, but they are hoping to get more out of McDonald, who played just 271 snaps in 10 games in his first season in Pittsburgh in 2017. McDonald dealt with injuries and did not pick up the playbook quickly after arriving via trade from San Francisco just before the start of the season, but he was easily their most explosive receiving option with 13.4 yards per catch on 14 catches, as opposed to 8.7 yards per catch on 43 catches for Jesse James.

McDonald is a freak athlete, but has never lived up to his potential as a receiver, maxing out at 30 catches in a season in 5 years in the league. This is probably the best offense he’s played on and he could put up solid numbers if given the opportunity, but he’s earned a negative grade from PFF for his pass catching ability in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. He’s a strong blocker though, so he should play a much bigger role in his 2nd season regardless.

Jesse James has started 29 games over the past 2 seasons and has played 80.4% of the snaps, but he’s combined for a 82/710/6 slash line across two seasons and has only been average as a run blocker. He was PFF’s 58th tight end out of 72 eligible on 906 snaps (4th most among tight ends) in 2017. He and McDonald should see a more even split in 2018. Xavier Grimble also remains and he’s a capable blocker, but he’s played just 366 snaps over the past 2 seasons. The wide receivers will remain the focus of this offense.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Steelers have also had a strong offensive line for years as well, although last season was arguably their worst performance upfront in a few seasons. The biggest reason for that was veteran Ramon Foster, who struggled at left guard. Foster earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons from 2011-2016 (89 starts) and ranked 6th as recently as 2016, but he fell to 53rd out of 80 eligible in 2017 (14 starts). He could bounce back in 2018, but he’s also in his age 32 season, so his best days are probably behind him. Without a better option on the roster, the Steelers will be hoping he can be a capable starter for at least one more season. He’s in the final year of his contract and the Steelers will likely try to find an upgrade next off-season.

The Steelers are also hoping for a bounce back year from center Maurkice Pouncey, who finished 26th among 38 eligible centers in 2017. Pouncey earned a positive grade in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to 2017 and finished 11th at his position in 2016, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, though it’s worth noting he has a history of injury. He missed all of the 2013 season with a torn ACL and then missed 2015 with a broken leg. He may be starting to break down physically, though I would expect somewhat of a bounce back year from him.

The Steelers should also get more out of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was limited to 7 starts by a hamstring injury and a 4-game performance enhancing drugs suspension. Backup Chris Hubbard was about league average in his absence, so Gilbert wasn’t missed that much, but he’ll still be a welcome return to the lineup. Gilbert was PFF’s 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2016 and has earned positive grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons.

The concern is he’s going into his age 30 season and has played in all 16 games just twice in 7 seasons in the league (82 starts). Hubbard is no longer around, signing as a starter with the Browns this off-season, so the Steelers could be in trouble if Gilbert doesn’t make it through the season. The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on Western Michigan’s Chukwuma Okorafor, but he’s a developmental prospect that could struggle if he has to play as a rookie.

With Pouncey and Foster having down years and Gilbert missing more than half of the season, the Steelers were fortunate to get a career year out of right guard David DeCastro, who finished 2nd among guards on PFF and could have finished 1st if he didn’t sit out week 17 with the Steelers’ playoff seeding locked in. DeCastro has been a strong starter for 5 seasons (78 starts), earning positive grades in all 5 seasons, and finished 8th in 2016 as well, so he’s not exactly a one-year wonder. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, DeCastro should be one of the best guards in the league again in 2018.

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva rounds out this offensive line. A former US Army Ranger and converted defensive lineman who gained close to 100 pounds to play the offensive line, Villanueva has developed into a capable starter on the blindside for the Steelers, one of the more improbable stories in the NFL. He’s made 42 starts over the past 3 seasons and has been about a league average starter at arguably the most challenging spot on the line. Last season, he was PFF’s 36th ranked offensive tackle. Because he was a late bloomer, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he could easily continue being a capable starter for another couple seasons. The Steelers return all 5 starters on the offensive line and could be better than they were last season with Gilbert returning and a couple players potentially having bounce back seasons. This is a strong line.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Steelers also had a strong defense in 2017, finishing 8th in first down rate allowed at 32.34%, though they were not nearly as good down the stretch without every down linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury in the first half of their week 13 game against the Bengals. Going into that game, the Steelers ranked 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.98%, but they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.54% rate over the final 5 games of the season, which would have been the worst rate in the league over a full season. In their playoff loss to the Jaguars, they could not stop anything. Shazier’s future is in doubt and he’s at the very least expected to miss all of 2018, so the Steelers might have some defensive issues this season.

Fortunately, they still have a strong defensive line. Starting defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt were arguably the best 3-4 end duo in the NFL, finishing 2nd and 7th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Both are proven players, though last season was the first time they had strong years at the same time. Heyward missed 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2016 and Tuitt was not the same player he is now back in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014 and 2015. A second round pick back in 2014, Tuitt is coming off of back-to-back finishes in the top-9 at his position and could continue getting better, still only going into his age 25 season. The Steelers wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 60 million dollar extension early in his contract year last September.

Heyward is also locked up on a big contract long-term, re-signing for 6 years, 59.2 million back in 2015. He’s been well worth it. The 2011 first round pick has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of his last 3 healthy seasons and has only missed 1 other game in his career aside from the pectoral tear. Heyward returned from that injury with his best season ever, especially dominating at a pass rusher. He had a career sack 12 sacks and also added 9 hits and 40 hurries on 467 pass rush snaps, despite rushing from the interior on 88.2% of them. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, he’s one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league.

The Steelers also have a talented nose tackle in between Heyward and Tuitt. Despite being a mere 3rd round pick in 2016, Javon Hargrave has made 25 starts in 31 games in which he’s played. He’s only played 50.2% of the snaps and is primarily a run stuffer, but also added 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 15 hurries on 231 pass rush snaps in 2017. About an average starter as a rookie, Hargrave took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 27th among defensive tackles on PFF, and could continue improving in his 3rd season in the league. He’ll start at nose tackle in base packages and play rotational snaps in sub packages behind Heyward and Tuitt.

With the starting trio they have, there isn’t much need for depth, as just two other defensive lineman played more than 14 snaps last season, Tyson Alualu (434 snaps) and Leterrius Walton (144 snaps). Alualu is an 8-year veteran who is a decent run stuffer, but provides no pass rush and is going into his age 31 season. Walton, meanwhile, is a 2015 6th round pick who has played sparingly in 3 seasons in the league and has not performed well. Even with questionable depth, this is still one of the best 3-man defensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

When Shazier went down, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker and played in 90.5% of his team’s snaps, so he obviously was not going to be easy to replace. Sean Spence, TJ Fort, and Tyler Matakevich saw action in his absence and all 3 were very underwhelming. Fort and Matakevich remain on the roster, but it will likely be free agent acquisition Jon Bostic starting in Shazier’s absence, after signing a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season.

A 2nd round selection by the Bears in 2013, Bostic earned negative grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and missed all of 2016, but he had a mini breakout year in 2017 in 14 starts. He still struggled in coverage, but finished 12th at his position in run stop grade and earned the first positive grade of his career overall. He’ll likely never be good on all downs, but is still only in his age 27 season and could easily continue being a force against the run.

Vince Williams remains as the other starter. Like Bostic, he’s a run stuffer that struggles in coverage. The 5-year veteran was an every down linebacker for the first time in his career last season. Williams is a plus blitzer, with 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 8 hurries on 78 pass rush snaps last season, but coverage ability is more important for an inside linebacker and he struggled on 304 coverage snaps. The Steelers used their first round selection on hybrid safety/linebacker Terrell Edmunds. I would expect the 6-1 217 pounder to play the majority of passing downs around the line of scrimmage in place of one of their two middle linebackers.

At outside linebacker, the Steelers start a pair of recent first rounders, Bud Dupree (22nd pick in 2015) and TJ Watt (30th pick in 2017). Dupree has not panned out yet, earning negative grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including a 2017 season in which he finished 44th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Despite playing roughly 70% of the snaps in 38 career games, Dupree has just 14.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in his career and he’s not a good player against the run either. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2019, so they are not ready to give up on him, but that 9.232 million dollar option is only guaranteed for injury, so he’s entering a make or break 4th season in the league.

Watt, on the other hand, has a much brighter future, after a promising rookie season. Not only did he impress rushing the passer, with 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 26 hurries on 296 pass rush snaps, but he also played the run well and held up in coverage on 176 coverage snaps. He was PFF’s 18th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and earned positive grades across the board in all 3 defensive aspects. His ability to drop into coverage allows the Steelers to get more creative with their blitzing and should help compensate for their middle linebackers’ inability to cover. He could be even better in his 2nd season in the league.

The Steelers’ outside linebacker depth is very suspect though. Anthony Chickillo was their top reserve last season with 269 snaps, but he struggled, finishing 41st out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers. The 2015 6th round pick has played sparingly thus far in his career and has struggled whenever he’s been on the field. Arthur Moats also saw some snaps as a reserve last season, but he’s no longer with the team and the Steelers did not add any depth this off-season. Without Shazier, this is a very suspect linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to adding Terrell Edmunds through the draft, the Steelers also added safety Morgan Burnett in free agency. Like Edmunds, Burnett is versatile and can play multiple different spots. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 83.1% of snaps last season with the Packers (6th in the NFL among safeties) and played 316 of his 386 coverage snaps as either a linebacker or a slot cornerback. The Steelers figure to use the 6-1 209 pounder in a similar fashion as Green Bay did.

Burnett was a great signing on a 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s made 98 starts in the past 7 seasons and has finished with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in 6 of those seasons. His injury history was probably part of why he was so inexpensive, as he hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012 and has missed 14 games in the past 5 seasons combined, but, even still, he was a good signing for a team with a need at safety.

Sean Davis was their leading safety in terms of snaps played last season with 949, but the 2016 2nd round pick struggled mightily. He’s made 25 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but finished 73rd among 90 eligible safeties as a rookie and then finished dead last among 89 eligible safeties last season. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but it would be hard to be worse. Like Burnett and Edmunds, he can line up in various different spots. He played 74.1% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage and lined up on the slot or as a linebacker on 221 of 557 coverage snaps. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

Michael Mitchell, their other starter last season, is no longer with the team, getting cut following a mediocre 2017 season, while backup Robert Golden, who was solid on 206 snaps last season, is also no longer with the team, but the Steelers did also add a safety in the 5th round, taking Penn State’s Marcus Allen. The Steelers figure to frequently use 3 or even 4 safeties in sub packages to make up for their lack of coverage linebackers. They are deeper and more talented at safety than linebacker, but largely by default, as they lack proven players beyond Burnett.

Fortunately, they are more talented at cornerback, where they return their top-3 from last season. Artie Burns and Joe Haden will remain the starters, while Mike Hilton will continue to man the slot in sub packages. A first round selection by the Steelers in 2016 (25th overall), Burns took over as the starter 7 games into his rookie year and has not disappointed. He’s made all 25 starts since and has earned positive coverage grades in both seasons. Still only in his age 23 season, Burns has a sky high upside and could easily have the best year of his career in 2018.

Haden, meanwhile, came over to the Steelers last off-season after being released by the Browns. Back-to-back down seasons by Haden in 2015 and 2016 led to the Browns deciding not to keep him on the roster for 2017 at a non-guaranteed 11.25 million dollar salary, but he bounced back in his first season in Pittsburgh after they signed him to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal, earning a positive coverage grade. He’s unlikely to ever again become the player he was in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2010-2013 (4 straight seasons in the top-20 among cornerbacks on PFF), as injuries have sapped his abilities, and he hasn’t played in all 16 games since his rookie year (5 games missed with a broken leg in 2017), but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, despite this being his 9th season in the league, so he could continue being a capable starter for them in 2018.

With Burns and Haden locked in outside, Hilton can focus on being a pure slot cornerback, as he was last season, when he played 292 of 352 coverage snaps on the slot. Despite being an undrafted rookie, Hilton was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL. He was targeted on 38 of his 292 slot snaps, but only allowed 198 yards, an average of 0.68 yards per coverage snap and 5.21 yards per attempt. He also was an above average run stuffer and blitzer (4 sacks, 4 hits, and 8 hurries on 79 blitzes) and finished as PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback overall. It’s unclear if he can have that kind of a season again, as he’s a one-year wonder that the entire league did not deem worthy of a draft pick just a year ago, but he should be an above average slot cornerback either way.

When Haden missed time last year, it was Coty Sensabaugh and Cameron Sutton who took over his snaps, as the 5-9 183 pound Hilton lacks the size to hold up outside. Sensabaugh and Sutton will compete for the #4 cornerback job this off-season, though Sutton was a 3rd round pick in 2017 and is likely the heavy favorite. He only played 113 snaps as a rookie, but he didn’t play badly and he has the tools to be a starter long-term. Sensabaugh is a veteran journeyman who is not a lock to make the final roster with a 1.4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. This is a solid secondary overall.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Steelers should still have one of the better offenses in the league as long as Ben Roethlisberger does not decline and the key players stay healthy, but their defense should take a step back without Ryan Shazier. They’re also unlikely to do as well in close games and their division has improved, so they’re likely to regress by a few wins in 2018. They’re still the favorites in the AFC North, but they’re highly unlikely to go 6-0 in the division again.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

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