After a 7-2-1 start, the Steelers lost 4 of their final 6 games of the season in 2018, to miss the playoffs with a record of 9-6-1. Between 2017 and the first 10 games of the season in 2018, the Steelers went 12-3 in games decided by a touchdown, which is not sustainable long-term. Sure enough, all 4 of their losses to drop them out of the post-season came by a touchdown or less. The losses didn’t stop there, as #1 receiver Antonio Brown was suspended for the final week of the season for a violation of team rules and then eventually was sent to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick when it became clear their relationship with their star player could not be salvaged.
Brown is the second Steelers offensive star to essentially force himself out of Pittsburgh in the past year, with running back Le’Veon Bell refusing to play at a 14.5 million dollar salary on a second franchise tag in 2018 and ultimately taking less money than the 5-year, 70 million dollar deal the Steelers offered him last off-season to sign with the Jets on a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar deal this off-season. The Steelers had a good internal replacement for Bell in James Conner and didn’t miss much of a beat without Bell, falling from 4th in first down rate in 2017 to 6th in 2018, but now the Steelers have to replace Brown as well.
One way Bell’s absence did affect this team is they became much pass heavier, with 689 pass attempts (most in the NFL) to just 345 carries (2nd fewest in the NFL). Ben Roethlisberger ended up leading the NFL in passing yards with 5,129, completing 67.0% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA and 34 touchdowns, but he also threw a league leading 16 interceptions. Going into his age 37 season, Roethlisberger is still producing like a top level quarterback and could follow in the footsteps of quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees that have played at a high level in their late 30s, but his age is definitely becoming a concern and his production will likely take a hit without the player who has been his favorite target for 8 seasons.
With Roethlisberger getting up in age, the Steelers used a 4th round pick in 2017 on Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs and a 3rd round pick in 2018 on Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph. Dobbs was the backup in 2018, attempting the first 12 passes of his career, but Rudolph has the higher upside and could easily beat him out for the job in 2019. Rudolph has a better chance of being the Steelers’ quarterback of the future, although the Steelers are obviously hoping that day doesn’t come for at least a few years. Barring a big drop off in play, Roethlisberger is one of the better quarterbacks in the league.
As much as a headache as Antonio Brown was to deal with, the Steelers will obviously miss him on the field, as he’s topped a 100/1250/8 slash line in 6 straight seasons, with an average slash line of 114/1524/11 over those 6 seasons and a 104/1297/15 slash line in 2018. New #1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is a budding star who would be the top receiver on most teams and could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, but only having to stop one star wide receiver makes life a lot easier for the defense. Not even 23 until November, Smith-Schuster has slash lines of 58/917/7 and 111/1426/7 in two seasons in the league, but he’ll see a lot more double teams that Brown used to take away from him. He’ll still be very productive as Roethlisberger’s clear #1 target, but the absence of Brown will still have a negative effect on this passing game as a whole.
The Steelers didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 253 yards receiver last year, so they added veteran Donte Moncrief in free agency and University of Toledo’s Diontae Johnson in the 3rd round of the draft with the pick they acquired from Oakland for Brown. Moncrief, Johnson, and 2018 2nd round pick James Washington, who is expected to have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league, will compete to fill Brown’s targets. All three have upside.
Washington was horrendous as a rookie, catching just 42.1% of his targets, averaging just 0.57 yards per route run (worst among qualifying wide receivers), and grading as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver overall, but he got in much better shape this off-season and the Steelers still are high on his upside. Johnson, meanwhile, is an explosive playmaker that runs a lot of the same routes well that Brown dominated on and seems like a natural fit in this offense.
Moncrief is more experienced, already in his 6th season in the league, but he’s still only in his age 26 season and still has some post-hype breakout potential. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Moncrief had a 64/733/6 slash line in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but couldn’t match those totals combined in 2016-2017 due to injury and, healthy again in 2018, he was limited to 48/668/3 on a bad Jacksonville offense. Now on a better offense, Moncrief has the physical tools to be a lot more productive if he can stay healthy. The Steelers bought low with him this off-season, signing him to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal after he made 9.6 million in Jacksonville last season, which could prove to be a steal. He’s likely the favorite for the #2 receiver job.
The Steelers got 87 catches from tight ends in 2018 and could lean more on tight ends with Brown gone, but that’s complicated by the fact that #2 tight end Jesse James (30/423/2 slash line in 2018) signed a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal with the Lions this off-season. Top tight end Vance McDonald returns, but he’s been primarily a blocking tight end in his career, as his 50/610/4 slash line in 2018 constituted career highs across the board for the 6-year veteran. He could see a slight uptick in targets, but he’s not a big receiving threat.
With James gone, Xavier Grimble, previously their 3rd tight end, and 5th round rookie Zach Gentry will compete for the #2 tight end job. Grimble is a 2014 undrafted free agent with 22 career catches and 540 career snaps played, but he’s still likely the favorite for the job. Gentry has good size at 6-8 265, but lacks athleticism and isn’t as good of a blocker as his frame would suggest. He comes with some upside because of his size, but he’s unlikely to make a significant positive impact as a rookie.
Losing Jesse James isn’t nearly as big of a loss as Antonio Brown obviously, but the Steelers don’t have a good replacement, so James’ absence will hurt this receiving corps as well. This group does have a lot of upside though, with Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson coming in and James Washington hopefully taking a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. They could exceed expectations, although those players all come with considerable downside as well.
With a weaker receiving corps, the Steelers will likely lean more on the running game. They had the most lopsided pass/run split (713/345) in the NFL last season and likely would have been more balanced in 2019 even if everything stayed the same in the receiving corps, but, with Brown gone, they could be a lot closer to their 614/437 pass/run split from 2017. James Conner was effective as Le’Veon Bell’s replacement last season, averaging 4.53 yards per carry on 215 carries, but the Steelers frequently abandoned the run when trailing, with a ridiculous 321/73 run/pass split when behind on the scoreboard.
Even on a very pass heavy offense, Conner still averaged 16.5 carries per game in 13 games, which represents 87% of the Steelers’ run attempts by a running back in those games. The Steelers typically like relying on one every down back and Conner showed ability on passing downs as well, with 55 catches for 497 yards and a score, but 2018 5th round pick Jaylen Samuels flashed down the stretch last season when Conner missed some time with injury, so if the Steelers are more run heavy in 2019, Conner will likely work more in tandem with Samuels. Samuels averaged 4.57 yards per carry on 56 carries as a rookie and the big 6-0 225 pounder is a converted college tight end who also caught 26 of 29 targets for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. Conner and Samuels are a promising duo going into 2019.
The good news for the Steelers is they kept pretty much everyone on the offensive line this off-season. They traded right tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Cardinals for a draft pick, but he’s played just 12 games over the past 2 seasons and backup Matt Feiler impressed in 10 starts in his absence in 2018, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked offensive tackle. Now Feiler is officially the starter with Gilbert gone. Feiler is a total one-year wonder, going undrafted in 2014 and making just 1 start prior to last season, but the Steelers saw enough from him in limited action last season to feel comfortable making forward with him as the starter.
Feiler will see all familiar faces next to him upfront this season, with Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro (from left to right) all returning as starters. Foster was the only one who was possibly going to leave, but he ended up re-signed on a 2-year, 8.25 million dollar deal in free agency. Foster has been a solid starter for years, with 119 starts in the past 8 seasons (all in Pittsburgh), but he hasn’t been quite the same player in recent years.
Going into his age 33 season, his best days look behind him, but he could remain a capable starter for another couple seasons and his salary suggests the Steelers still view him as a starter. BJ Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent who has flashed in limited action in his career (9 starts), was seen as a potential replacement for Foster, but he will have to keep waiting for a starting job to open up. Finney will remain as a valuable reserve and has the ability to play all 3 interior offensive line positions.
The rest of this offensive line has also been starting in their current spot for years and, unlike Foster, they are all relatively young. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is the oldest of the rest of the bunch, going into his age 31 season, but he’s finished in the top-20 among offensive tackles on PFF for 3 straight seasons and has shown no signs of slowing down, finishing last season a career best 12th at his position. A converted defensive lineman and late bloomer, Villanueva didn’t make a start until midway through the 2015 season, but he’s made 58 consecutive starts ever since. Even if he starts to decline in 2019, he should continue being a solid starter.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is also going into his 30s, with 2019 being his age 30 season. He’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in his last 5 healthy seasons (although he basically missed all of 2013 and 2015 with injury), but fell to 16th at his position in 2018, his lowest rank since 2011. Pouncey could easily continue being a solid starter for a few more seasons, but last season might have been the beginning of his decline. His injury history doesn’t help matters either.
Right guard David DeCastro rounds out this offensive line and he’s arguably the best of the bunch. A first round pick in 2012, DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with injury, but he’s missed just 3 games in 6 seasons since and has finished in the top-15 among guards on PFF in all 6 seasons, maxing out at #1 in 2017. Still only in his age 29 season, I see no reason to expect any sort of drop off from him in 2019. He’s one of the best guards in the NFL and this remains one of the better offensive lines in the league overall.
The Steelers had a solid defense in 2018, ranking 14th in first down rate allowed, but they struggled to get takeaways, with just 15 (3rd worst in the NFL) on the season. The Steelers had 26 giveaways, so they finished 5th worst in the NFL with a -11 turnover margin, which was the primary reason they missed the playoffs, despite finishing 6th in first down rate differential at +4.38% (best among non-playoff teams). The good news is turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year or even week-to-week basis, so the Steelers could easily force more takeaways and have a much stronger turnover margin in 2019. That would go a long way towards getting the Steelers back in the post-season, even with the absence of Antonio Brown.
The Steelers will remain in their classic 3-4 alignment, at least in base packages, and return most of their starters and key contributors from 2018. On this 3-man defensive line, everyone who played at least 100 snaps in 2018 returns for 2019. The starters, defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward and nose tackle Javon Hargrave, play the vast majority of base package snaps, and Tuitt and Heyward stay on the field as interior rushers in sub packages as well.
Tuitt and Heyward ranked 24th and 7th among interior defenders with 694 snaps played and 842 snaps played respectively last season, despite Tuitt missing a pair of games with injury. They’re also arguably the top interior defender duo in the NFL. Heyward is the better of the two, finishing in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in his last 3 healthy seasons (2016 was a lost year due to injury), but Tuitt has played at a high level the past couple seasons as well, finishing 18th and 24th respectively among interior defenders, particularly excelling against the run.
Heyward is the better pass rusher of the two, with 37.5 sacks, 41 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate in the past 5 seasons, including 20 sacks, 23 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate in the past two seasons. Homegrown talents, Heyward and Tuitt are entering their 9th and 6th seasons with the Steelers respectively. Heyward is going into his age 30 season, but they should remain a dominant duo even if Heyward starts to decline a little bit.
Javon Hargrave will play between them in base packages, but he’s not a typical nose tackle, as he can also get to the quarterback, with 6.5 sacks, 1 hit, and a 8.6% pressure rate in 2018. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Hargrave has 10.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate for his career and has improved as a pass rusher in every season in the league. Also a strong run stuffer, Hargrave was PFF’s 23rd ranked interior defender on 455 snaps in 2018 and could take another step forward in his age 26 contract year in 2019.
Not much depth is needed on this defensive line, but Tyson Alualu was their top reserve in 2018 (311 snaps), while the massive 6-7 352 Daniel McCullers is a situational run stuffer who played just 111 snaps last season. Alualu was a bust as the 10th overall pick by the Jaguars in 2010, earning below average grades from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons. He started 88 games anyway, many of which came on some really bad teams, but in Pittsburgh he’s played just 762 snaps in 2 seasons and has carved out a role as a rotational run stuffer. He’s going into his age 32 season, but as long as he doesn’t have to play too much he should continue providing useful play against the run. The Steelers also used a 6th round pick on development defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, but they have probably the best 3-man defensive line in the NFL, so depth isn’t all that important.
The Steelers also bring back their top-3 edge defenders. Starters TJ Watt and Bud Dupree play close to every snap, while Anthony Chickillo is a rotational reserve who played just 295 snaps in 2018, despite playing all 16 games. Watt and Dupree also played all 16 games and their snap counts of 903 and 868 respectively ranked 7th and 11th among edge defenders. Watt was the better of the two, ranking 27th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2017, Watt wasn’t bad as a rookie, but he took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league and could easily do the same in his 3rd in 2019. In 2 seasons in the league, he has 20 sacks, 18 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate.
Dupree is also a former first round pick, but he has been a bit of a disappointment. He’s started 39 of 54 games in 4 seasons in the league, but has just 20 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate and has been underwhelming against the run as well. Anthony Chickillo is a capable run stuffer, but he doesn’t get any pass rush (6.5% career pressure rate) and has never played more than 318 snaps in a season, so he’s not really a candidate for a bigger role, even with Dupree being an underwhelming starter. It’s surprising the Steelers didn’t add talent at this position in the draft, especially with Dupree going into the final year of his rookie contract. Dupree still has theoretical upside in his age 26 season, but unless he breaks out this looks like just an average group.
As I mentioned, the Steelers’ defense was solid in 2018, even if they struggled to force turnovers. They were better in 2017 though, dropping from 8th in first down rate allowed to 14th in 2018. The biggest reason for that was the loss of middle linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spine injury. The Steelers allowed an average of 17.6 points per game in 11 games with Shazier in 2017 and have seen that skyrocket to 23.6 points per game in 22 games since (including playoffs). In an effort to fix this, the Steelers were aggressive on draft day, giving up a 2nd round pick and a 2020 3rd round pick to move up from 20 to 10 to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush.
It’s a move that makes a ton of sense. The Steelers have a solid overall roster and didn’t have that many glaring needs on draft day, with middle linebacker being by far their most pressing. This was also a thin middle linebacker class, with a steep drop off after the top-two, Devin White and Devin Bush. Neither would have been available to the Steelers at 20, so they jumped up ahead of the Bengals at 11, who were known to be very interested in Bush. Bush is also a great fit for this system because the Steelers love blitzing their middle linebackers and Bush has the skill set to thrive as a blitzer. He’ll also instantly be their best coverage linebacker, which was something the Steelers sorely lacked in 2018. Even as a rookie, he’s an immediate upgrade on the duo of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett, which he effectively replaces.
Vince Williams was their other starting middle linebacker last season, but he’ll face competition for his job from free agent acquisition Mark Barron, who was signed to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal. His salary suggests he’ll start, but he was signed before the Steelers were able to move up and get Bush and Vince Williams has started all 30 games he’s played in the past 2 seasons, so he won’t be easy to beat out. Barron was also Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifying in 2018, though he’s been better in the past, particularly in coverage.
Williams is much better moving forward as a run stuffer or blitzer (12.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 20.8% pressure rate on 197 blitzes the past two seasons) than he is in coverage, earning below average grades for his coverage ability from PFF in both seasons as a starter, so maybe Barron and Williams will form a platoon, with the former safety Barron working as a situational coverage linebacker. Both linebackers are going into their age 30 season and neither has ever been spectacular, but they could be a decent platoon inside. Devin Bush’s addition is the one that will move the needle in this linebacking corps. He might not be Ryan Shazier right away, but he gives them something they needed badly in 2018.
Along with middle linebacker, cornerback was also a need for the Steelers on defense this off-season. Joe Haden had another solid season in 2018 and is locked in as one starting outside cornerback, but the Steelers didn’t have an obvious starter at the other cornerback spot going into the off-season. Artie Burns, a first round pick in 2016, seemingly had a breakout year in 2017, making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus, but he struggled in the first 6 games of 2018, got benched, and played just 15 snaps the rest of the way. Coty Sensabaugh, a veteran journeyman, and Cameron Sutton, a 2017 3rd round pick, were both underwhelming as replacements.
Even with Hicks’ first round pedigree and the promise he showed in his 2017 season, the Steelers don’t seem willing to give him his job back, signing ex-Chief Steven Nelson to a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar deal to be a starter. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Nelson is an unspectacular cornerback, but he’s made 38 starts in 40 games the past 3 seasons and has improved in every season in the league, topping out as PFF’s 27th ranked cornerback in 2018. Still only in his age 26 season, he could continue improving and should be a solid starter. With the Steelers also using a 3rd round pick on Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne, Artie Burns is not a lock for the final roster. He and Cameron Sutton may be competing for one roster spot.
As mentioned, Joe Haden remains locked in as a starting outside cornerback. Signed to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago after being released by the rebuilding Browns, Haden has earned an above average grade from PFF in both seasons in Pittsburgh, though he is going into the final year of that deal, which may be why the Steelers took Justin Layne in the 3rd round. Haden is also injury prone and going into his age 30 season. He hasn’t played in all 16 games since his rookie year in 2010 and he’s missed 28 games with injury in 8 seasons since, including 20 games in the past 4 seasons. His best days are likely behind him and he could miss a few more games with injury, but he should remain a solid starter when on the field in 2019.
Mike Hilton is also locked in to his role on the slot, where he’s played 88.3% of his coverage snaps the past two seasons, though the 2016 undrafted free agent is reportedly unhappy with his contract situation. Because he wasn’t on an active roster as a rookie in 2016, Hilton is set to make just 645K in 2019 on an exclusive rights tender, but he has played well enough the past two seasons to deserve much more than that.
After bouncing around a few practice squads as a rookie, Hilton has found a home on the slot in Pittsburgh, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons. In addition to being a capable slot coverage cornerback, the 5-9 184 pounder is also a feisty run defender and is an excellent blitzer off the edge (5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 16.5% pressure rate on 139 blitzes in the past 2 seasons). Unless he makes good on his threat to sit out the season without another deal, Hilton should continue his solid play in 2019. A long-term deal being worked out before the start of the season wouldn’t be a surprise either.
At safety, starters Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis both return after solid 2018 seasons. Edmunds was the Steelers’ first round pick in 2018 and earned an average grade from PFF in 16 games as a rookie (15 starts). He’s primarily a box safety, but can also cover deep as well. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, only in his age 22 season. Davis, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2016 and looked like a bust through his first 2 seasons in the league, starting 25 of 32 games, but finishing 92nd out of 103 qualifying safeties and dead last out of 94 qualifying safeties on PFF in those two seasons respectively. He took a big step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2018 though, making 15 starts and finishing 44th at his position. He could continue improving, but he’s also a one-year wonder who could regress in 2019. This secondary lacks top level players, but is a solid group overall.
The Steelers surprisingly missed the post-season in 2018, but in 2019 they could be a surprising playoff qualifier. Many have written them off since losing Antonio Brown, but this is still a talented roster overall. Their defense should generate more takeaways and they should have better luck in the kicking game, where they ranked 31st in field goal percentage and 30th in extra point percentage. Those were the two biggest reasons why they missed the post-season last year despite finishing 6th in first down rate differential, but those are also the kind of things that tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Assuming Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have a swift decline in his age 37 season, the Steelers should compete with the Browns for the AFC North title.
Prediction: 11-5, 2nd in AFC North