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What to expect from the 2019 Steelers, a team that is still mostly the Steelers you know

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New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Seahawks rip through their entire AFC schedule with four of their first seven games of 2019. After hosting the Bengals in Week 1 (preview here) and before facing the BTS-level hot status Browns in Week 6 (preview here), Seattle travels to Pittsburgh to face a Steelers team that appears to be much different than they’ve been over the last five years ... but in how many ways can we actually count the changes?

Antonio Brown is in Oakland, taking with him 168 targets, 104 catches, 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns. Another chapter in a Hall of Fame career but at 31, Brown’s downward trend could theoretically be a moment away — especially with a Raiders uniform on. While Brown could argue that he’s the best receiver of the last six seasons, Mike Tomlin and his staff have had a knack for developing good players in place of star players and putting them in a position to be productive. JuJu Smith-Schuster had already overtaken Brown as the number one option (111 catches, 1,426 yards at age 22) regardless of what Brown thinks, and there are plenty of interesting options in waiting:

  • James Washington was a second round pick in 2018 and he’ll have every opportunity to start after sitting behind two All-Pro level receivers as a rookie. He had over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his last three years at Oklahoma State and the targets will be there from Ben Roethlisberger should he improve his status over training camp and preseason.
  • Eli Rogers had nine yards per target and 594 yards in 2016, one year after being an undrafted free agent. But injuries have cost him most of his career and he missed all but three games last season.
  • Donte Moncrief signed a sizable one-year deal with the Jaguars and had 668 yards with Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler. He should presumably be in a better situation with the Steelers.
  • Diontae Johnson is a third round rookie out of Toledo. He’s considered “undersized” but seen as a versatile playmaker and with time could be another option for Roethlisberger. This is the pick they got in the Antonio Brown trade from Oakland.
  • Ryan Switzer had 36 catches but for only 253 yards, but he’s also an interesting one to watch given his prowess on special teams.

Does Pittsburgh have a flat out one-to-one replacement for Antonio Brown? Well, yes. His name is JuJu. But do they have someone who can step in and be as productive as JuJu — as if that’s something that a team needs to be a Super Bowl contender, which it doesn’t? Maybe not but between Washington, Moncrief, and Rogers, I don’t expect the offense to struggle as they’ve finished top-10 in points and yards in each of the last five years.

What else has changed on offense besides Brown? Not much.

Le’Veon Bell is gone but Bell was gone before 2018. James Conner, the starting running back who had similar production to Bell (973 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, 497 receiving yards in 13 games), is back. Jaylen Samuels (fifth rounder in 2018) comes back after a slightly productive rookie season (4.6 YPC on 56 attempts, three receiving touchdowns) and fourth round rookie Benny Snell, Jr joins them.

The offensive line still features Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro. Right tackle Matt Feiler also returns after starting 10 games in 2018, making it five of five in continuity right now. Vance McDonald had 64 catches in four years with the San Francisco 49ers and has 64 catches in the last two with the Steelers, including 610 yards last season. They added fifth rounder Zach Gentry this year to offset the loss of Jesse James.

So what reasons do I have to believe that Pittsburgh will go from a team that was first in pass attempts, second in passing yards, fourth in total yards, and sixth in scoring to one that is even average on offense? I don’t have any. The loss of Brown might force offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner — who has been with the Steelers since 2007 and is not bringing any innovative ideas (to Tomlin, at least) — to push the ball around a bit more but that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. In the world of “anti-rush” analytics, Pittsburgh became just about the least-balanced team in the league and while they put up points, they lost four of their last six games and missed the playoffs. Conner may have been a productive back and made a great case for the “all backs are replaceable” argument, but whether it was causation or correlation, the Steelers were a much better team with Bell — and they were also a much more balanced team.

Of course, Pittsburgh was always at their best when it was the defense, not the offense, that led the charge.

In 2004, the Steelers had the NFL’s best defense and went 15-1. The next year with much of the same team, they won the Super Bowl, as disputed as that might feel. Three years later, they won the Super Bowl again with the number one defense. Two years after that, they lost the Super Bowl with the number one scoring defense and number two in yards allowed. Since 2013, the Steelers defense has been broken blinds and cracked windows and Tomlin has failed to get distinctly close to another Super Bowl trip.

Should the defense not be fixed in 2019 and Pittsburgh falls below .500, it would be interesting to see if the Steelers decide to make their third head coaching change since 1968.

Pittsburgh’s defensive Pro Bowl players a year ago were defensive end Cam Heyward, who turned 30 last month, and linebacker T.J. Watt, who has 20 sacks in his first two seasons. Their other recent first round picks besides Watt include rookie linebacker Devin Bush, who they traded up from 20 to 10 to get, and second year safety Terrell Edmunds, who had 78 tackles and an interception in 2018. It’s just about impossible to know at this point what Bush and Edmunds will be next season or in the long-term future but there are more players on the defense worth noting.

Linebacker Mark Barron joins the defense after spending the last three years with the LA Rams, with each season seemingly being less successful than the one before it. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave had 6.5 sacks from the inside of the line and could be viewed as their “Jarran Reed.” Defensive end Stephon Tuitt has lacked sacks in his career but had 20 QB hits last season according to Pro-Football-Reference. Bud Dupree is yet another former first round linebacker (2015 in this case) and while he only barely did enough to earn his fifth-year option (over $9 million this season) he will be playing for a big contract in 2020.

It’s the secondary where the Steelers have the biggest questions as they finished 17th against the pass by DVOA.

Joe Haden goes into his 10th NFL season and third with Pittsburgh. He’s not an elite cornerback but he doesn’t seem to be a liability either. They signed Steve Nelson to a three-year, $25 million deal, making it the highest APY they’ve ever given to an outside free agent. Nelson had four interceptions with the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago and again, he’s not a liability, but certainly Pitt seems to have a couple of decent corners rather than a couple — or even one — who would be especially frightening to opposing receivers and quarterbacks. Rookie third rounder Justin Layne was viewed as a first rounder by some but he’s just 21 and could take time to develop. Mike Hilton is expected to start at nickel.

Edmunds will start at strong safety while Sean Davis, a second round pick in 2016, gets his fourth season as a starter overall and second at the free position. He’s done a lot of tackling (170 in the last two years) but again, Davis could be considered more “fine” than being listed among game-changing defensive playmakers.

Thus far that label only falls on Watt, Heyward, and maybe now Hargrave. Meanwhile, Edmunds and Bush provide plenty of first round hope for Steelers fans, and Tuitt, Dupree, Haden, Barron, and Nelson bring some veteran presence that could at least keep Pittsburgh from being flat out bad on defense as they were in 2014, when they were 30th in DVOA. That’s what led to the promotion of Keith Butler from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in 2015 and they’ve been relatively decent since then but if a top-five season is on the horizon, it’s not exactly evident yet as to why it would be.

For that to happen, Bush might need to be a Pro Bowl-level backer right from the start, which is not impossible or even improbable in many recent cases of phenom prospects; Edmunds may need to make that leap to being an impact safety game-in and game-out; T.J. may need to play even more like J.J., as good as “T” is in his own right; the cornerback group might need to find at least one guy that puts fear into opposing quarterbacks; and do that without seeing someone like Heyward or Hargrave falling off or getting injured.

In general, I think we’re likely getting a Steelers team not so much different than previous Steelers teams, which is fitting for a sports franchise that has arguably changed the least of any major American sports franchise of the last 50 years. They were good, but not great, in 2018, finishing ninth in overall DVOA, sixth on offense, 13th on defense, and 27th on special teams. Given the variance of special teams, maybe we expect a little bit of improvement there. Maybe we even expect the defense to get a little bit better with the development of players like Edmunds, Hargrave, and Bush. And though I expect Pittsburgh to be fine on offense without Brown, it’s not as though I expect them to improve a ton, if at all, from being a very good offense already.

That keeps me right around a 10-6 projection for the Steelers with a two-game swing in either direction, from 8-8 to 12-4. That’s a pretty wide range but I think all teams have a pretty wide range of possible outcomes. When it comes to hosting the Seahawks in Week 2, I would think that Pittsburgh has a distinct advantage at home and with a 1 PM ET start time. We’ve seen Seattle struggle in September road games already and this one is on the east coast against what I expect to be a good team. I’d think that the Steelers would win a lot of battles in the trenches when they’re on offense and that should give Roethlisberger plenty of time to find options to throw to whether it is Smith-Schuster against a cornerback who could very well struggle to cover him (Shaquill Griffin or Tre Flowers or whoever is playing nickel) or one of the players who won’t be getting nearly attention as him or the guy they’re looking to fill in for.

Brown may be a high-profile player but high-profile franchises tend to continue business as usual regardless and business-as-usual for Pittsburgh has always been about a lot more than a single receiver.