In 2004, the Steelers, coming off a 6-10 season, went 15-1 while making it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. A year later, after stumbling to a 7-5 start, Pittsburgh finished the year on an eight-game winning streak while becoming the first team in NFL history win it all as a sixth seed.
More recently, the 2015 and ’16 Steelers overcame slow starts to make playoff runs. Despite losing Le’Veon Bell and falling a full four games behind the division-leading Bengals midway through the season, the ’15 Steelers rallied to win six of their final eight regular-season games before upsetting Cincinnati in the AFC wild-card round. A year later, Pittsburgh got off to a 4-5 start before rallying to win nine straight games before falling to New England in the AFC title game.
In 2019, Pittsburgh will again rise in the face of adversity after an offseason that included the losses of Bell and Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh’s final destination is one of our five bold predictions for the Steelers’ 2019 season.
1. JuJu Smith-Schuster outperforms Antonio Brown
Smith-Schuster will not only flourish as Pittsburgh’s new No. 1 receiver, he will outplay Brown, the Steelers’ No. 1 wideout from 2011-18 who was traded to Oakland.
This is honestly not too bold of a prediction, especially not with Brown missing significant time during Raiders training camp with frostbitten feet that could cause him to miss time when the regular season beings. Brown’s foot issues aside, the odds are very much against him having the same type of season Smith-Schuster is set up to have in Pittsburgh.
Brown, for one, will no longer have Roethlisberger throwing him the ball. While Brown can surely have success with Derek Carr, improvising with Roethlisberger was a large part of what made them the best QB-WR duo in the NFL over the past decade. It’s incredibly hard to fathom Brown having close to that type of rapport with Carr, especially after missing this much time during training camp.
Smith-Schuster, on the other hand, was present for the majority of Pittsburgh’s voluntary offseason workouts. He didn’t miss minicamp, and has been a dominant force throughout training camp. Smith-Schuster may not be Brown (yet), but he’s clearly on his way. And if Pittsburgh’s secondary receivers give him enough support, a 100-catch, 1,300-yard season from Smith-Schuster is a very reasonable expectation.
Beyond stats, if Smith-Schuster helps lead the Steelers back to the playoffs, and if Brown fails to do enough to get Oakland back to respectability, many will give the nod to Smith-Schuster when the question of who had a better 2019 season is asked.
2. Big Ben will be in the middle of the MVP conversation
Roethlisberger has never seriously been in the running to win the league’s MVP award, an award no Steelers player has won since Terry Bradshaw in 1978. That won’t be the case in 2019, not after the offseason Big Ben endured (his leadership was criticized by Brown and several former teammates through the media) along with losing Brown, the league’s most productive receiver since 2010.
Roethlisberger will have a better season in 2019 than he did in ’18, when he led the league with 5,129 passing yards. While he won’t lead the league in passing in ’19, he also won’t lead the NFL in interceptions, something he did last season. The pressure to force passes Brown’s way led to a significant amount of his interceptions last season. This season, Roethlisberger can go back to doing what he prefers: spreading the football around while allowing receivers to pile up numbers organically.
The Steelers didn’t find a star to replace Brown. Instead, they provided Big Ben with a slew of talented receivers. Donte Moncrief, a six-year veteran, has gained a quick rapport with Roethlisberger, while rookie wideout Diontae Johnson was off to an impressive start to training camp before missing time recently with an injury. Big Ben also still has tight end Vance McDonald, a 2017 acquisition from San Francisco who had his best season to date in 2018. Roethlisberger will continue to have slot receivers Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers at his disposal.
Big Ben’s drive to show that he can lead one of the NFL’s best offenses can’t be overstated. After openly contemplating retirement just two years earlier, Roethlisberger — who signed a two-year extension earlier this offseason that will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season — has gained a renewed passion for the game as he enters his 16th NFL season.
“I feel like I love football again,” Roethlisberger recently said from camp, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I told my wife when I was home the other day, she was asking how it was going. I said I feel like I love football again. She got a big smile on her face and said it made her happy to hear that.”
Steelers fans are also happy to hear that, as Big Ben could be on the verge of his greatest season to date.
3. T.J. Watt breaks James Harrison’s franchise single-season sack record
T.J. Watt has quickly become one of the main faces of Pittsburgh’s defense. The team’s first-round pick two years ago, Watt has developed into one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL.
Watt, who recorded 11.5 sacks during his final season at Wisconsin, has continued to show a knack for getting to opposing quarterbacks. After recording seven sacks as a rookie, Watt tallied 13 sacks in 2018. He also recorded a whopping six forced fumbles while earning his first Pro Bowl selection. It’s clear that the Steelers made the right decision moving Watt from right to left OLB before the start of the 2018 season.
It’s not a stretch to think that Watt — who trains with older brothers (and NFL players) Derek and J.J. Watt in the offseason — will surpass James Harrison’s single-season sack record in 2019. While Watt should only continue to get better, Pittsburgh’s fast-improving defense — a unit that added rookie ILB Devin Bush, veteran cornerback Steven Nelson and veteran ILB Mark Barron to the fold this offseason — should give Watt more opportunities to rush the passer.
4. Devin Bush wins Defensive Rookie of the Year honors
Bush did little to quiet the massive expectations surrounding him during his first preseason game. Bush, an inside linebacker out of Michigan who the Steelers traded up to select in the first round of the draft, had 10 tackles that included seven solo stops in Pittsburgh’s victory over Tampa Bay. Bush also made several solid plays in pass coverage while also making a key fourth down stop that set up the Steelers’ first points of the night.
Bush has passed each test the Steelers have thrown at him thus far. He successfully called the defensive plays while working with Pittsburgh’s starters during minicamp. He’s continued to call plays training camp and did so again against the Buccaneers. Bush’s ability to call the defense is what Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was hoping to see entering Pittsburgh’s first preseason game.
“I thought it was a very solid performance,” Tomlin said when asked about Bush’s NFL preseason debut. “It was really reminiscent, for me, of Ryan Shazier’s first home preseason game a number of years ago in terms of production and getting around and making a number of plays. But he’s going to continue to write his story in terms of growth and development and usefulness and role within this group, not only in 2019 but beyond. He has to roll up his sleeves, like the rest of them.”
5. Steelers represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIV
While they no longer have Brown and Bell, the Steelers still have plenty of firepower at the skill positions in Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner, who earned Pro Bowl honors last season after amassing 1,470 all-purpose yards in 13 starts. Pittsburgh’s received in an influx of young talent at the skill positions during the offseason. Along with Johnson, rookie running back Benny Snell — the University of Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher — is also expected to make a significant impact in 2019. Snell and second-year back Jaylen Samuels, who rushed for 142 yards in Pittsburgh’s regular-season victory over New England last season, should give the Steelers a more balanced attack this season.
Fans also shouldn’t forget about James Washington, a second-year wideout who should be the team’s No. 2 receiver entering Week 1 of the regular season. Washington made a statement of sorts in Pittsburgh’s preseason opener, catching four passes for 84 yards and a score as he continues to put his disappointing rookie season in the rearview mirror.
Pittsburgh’s defense should be as good as the Steelers’ offense in 2019, if not better. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave have developed into one of the defensive lines in football, with Heyward, the team’s defensive captain, leading the way with 20.0 sacks over the past two years.
The Steelers should boast one of the top linebacker units in football this season, with Watt being complemented by Bush, reliable starter Vince Williams and fellow OLB, Bud Dupree. Joe Haden is still one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks, while Nelson will fill the previously vacant spot as Pittsburgh’s No. 2 cornerback. Emerging cornerback Cam Sutton, a third-round pick back in 2017, should also play a key role in Pittsburgh’s defense in 2019.
Sean Davis, a 2016 second-round pick, returns for his second season as the Steelers’ starting free safety. Pittsburgh is expecting a big jump from last year’s first-round pick, strong safety Terrell Edmunds. Thrown into the fire last season, Edmunds, who started the majority of Pittsburgh’s games as a rookie, has shown significant strides during training camp and should be one of the league’s better defensive backs this season. That’s extremely good news for the Steelers, who allowed too many scoring drives late in games last season that contributed mightily to Pittsburgh missing the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Chris Boswell’s struggles were another reason why the Steelers missed the postseason in 2018. That shouldn’t be an issue moving forward, as Pittsburgh believes that Boswell — a Pro Bowl kicker in 2017 — has moved past whatever issues he was dealing with last season.
Yes, the Steelers have some legitimate question marks entering the season. Will their secondary receivers do an adequate enough job replacing Brown? Will Big Ben be the same quarterback without having Brown on his side? Will Chris Boswell return to Pro Bowl form? Is this the year that Pittsburgh’s defense returns to championship form? Can the Steelers beat Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots in the postseason?
I believe that yes, Pittsburgh’s secondary receivers are good enough to replace Brown. Roethlisberger will be even better this year despite not having Brown, even if it doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. Boswell will return to Pro Bowl form, while Pittsburgh’s defense will be a championship-caliber unit in 2019.
The last question, the one regarding the Patriots, is the biggest question standing between the Steelers and their first Super Bowl appearance in nine years. This is where Pittsburgh’s collective focus to prove their naysayers wrong will truly show itself.
In recent years, the Steelers weren’t able to keep that drive and singular focus for the entire journey. Brown’s Facebook Live snafu contributed to Pittsburgh’s collapse in the ’16 title game. Bell’s pre-game trash talk added more flames to the already fired up Jaguars prior to Jacksonville’s playoff upset in 2017. Brown and Bell’s constant distractions undoubtedly played a role in the Steelers missing the playoffs altogether in 2018.
While they will continue to be met with distractions and outside noise, the 2019 Steelers will do something recent Pittsburgh teams could not: block out that noise while keeping their singular focus on getting to the Super Bowl. That’s the focus the Patriots usually possess, and that’s the focus that will ultimately get the Steelers over the hump in 2019.
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