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3 potential pitfalls facing the Steelers’ offense in 2018

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The Steelers have an explosive offense, but it might face a few issues during the upcoming 2018 NFL Season.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have a consensus top-3 offense among NFL teams. With stars such as Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and David DeCastro anchoring the offense, plus young weapons such as James Washington and JuJu Smith Schuster, it’s expected to be highly ranked.

Yet, sometimes this group, seemingly for no reason, underachieves.

This was the exact same shocking narrative which puzzled analysts and fans alike when the Steelers’ offense fell dormant for the first half of the 2017 season. Perhaps it was due to Le’Veon Bell’s slow start. Maybe it was the tension between Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger. Was it the offensive line’s troubling regression in all facets except pass blocking? Martavis Bryant’s disgruntled behavior also could have taken a toll on everyone.

Regardless of what truly caused the issues the Steelers’ offense faced early last season, they fixed almost every issue in the second half of the season and reached heights we hadn’t seen them attain for a long time.

This season, all signs point to them continuing to be the well-oiled machine they’ve been for the better part of five years. However, that’s no guarantee due to a few significant concerns. Some are more major, some are more minor, but these issues could slow down one of the best offenses in the league. This would mean the defense had better be ready to pick up some slack, much like they did early last season.

Now to the potential pitfalls facing the Steelers’ 2018 offense, in no particular order:

Lack of WR Depth

On the second day of the NFL Draft the Steelers traded Martavis Bryant. I didn’t see this as a bad deal at all, especially considering the team got a third-round pick in exchange, which I don’t think anyone really expected. Nonetheless, it left the Steelers weak depth-wise at wide receiver, even with James Washington coming on board. We all know Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith Schuster, and James Washington will be a dynamic top-3 corps, assuming Washington doesn’t become a Limas Sweed. So as long as they all play, this is a top-5 unit in the league which will give defenses nightmares no matter which team they face. Yes, even Jalen Ramsey and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

However, who’s behind them?

If one of the aforementioned players were injured, the Steelers would be relying on Justin Hunter, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Quadree Henderson, or Marcus Tucker. I wish Damoun Patterson and Trey Griffey could play, but they would need at least a year of development on the practice squad.

The issue is there’s no guarantee Eli Rogers comes back, as he announced on Twitter earlier last week, he will soon be deciding where he’ll be playing, and he might leave the Black-and-gold.

If Rogers chooses to sign elsewhere, the Steelers should look into signing a depth slot receiver.

Hunter has never, and likely will never be, truly reliable. Last year, his route running was sub-par and he showed spotty hands at times. He has loads of potential, but he certainly isn’t the ideal fourth Wide Receiver for any strong receiving corps.

DHB has always had spotty hands and, while he can get reps in moderation, he shouldn’t be starting from the slot at any time.

Quadree Henderson has very little semblance of an NFL route tree and will likely be strictly a special-teamer or a gadget player they can use — but he’s not a fourth wide receiver.

From what I’ve seen, I’d trust Marcus Tucker the most. The guy has some tenacity about him that I love. He’s certainly not as crisp in his routes as any of the top three in the receiving corps, but he’s more sure-handed than any of the other three. He’s also a decent blocker, meaning he’s going to get time and the opportunity to crack this roster. He has shown promise in past preseasons, but the jury’s still out. Hopefully, he’s the answer if Rogers doesn’t sign.

One interesting idea they could try is to utilize Jaylen Samuels and Le’Veon Bell as psuedo receivers. Bell could be schemed in his usual spots while Samuels or James Conner work out of the backfield — or Samuels can be used as a full-time slot receiver, and if done, this could be a trick to combat this issue. Samuels is an X-Factor for this offense because he he can be used in many different ways and could be the additional weapon that could take pressure off of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, even if they don’t really need it.

Run Blocking

This one may be mildly surprising to some, but the Steelers, even last season, were not a great run-blocking team. DeCastro and Villanueva were great, but Pouncey and Foster had some lapses. It’s part of the reason the Steelers averaged a measly 3.8 yards per carry. That is not to say Pouncey and Foster are bad — they were very good in pass protection and handled their business in run blocking most of the time, but they often failed to get to the second level and Le’Veon Bell partially suffered due to that.

How much of the blame goes to the offensive line and how much on Bell? I would say it’s an equal holding. For one, now-Cleveland Brown Chris Hubbard is a very shoddy run blocker at times and this absolutely hurt the Steelers’ ground game. Getting Marcus Gilbert, who missed much of last season, will really help boost the team in this respect.

Yet, the concern is still present since it truly did seem that Foster and Pouncey have declined a bit. But I’m not going to PFF levels, when they slammed Pouncey and Foster. They’re not nearly as bad as those grades make them out to be. They’re solid offensive linemen, but they did affect the run game. And we all know, when Bell isn’t working, the Steelers air it out. In wins, the Steelers average 27 rush attempts, and in losses, they average a minuscule 22 attempts a game. That’s inflated by the loss to New England as well, in which the Steelers were largely successful on the ground. The Steelers thrive off of controlling the clock and grinding out yardage.

The Steelers actually average less yardage per run in wins versus losses, and while this is not a bad thing, the Steelers run game was horridly short on big plays. The holes were not there, and Bell is simply not a big-play running back. Ben thrives off of the run game, and if it doesn’t work, airing it out is much more of a guarantee not to win the game. The run game did nothing in the loss to Jacksonville in the playoffs, and even though the passing game was excellent, keeping the ball out of the hands of Blake Bortles early in the game would have benefited the Steelers greatly. The Steelers will win up front versus most teams, but elite teams up front, such as Jacksonville, could give the Steelers’ offense fits trying to run the ball and that could trickle straight up to Roethlisberger.

Randy Fichtner’s Scheme

Back when the Steelers let Todd Haley walk, I was one of the supporters who called for Fichtner’s promotion. I believe, based on past experience and the way he plans to use gadget plays and create more versatility in the offense, it will be a lock and key fit for the Steelers. Roethlisberger likes him, the Steelers have versatile players, they have gadget players, and they have the chain movers Fichtner’s scheme requires to truly work. It seems like a match made in heaven, but there should be a few concerns.

First, Todd Haley could be a bigger loss than anyone anticipates. The guy had issues with the quarterback, largely due to both having inflated egos. And, yes, his play-calling in key situations was sometimes spotty. Yet, Haley is a master play designer. He will do wonders for the Cleveland offense this year and you can expect Duke Johnson to have a huge year. The scheme likely will not change as much, but is Fichtner anywhere near the play-designer Haley is? Haley’s play designs were masterful as a whole.

Next, does it actually mesh as well as we all think it will? Fichtner theoretically should be much more hands-off than Haley was, meaning Roethlisberger will have more control over his offense than he ever has before. Fichtner loves to run what are called “code plays”. Essentially, these are installed no huddle plays that have multiple options attached to them. Fichtner has a history of using these, and has used them at every stop where he’s coached. BTSC user ‘Cliff Harris is Still a Punk’ talked about this in his series earlier this year, but Brown and Washington will have to be able to decipher the correct decisions on these code routes. Brown will have no issue, but Washington will be playing a much more sophisticated and expanded system than the one he played in at Oklahoma State.

Can he adjust correctly? It’s implied by the type of receiver he is that he will be playing at Z receiver, come the regular season. He has to make the correct reads.

Another question is if Le’Veon Bell fits the scheme correctly. Fichtner’s scheme is more exotic and while Bell will certainly be able to find success in the spread concepts, it’s the more intricate and more outside-heavy run concepts which could be slightly muddling to the system. The Steelers do have the best success running straight up the middle, so Fichtner’s scheme will need adjusted to fit Bell. Fichtner likes to use pulls and gap blocks to really impose his will down low, so the hope is that he doesn’t force the outside run.

Jaylen Samuels is a lock and key fit for Fichtner’s system, but is he as good as advertised, and can he do all that’s asked of him at the next level? I am high on Samuels and believe he can make a big impact this year, but there’s no guarantee. Fichtner’s system can provide issues as a whole for the offense.

Theoretically, the Steelers’ offense should be one of the best units in football, but some issues that came up due to some heavy transition during the offseason could be troubling for this stout group of players.