The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of reasons to be concerned with the future identity of their offense. When will Ben Roethlisberger retire? When he does, is Mason Rudolph the heir-apparent? Is there any way Le’Veon Bell signs a new contract with the Steelers between the end of the 2018 season and the start of 2019 free agency?
But as the team embarks on training camp and the pre-season, there’s only one question: does this group finally have the combination of players and coaches to win their so-far-elusive seventh Lombardy Trophy?
From a player standpoint, there really isn’t much of a difference this season, at least among the starters. Roethlisberger will be under center, Bell will be the primary running back and there’s no reason to believe Antonio Brown’s streak of consecutive seasons with at least 100 receptions won’t extend to six, short of injuries. If anything, the Steelers might throw the ball even more in 2018, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The offensive line starters are unchanged, and the top two on the tight-end depth chart — Jesse James and Vance McDonald — are the same as they were in 2017. Even fullback Roosevelt Nix is back. If the offense trotted out on the field to start a series right now, it would look almost identical to last season.
Operative word: almost.
There is a single change among players who saw significant snaps in 2017. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who caught 50 passes last season while splitting time at the No. 2 receiver position, was traded to the Oakland Raiders on the first day of the 2018 NFL Draft in exchange for the No. 79 pick (third round). They later packaged that pick and a seventh-rounder to move up to No. 76, where they picked Rudolph, a move that could end up being either forgotten in the grand scheme of things or viewed in retrospect as one of the shrewdest moves ever made, depending on how Rudolph pans out over the next four years or more. But that doesn’t affect right now, so I digress. What matters here is that the move effectively elevates fan-favorite JuJu Smith-Schuster to sole ownership of the WR2 position.
It’s what lies beneath the offensive starters that makes the personnel side of the equation really interesting. Whether it’s to give a player a breather or to fill in during recovery from the inevitable injuries, the Steelers have added talented and intriguing depth.
The biggest one here, obviously, is receiver James Washington, who had an outstanding collegiate career catching passes from Rudolph at Oklahoma State. His combine numbers probably didn’t wow you — but his game tape certainly should. Like Smith-Schuster, he’s a true hands-catcher who uses his intelligence, body and quick feet to get separation. And while he’s not as big as Bryant, he fights for contested catches, winning the battle far more often than not.
Several other receivers, including Justin Hunter, return to renew their bids to grab roster spots, but there might only be one or two available. Brown, Smith-Schuster and Washington are locks, and it’ll be hard for anyone to unseat Darrius Heyward-Bey, despite not having much of an on-field resume during his time in Pittsburgh, thanks to his unrivaled, veteran leadership. Coaches absolutely love having him in the meeting room. it will take something special to knock him off of the roster, and it’s doubtful that even being the son of baseball legend Ken Griffey, Jr. (Trey Griffey) will be enough for most of the guys fighting for a spot.
My money, though, would be on Quadree Henderson. The diminutive hometown receiver was an undrafted free agent and faces an enormous uphill climb ahead of him. But he has sure hands, plenty of speed and — most important of all — a lot of return experience. Depth guys often make the roster based on their ability to play special teams, and the return game has struggled for a long time in Pittsburgh. If he can flash some of the skills he showed in college, he might be able to carve himself out a place on the final roster.
The next question to answer is the quarterback situation. On the surface, it looks like a no-brainer: you keep Roethlisberger, longtime backup Landry Jones and Rudolph, while letting second-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs go. But it might not be so simple.
First, Dobbs emerged late — very late — in the pre-season, playing lights-out in the final quarter of the final game. That alone, though, isn’t enough to earn him a roster spot, but the fact that Rudolph has reportedly been extremely impressive in OTAs and minicamp indicates that the team could be comfortable naming him as the primary backup if he can continue to show mastery of the offense throughout the preseason. If that ends up being the case, the deck is suddenly stacked heavily against Jones. He’s probably near his ceiling now, as he enters his sixth season, while Dobbs has the physical and mental gifts to give him plenty of potential for growth. Jones also carries a much larger contract. If the Steelers try to extend any more contracts before the season begins, they could save about $1.4 million by going with Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Dobbs. However, the Steelers don’t often go with an inexperienced backup, so this would be a departure from their established pattern. But it’s absolutely a story worth watching.
Finally, the running-back situation is going to be a fight to the very end. Bell is the no-question starter, and James Conner should be recovered from a torn MCL to reclaim the RB2 spot.
Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley will be in the mix again for RB3, but rookies Jaylen Samuels, James Summers and Jarvion Franklin are all going to be after that spot. At only 210 pounds despite his 6’-3” height, Summers is probably at an immediate disadvantage because the Steelers run a lot between the tackles. Summers is better built for wide receiver or safety than for running back. Franklin comes in on the other end of the spectrum at 6’-0” and 239 pounds, making him a wrecking ball to Summers’ baseball bat. In between is Jaylen Samuels, who probably is the immediate frontrunner for BTSC’s annual Isaac Redman Award. He has a very intriguing set of skills as both a patient, quick runner and a sure-handed receiver. In fact, he spent most of his collegiate career playing what roughly amounts to an H-back. He was all over the field and was North Carolina State’s most versatile player. If he can replicate that during the next six weeks, he could end up sneaking in as the No. 3 back.
The only real open question among the players as training camp arrives is the fate of receiver Eli Rogers, who suffered a torn ACL in the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Jaguars in January. By his own reports on Twitter, he is fully healed, and he just re-signed for a one year deal in Pittsburgh; it’s a quick turnaround for that sort of injury, however, and his return to form remains to be seen.
And that brings us back around to the coaching. Todd Haley wasn’t brought back as the offensive coordinator, ending the lengthy love-hate relationships he had with Roethlisberger, head coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh media. He is replaced by former quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner. Thanks to his close relationship with Roethlisberger, and his public statement that the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback will be more involved in defining the offense going forward, it’s safe to assume the Steelers will employ a more vertical offense with extensive no-huddle usage, which plays to Roethlisberger’s strengths. That could mean a decreased workload for Bell in what is likely his final season in Black & Gold, while featuring more 3-receiver sets and heavy doses of Brown, Smith-Schuster and (likely) Washington, who are all capable of making big things happen after the catch.
Chances are pretty good that the Steelers’ 2018 offense either will struggle with growing pains or be the most dynamic attack in the league. It’s not likely they fall anywhere in between. Of course, we’ve said that for years. Now, though, we’ll see once and for all if it was Haley who was the impediment to over-the-top success.
For an offense that is, for all intents and purposes, returning its entire primary starting lineup, there sure is a lot to talk about in training camp.