Back in Week 11, just one week after savagely demolishing the Carolina Panthers in front of a national audience on Thursday Night Football, the Steelers narrowly defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars thanks in large part to a furious fourth-quarter comeback (and Doug Marrone’s spineless and timorous late-stage play-call). The victory pushed the Steelers to 7-2-1 overall, extended their lead in the AFC North over Baltimore to three games, and firmly cemented their status as a legitimate—if not somewhat low-key—Super Bowl contender. Their odds of making the postseason stood at a meaty 97 percent.
If you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the ending to this movie: the Steelers lost four of their final six games, including three in a row to the Broncos, the Chargers, and, most horrifyingly, the Raiders. Each loss was aided heavily by manifold blunders, both by personnel and the coaching staff. Still, despite their bevy of miscalculations and mistakes, the Steelers remained firmly in the playoff hunt, entering Week 17 needing a win against the vile, despicable, and thoroughly injury-depleted Bengals and a Ravens loss to Cleveland—a reasonable task, being that the Browns defeated the Ravens earlier this season—to win the AFC North. The Steelers upheld their end of the bargain, dispatching the Bengals 16-13 in an unexciting and eminently forgettable affair that yielded only a single offensive touchdown. The Browns, God bless their hearts, nearly overcame a two-touchdown deficit to defeat the Ravens. Alas, they ultimately did not. Correspondingly, for the first time since 2012, the Baltimore Ravens are your AFC North champions. The Steelers, who finished the season 9-6-1, will not be joining Baltimore in the playoffs, an outcome that was downright unimaginable six weeks ago.
Significant injuries notwithstanding, it’s difficult to envision a more devastating conclusion to 2018 for the Steelers: their substantial, monumental collapse enabled a hated rival to steal a division title; as the de facto “best” non-playoff team, the Steelers don’t even have that great of a draft pick to show for their collapse (they’ll pick 20th); and, more damningly, they effectively wasted what is now one of an increasingly finite number of prime Ben Roethlisberger seasons. Thus, in lieu of the standard Stock Report, we’re handing out some awards:
Beefiest Beef: Antonio Brown vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s been a weird year for Antonio Brown. At the beginning of last summer, Brown chastised a post-practice media horde for impeding his personal and professional freedom by placing undue “pressure” on him. The whole thing was relatively innocuous and Brown’s comments weren’t necessarily unfair criticism of the Pittsburgh media—the Steelers are by far the city’s biggest draw, and Brown is a glowing supernova whose “brand” is as ubiquitous as any player in the NFL; attaching his name to headlines is of course a foolproof strategy for drawing ears and eyes—but it’s clear now that this ordeal was a mere overture to the forthcoming deluge of chaos. Later that summer, it was revealed that Brown, reportedly in a fit of rage over some missing cash, hurled a bunch of furniture from the balcony of his Miami penthouse. Resultantly, the family of a toddler who Brown apparently nearly struck on the ground below is now suing Brown. During training camp, Brown had another out-of-sorts dustup with the local media, this time implying that the most highly-respect football reporter in the city was a racist clown.
Then, the regular season started. During a home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2, Brown was seen barking at rookie OC Randy Fichtner on the sideline, presumably over Brown’s usage rate (it’s worth noting here that Brown caught nine passes and was targeted 17 times in this game, so any perceived absence of utility was probably not for a lack of the Steelers trying). In the aftermath of that loss, a former public relations stooge for the Steelers took to Twitter to suggest that Antonio Brown the receiver was largely the byproduct of Ben Roethlisberger the quarterback, which prompted Brown to respond: “Trade me let’s find out.” The morning of the previously alluded to dismantling of Carolina, Brown was pulled over for traveling in excess of 100 mph on a sleepy suburban roadway.
Last week, Brown delivered his pièce de résistance. As first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and later further expounded upon by ESPN, an indignant Brown skipped a handful of team meetings and walkthroughs in response to a dispute from an earlier practice, one that apparently culminated in him throwing a football in the general vicinity of Roethlisberger. In response, the team benched Brown for the Steelers’ final game; in response to that, Brown is said to have left the bench area at halftime. Now Brown’s supposedly ghosting teammates and flirting with San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle on Twitter. Perhaps relatedly, he’s requested a trade.
This is all obviously deeply insane. Nevertheless, despite all of this (entirely self-manufactured) adversity, Brown balled out. Indeed, he looked as volcanic as ever in his age-30 season, posting his sixth-consecutive 100-catch campaign and recording a league-high 15 touchdowns in only 15 games. Brown cannot produce at this caliber forever, but the fact that he was so good this season, coupled with the fact that Pittsburgh’s offense now features a receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster who is more than capable of diverting defenses’ attention away from Brown, would seem to render a precipitous decline unlikely. If Brown does play for the Steelers in 2019—and he probably will, given his astronomical cap figure and, duh, that he’s still arguably the best receiver in the NFL—he will give them the best possible chance to compete for a Super Bowl, and this much is indisputable regardless of how you feel about Antonio Brown as a person. With that said, Brown and the Steelers clearly have some issues to work out this offseason—or they won’t, which would allow the Steelers to remain perpetually pervaded by turmoil.
Worst Coach (tie): Danny Smith and Keith Butler
It’s never a good sign of the state of things when the special teams coordinator is a household name. Pittsburgh’s special teams was, once again, an an abominable outfit this season, pacing the league in penalties committed and allowing a positively galling 14.4 yards per punt return (for context, the second-worst punt coverage team in the NFL was Detroit, who allowed 11.4 yards per return). The excessive penalties and poor coverage are not new concerns—in fact, I’d argue they’ve become hallmarks—and the lone common denominator here appears to be Smith, who has overseen this unit since 2013. He’s clearly overstayed his welcome.
Pittsburgh’s defense, meanwhile, looked better on paper than what it probably was. If you spent any amount of time watching the Steelers play this season, it might surprise you to learn that they ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total yardage allowed, third-down defense, sacks, plays of 40 or more yards allowed, yards per rush allowed, and, most surprisingly, passing yards allowed per game. And, you know, to be fair, the Steelers defense did at times resemble a top-tier unit, the best example of which was their shutdown effort against Tom Brady and the Patriots back in Week 15. But too often this team wilted with the game on the line, with Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, and New Orleans all engineering long, game-sealing drives during which they gained first downs with metronomic consistency, and too often it was Butler’s confounding schematics at the forefront of these collapses. Against the Chargers, for instance, Butler was absolutely hellbent on using sub-optimal depth linebacker L.J. Fort to cover Keenan Allen, who is inarguably among the league’s foremost matchup nightmares. Predictably, Allen terrorized the Steelers, catching something like 15 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown and gaining 10 critical first downs. You could reasonably argue that Keenan Allen was singularly responsible for spurring the Chargers’ come-from-behind win against the Steelers and, by extension, that Keith Butler was responsible for Pittsburgh losing.
Of course, blaming the coordinators for the team’s fate isn’t particularly fair. The Steelers’ collapse was as systemic and absolute as you’ll ever see in the NFL, and thus culpability ought to be shared by everyone in the organization, ranging from Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to Jesse James and Jordan Berry. Butler and Smith certainly contributed mightily to the Steelers’ downfall, but they were far from the only parties at fault.
Best Coach: Randy Fichnter
Lost in the end-of-season disarray is Fichnter’s remarkable inaugural season as offensive coordinator. Under Fichnter, Roethlisberger led the league in passing, becoming just the seventh quarterback in NFL history to surpass the 5,000-yard threshold in a single season, and the Steelers once-putrid red-zone offense ascended to the league’s pinnacle, converting an otherworldly 75 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster also established himself as one of the NFL’s premier receivers and the rushing attack, despite taking a backseat to the passing attack, was still effective even without Le’Veon Bell.
Honorable mention: Mike Munchak
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who was terrific as usual this season. Even with backup right tackle Matt Feiler filling in for injured starter Marcus Gilbert for most of the season, the offensive line barely missed a beat. Munchak probably won’t be around in 2019, as he’s finally receiving some much-deserved and long-overdue phone calls from teams with head coaching vacancies.
Defensive MVP: Joe Haden
Thanks to the Steelers’ habitual incapacity to develop cornerbacks in-house, Joe Haden, a player they hand-picked from the Browns’ trash heap in 2016, was by far the best defensive back on the roster. This isn’t necessarily to suggest that Joe Haden was the best defensive player on the Steelers in 2018—he’s wasn’t; I personally would rank him fourth, behind Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Stephon Tuitt. However, I do think that Haden’s experience, leadership, playmaking, and technical ability makes him a singularly valuable and irreplaceable defensive commodity.
Biggest bust (tie): Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett
Tackling machine Jon Bostic was initially recruited to fill the gaping void left behind by Ryan Shazier while Morgan Burnett, formerly of the Packers, was brought on to solidify the Steelers’ paper-thin safety ranks. Bostic played admirably for most of the first half of the season, but was ultimately replaced by Fort, who was ostensibly a superior coverage linebacker. Burnett, meanwhile, was sidelined with a bum hamstring for the first half of the season. He returned and played a bunch of snaps down the stretch, but was routinely toasted by the opposition’s tight ends and receivers. Bostic and Burnett both have outs built into their current contracts, meaning they can be released this spring with very little financial repercussions (cutting Burnett would incur about $3 million in dead money; doing likewise with Bostic would incur $700,000).
Most Improved Player: Sean Davis
In the span of less than a calendar year, Davis went from being debatably the league’s worst safety to being a perfectly serviceable starter. Davis still needs to increase his playmaking acumen (though this can be said of every Steelers defender, given their collective inability to force turnovers) and he’s still prone to the occasional lapse in concentration, but played well enough to ensure that free safety isn’t at the top of the Steelers’ list of team needs.
Worst player: Artie Burns
If you’re searching for a single play that perfectly exemplified what Artie Burns currently is, look no further than a two-point conversion attempt by the Chargers in their win against Pittsburgh. Burns, who by that point in the season had been relegated to bench duty for a number of weeks, was suddenly thrust into action to defend a two-point conversion after Haden was forced with exit the game with head injury. Burns, 23, lined up against Antonio Gates, 38, who is a surefire Hall of Famer but is at present a lumbering, plodding shell of his former self. Burns’ apparent athletic advantage had literally no impact on events that transpired immediately thereafter.
At the snap, Gates, resembling a glacier, ran parallel to the back end-line, with Burns in pursuit. It was not a particularly crafty or difficult-to-defend route, but Burns, who has a penchant for misjudging routes and arriving late to defensible passes, could not make up the ground he’d lost. Gates was effectively wide open. It was a critical misstep on the part of Burns, as the conversion enabled the Chargers to trim the Steelers’ lead to eight. In a game the Chargers won on a last-second field goal, the importance between a two-possession late-game deficit and a one-possession one cannot be overstated.
Best storyline for 2019*: The ongoing vitality of the 2017 Draft class
T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, had 13 sacks, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the second pick, recorded 1,400 receiving yards, and James Conner, the third pick, scored 12 touchdowns. These three players will very likely pace their respective position groups once again in 2019 and leave the Steelers well-positioned to retain their contender status.
(*Putting aside whatever the heck is going on with Antonio Brown, as that will and should be a pronounced storyline from now until the point at which it’s resolved).