As we all now have to wait two weeks until the Super Bowl, it seems to be an appropriate time to not just sit back and complain about what could have been in 2018, but what needs to change to make 2019 special.
First, I do believe the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers can be a special team, but not if they continue with the status quo. In today’s article I focus on the offensive side of the ball, and what needs to change to make sure the outcome next season doesn’t duplicate this season and missing the playoffs altogether.
Before digging deep into the specific changes, I decided to handle this series with a worst-case scenario type attitude. In other words, I am assuming Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell both will not be back on the team.
With that said, let’s roll up our sleeves...we have some fixin’ to do.
The Steelers added a new running backs coach, and promoted a new offensive line coach, but otherwise returns its entire staff. My issue with the coaching isn’t the coaches on staff, but with some other decisions made in the play-calling department.
Whether it was giving Ben Roethlisberger too much freedom, or the thought the team can win by constantly slinging the ball around the yard, the Steelers need to get back to having a more dominant ground game. What is truly stunning when you think about the previous sentence is how the offensive line remains pretty much in tact heading into 2019. Could they lose Ramon Foster? Yes, they could, but if they retain B.J. Finney they could add a road grader who is better at run blocking than the alternative.
Getting back to a more even split in the run-pass ratio is a recipe for success proven over time. Does it need to be 50-50? No, 60-40 would suffice, but when you get into the 70-30 pass-to-run ratios, which happened more than once in 2018, you get into trouble.
If Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are gone, the need to add talent at wide receiver just sky rocketed up the team needs chart. However, the need to add a running back exists, but isn’t nearly as high as the receiver position.
What kind of receiver do they need to add? Someone who can force defenses to at least play more straight up than being able to take away JuJu Smith-Schuster. I love Smith-Schuster and what he brings to the team, but he isn’t Brown when it comes to beating double teams and bracketed coverages. While I think he will continue to improve, the team needs to look into free agency, and/or the 2019 NFL Draft, to find someone with speed and hands who can help keep defenses honest.
As for the running back position, a veteran back not named Stevan Ridley could be just what the team needs. James Conner and Jaylen Samuels should be a very good, and dynamic, 1-2 punch in the backfield, but if one of them were to get injured you want someone with experience to be able to step in and take over without missing a beat. Think a DeAngelo Williams type to avoid looking to Ben Tate, which I still can’t believe happened in 2014.
From a personnel standpoint, adding a receiver(s) and running back this offseason, combined with the offensive line keeping its continuity, the personnel could be there for another dynamic offense next season.
We have already talked about the coaching and the personnel, so what is next? How about the play on the field. You know, the execution.
The Steelers’ offense improved tremendously in one key area — the red-zone, but still has work to do in other areas. The turnovers are a concern no matter how you slice it. Roethlisberger’s interceptions combined with crucial fumbles by Conner and Smith-Schuster at critical junctures in respective games is a troubling trend.
How do you fix these issues? Fumbling is more of execution of basic fundamentals, and the 9 fumbles notched by the Steelers are certainly a cause for concern. However, the 17 interceptions were the ones which were absolutely deflating. Roethlisberger loves to talk about the gunslinger mentality, but if there is a time where Mike Tomlin pulls his franchise quarterback aside and tells him it is time to protect the football — the time is now. The Steelers’ defense, as it stands right now, simply doesn’t have the playmakers to take the ball away with regularity, this fact needs to influence how the offense handles their ball protection.
The Steelers’ offense averaged 26.8 points per game in 2018, which was tied for 6th in the NFL, so not everything was bad for this unit in 2018. The ability to impose their will in the running game and the turnovers are the main changes necessary heading into 2019. Sure, potentially replacing Antonio Brown’s production isn’t an easy task, but give the team an offseason to prepare and I trust they can get the job done. After all, when faced with the thought of not having Bell in 2018, the Steelers had an offseason to prepare for life without No. 26, and Conner and Samuels were making fans wonder “Bell who?” by midseason.
In my opinion, the offense isn’t perfect, but is hardly the problem standing in the Steelers’ way. Now the defense is a different story...and I will tackle that side of the ball in the next part of this three-part series.