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The good, and the bad, of this very strange 2019 Steelers season

The Steelers are 1-4, but somehow not quite dead; what are we even looking at with this team?

NFL: OCT 06 Ravens at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are really only three ways for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers to feel about the 2019 season, as the team sits at 1-4 and prepares for the Los Angeles Chargers.

You are either:

A – giving up on the lost season, and hoping Art Rooney blows the whole thing up.

B – taking a mulligan on 2019, and looking for bright spots for the future.

C – holding out hope that this thing turns around in the weak AFC North.

Call me stubborn, but I’m not constitutionally inclined to blow the whole thing up. So this won’t be that kind of article. If that sounds like you, feel free to click away to something else now — you’ll probably just be annoyed.

But for the rest of us, it’s hard to tell whether to shrug our shoulders and root for the future, or dig in our heals and think about Hail Marys and Immaculate Receptions and other improbable finishes. Stuck straddling that line, I thought it might be a good time to take stock of the good and the bad of the 2019 Steelers. This is far from exhaustive; feel free to add entries in the comments.

The Good: The Steelers have been in position to win the last four games right up to the final gun

The last three losses—to Seattle, San Francisco, and Baltimore—have come by a combined 9 points. Last second drives have been the difference in each, and all three games could be boiled down to a play or two (often involving ball security issues or botched calls on big 3rd downs). That speaks to a team that is this close to having a very different season.

Moreover, those losses have come against teams with a combined record of 11-3. The Seahawks and 49ers, in particular, are proving to be impressive squads, both of whom took down much more hyped opponents this week (with the Seahawks edging the Rams and Niners humbling the Cleveland Browns). The Steelers played both NFC opponents straight-up and were in position to win in the final minutes, coming up just short in each. Meanwhile, for as dynamic and impressive as the Ravens and Lamar Jackson were supposed to be, I thought the Steelers (with their third string rookie quarterback, and their gutsy overtime kick gamble, which amazingly seemed to work) deserved a victory on Sunday.

Too many people pass off Bill Parcells’ famous one-liner, “you are what your record says you are,” as wisdom. But the truth is that not every loss is the equal. The Ravens beat both Pittsburgh and Miami this year, but the overtime heart breaker on Sunday and the 59-10 trouncing on the Dolphins’ opening day, couldn’t have been more different. Not all 1-4 teams are equal, and the Steelers are proving that the difference between 1-4 and 4-1 can be razor-thin.

The Bad: 1-4 is still a hard record to swallow

The Steelers haven’t been 1-4 since 2013 (when the last few championship defenders aged out, and rookie Le’Veon Bell missed the first three weeks). That is, they don’t have a lot of experience losing. Dropping a tight game doesn’t destroy a season when you’re otherwise in the thick of it. But this team is digging a hole that’s going to be hard to control.

The locker room appears to have a real bond (now that a certain wide receiver is out of the league). I loved Cam Heyward’s comment, that if anyone pointed a finger he’d break it off, but losing creates resentment; it’s hard to avoid. An early-season losing streak can cause a locker room to crumble.

That 2013 team didn’t come apart. They finished on an 8-4 run despite having lost most of their vocal veteran leaders (which suggests that Mike Tomlin has control of his team better than most Steeler fans are willing to admit). But these kinds of years are hard to contain. We’ll have to see what shakes down this season.

The Good: Amazingly, the Steelers aren’t out of the division race

Honestly. I almost can’t believe I’m typing this. There are two reasons for it:

First: the division leading Ravens are not as good as advertised. Baltimore was exposed by both the Browns and Steelers in successive weeks, with a blowout loss to Cleveland and an overtime scare against a Steelers team one awkward hit away from snapping the ball to no one.

Meanwhile, those Browns have talent, but appear lacking in leadership, and are simply not as good as the hype suggested. The Steelers are still only two games behind Baltimore and one behind Cleveland, with eleven to play—including the revenge match against Baltimore, and a chance to sweep the Browns. Cleveland’s win over Baltimore also creates a really interesting tie-breaker scenario if the Steelers run the division table.

Second: The Steelers’ schedule is not devastating going forward. Sunday against the 2-3 Chargers will be tough but winnable. If they survive that, they get rewarded with a bye and then the terrible Miami Dolphins (a second bye?). The two weeks that follow Miami might be the toughest, but even they are against the mercurial Colts (world-beaters at Arrowhead; losers at home to the Raiders), and the inconsistent Rams (whose defense has been gouged, and who haven’t looked like themselves all year). The ensuing three games feature tough-to-predict Cleveland twice, with awful Cincinnati in the middle. Then a closing stretch against the Cardinals (1-4), Bills (4-1 but anemic on offense), Jets (0-4), and the grudge match against the Ravens.

9-7 could easily win this division; 8-8 might even do it. The Steelers may wind up 5-11 for all I can predict. But would it really be a huge surprise to see this team finish 9-7 or 8-8?

The Bad: If this season is lost, will some of the veterans start to decline?

Most of the Steelers’ most exciting players are remarkably young. Meanwhile the oldest Steeler, Ben Roethlisberger, plays a well-protected position. If he heals well, he could easily have a couple more high-end years.

However, not all Steeler stars are as lucky. Joe Haden, Cameron Heyward, and Maurkice Pouncey (two of their best defensive players and the pro bowl anchor of their O-line) will all be 31 on opening day 2020. 31 is not the end of the line for any of them, but a man loses a step in his 30s and injuries get slower to heal. I’d hate to see all three of these guys playing excellent football this year in a lost season, then declining next year, when Ben is back on the field and the playoff hopes are higher.

The Good: Devlin Hodges looked great on Sunday

The Duck threw with confidence; he scrambled well; and he rallied the team. He looked unafraid, even in his short overtime possession, and didn’t get gun-shy even after throwing a (called-back) interception in the 4th quarter. Mason Rudolph looked good against Baltimore as well, but I was very impressed with Hodges, who looked looser and more decisive despite the incredible pressure he stepped into. Neither are going to unseat Ben Roethlisberger, but at this point in the season, both appear capable of playing NFL-level football. And honestly, Hodges may be the more exciting of the two.

And for those concerned about the Steelers’ lack of 2020 draft picks, getting both Rudolph and Hodges playing time this year may allow the team to trade one for a decent pick next year, while still retaining the other as a solid backup for Big Ben.

The Bad: The Steelers running game appears dead in the water

I hate to write this, but I fear that James Conner is being exposed—that his success last year was a function of the Steelers dialing up 650 passes with a Hall of Fame quarterback, giving Conner empty boxes all game long. With Ben in a cast, defenses know the Steelers are going to run, and Conner appears stuck in park.

The offensive line has taken heat for not opening holes this year too (perhaps rightfully so), but I never feel confident in Conner anymore. This year, to me, he’s had the look of a third-down back who could start a few games in a pinch (or possibly in a committee backfield), but certainly not a bell-cow, like a Pro Bowler should look.

(On that note, I found myself thinking repeatedly on Sunday, what a shame it is that Le’Veon Bell’s greed got the best of him. While Bell wastes away his career on an absolutely terrible Jets offense, the Steelers’ backup quarterbacks could really use a superstar back to take the heat off. Even if Bell is only worth a bump of 30 or 40 scrimmage yards per game, that could easily translate to a handful of third down conversions and a bunch of eight-man boxes, to thin out the secondary for the greenhorn QBs. And that could easily be the difference between 1-4 and 4-1. This is not a criticism of Steelers management, who offered Bell a fortune that he should have accepted. It’s just a heavy sigh.)

The Good: The defense is improving dramatically

The defense I saw against Baltimore still had some aggravating moments (the two-minute drive they gave up to tie the game was painful). But that’s becoming more the exception than the rule. They put up a brick wall after pinning the Ravens at their own 1 yard line in the 4th quarter. And Mike Tomlin’s overtime gamble (kicking and then betting on his defense to hold) amazingly worked—that should have resulted in a win.

Picking up Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steve Nelson and drafting Devin Bush appear to have been excellent roster moves. Meanwhile since Keith Butler took over the OLB coaching, Bud Dupree has turned into a playmaker (including a big-time overtime sack of Jackson on Sunday). (P.S. Is it time to admit Joey Porter may have been holding Dupree back?) All this alongside legit stars like T.J. Watt and the entire defensive line, and the extremely solid contributors who keep making plays, like Mike Hilton or Vince Williams (welcome back!). This is a promising unit.

Perhaps the best place to see this is in splash plays: the Steelers D has been the best sacking squad in football for the last several years, but they’d been inexplicably allergic to takeaways for some time. That appears to be over. We could credit the 49ers with dropping the football over and over in week 3, but Lamar Jackson looked overmatched by this defense. He’s thrown eight interceptions in his entire career; three of them came on Sunday.

What a crime that the defense looks so good right when the offense implodes.

The Bad: The Steelers’ most reliable offensive players are proving unreliable

My faith in James Conner has sunk this season already (see above), but even if he was running well, we have to admit that he has built a bad record of losing the ball in big moments. He fumbled in terrible moment, while bleeding the clock against Cleveland, in last year’s opener; and then again late in the loss against Denver down the stretch. And he dropped a key 4th down pass last year against Jacksonville that nearly cost the team a win. Now this year, rather than sledgehammer the 49ers three weeks ago, or even just bleed the clock for a few minutes and allow a field-flipping punt, he fumbled in Steeler territory in the final minutes. It’s come to the point that I cringe at every 4th quarter carry he logs.

Meanwhile, JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is truly is capable of being an all-star WR1, and who caught every pass thrown his way on Sunday, was stripped of the ball in overtime against Baltimore, essentially handing the game to the Ravens. After his late-game fumble against the New Orleans Saints last year, is it reasonable to be worried about JuJu in crunch time as well?

Everyone fumbles once in a while. Even Jerome Bettis did in the famous 2005 divisional playoff game, which nearly cost the team its fifth Super Bowl title. But the remarkable thing about Bettis’s fumble was that it happened at all—the Bus NEVER fumbled, and certainly not in the clutch. It wasn’t his first career turnover, but he was a closer; he’d been unshakable in moments that mattered most. Just like we don’t have stories about Hines Ward fumbling in crunch time and costing the team a victory. Or Bell, or Antonio Brown, or Heath Miller.

With everything on the line, you want to put the ball in the hands of your best players. They may not always steal a win, but you know they’re not going to give one away either. If Conner and JuJu can’t be counted on in the clutch, then who do you go to when it matters?

I’m not sure what this all adds up to, but maybe that’s the point. This team is a mystery. If they lose to the Chargers, it might be time to hoist the white flag. But until then, I guess we’ll have to keep watching.

Go Steelers!