I was cautiously optimistic (Some will say pessimistic.) regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers chances heading into the 2019 season. I had a long laundry list of reasons and really did not expect them to have a better record than 9-7.
Why 9-7 you ask?
The Steelers offense was the most one-dimensional offense in the NFL in 2018 — that is not a good thing. Fans saw the effects of this while missing the playoffs.
The departure of Antonio Brown. He might be a cancer on a team but he was one heck of a player that does not get instantly replaced.
James Conner had a good season but did not crack 1,000 yards rushing while missing time due to being injured. What worried me is how he did not break 65 yards rushing in any game after Week 8. I did not have any faith in his backup Jaylen Samuels due to his inability to break anything more than arm tackles.
A stable of extremely young and unproven wideouts would be burdened with stepping into the NFL limelight as this group did this season. James Washington who was coming off of his forgettable rookie campaign along with unproven and drop prone rookie Diontae Johnson had no definitive roles and were not being counted upon for production by myself.
Tight end depth that was wafer thin with starter Vance McDonald oft-injured.
An offensive line that has aged and lost some of its effectiveness opening up holes for the run game.
Whew, at least we had Ben Roethlisberger coming back!
I had been touting the defense for the past couple of seasons but they still had some question marks and were still some players away from elite.
Cornerback Joe Haden is an average to above-average player paid at a perennial Pro Bowl level who has little desire to stick his nose into the run game.
Two safeties were mostly unproven to show a sustained success rate.
Vince Williams who I never want to see on the field, free agent Mark Barron who I viewed as a liability. Then Devin Bush, who I did not want the team to move up and draft, not because of his abilities but because we traded up and not back in a deep draft class.
Bud Dupree who is good in the run game but never matured into his billing as a first-round quarterback sacking machine.
To top all that off we were bringing back a kicker that 90% of the league would have cut during his implosion in 2018.
The 2019 season was not how we thought it would go.
Big Ben goes down Week 2 and I flushed the season just like most of Steelers Nation.
GM Kevin Colbert trades our sure to be a top-five draft choice to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Gee, there goes any shot at landing the future face of the franchise.
Then something very unexpected happened against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 4. I started to become optimistic after a dominating defensive performance and a reemergence of our offense.
The defense remained stifling and arguably the best in the league for the rest of the season. For the next nine weeks, the offense sputtered along and put up enough to points to win seven of the next 9 games. Chris Boswell booted one field goal after another and put the miserable 2018 season behind him.
Sitting at 8-5 I was believing the Steelers could finish at 11-5. But then quarterback Devlin Hodges became a turnover machine, not all his fault, for the next two weeks.
Now the Steelers sit on the precipice of making the playoffs. The Steelers are sitting just one game behind my prediction for the season, without Big Ben.
So why has this season been successful in my eye?
The Steelers could finish at 9-7, the same record I thought they would end up with Big Ben at the helm. At 8-8, this team has already beaten expectations.
The defense has proven to be spectacular and has dragged our offense kicking and screaming to many wins this season. Mostly, the defense is young and hopefully will only lose one starter next season. (The franchise tag is on the table for Dupree, which I discuss.) Can Bush and Edmunds make a leap to the next level next year and make this defense even better?
The Steelers have put up 8 wins without JuJu Smith-Schuster being a factor. Injuries and our duo of quarterbacks have ignored him for much of the season. He showed his pedigree in 2018 and with better quarterback play in 2020, he should return to form.
Washington and Johnson have emerged as viable threats. Sure their 99 receptions this year does not sound like much but their film shows their capabilities.
Best of all? The Steelers have eight wins so far without the franchise quarterback who will at some point enter the Hall of Fame. One more touchdown per game and the Steelers could have won another five games.
Some in Steelers Nation will moan and groan about any time the Steelers do not win the Super Bowl but these fans are just not realistic. A much larger segment of the Steelers Nation will gripe about this season and fill the boards with anger and anguish if they do not make the playoffs this year.
This team has exceeded expectations with their heart and soul that has trickled down from head coach Mike Tomlin. I expect fans will see that tomorrow and into the 2020 season. Hopefully, other fans will share my optimism, win or lose, against our heated rivals.