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Will the Steelers offense become a run-heavy offense in 2019?

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With Antonio Brown now gone, could the Steelers throw it back a few decades to when they were a run-heavy offense?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good question. NFL football analysts have been debating this, as well as fantasy football analysts. Actually, fantasy analysts have been leading the charge on this question this offseason more so than anybody else, and kudos to them.

And to that, let me give a brief shout-out to the fantasy analyst/player.

Fantasy players are often labeled as geeks to the mainstream NFL media, so absorbed in their own little game-inside-a-game that they play. But, fantasy players are often more attuned to the game than given credit, as they look for little edges here and there so they can win their “geek” fantasy titles (and cash).

Winning week to week in fantasy means knowing whether a team’s defense is susceptible to the pass or the run, on whether their WR is facing a weak secondary or individual CB matchup, knowing if their star QB is facing rough sledding in their weekly matchup, or choosing who to start if their stud RB is mired in a bad matchup while their less talented RB is facing a cakewalk.

So, it is not surprising that during this offseason the fantasy world is trying to find that drafting edge with respect to the Steelers offense, and the changes, if any, from last year sans Antonio Brown.

To them, the question of whether the Steelers become more run dependent weighs heavily on their decision to reduce expectations from Ben Roethlisberger more than anything else. Ju Ju Smith-Schuster is a shoo-in as target hog with Mr. Big Chest gone.

But, forgetting those fantasy folks and returning to real football, what of Big Ben and the Steelers offense? Will the Steelers change philosophy this season with the loss of Antonio Brown?

It stands to reason that the Steelers may look at last season and decide to return to smash mouth football. They led the NFL in pass attempts per game (43.1) in what was a successful “fantasy” season, but not so successful in the actual NFL. Roethlisberger put up fantastic stats, but led them to only nine wins and a 2-4 finish.

They missed the playoffs.

Leading the NFL in passing attempts per game led them nowhere but to an early trip to the golf course. It’s hard to think that the Steelers brass won’t see that as a sign to become less dependent on Big Ben’s arm, especially with the loss of their HOFer and sometimes-jerk wide receiver.

There are not bad reasons for this thinking.

The Steelers running game seems stacked in spite of the loss of another sometimes-jerky player, running back Le’Veon Bell. But, Bell is far in the rearview mirror having not played a down for the team last season. Listening to many talking heads, you’d think Bell was leaving the team this season. But, they have already moved on without missing much of a beat, if any.

They’ve actually added several beats to replace his.

James Conner looked like a new man last season, having shed weight and the unfortunate health concerns he heroically prevailed from. He was a different player than the one who tested at the NFL combine a year earlier. More burst and quickness. To make the city of Pittsburgh practically forget about the “Bell situation” is quite a testament to his Pro Bowl season.

Add Jaylen Samuels to the mix, who has even more athleticism than Conner, and you’ve got to like his chances for improvement with a year of NFL training under his belt, and the addition of his old college running back coach to his corner.

This is not Isaac Redman or Fitzgerald Toussaint that the Steelers have backing up their main guy. This is a talent that can push for the starting job, and certainly for more looks on the field.

Even more, the Steelers said goodbye to fumble prone just-a-guy Stevan Ridley and look to have a keeper in Benny Snell Jr. He still has to prove he can do it in the NFL, but he has the upside to be a guy that you can depend on to keep Conner fresh, if not push for carries on his own right. He’s got the bruising style the Steelers love and always seem to look for.

Not since the brief stay of Deangelo Williams have you felt so comfortable with the Steelers running back depth.

That the strength of the team is their offensive line only adds further credence to the argument that the Steelers will lean more on their running game. In what is pretty much unheard of in today’s NFL, the nucleus of the Steelers line has stayed intact and played at a high level for years. Led by Maurkice Pouncey and David Decastro, it looks strong despite the Steelers biggest offseason loss – Mike Munchak.

To add further reason to think the Steelers will return to the 1990s and run more, it is very possible the Steelers defense improves. You only had to be a casual fan of the team to see the immediate drop in play of the Steelers defense when they lost Ryan Shazier. Not only was he magnificent, but his replacements were sub-par, and that’s being kind.

Like Snell, Devin Bush has yet to prove it on the field, but you have to like his chances with his supreme athleticism to immediately improve play in the middle of the Steelers defense. Reports have all been thumbs-up on him so far. With his sideline-to-sideline capability, it should make the whole defense substantially better. With some other additions, and some already capable players, it stands to reason that the defense will progress.

With a better defense, there will be less reliance on Big Ben having to “throw” the Steelers back into games, and more reason to believe the Steelers running game will be taking the air out of the football in the second half, running out the clock.

So, do I think the Steelers will become run heavy? NOT REALLY! At least not to what some people have predicted.

This is the day and age of the pass in the NFL. The statistics being put up are Madden-worthy. With defensive backs not even being able to sneeze on receivers in the middle of the field anymore, it is more wide open than ever. Whenever you see a wide receiver take a hard hit, you wince, knowing that today’s NFL almost assuredly will rain flags afterward just because it looked bad.

The running game will always be vital, and you do need it to run-clock at the end of victories – but this is 2019 NFL and not your pappy’s 1990s teams. The NFL wants a high flying Madden video game, and the league is now structured that way.

Ben Roethlisberger is still at the top of his game, and, sorry, the loss of Antonio Brown will not matter (much) in the end. Wide receivers are replaceable while quarterbacks are not. Roethlisberger put up stats and success from the time he entered the field throwing to Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward. Yes, those were great wide receivers – but did Tommy Maddox impress you much with those SAME wide receivers?!

Nope.

The Pittsburgh Steelers still have an elite Roethlisberger and he will make other wide receivers on this roster look great. Besides Ju Ju Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have more than enough talent to air it out with the QB they have targeting them.

Steelers fans, appreciate Big Ben while you still can…unfortunately, it won’t last much longer as Father Time, cruelly, always wins. Don’t kid yourself or think like Antonio Brown – QBs like Roethlisberger are rare, indeed.

The other reason that I’m confident the Steelers will continue to throw it often is that the offensive coordinator is, basically, Ben Roethlisberger. No slight to Randy Fichtner – I like his play calling. But, he is Big Ben’s hand chosen OC, and buddy. If Ben wants to throw it, he’s going to throw it.

Nobody is going to put Ben Roethlisberger back in a Ben-2006 mentality at QB when he can still air it out with the best of them. There’s no head-butting with OC’s like Ken Whisenhunt and Todd Haley anymore. He kicked off his training wheels long ago, and nobody is putting them back on him while he still has the say-so. Sure, he will like having a competent running game and will use it to his advantage, but he firmly holds the keys to this offense now.

Going back to his days at Miami (OH), Big Ben has been a quarterback who likes to chuck it. And, chuck it often he will, regardless of a fine stable of backs, the loss of Antonio Brown, the existence of a great offensive line, and an improving defense. It is the way of today’s NFL, and Ben Roethlisberger can take advantage of that with the best of them. There might be a slight uptick in the run-to-pass ratio towards the running game, but nothing drastic. The pass attempts were a dramatic 67.39 percent last season, so some drop towards the running game should be expected.

But, it goes to show you how much Ben Roethlisberger had an impact on Randy Fichtner’s play calling in his first year as OC.

Big Ben wants to throw!

Plus, Roethlisberger wouldn’t admit this, but I have an inkling he might want to show a certain diva WR that things are just fine without him.