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Why 2019 may not bring the slow start Steelers fans have come to expect

If this team has truly broken out from the recent mold, how will it translate to their success on the field?

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are doing their best to create the image they are not the typical Steelers team. Several big “personalities” are no longer in the locker room and camaraderie seems to be the point of emphasis. Analysts are doubting them, and the team wants nothing more than to fly under the radar.

But if this team isn’t wanting to be the typical Steelers team, then are there things we fans associate with the Steelers which would not be safe to assume in 2019? Over the next few weeks leading up to training camp, we will look at several Steeler trends from recent years, both positive and negative, and see if the expectations should change based on evolving attitudes and philosophies.

Starting Slow

Since 2011, the Steelers are 3-4-1 (.438) in Week 1 games. With an overall regular season winning percentage of .645 in the same time span, it’s easy to say the Steelers have under-performed the opening week of the NFL season. Not only have the Steelers managed a mere three wins in eight seasons, two of those victories were by a field goal against the Cleveland Browns in games they were favored by at least a touchdown. In fact, the Steelers have covered the point spread in Week 1 only once since 2011 when they defeated the Washington Redskins 38–16 on Monday Night Football in 2016.

To go beyond wins and point spreads, the Steelers have not done a very good job of taking care of the football to start the season in recent years. Since 2011, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in Week 1 games. One would have to go back to 2008 to find a game the opening week of the NFL season where Ben Roethlisberger played and did not throw an interception.

In all, the Steelers have a total of 20 Week 1 turnovers since 2011 while only forcing five takeaways. Add 25 penalties over the last two seasons on opening weekend, and it’s hard to argue the Steelers have played their best football right out of the gate.

But will the 2019 Steelers have a sluggish Week 1 start? There are two factors which could lessen the opening week woes, but are from a guarantee.

Preseason Play

When the Steelers come out less than precise the opening week of the NFL season, the first complaint is usually a lack of cohesiveness due to a number of players not participating much in preseason games. Over the last few years, Ben Roethlisberger has only played a fraction of one game during the preseason. While it is important to keep a franchise player from succumbing to a season-ending injury in a meaningless game (much like Maurkice Pouncey in 2015), a lack of playing time often inhibits the players cohesiveness within the team structure.

I think it’s safe to say Ben Roethlisberger will not have increased workload during the preseason in 2019. As much as it would be great for him to build better connections with teammates in a game setting, the Steelers are not willing to take the risk. But when it comes to other players who may be sitting out most of the preseason, they probably come at a position which may not be as impactful to missing time. Chances are Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Ramon Foster will see limited time in the preseason, with Alejandro Villanueva not too far behind. Cam Hayward will probably not see much action as well on the defense. Another defensive player who will probably get a good amount of rest will be cornerback Joe Haden. Otherwise, look for a lot of the Steelers players to at least get some playing time in each of the first three preseason games. When it comes to Week 4 of the preseason, I would prefer to see every projected starter in street clothes.

While the last several years saw weapons such as Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown barely seeing the field in the preseason if at all, new offensive superstars James Connor and JuJu Smith-Schuster are still on their rookie deals. Look for these players to see more playing time this preseason than what the preceding veteran players logged. So even with Ben sitting out, hopefully the backs and receivers are getting more work and therefore will be ready come Week 1.

Primetime Spotlight

Although I have already outlined the issue of the Steelers primetime schedule for 2019, it should be noted that the last primetime game the Steelers played the opening week was the 22 point win in Washington in 2015. It was the first time the Steelers were victorious in a Week 1 game on the road against a team who made the playoffs the previous season since they defeated the Houston Oilers as 12-point underdogs in 1992.

On the other hand, the Steelers have lost their previous two Week 1 primetime matchups. In 2015, the Steelers fell 28–21 in New England to the defending Super Bowl champions. Although it was a push when it came to the point spread, the Steelers scored a touchdown with seconds left in the game to cut it down to seven points. In 2012, the Steelers fell 31-19 at Denver in Peyton Manning‘s Bronco debut. In that game, the Steelers did take a fourth-quarter lead only to surrender 17 straight points.

In conclusion, there are factors which could lead fans to believe the Steelers will start better than they have in recent years. The young position players should be getting more work in the preseason than what other marquee players did in the past. Additionally, the last time the Steelers opened the season in primetime they played arguably their best Week 1 game over the past decade.

But these factors also bring some concern as well. Ben Roethlisberger will probably continue to play sparingly in the preseason while throwing to a younger group of receivers. Beyond 2016, the Steelers have not been victorious in their previous primetime Week 1 games. So looking at these factors do not necessarily instill confidence in an outstanding performance.

One last item of note, of all the games the Steelers play in 2019, they are the biggest underdog in Week 1. So hoping the Steelers step up to the tough competition in the primetime spotlight, playing well still may not necessarily equate to a win. Personally, having a competitive game late in the fourth quarter in what may be their toughest game of the season is exactly what this Steelers fan would like to see. Pulling out a win in Foxboro would be the sprinkles on top of the icing on top of the cake.