Two years ago, this was an easy piece to write. After all, when your team has a future first-ballot, Hall-of-Fame quarterback, one of the top three wide receivers in the game, one of the top three running backs in the game, and an offensive line led by the best offensive line coach in, quite possibly, the entire universe, a preview of your team’s offense all but writes itself. “They’re awesome, blah blah blah, kiss this, Cincinnati.”
Two years later, the offense looks...well...different.
Not bad-different. Just different.
Gone is all-world receiver (and all-world diva-tastic lunatic) Antonio Brown. Based on the workmanlike way nearly all of the team’s 91 players showed up to training camp — the lone exception being receiver Eli Rogers, who showed up in a Big Rig despite likely playing for his life this pre-season to save a position that might be Ryan Switzer’s to lose at this point — it’s safe to say Brown took his attention-grabbing, flashy-entry, hey-look-at-me-all-the-time style with him. Good riddance, too.
Gone is uber-patient runner Le’Veon Bell, who patiently waited out the entire 2018 season in his own living room to get out of Pittsburgh over what he viewed as a series of insufficient contract offers. Nevermind that he ultimately signed with the perennially “meh” New York Jets, and for a contract that was in no realistic way any better than what he left on the table in Pittsburgh.
And gone is line coach Mike Munchak, the only one of the three to leave for reasons other than selfish ambition: he headed to Denver in a completely lateral move to be closer to his daughter and baby granddaughter. If you can find fault in a man wanting to spend more time with his grandkids, you have no heart or soul. Full stop.
Those aren’t the only changes, though the others may be a little tougher to see, since most of the starting lineup came straight out of last season’s programs:
- Ben Roethlisberger is still the quarterback, and he’s locked down for the next three years if he chooses to play into his 40s. Given his comments that he intends to honor his contract, expect to see a new face other than current backups Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph as the future of the franchise once Roethlisberger gun-slings his way into an enormously successful sunset.
- James Conner is healthy and may have added even more lean muscle to his already ample frame. If you liked his bowling-ball style as the 2018 starter, just wait, because it looks like it may get even better. Roosevelt Nix also returns as the team’s starting fullback.
- JuJu Smith-Schuster jumps from WR2 to WR1, which is the only truly significant change to the entire offensive lineup — and it’s merely a change in nomenclature. Pencil in free-agent pickup Donte Moncrief at WR2 for now, but don’t be surprised if either second-year player James Washington or even 2019 third-round draft pick Dionte Johnson snags the spot by the end of the pre-season. This may be the most entertaining battle on the entire roster.
- Jesse James is gone, replaced by Xavier Grimble at TE2, but expect to see a healthy dose of Vance “Vanimal” McDonald as the starter, so long as he stays healthy.
- The offensive line remains intact, save for once-upon-a-time starter Marcus Gilbert, who was traded for a sixth-round pick (ironically used to pick another Gilbert in linebacker Ulysees Gilbert). Gilbert played in just 16 of the the teams last 32 regular-season games due to a combination of injuries and a suspension, and was more than adequately replaced by Matt Feiler, who finally enters a training camp as the penciled-in starter. However, he’ll have to fend off challenges from Chukwuma Okorafor (call him “Chuks”, it’s easier) and Jerald Hawkins.
The real fun this off-season is watching how the depth shakes out. For a team that has struggled with real depth in recent seasons, this year looks markedly different.
For instance, at running back, it’s a pretty safe bet that second-year Swiss-Army-Knife player Jaylen Samuels and 2019 fourth-round pick Benny Snell, Jr. will lock down roster spots, but the battle between the two for actual playing time could be so good that we see, for the first time in Mike Tomlin’s tenure as the Steelers’ head coach, a legitimate running-back-by-committee approach. Samuels showed in limited starts last season that he is as versatile as his college game tape advertised, and Snell is a monstrous back whose legs simply never stop moving. Come to think of it, he sounds an awful lot like Conner.
The depth at wide receiver is intriguing, as well. Behind Smith-Schuster, it’s a traffic jam that would give a New York City rush hour a run for its money. Moncrief has all the tools to be a true number two, but has suffered from some lackluster quarterbacks. When catching balls from guys like, say, Andrew Luck, he’s been able to go over 1,000 yards in a single season. The promise is there. But he’s facing a challenge from Washington, who finally stopped looking like a newborn giraffe trying to stand for the first time in the final few games of the 2018 season. If he can show the expected second-year jump, he could steal a lot of playing time from Moncrief. And Johnson looks a little too much like a young Antonio Brown, with a full tree of crisp routes and exceptional hands (a mental lapse here and there aside), to be ignored. And behind him is the battle for the fifth and maaaaaybe the sixth spots between Switzer, Rogers, Trey Griffey, Tevin Jones, Diontae Spencer and Johnny Holton. The only negative is it’s a group long on potential, but short on actual experience.
Tight end is McDonald, Grimble and rookie Zach Gentry. Book it and move on.
Along the offensive line, stability is the name of the game, even in the loss of Muchak, who coached the group for five seasons. His replacement, former assistant Shaun Sarrett, has been with the team for six year and had a very active role in coaching the line during Munchak’s tenure, so the team is familiar with him and his style. Center/Guard B.J. Finney will remain the team’s primary interior backup and could even challenge for a starting spot in place of aging veteran Ramon Foster. He’ll likely be joined by Zach Banner in rounding out the interior line. At the tackles, I’ve already pretty much covered it: right tackle will be one of Feiler, Okorafor and Hawkins. The other two will back up both tackle positions. It’s important to note that every one of those nine spent the 2018 season with the Steelers. Stability on the line keeps your quarterback clean, plain and simple.
Despite the minimal changes in the likely starting lineup, end even without two of the very best players at their positions, it’s hard to not be excited about the potential of this group. The biggest question will likely center on how Roethlisberger will do without his longtime top target. Personally, I feel it will start off a little rough, but in the end it will be addition by subtraction: without such a top-notch security blanket as Brown, who covered Roethlisberger’s cowboy-like rear end a number of times over the years with spectacular, no-he-didn’t-oh-yes-he-did catches, the quarterback will be forced, perhaps unintuitively, to actually go through all his progressions and maybe take the safe way out more often than not. While this will certainly spell an early end to some drives that a freakish catch by Brown may previously have sustained, it will also decrease the number of interceptions thrown on those plays where Brown couldn’t get to it, or where Roethlisberger simply guessed wrong on what his security-blanket receiver would do.
By season’s end, I expect Roethlisberger to be among the league leaders in yards, touchdowns and third-down conversions — but not in interceptions. As he approaches his career’s twilight, his numbers should perversely improve, even as his physical abilities decline, for no reason other than he actually will have to play a safe game and wait on his opportunities, like a quarterback of his success level should have been doing all along.
The changes for the Steelers’ offense this season are few, but large, and the unknown is massive as a result. But the excitement about their new, eyes-ahead, nose-to-the-grindstone, pissed-about-2018 attitude is palpable, and dare I even say warranted. The failure of a star-studded offense to ascend above mediocrity will create that sort of humility and focus.
With the 2019 season looming large on the horizon, we are about to see if this season will hasten the end for Roethlisberger and Tomlin, or of it was exactly what was needed to spur this team on to another championship or two before the inevitable changing of the guard looming a few years down the road.