In most years, an 8-8 season would qualify as forgettable. But 2019 was not most seasons. Far from it. It ebbed and flowed like a fickle tide, bringing waves of both hope and despair. The end result was disappointing but the journey was exhilarating. The Steelers were short on talent and, at times, on luck but they played with a passion and cohesiveness that seemed absent in recent years. Head coach Mike Tomlin did his best McGyver impression, fashioning lineups out of cardboard and duct tape. The defense returned to prominence. The offense sunk like a stone. It was not enough in the end. But it was a hell of a ride.
Here is the story of the 2019 season in five memorable chapters.
Chapter One: Feckless in Foxboro
In my younger days, I once completed a novel with grandiose dreams of becoming the next great American writer. I had a friend who worked at Simon and Schuster and she managed to get my manuscript to an editor. He read the first few chapters and then handed it back to her. “Tell him to rewrite the beginning,” the editor said. “It needs to open with a bigger bang.”
That novel never saw the light of day. But it did serve as a template for this Steelers season, which also started with a thud. The 33-3 shellacking on opening night in New England was as demoralizing as it was predictable. From the moment the schedule was announced, most Steelers fans probably hoped for a win at Foxboro but expected a loss. In that scenario, their expectations were met in (un)spectacular fashion.
The highlight of the evening was a punt the Steelers forced on New England’s opening drive. From that point forward, things unraveled quickly. Tom Brady stood comfortably in a pocket that seemed to be protected by a force-field and casually picked apart an overmatched Steelers secondary to the tune of 341 passing yards and three touchdowns. The Steelers offense mustered just 32 yards rushing and their receivers could not separate against New England’s aggressive man coverage. Adding salt to the wound was news from earlier that day that former Steeler Antonio Brown intended to sign with the hated Patriots. If football seasons were indeed novels, this one started with Old Yeller being run over by a truck.
One play seemed to define the opener for a Steelers team that looked both overmatched and disheveled. Late in the 2nd quarter, New England took a 17-0 lead on a 25 yard touchdown pass from Brady to Phillip Dorset. Brady victimized safety Terrell Edmunds (34) with a simple glance to his left before throwing up the right seam. Edmunds misaligned on the play, positioning himself too far inside the right hash at the snap, and was drawn too far to the middle of the field by Brady’s eyes. He also failed to get depth on his backpedal, allowing Dorset to slip past him. It was poor fundamental play and it made things much too easy for New England.
More than anything, the play exposed Pittsburgh’s lack of a true free safety who could set coverages, get teammates aligned properly and patrol the middle of the field. Edmunds was a strong safety playing out of position and was not the long-term answer at free safety. If the Steelers couldn’t find a way to get better on the back end they would have no chance of competing in 2019. Something had to be done.
Chapter Two: From bad to worse
The following week, this happened:
The takeaway from chapter one was frustrating but not fatal. The Steelers still couldn’t win in New England but one game wouldn’t define the season and there was plenty of time to improve. The takeaway from chapter two, however, felt like a death sentence.
When the news came shortly after the 28-26 loss to Seattle that Ben Roethlisberger would need season-ending surgery on his elbow, most assumed the team was finished, too. The Steelers were 0-2 with a leaky defense that had yielded 61 points and 890 yards in its first two contests. Now the offense would have to endure the remaining fourteen games with the untested Mason Rudolph behind center. With Baltimore blistering out of the gate and Cleveland sure to be better after loading up on talent in the off-season, it seemed certain the Steelers would battle it out with Cincinnati for residency in the AFC North basement.
If things were bad with the team, they were dire with the fanbase. The blogosphere divided into various camps on the state of Steelers Nation. Some welcomed the opportunity to watch young players develop and to see what Rudolph could do (myself among them). Others called for the Steelers to tank and draft Roethlisberger’s replacement. A third group wallowed in misery and demanded the lopping off of organizational heads. The following entry in the Seattle post-game thread on BTSC summed up their feelings in spectacular fashion:
No matter where people stood, the consensus was near-universal: two games in, the Steelers 2019 season was toast.
Chapter Three: The shocking plot twist
Then, shockingly, before the dust on the Roethlisberger news had settled, the normally-status quo Steelers did something they hadn’t done in over fifty years: they gave up their first round pick in the following season’s draft. The prize for that hefty price was Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a do-it-all player who had requested a trade over frustration on how he was being used in Miami and with the Dolphins failure to commit to trying to win in 2019. Fitzpatrick was a gifted player but the forfeiture of the team’s first round pick, assumed to be in the top ten now that Roethlisberger was finished, was polarizing. While some celebrated the acquisition of a coveted player at a position of need, many perceived it as a desperate or even reckless move in what was sure to be a lost season.
“I hate it,” former Steelers’ safety-turned-ESPN analyst Ryan Clark said. “I believe (Fitzpatrick) is a good football player but he doesn’t make his team immediately better.”
The move was received far more positively inside the Steelers’ locker room. A Bleacher Report article posted to BTSC by Drop The Hammer showed how players were galvanized by the confidence the staff and front office showed in making the trade, signaling the season was far from over and the team could still win.
Fitzpatrick did his part to justify the move. He had an interception and a forced fumble in his first game, a narrow loss in San Francisco to the eventual top seed in the NFC. The Steelers went on an 8-2 run over their next ten games, climbing from 0-3 and a potential top five pick to the thick of the playoff race. Fitzpatrick altered games in obvious ways, like his 96 yard pick-six that changed the momentum in an eventual win against Indianapolis, and in subtle ways by improving communication in the secondary. The result was a drastic reduction in the number of chunk plays the defense surrendered. Meanwhile, pass rushers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree stalked opposing quarterbacks like a pair of lions tracking prey on the Serengeti while off-season acquisitions Steven Nelson and Devin Bush provided significant upgrades at corner and linebacker from their 2018 counterparts. The Steelers’ defense, gutted in the first two games by New England and Seattle, transformed into one of the league’s elite units, ranking in the top five in sacks, turnovers and points allowed.
The Fitzpatrick gamble had paid off. 2019 was not a lost season, after all.
Chapter Four: The rise of Duckmania
While the defense was conjuring memories of Blitzburgh and the Steel Curtain, the offense battled through the early stages of the Mason Rudolph era on life support. Rudolph was an efficient 24-28 for 229 yards and two touchdowns in his first win, a 27-3 decision over the hapless Bengals in week four. He was knocked out in his next game, however, on a wicked hit from Baltimore safety Earl Thomas. Undrafted free agent Devlin “Duck” Hodges piloted the offense to a road win against the LA Chargers the following week. When Rudolph returned for the contest against Miami, he seemed to regress.
Rudolph completed 68-109 passes in consecutive wins over the Dolphins, Colts and Rams but his inability to push the ball downfield inhibited the offense. An ugly loss in Cleveland, punctuated by the Myles Garrett helmet incident, and a poor first half performance the following week in Cincinnati prompted Mike Tomlin to bench Rudolph in favor of Hodges. The rookie from Samford rallied the Steelers to victory by hitting a 79 yard touchdown pass to James Washington on his third play from scrimmage. The Steelers moved over .500 for the season. “Duckmania” descended upon Steeler Nation.
Hodges racked up wins against the Browns and Cardinals the next two weeks to move the Steelers into wild card contention. The offense was not putting up big numbers but Hodges’ story was impossible to ignore. An undersized, undrafted quarterback from a small school who had once won a national duck-calling contest was leading the left-for-dead Steelers on an improbable playoff run. National publications did features on the Duck. BTSC ran approximately eight thousand stories on him and even sold Duck-themed apparel. The hype was reminiscent of that which surrounded Kordell Stewart as he emerged from his “Slash” role to quarterback the 1997 Steelers to the top seed in the AFC. The Steelers were 8-5 and “Duckmania” was real. It all seemed too good to be true.
Chapter Five: The clock strikes midnight
Sadly, as with most Cinderella stories, it was too good to be true. The Steelers had made a brave and admirable run. But the truth of the matter was they simply weren’t good enough on offense.
By the time December rolled around, the unit resembled a JV squad. Players like Kerith Whyte, Deon Cain, Trey Edmunds, Tevin Jones and B.J. Finney were taking meaningful reps in the rotation while starters James Conner, Juju Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey missed time. Meanwhile, opponents were catching up to Hodges, who was occasionally careless with the football and could not read coverage in the middle of the field. The final three teams on the schedule - Buffalo, the Jets and Baltimore- each featured stout defenses. The clock was about to strike midnight.
The offense produced just 20 points and 489 total yards in narrow losses to the Bills (17-10) and Jets (16-10). Then, on Sunday, the Steelers were thoroughly outclassed by a Baltimore team that rested many of its starters. Hodges was overmatched in all three contests as Duckmania faded to black. The Steelers missed the playoffs with a closing futility best typified by this ridiculous play:
It was a sad and somber ending to a season that had produced so many promising moments.
The natural inclination after a season that ends in disappointment is to ask, “What next? Where do we go from here?” There is plenty of time to pour over those questions between now and next September. Too much time, really. The most important football of the season is about to get underway and the Steelers won’t be a part of it. Quite frankly, that stinks.
Still, it’s hard to view 2019 as a failure. Some may comment that any season that doesn’t end with our players on a podium hoisting the Lombardi Trophy is indeed a failure. This is professional football, after all, and moral victories don’t count. But the heart and unity this team showed once Roethlisberger went down was refreshing given how the past few seasons were marred by dissension and dysfunction. These Steelers were exciting and fun to root for. I enjoyed watching them, which hasn’t always been the case recently.
Losing Roethlisberger hurt, of course, and it remains to be seen whether he can play at an elite level once he returns. But losing him forced other players to emerge as leaders both on and off the field. Players like Watt, Vince Williams and the aforementioned Fitzpatrick, who may have never arrived in Pittsburgh had Roethlisberger not been injured. For the first time in a while, the team took its identity from the defense. That made them feel like a Pittsburgh Steelers football team. It was also a young team, and many of those young players gained valuable experience. There is work to be done in the off-season (signing Bud Dupree and upgrading the offensive line, to name some of it) but the foundation of this team is solid. They made it to the brink of the playoffs under Rudy and the Duck. If Roethlisberger can return to even 80% of his former self, the Steelers will be a force in the AFC next year.
There was no happy ending to the story of the Steelers’ 2019 season. But it was a wildly entertaining story, regardless. Sometimes, that matters just as much.