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10 Steelers ‘What Ifs’ from the 2010s: The final 5 years of disappointment

The final five answers to ten big questions from the last decade of Steelers football

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The other day, Sports Illustrated ran an essay asking about the NFL’s biggest “what ifs” of the last ten years. I’m a sucker for this kind of speculation, but (as so often happens) I was disappointed that none of their questions involved the Steelers. So I did what I always do and put together a similar piece centering around the Black and Gold.

I came up with ten fork-in-the-road moments from 2010-2019 that (I think) would have affected the Steelers most. I didn’t include the draft or free agent signings (which feel like entirely distinct articles to me), just “during the season” moments. I’ll list them below, and then make an argument for what I think could have happened if the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) ball bounced a different direction.

If this kind of counterfactual stuff isn’t your thing, you might want to click away now—that’s all that’s coming. Also you’ll notice a trend in my projections for “what could have happened.” I’m in an optimistic mood and I’m not sorry.

Anyway, let’s go. Rather than look at the list from “best to worst,” they will be done in chronological order beginning with the 2010 season. The first 5 can be viewed HERE if you wanted to check it out before jumping to the 2017 season

6 – What if the Jesse James catch had counted in 2017?

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
Pictured: something other than a catch, I guess?
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

This sucks. I hate these articles. I don’t know why I’m doing this. In 2017, the Steelers finished 13-3 and took the AFC’s #2 seed (#1 was the 13-3 New England Patriots). In Week 14 when the two teams met, the winner was effectively guaranteed of home field advantage through the playoffs. It was an excellent game, with a wild finish. After the Patriots took a three-point lead in the final minute, Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster took a short-pass 69 yards to the New England 10 yard line, but was tackled in bounds forcing the Steelers to burn their last timeout. On the next play, Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown to Jesse James, but the ball came free as he hit the ground.

After much deliberation, it was ruled James didn’t “complete the catch,” and the winning score was taken off the board. In the ensuing chaos, Ben threw an interception in the end zone, giving New England the win, the #1 seed, and home field in the playoffs. More than that, it also gave them the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional round, while the Steelers hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the regular season, the Steelers had blasted Tennessee 40-17, but lost 30-9 to Jacksonville. These were matchups that mattered. Predictably, the Pats cruised over the Titans and the Steelers fell to the Jaguars. The Jesse James call (which would have been a catch today) ruined everything.

My guess at the result:

Assuming New England squeaked past Jacksonville in their Divisional game (like they did in the real-life AFCC match), and the Steelers beat the Titans again, Pittsburgh would have hosted the Pats in the conference title game. Having just beaten the Patriots a few weeks prior, playing the game at Heinz Field, and given the grudge match from the previous year (when New England had pounded the Steelers in Foxboro in the AFC title game), my money is on the Steelers to win the rematch. These guys couldn’t wait for that game.

Count the Jesse James catch and I say the Steelers win the Super Bowl.

7 – What if Ryan Shazier hadn’t gotten hurt in 2017?

NFL: NOV 12 Steelers at Colts
Pictured: the best human-highlight-reel since Troy Polamalu
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ryan Shazier’s gruesome and tragic spinal injury in 2017, didn’t just threaten the long-term health of a decent, likable man. It also robbed the sporting world of one of its most athletic up-and-coming stars, and robbed the Steelers defense of its best playmaker, top tackler, emotional leader, and middle-of-the-field safety valve.

Because it happened so late in the season (December 4), the pickings were slim for replacements. Tyler Matakevich got some reps, but he was no starter. Instead, the team figured the best bet was free agent (and ex-Steeler) Sean Spence, who knew the defense but hadn’t played all season. Spence played admirably for a guy fresh off the couch, but he couldn’t fill the void Shazier left. The middle of the field was exploited by Jacksonville in the playoffs, where the Steelers gave up 45 points, managing to lose a playoff game in which they’d hung 42 on a strong defense. Ugh.

My guess at the result:

In the long term, Shazier would have been a superstar. He had been arguably the fastest and most athletic linebacker in the league since he was drafted and by 2017, his technique had started to catch up to his body. His highlight reel was the closest approximation to Troy Polamalu’s of anyone I can think of. Moreover, he’d embraced the roll of leader, calling the defensive signals, rallying his teammates, and warming up before icy playoff games shirtless as a show of toughness. Team him up with Devin Bush, T.J. Watt, and Bud Dupree today, and you’d have easily the best linebacking corps in the NFL.

In the short term, with the rest of the 2017 squad coalescing, I say Shazier’s presence would have been the tipping point. The Steelers finished 3-1 with Spence starting (the one loss: the Jesse James game they should have won). With Shazier, I think they win the Super Bowl.

8 – What if LeVeon Bell signed his franchise tag tender in 2018?

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Pictured: the most expensive 3.2ypc the NYJets ever bought

Most reading this probably remember that Bell played on the franchise tag in 2017, but when he was tagged again in 2018, he declined to sign (after teasing for months) and sat out the season instead.

In his last year in Pittsburgh, Bell racked up 1946 total yards and eleven touchdowns, earning first-team All Pro honors on a 13-3 powerhouse. What those numbers hide was how stale the Steelers offense had become that year, often only coming alive in two-minute drills or fourth quarter comebacks. Bell recorded an insane 406 touches on the season, but often found teams keying on him (despite the presence of so many other stars), and stonewalling him over and over.

In 2018, after Todd Haley was jettisoned, that all changed. Ben Roethlisberger led the league in passing, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown both caught 100+ passes, and Bell’s replacement, James Conner, made the Pro Bowl with 973 rushing yards. Many wondered how that team wound up out of the playoffs. The answer: Because they kept losing tight games. Five of their six losses were one-score affairs (as was the tie, of course). Bell — a veteran, a smart pass-blocker, a tough runner, and one of the best pass-catching running backs of all time — would almost certainly have made enough of a difference to push the team over the threshold once or twice. That would have been enough to get into the playoffs.

My guess at the result:

With Bell, the Steelers spectacular 2018 offense gets even stronger. Bell (a good friend of Antonio Brown) keeps AB psychologically contained in his last year in Pittsburgh too. He also doesn’t waste an entire year of his prime, ruining a potentially Hall of Fame career.

And the Steelers emerge from a weak AFC field to beat the Rams in a rematch of Super Bowl XIV.

9 – What if Joe Haden didn’t get called for pass interference against New Orleans in 2018?

Pittsburgh Steelers v New Orleans Saints
Pictured: Pass interference, somehow... Wait... No way... Really?
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

There are a handful of 2018 botched plays that I could have listed here. (What if Xavier Grimble just crossed the goal line instead of trying to run over a Broncos defender — and fumbling? What if Chris Boswell hadn’t slipped on the miserable Oakland sod? What if JuJu Smith-Schuster hadn’t fumbled on the final drive of this same Saints game?) But the TWO phantom defensive pass interference calls against Haden — both on 4th down pass breakups — were the worst of the lot. Both were consequential; the second was backbreaking.

The first happened on the Saints’ opening drive. Facing 4th and 1 from the Steelers 36, Drew Brees threw deep for the end zone. Haden, who had made practically no contact with intended target Alvin Kamara at any point, nearly made an interception two yards behind the Saints runner. When the flag was thrown, Tony Romo was speechless and Jim Nance marveled, “I may have never seen less of a pass interference in my life.” But the ball was placed at the Steelers 1 yard line, and New Orleans scored from there. (Did I mention this was a three-point final score?)

Absurd as that was, it came only 3:23 into the contest. The second flag came at the game’s two-minute warning, with the Steelers up by four. It was 4th and 2 near midfield when Michael Thomas charged into Haden within the five-yard bump zone, and the two stayed engaged for a second. Then the ball came, and Haden reached around the big receiver to knock it down. Game over, except for another flag. Forget for a second that Thomas initiated the contact, on replays you can actually see Haden pull his left arm away from Thomas’ body to ensure it wouldn’t be a foul. This kept the Saints’ drive alive, and ultimately gave them the win. The loss cost the Steelers the playoffs.

My guess at the result:

The Steelers lost the AFC North title to the Ravens by a half game that year. Win this one and Pittsburgh doesn’t just take the division, they enter the playoffs with some real emotional momentum. The team had rebounded from a mid-season slump to beat the eventual champion Patriots the previous week, and now would have beaten the NFC’s best squad in their own dome seven days later. That’s the kind of home-stretch that can make a team believe.

The AFC field was weak in 2018; I think the Steelers could run the table. Pick up either flag and I say they win the Super Bowl.

10 – What if the Steelers had signed an experienced backup quarterback in 2019?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals
Pictured: two high schoolers and a kodiak bear
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We all know this story, I’m sure: In 2019, the Steelers defense emerges as one of the league’s best, with three All-Pros and a fourth Pro Bowler; Chris Boswell shakes off his 2018 slump and gets clutch again; and the Steelers go on an 7-1 run mid-season after a 1-4 start. But with Ben Roethlisberger missing 14.5 games, the offense never records 30 points in a contest all year, finishing 27th in third down percentage, and dead last in the red zone. Despite sporting the first defense since the 1974 Steel Curtain to lead the league in both sacks and takeaways, they miss the playoffs at 8-8. I’d argue the 2019 Steelers would have been championship level with even competent quarterback play.

This team lost to four playoff teams by a combined 16 points — a slate that included San Francisco and Baltimore, the top seeds in each conference — then threw in a fifth one-score loss for good measure. Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges both looked promising at points, but both struggled deciding when to push the ball upfield, when to check down, and when to just take the sack. With a vet like Charlie Batch under center (for example), I predict this team would have won at least three or four of these heartbreakers, if not all five. Mediocre-to-decent quarterbacking would have opened up rushing lanes for a struggling attack as well, while allowing the spectacular defense more time to recover between splash plays and takeaways.

My guess at the result:

In a plausible best-case-scenario, this team could have (amazingly) hit the playoffs at 13-3. Splitting their series with the Ravens would also drop Baltimore down to 13-3, and could have handed the division (and a bye) to the Steelers. But even if they didn’t flip all the tight contests, they were truly just a couple of plays away from 11-5. I don’t think it would take an all-star quarterback to make that difference; basic competence would have been enough.

How would it have ended? Hmm... I imagine the Steelers would probably win the Super Bowl. That seems about right.

What did we learn from all this? Two things:

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers
Please come back...
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

1 – This was a terrible idea for an article. It turns out reliving frustrating, crushing, and maddening moments is frustrating, crushing, and maddening. Who knew?

2 – The Steelers would have won, like, eight more Super Bowls if only a whole bunch of things were different. How about that. Is the season starting yet?