The Steelers were one of the league’s most explosive offenses a season ago. The unit ranked sixth in the league in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders’ metrics. Ben Roethlisberger was a top-five quarterback in part because he was throwing passes to Antonio Brown.
It was a similar story in 2017; the offense ranked No. 3 overall — fourth in passing and sixth in rushing — because of familiar faces: Roethlisberger, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, who was fifth in total value as a runner and nearly as valuable as a receiver.
But Brown, who was unhappy in Pittsburgh and didn’t hide that fact, has since been traded to Oakland. Also gone: Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season because of a contract dispute and signed with the Jets this spring. And just like that, two of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL were off the Steelers‘ roster.
That certainly has something to do with the current Super Bowl odds — the Steelers are at 20-to-1, which is behind the Browns (!) at 16-to-1. And that brings us to the biggest question facing Pittsburgh ahead of the 2019 NFL season: How can they overcome the loss of Brown and Bell?
As has been the case for the 15 previous seasons, the Steelers’ offense runs through Roethlisberger. It would be much more concerning if the team traded Big Ben in March and was heading into training camp with Brown, Bell and second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph under center. But Roethlisberger returns and even though he’s 37, he’s still one of the NFL’s best passers. A season ago, he threw for career-best in yards (5,129) and touchdowns (34) and ranked fifth in total value among all quarterbacks, behind only Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan.
Brown racked up 837 catches, 11,207 yards and 74 touchdowns during his nine seasons in Pittsburgh — and in the process made himself into one of the NFL’s most dangerous players — and Roethlisberger knows the receiver was a big part of the offense’s success.
“I’ll start with saying you’re right, AB made me who I am,” Big Ben told KDKA’s Bob Pompeani in May. “He was the greatest wide receiver I ever played with. And the things that he did in this league and that we did together are among the best of all-time. You’re talking about [Joe] Montana and [Jerry] Rice, and [Troy] Aikman and [Michael] Irvin, and some of those great names. To be mentioned with those same names is so humbling.”
But Roethlisberger also knows that the current cast is more than capable of putting up similar numbers.
“I’ve been here a long time,” he said last month. “We’re still the Pittsburgh Steelers. We’re still going to go out and try to win every football game. It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the big one. But, if everyone puts forth the effort we all think we can, with the talent we have in this room, we feel pretty confident we can be pretty good. … It’s going to be fun if we can produce the way we think we can. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is win a championship. In order to do that, we’re all going to have to be at our best.”
So who are these players?
Fun fact: In his second NFL season Smith-Schuster led the Steelers in targets (168), receptions (111), yards (1,426) and was No. 2 in total scrimmage yards behind only James Conner. On 10 occasions he had double-digit targets in a game and in the Steelers’ final seven regular-season games he had at least 100 receiving yards four times (including 189 yards against the Broncos in Week 11). The biggest issue facing Smith-Schuster ahead of 2019 is whether he can be this productive without Antonio Brown, who regularly required double teams, also on the field. If the rest of the offense steps up there’s no reason this group can’t be just as explosive
Washington had a forgettable rookie season — he had 16 receptions, 217 yards, a touchdown, and his quarterback call him out after a huge drop — but according to his teammates the former second-round pick looks like a completely different player ahead of the ’19 campaign.
“But you talk about a young dude who’s up and coming, it’s going to be James Washington,” Smith-Schuster told ESPN recently. “A guy from Oklahoma State, came to the Steelers his rookie year, started off slow but figured it out and got the ropes down. This past summer workouts that we had, he’s been doing amazing, a great job. I’m super excited to see how he does this year. He’s our guy that’s going to sneak up on everybody.” If Washington looks anything like the deep threat he was in college he’ll open things up for the rest of the passing game.
Moncrief’s career can kindly be described as replacement-level; a burner coming out of Ole Miss, he has yet to live up to expectations during his five years in the league. His best season came in 2015, with Andrew Luck, when he had 64 receptions for 733 yards and six touchdowns. In 2018 with Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler throwing him passes, Moncrief had 48 catches for 668 yards and three scores. Now in Pittsburgh, and on the receiving end of passes from Ben Roethlisberger, the sense is that Moncrief’s best football could still be ahead of him.
“For a guy that hadn’t been in the system, he’s really done some things that are innate,” Steelers receivers coach Daryl Drake said recently, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He does some things that come natural. Picking up the system, there are times when you get a guy, you bring him in and he’s been in two or three different systems and those systems start running together. But he’s been able to distinguish the differences and go out there and do things that make my job a lot easier because he has a feel for the position. One thing he’s doing is playing with a lot of confidence, and Ben has confidence in him. He’s just got to continue to grow.”
The Steelers have had some success drafting receivers out of the MAC (see Brown, Antonio) and Johnson, their 2019 third-round pick out of Toledo, could be the next find.
“The one thing I noticed was he caught every ball I threw to him, I even threw him some bad balls on purpose, throw some high, behind him, just to see if he would catch them,” Roethlisberger said during minicamp, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And he caught every one. It was impressive.”
Veteran cornerback Joe Haden added: “For me, (Johnson) runs some really, really crisp routes. He is natural. He is fast. He comes out of his breaks really well. He has been impressive. I watch receivers. I watch tape on them. He is a good one.”
Jesse James is now in Detroit and while the Steelers have Xavier Grimble and rookie Zach Gentry on the roster, neither is a proven every-down player. McDonald, however, is that player. He’s best remembered for perpetrating this vicious stiff arm against Chris Conte early last season:
But we wrote last offseason about how important McDonald could be to the Steelers offense. He had 50 catches last season for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns — expect those numbers to increase in 2019.
RB James Conner
Conner is the top dog in the Steelers backfield. He showed that a season ago while Le’Veon Bell sat out in a contract dispute. When it was over, Conner rushed for 973 yards, had another 497 receiving yards and scored 13 total touchdowns. Conner made $578,000 in 2018. Bell, who made $12.1 million in 2017 on the franchise tag and would have made more than $14 million last season, put up 1,291 rushing yards, 655 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in his last year in Pittsburgh. Put another way: Conner, who is four years younger than Bell, isn’t a bad consolation prize. And he won’t have to do it alone.
Samuels was a 2018 fifth-round pick for one simple reason: He didn’t really have a position coming out of NC State. He played some running back and some h-back but was listed as a tight end. In fact, he finished his college career with 1,851 receiving yards and 1,107 rushing yards. As a Steelers rookie Samuels had 56 carries and 26 receptions with his biggest game coming in Week 15. With Conner hurt, Samuels rushed 19 times for 142 yards. In 2019, the plan at times is to have he and Conner on the field together.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something special put into the offense,” Samuels told ESPN.com recently. “They will have us start off in the backfield or I can start out wide or motion out.”
RB Benny Snell
Coach Mike Tomlin has a history of running the wheels off his running backs. It happened with Willie Parker and it was something Bell wanted to avoid last season. But that plan seems to have changed. The Steelers took Snell in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft and the 5-10, 224-pound wrecking ball left the University of Kentucky as its all-time leading rusher. He hopes his college success translates quickly to the NFL.
“I felt like I was made to be a Steeler,” Snell said during minicamp. “It was just right. It feels right. This is my type of football and the fit was just perfect. I feel that I’ve been in a lot of situations, and the NFL is completely different, but I feel like I’ve had pressure on my shoulders on so many occasions that I became successful at the end of the game. Or I was able to get those tough yards, get the touchdown if needed, so I feel like whatever situation I’m put in, I’m going to try to give my best so we can have the best outcome.”
Perhaps more than anything that happens on the field, the Steelers feel like they have their locker room right in a post-Brown and Bell world.
“The chemistry is on point,” Smith-Schuster said last month, via The Athletic‘s Mark Kaboly. “Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is communicating. There’s really no — how do you say? — drama in our locker room.”