It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Next up is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013 after finishing the season 9-6-1.
What Went Right
There were times this season when the Steelers looked like the scariest team in the AFC. After a 1-2-1 start, Pittsburgh rattled off six straight wins in October and November. That run included beatdowns of the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers, the latter of which was as complete a victory as any team in the league posted in 2018. In December, the Steelers beat the Patriots for the first time since 2011, and in doing so seemed to shatter the notion of New England’s invincibility. And in Week 16, they hung with the New Orleans Saints—the consensus best team in the league—from wire to wire, coming up short only after some late mishaps cost them the game.
That the Steelers accomplished this without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who sat out 2018 after being franchise-tagged for the second consecutive season, is a testament to first-year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. After six seasons with Todd Haley helming one of the league’s premier units, the Steelers handed the play sheet to Fichtner. He switched to a more pass-heavy approach than Haley’s, which facilitated a career year for 36-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 34 touchdowns and an NFL-best 5,129 yards. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like the best pass-catching duo in the NFL, becoming just the fifth pair of teammates to have 100 catches and 1,200 receiving yards in the same season. (Smith-Schuster, in particular, shined bright in Fichtner’s offense, leading the team with 111 receptions and 1,426 yards, and receiving team MVP honors.) James Conner, who took over for Bell, was a revelation, playing every bit as well as the player he replaced before a late-season ankle injury hampered his production.
On defense, outside linebacker T.J. Watt looked every bit the star the Steelers hoped he would become when they drafted him in the first round of the 2017 draft. He led the team with 13 sacks and is clearly a foundational piece on an aging unit.
What Went Wrong
Despite the Steelers’ dominant offense and impressive showings against some of the league’s best teams, a series of head-scratching losses and some bad luck will keep them out of the playoffs. Pittsburgh followed up that impressive six-game winning streak with a three-game skid: a four-turnover performance against the Broncos, a comedy of errors that allowed the Chargers to close out a 16-point comeback, and a defeat at the hands of the lowly Raiders. Against the Saints, the Steelers were driving with a chance to tie the game when Smith-Schuster fumbled with 41 seconds left. This season, the Steelers have witnessed a dramatic swing in close-game performance since 2017: After going 7-1 in games decided by five points or fewer last year, Pittsburgh went 3-4-1 in such games in 2018. Maybe this was all foreshadowed in Week 1, when Pittsburgh let the Browns not lose for the first time since 2016.
As my colleague Robert Mays noted following the Week 14 loss to the Raiders, there is no one tidy explanation for why the Steelers are in this position. Instead, there seemed to be a new issue every week: Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay gashed Pittsburgh for 110 yards on just 14 carries, while Raiders tight end Jared Cook caught seven passes for 116 yards. Much of this can be attributed to the team’s linebacker corps, which has looked thin since Ryan Shazier’s devastating spine injury in late 2017, though the Steelers cornerbacks beyond Joe Haden have looked lost at times. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger was in full feast-or-famine mode, leading the league in interceptions despite posting his first 5,000-yard season.
Despite these shortcomings, the Steelers are unlikely to part ways with head coach Mike Tomlin. (The team has had just two coaching changes in the past 50 years.) Roethlisberger, despite hinting at retirement in recent seasons, will likely return for his 16th season. Pittsburgh will have a chance to compete so long as Tomlin and Roethlisberger are steering the ship, but the team has just three playoff wins since playing in Super Bowl XLV in February 2011. It’s hard not to feel like the Steelers’ championship window is nearly shut, and it’s even harder not to feel like the Tomlin era will go down as a disappointment.
The biggest name here is obviously Le’Veon Bell, though it’s virtually inconceivable he’ll return to the team. Even if there wasn’t bad blood between Bell and his employers, the Steelers have the 23-year-old Conner on a (cheap) contract through 2020. The Steelers won’t tag Bell again; Bell won’t re-sign with Pittsburgh for a penny less than he thinks he’s worth. He’s as good as gone, and he’ll look great in a Jets uniform.
Bell’s sharpest in-house critic, Ramon Foster, is also due for a new contract. Entering Week 17, Foster was rated by Pro Football Focus as the 15th-best guard in the NFL, and eighth-best at his position at pass protection. Foster will likely command a sizable deal on the open market, but as a leader in the locker room and a stalwart on an aging offense line, the Steelers should re-sign him.
Beyond those two players, the 2019 roster should look much the same as it did this season. Other players set to be free agents include tight end Jesse James, no. 2 cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Pittsburgh bring any or all of those three back, but none of those departures would drastically change the team’s outlook. And it’s good that the Steelers don’t have many holes to fill: They are slated to have just over $9 million in cap space in 2019, with nearly $20 million more set to roll over from this season, thanks in large part to Bell electing not to sign his franchise tender.
With little available cap space, Pittsburgh will likely turn to the draft to augment its roster. The cornerback position opposite Haden should be the Steelers’ priority in the first round. LSU’s Greedy Williams and Georgia’s Deandre Baker will likely be off the board when the team is choosing, but potential targets include Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye, Washington’s Byron Murphy, and Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen. Of those, the undersized Murphy has been one of the top corners in college football this season and could be a steal in the mid-first round. And while the Steelers could use a youth infusion to their offensive line, there aren’t a ton of top inside prospects and Pittsburgh appears to be set at tackle with Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. If the Steelers opt to reinforce their defensive line, 2019’s stacked class presents ample opportunities. Florida’s Jachai Polite and Boston College’s Zach Allen should both be available when Pittsburgh is on the clock.
Correction: A reference to Stevan Ridley serving as James Conner’s primary backup was removed after publication.