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Exit Interview: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers managed to salvage what looked like a lost season after Ben Roethlisberger went down after Week 2, but a late playoff push fell short. The biggest question heading into 2020 centers on the health of their franchise QB.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were eliminated with a Week 17 loss to the Ravens.

What Went Right

Their defense. The Steelers traded a first-rounder for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick in mid-September, and the move immediately turned their defense into one of the league’s best. The no. 11 pick out of Alabama in 2018 had five interceptions in his first seven games as a Steeler after grabbing just two in 16 games as a rookie. Adding Fitzpatrick’s talent to the secondary made everyone else’s job easier, especially cornerback Joe Haden’s, whose five interceptions this season are his most since his rookie season in 2010. Pittsburgh’s secondary earned the sixth-highest pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus this season, and it entered Week 17 tied with the Patriots for 36 takeaways, the most in football.

That improved pass coverage forced opposing quarterbacks to hold on to the ball longer, which let Pittsburgh’s pass rushers feast. Edge rusher Bud Dupree had 11.5 sacks, shattering his previous career high of six. His counterpart T.J. Watt was even better with 14.5 sacks. Entering Week 17, Watt had already posted career highs with 34 quarterback hits (second-most leaguewide) and 79 quarterback pressures (fourth-most) per Pro Football Focus.

Everyone got better on the Steelers defense, and the results showed. Through Week 16, Pittsburgh was the third-most-efficient defense behind the Patriots and 49ers, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They held every one of their opponents from Week 12 to Week 16 to 17 points or fewer. Using Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, which assigns less importance to games played earlier in the season, the Steelers are ahead of the Patriots and 49ers for the no. 1 defense.

While it’s difficult to measure intangibles, this season is one head coach Mike Tomlin can be proud of even if his team missed the playoffs. The Steelers started 1-4 and were devastated by injuries, but still fought to an 8-8 record. Tomlin has not had a losing record in 13 years as Pittsburgh’s head coach. If there was ever a season for that streak to end, it looked like it would be 2019. That Pittsburgh persevered and remained in the playoff hunt until Week 17 is a testament to the team’s spirit.

What Went Wrong

The offense. In Week 1, the Steelers were blown out of the water by the Patriots 33-3. The follwing day, the Steelers traded backup quarterback Josh Dobbs to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fifth-round pick, a deal that seemed innocuous at the time. However, within a week, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was placed on injured reserve with an elbow injury, promoting quarterback Mason Rudolph to starter (last year, Rudolph was getting practice reps with virtual reality). A few weeks later, Rudolph was injured and Pittsburgh turned to undrafted free-agent fourth-stringer Devlin “Duck” Hodges as their quarterback. The fact that they were even in the playoff race in Week 17 with a guy named Duck is outstanding.

But Pittsburgh’s woes went way beyond their quarterbacks. Running back James Conner dealt with a recurring shoulder injury throughout the second half of the season and surpassed 55 rushing yards in a game just once. No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was expected to take The Leap this season and join the upper echelon of NFL receivers, but he surpassed 85 receiving yards in a game once and missed time with a knee injury. Donte Moncrief won the no. 2 receiver job in training camp but dropped so many passes he was benched and then waived in November. Tight end Vance McDonald suffered a shoulder injury in September and did not surpass 40 receiving yards in any of his 13 games entering Week 17. Of the team’s starting skill group entering the year, nearly everyone finished the season on injured reserve, playing through injury, or off of the team.

One of the lone bright spots was third-round receiver Diontae Johnson, who caught 59 balls for 680 yards and five touchdowns in 16 games in his rookie season and looked like an excellent option for Pittsburgh’s future. Second-year receiver James Washington showed some signs of a rapport with Hodges but didn’t improve as much as Steelers fans would have hoped considering Smith-Schuster’s absences.

In the face of such devastating injuries, Mike Tomlin limited how much the offense needed to do. In neutral situations, the Steelers were one of the four slowest teams by pace of play, according to Football Outsiders. Entering Week 17, they had run the second-fewest plays in football. Pittsburgh’s plan was to let their defense dominate, keep strong field position, and hope their young quarterbacks didn’t mess up. It almost worked.

Free Agency

Pittsburgh’s key contributors entering free agency include Dupree, safety Sean Davis, cornerback Mike Hilton, and McDonald. Dupree just had the best season of his career and will likely find his richest offer from one of the league’s other 31 teams desperate to improve their pass rush. Davis is a key part of Pittsburgh’s secondary and a higher priority to keep than Dupree, but adding Fitzpatrick makes his potential departure easier to handle. Pittsburgh found a gem in Hilton, an undrafted free agent in 2016, who is now one of the league’s better slot cornerbacks. Pittsburgh may have to decide whether they want to retain Hilton or Davis, as keeping both may not be doable. McDonald has been a low-impact player who has struggled to stay on the field and is the least consequential of the three.

Their real question is at quarterback. Roethlisberger has said he is coming back “stronger and better” in 2020. As a 38-year-old quarterback recovering from an elbow injury, that’s no guarantee. Rudolph proved this season that he is not Roethlisberger’s successor as the Steelers’ next franchise quarterback. No disrespect to Duck Hodges, but he isn’t either. Pittsburgh would be wise to add a veteran backup who can create some offense—any offense—if Ben misses more time in 2020.

The Draft

For the first time since 1967, the Steelers do not have a first-round draft pick. Their deal for Fitzpatrick worked out, but the team won’t pick until the middle of the second round. The Steelers could select an edge rusher to replace Dupree like Alabama’s Terrell Lewis or Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos.