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TSJ’s 2018 NFL Team Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers Head Coach: Mike Tomlin

2017 Record: 13-3, 1st in AFC North (Lost in AFC Divisional Playoff vs. Jaguars)

2018 Projected Record: 11-5, 1st in AFC North

Most significant Offseason Task: Fixing Their Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2017 season was one of their strongest in years, going 13-3 in a tough AFC conference. The “three-headed monster” of Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and rookie Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster produced very well in 2018. They combined for the most scrimmage yards among any RB-WR trio in the NFL for the 2017 season, with 4,396 all-purpose yards. Their defense was looking solid up until Ryan Shazier suffered a season-ending spine injury against the Bengals in Week 13. That was the moment the world was exposed to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ true weakness, their defense.

Fixing Their Defense cont…

During games that Shazier started in the 2017 season, the Steelers gave up 17.8 PPG to opposing teams. Steelers are 5th best in that span for all 32 NFL teams. On the other hand, the Pittsburgh Steelers had allowed 28.0 PPG in games that Shazier did not start. (Tied for 31st.)

This goes to show that Shazier was the most integral piece to their defense, an irreplaceable asset. He severely affected the quality of that Pittsburgh defense, and there is no other way to put it. If your team allows Blake Bortles of all people to destroy your defense, they need some work. That would have never happened with a healthy Shazier present at the helm of the defense.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ main offseason goal should be to strengthen their defensive depth while finding a working linebacker core and revitalized secondary… Their acquisition of former Packers Safety Morgan Burnett, S Nat Berhe and  S Terrell Edmunds should certainly help this issue. However, it will be challenging to make up for Shazier’s playmaking abilities and dominance on-field.

Drama Entering 2018 Offseason

Whether it was the inter-season negotiations of Le’Veon Bell’s franchise tag, problems with James Harrison or Martavis Bryant, the Steelers 2017 season was full of drama on and off the field. Whatever it was, there was always a polarizing problem that led the team to be in headlines week in and week out. Although it did die down a bit, the 2018 offseason was no different.

The contract negotiation saga has extended into the 2018 offseason, and Bell has even decided to not show up to OTA or training camp because of his franchise tag. This might be Bell’s last season in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform if they cannot meet in the middle, and that would be a huge downgrade for the Steelers regarding the overall quality of their team.

Drama Entering Offseason Cont…

Many of the best running-back considers Le’Veon Bell in the NFL. Bell amassed almost 2,000 all-purpose yards in the 2017 NFL season on 321 rushing attempts and 85 receptions. If the Steelers want to keep their hopes alive of making it out of the AFC this year, they need to pay up to their star running-back.

Also, the drafting of Rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph made some immediate headlines for the wrong reason this offseason. Ben Roethlisberger made this statement regarding the Steelers’ third-round drafting of Rudolph, shortly after the completion of the 2018 NFL Draft.

“I don’t know how backing up or being a third-[stringer] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. But, you know, that’s not my decision to make.”

He’s right, but already making a rookie not feel welcome is not suitable for team chemistry, Ben. However, this pick was given to the Steelers by the Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant. Ben thought of it as acquiring a backup quarterback for a WR that is the central part of your receiving core.

However, the drama that surrounded Bryant and his issues with the Pittsburgh Steelers organization is gone now and is now the Raiders problem.

Offensive Keys

The central question concerning their offense for the upcoming 2018 season is how the Steelers will assist star WR Antonio Brown in the passing game. Antonio is a lock for the next four seasons, has signed a 4-year, $68 million contract last year. Therefore, there should be no worries surround his departure for the next couple of years to come. His main counterpart, JuJu Smith-Schuster, is expected to show out next year after producing an impressive 917-yard receiving rookie year campaign.

The loss of Martavis Bryant as a safety magnet will certainly close down some of those open lanes that Brown and Smith-Schuster had last year. Unless rookie WR James Washington and Vance Macdonald can find a way to replicate the disturbance that Martavis’ speed and explosiveness caused opposing secondaries, the two star WR’s will have a tough time putting up last year’s numbers.

Offensive Keys cont…

The Steelers must find a way to score in the RedZone more efficiently. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on only 53.03% of red zone trips, settling for 18th best in the NFL. This is surprising, considering they are the most high-powered offense in the league from a talent standpoint. Their offensive weapons make #18 extremely surprising. They must capitalize on their opportunities more in the RedZone if they want to replicate a regular season like last year.

Lastly, feed the ball to JuJu. Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating when passing to JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2017 was 137.0. Which is just absolutely outrageous, considering that this is the best passer rating among any QB-WR duo in the league. Yes, in the whole league.

Tight end Vance Macdonald will be looking to have a breakout season this year, after having a sub-par 2017 season and an outrageous AFC Divisional Playoff Game vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars. He caught a career-high ten passes for a career-high 112 yards and a TD in the AFC Divisional shoot-out. Hopefully, the increased production of MacDonald will open lanes up for Smith-Schuster, Brown, and Rookie WR James Washington.

Defensive Acquisitions

During this offseason, the Steelers have parted ways with veterans Mike Mitchell, William Gay, Robert Golden, and Arthur Moats. They have replaced them with younger free-agents like John Bostic, Morgan Burnett, and Nat Berhe. Among them include their rookie draft acquisitions like defenders Terrell Edmunds, Marcus Allen, and Joshua Frazier. This should provide a revitalized secondary, and the Steelers will look to infuse their young defensive talent into the 2018 gameplay.

Defensive Acquisitions cont…

The signing of John Bostic provides a small remedy to the Inside Linebacker hole that glared once Shazier was hurt. Bostic’s presence is only a small band-aid to a large wound in that Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker core. The Steelers drafted no linebackers, a position that they are in dire need of fulfilling. Depth needs to be added at every spot, even in a stout defensive line where Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt reign supreme.

Depth is a huge problem among this Pittsburgh Steeler defense.  We shall see how Tomlin implements his new Rookie and FA signings into the defense to fulfill their need for a revamped defensive coming into the 2018 NFL season.

Our TSJ Projection for the 2018-2019 Steelers

Projection 2018: 11-5, 1st in AFC North

Pittsburgh’s defense is the variable here. However, we will get a better feel for how things will go with them once the season begins. The Steelers’ high-octane offense will once again be a nightmare amongst opposing defenses. That is if no injuries or setbacks present themselves along the way. Although they might not be as well-rounded as last year’s regular-season team, the Pittsburgh Steelers still present a considerable threat among the AFC. They are projected to dominate the AFC North once again in the 2018 NFL season.

Key Offseason Acquisitions:

S Morgan Burnett (Signed)

LB Jon Bostic (Signed)

S Nat Berhe (Signed)

S Terrell Edmunds (Drafted)

WR James Washington (Drafted)

QB Mason Rudolph (Drafted)

LB Matthew Thomas (Signed FA)

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