Le’Veon Bell arrived one hour late to the opening of his first training camp with the Jets. Antonio Brown showed up to Raiders camp in a hot air balloon. Somewhere, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was glad that neither superstar is on his roster this season.
The loss of Bell and Brown certainly robs Pittsburgh of some high-end talent. When each player is healthy and properly motivated, they are among the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL. The downside for the Steelers is that each star posed a serious danger to the harmony of the team’s locker room as well.
The Steelers front office sent a clear message to Tomlin by jettisoning both men. They want a return to normalcy this year in the Steel City. The team will always make headlines, but the expectation in 2019 will be for writers to focus on the action on the field instead of the antics elsewhere.
The organization also elected to give Tomlin another one-year contract extension this offseason. That move does not mean Tomlin is going to patrol the Pittsburgh sidelines for the next decade, but it does give the steel-jawed head coach a little more power in the locker room. He will be expected to use that power to construct a more stable team this season.
As usual, all eyes will be on Ben Roethlisberger when the regular season begins. The veteran quarterback will definitely miss Antonio Brown’s presence on Sundays, but the hope is that Pittsburgh’s offense will experience addition by subtraction.
Fortunately, Juju Smith-Schuster is still on the roster. He actually led the team with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The big question is whether he can maintain his level of play without the presence of Brown on the other side of the field. Smith-Schuster will not see nearly as much single coverage this season without the presence of another Pro Bowl wide receiver on the field with him.
Specifically, Smith-Schuster needs to find the end zone more often. That is the biggest difference in what he and Brown provided the Steelers last year. Pittsburgh will struggle to replace the 15 touchdowns Brown gave them in the passing game. Smith-Schuster won’t be asked to replace all of those scores by himself, but he needs to hit double-digits to solidify his status as the team’s new No. 1 wide receiver.
The loss of Bell has generated lots of headlines this offseason, but the reality is that the Steelers already learned to play without him last season. James Conner isn’t the same dynamic force in the backfield that Bell gave the offense, but he’s an above-average NFL running back. Don’t be surprised if Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell find a way to steal playing time away from Conner as the season chugs along. The Steelers realize it’s in their best interest to keep Conner fresh for what they hope will be a lengthy postseason run.
Interestingly, the Steelers big addition on defense might be the franchise’s most underrated move of the offseason. The franchise’s decision to trade up in the first round of the draft to nab linebacker Devin Bush should pay big dividends for Tomlin and his staff. Bush will give their defense a speedy presence in the middle they’ve been missing since losing Ryan Shazier to injury. He won’t just be expected to make tackles this season. The hope is that Bush can become a playmaker capable of making big plays for the Steelers defense in his rookie season.
Elsewhere on defense, fans should keep a close eye on the battle between Steven Nelson and Artie Burns at cornerback. Burns endured a horrible 2018 season and needs to bounce back if he wants to secure a long-term future in Pittsburgh. Nelson got a nice free agency contract, but he wasn’t exactly a star in Kansas City last season. The ability of the Steelers to improve their pass coverage in 2019 will go a long way towards determining how good their defense can be.
At the moment, officials in Pittsburgh are more optimistic about this team’s immediate future than any oddsmakers. That means you can still wager on the Steelers to exceed nine wins this season. Betting the over means that you believe Tomlin will be successful in his quest to eliminate drama from his team’s locker room. Double-digit wins would do wonders for the head coach’s long-term future in the Steel City.