2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 6,453 yards (4th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 51 (5th)
Offensive Plays: 1,058 (5th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 713 (1st)
Rush Attempts: 345 (31st)
Unaccounted for Targets: 226 (5th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 30 (25th)
League-wide, we saw an unusual amount of coaching turnover this offseason. This trend didn’t make its way to Pittsburgh, however, as the Steelers stood pat with Mike Tomlin atop their chain of command. Tomlin’s resume speaks for itself—the former Bucs assistant ranks third among active coaches in wins (125), trailing only Andy Reid and Bill Belichick. He’s reached two Super Bowls while manning the controls in Pittsburgh, notching his lone victory in a hard-fought win over the Kurt Warner-led Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII (Santonio Holmes pushed them over the top with his iconic touchdown in the game’s closing seconds). That triumph made him the youngest head coach to hoist a Lombardi trophy, a title he stole from Jon Gruden, who Tomlin served under for five years in Tampa Bay.
Tomlin’s 12-year tenure in the Steel City has largely been a success, though the 47-year-old came under well-deserved fire in 2018 for losing control of Pittsburgh’s toxic locker room (Antonio Brown did his best to hijack team morale while Le’Veon Bell’s contract holdout was a dark cloud hanging over the Steelers’ season). That’s not hyperbole either—why else would Wikipedia include an “Off the field drama” subheading under its 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers entry? Luckily most of last year’s distractions have left the building—the Jets cut Le’Veon a check for $52 million while the Steelers shipped AB cross-country to the Raiders, presumably so he and Gruden could make each other miserable for HBO subscribers on Hard Knocks this summer. Tomlin—a former college receiver who gravitated toward defense once he joined the coaching ranks—will aim to silence his detractors after last year’s disappointment, which marked Pittsburgh’s first postseason absence since 2013. He’ll be joined on the sidelines by second-year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, a favorite of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who never saw eye-to-eye with former OC Todd Haley), and defensive coordinator Keith Butler, a long-time Steelers staffer who got his start under Bill Cowher in the early 2000s.
Talent and a strong supporting cast are helpful accoutrements, but volume is what really moves the needle in fantasy. Which serves as a good jumping-off point for a discussion of Ben Roethlisberger, who threw an exhausting 675 passes last year, the most in football by an overwhelming margin (Luck was a distant second at 639). Built like a tank at 6’5”/240, Big Ben is one of the few signal-callers in football equipped to handle such a daunting workload. Appearing in all 16 games for just the fourth time in his career, the 15-year vet seized the opportunity by setting career marks in both touchdowns (34) and passing yards (5,129). The latter stands as the seventh-highest single-season total in league history. 2018 may very well have been the future Hall-of-Famer’s best year statistically, though don’t give Roethlisberger too much credit. The 37-year-old was propped up by superb play from both Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who functioned as arguably the NFL’s top receiving duo (apologies to Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs), and was also well-protected behind a stout offensive line featuring Pro Bowlers David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva. Together that trio kept Roethlisberger in bubble wrap, combining to allow just seven sacks.
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Robust as his raw passing numbers were, Roethlisberger still showed many of the same shortcomings that have plagued him throughout his career. Ever the gunslinger, the former 11th overall pick forced the issue with a league-high 16 interceptions, continuing to show shoddy judgment with overly ambitious tight-window throws. Ben’s unrehearsed, backyard leanings often make for entertaining football, but as last year proved, sometimes that recklessness can get him into trouble.
AB’s departure from the Steelers was an ugly one with plenty of bad blood spilled, but it did present a silver lining for fantasy owners heavily invested in JuJu Smith-Schuster. After showing promise by leading all rookies in receiving yards during his debut 2017, the former USC Trojan graduated from sidekick to Brown’s equal in record time, holding a slight edge in both yards (1,426 to Antonio’s 1,297) and catches (111-104), though AB won the touchdown battle handily, outpacing JuJu by a decisive 15-7 margin. As his counting stats would indicate, the 22-year-old was, in many respects, the superior of Pittsburgh’s ace wideouts, a sentiment shared by the Steelers, who controversially named Smith-Schuster their team MVP (this snub was not lost on Brown, who dedicated a chunk of his offseason to ripping the sophomore sensation on social media).
The power struggle in Pittsburgh was ultimately won by JuJu with Brown and his sour grapes exiled to Oakland. While many have been quick to anoint Smith-Schuster as an upper-echelon WR1 in the wake of Brown’s unceremonious departure, it’s important to point out that the 2017 second-rounder was already the recipient of massive volume, drawing 166 targets (fourth-most behind Julio Jones, Davante Adams and AB) over his 16 appearances last year. Conventional wisdom suggests Smith-Schuster will be in for a much bigger workload sans Brown, but considering how much volume he was already getting, I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation. JuJu may also have to work harder for his targets this year as opponents will likely game-plan to stop him the way they did Brown, tasking their best cover corner to chase him up and down the gridiron. A way to potentially avoid these difficult matchups would be to line JuJu up in the slot, a tactic Pittsburgh employed a fair amount last season (56.6 percent slot usage). But maybe it’s better not to overthink this. It’s an admittedly small sample size, but Smith-Schuster has thrived in a lead role, compiling a 20-255-3 receiving line in three career games without Brown. Predictably, he’s averaged more yards per game (85.0 versus 77.3) and has also been more efficient (74.1 percent catch rate compared to 68.0) in Brown’s absence. We can spend all day crunching numbers, but why bother when we already know the end result—whatever metric you want to assign weight to, JuJu is coming out a winner.
With endless variables and advanced analytics to consider, you can talk yourself out of almost any player these days, but even in a landscape littered with naysayers, the case for Smith-Schuster is rock solid. Unfortunately, the rest of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps doesn’t offer much in the way of certainty. It’s a mostly anonymous group consisting of token veterans (Donte Moncrief and Eli Rogers) and a slew of up-and-comers led by 2018 second-rounder James Washington. His rookie-year contributions were minimal (16-217-1 receiving line on 38 targets), which was probably to be expected playing third fiddle (if that) to target hogs Brown and Smith-Schuster, but Washington still showed flashes of what made him a unanimous All-American at Oklahoma State, eclipsing 60 yards in two of his final three outings. Given his improved standing in a remodeled Steelers receiving corps, there’s potential for a sophomore leap, an opportunity the 23-year-old prepared for by dropping 15 pounds (his offseason regiment included farm work and sprinting, presumably with Cousin Mose).
Outside of JuJu, Donte Moncrief is the most well-known of Pittsburgh’s receiving ensemble and arguably the most intriguing of the bunch. By now, most fantasy owners are already well-versed in Moncrief’s unique brand of inconsistency. Persistent injuries have also been a thorn in his side, but the glass half-full contingent would counter by noting that the 25-year-old is a big-bodied red-zone presence (21 career touchdowns) playing in a much better offense than the one he just came from in Jacksonville. The five-year vet is also more experienced than most of the receivers he’s competing with. Those factors should give late-round flyer seekers at least a tinge of optimism heading into drafts this summer. Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer will scrounge for slot snaps while third-round perimeter threat Diontae Johnson will likely cut his teeth on special teams as a rookie.
If you’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle at tight end, Vance McDonald could be your path to fantasy salvation. McDonald quietly finished third on the team in targets (72) last year while tag-teaming tight-end responsibilities with Jesse James, who removed himself from the equation by defecting to Detroit in free agency. With Pittsburgh likely to favor a committee approach at receiver behind JuJu, McDonald should have a stable role as a middle-of-the-field safety valve for Roethlisberger.
Melvin Gordon, who has been at odds with the Chargers over his expiring contract, made headlines recently by claiming, “You can’t just replace a great back.” Is that so? Gordon must not have watched many Steelers games last year. Pittsburgh didn’t miss a beat after being left at the altar by disgruntled workhorse Le’Veon Bell, seamlessly transitioning to second-year bruiser James Conner. After essentially red-shirting as a rookie (he logged a mere 68 offensive snaps), Conner proved more than capable in Bell’s stead, achieving Pro Bowl status on the strength of 1,470 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. A sprained ankle slowed him over the final month—he endured a three-game absence before returning for the season finale in Week 17—but the second-year ball-carrier still showed impressive versatility, bullying his way to 973 rushing yards (4.5 yards per attempt) while also making the most of his receiving chances (55-497-1 on 71 targets).
Conner did a lot right during his sophomore breakout, though fatigue may have been a factor down the stretch as the 6’1”, 233-pound steamroller averaged 78 yards from scrimmage with just two touchdowns over his final four appearances, a noticeable drop-off from his earlier production (128.7 yards per game with 11 touchdowns in his first nine outings). His yards per carry also went south, falling from 4.7 to a considerably more modest 3.96 over his last four contests. That could be something to monitor as Conner embarks on his second season atop Pittsburgh’s running-back depth chart. Some have speculated that Jaylen Samuels and even rookie Benny Snell could siphon off carries from Conner, but that would represent a major departure from the Steelers’ usual MO. While others have embraced committees, Pittsburgh backfields have largely been monogamous under Tomlin.
A tight-end turned H back who blew the roof off with 47 touchdowns over his four years at NC State, Samuels became a coveted waiver add when Conner went down last season, exploding for 328 yards (223 rushing, 105 receiving) on 54 touches during a three-game starting stint. Samuels’ receiving acumen could make him a slight threat to Conner’s passing-down usage, though both have solid mitts. Snell set a school record for rushing yards at Kentucky but accomplished little as a receiver and tanked at the Combine, earning a ninth-percentile SPARQ score while clocking an embarrassing 4.66 in the forty. Clearly the Steelers saw enough to tap him as a fourth-round pick in April’s draft, but even the most giving fantasy owners shouldn’t be compelled to roster Snell this summer.
Pittsburgh’s line did a phenomenal job keeping Roethlisberger upright last season but wasn’t nearly as successful in opening up lanes for Conner in the ground game. The Steelers bring back their same starting five from last year, so at least they’ll have continuity working in their favor.
Most sportsbooks I’ve encountered have the Steelers penciled in for nine wins, while a handful are going slightly more ambitious at 9.5. Usually the Steelers are a shoe-in for double-digit victories (they’ve yet to have a losing season under Tomlin) and while there’s still enough talent on the roster to make that a reality, I think getting to 10 wins could be an uphill climb for this year’s squad. Losing Brown, an admitted locker-room headache but also a clear-cut Hall of Famer who led the league in receiving touchdowns a year ago, will undoubtedly put a dent in Pittsburgh’s passing production. The Steelers also have a bear of a schedule with stare-downs against the high-powered Patriots (the Steel Curtain hasn’t won at Foxboro in over a decade), Seahawks, Chargers, Colts and Rams as well as division rivals Baltimore and Cleveland. Factor in the loss of Mike Munchak, one of the premier offensive line coaches in football, and I’m tempted to take the under here.