State of the Steelers

Timothy Liekhus - April 25, 2019

Over the past year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lead the headlines in the NFL with some intriguing, questionable and inspiring news. It’s almost like watching a reality TV show: “Now back to, ‘Keeping Up with the Steeler Nation’”. The ebbs and flows each week, sometimes day-to-day, are a bit nauseating. To recap:

  • Le’veon Bell sits out all of the 2018 season (despite most analyst predictions), forfeiting $14+ million dollars to show that he was being underpaid. Understandably not wanting to be franchised tagged for the 3rd straight season.
  • Then stepping into Bell’s shoes comes James Conner. An uplifting story of a sophomore year RB who fought and beat cancer in college to become an All-Pro RB within 3 years of his diagnosis.
  • Steelers 2017 All-Pro kicker, Chris Boswell, kicks 65% accuracy of his field goals attempted, makes less than 90% of extra points, and slips while attempting a field goal to lock a victory over the Oakland Raiders.
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster emerges as a shiny new weapon for Big Ben and becomes a Fantasy darling, racking up over 1,400 yards. Antonio Brown misses team events leading into Week 17 and is benched, then eventually demands a trade (while bleaching his mustache, and going on a twitter rant no one can decipher). AB is traded to the Raiders, opening the door for JuJu to claim WR1 in Pittsburgh.
  • All culminating in the Steelers missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

2019: The Saga Continues

The Steelers will be without both Le’veon Bell and Antonio Brown, arguably the best RB/WR combo in the NFL (when they’re both playing of course). Trying to find the silver-lining, this loss is a hard pill to swallow. But that’s not the biggest loss, and quite frankly no one is talking about this. The Steelers let their offensive line coach, Mike Munchak, go to Denver. Mike Munchak was hired as the Steelers offensive line coach back in 2014, and had turned the offensive line into a powerhouse in the NFL. The offensive line rankings for the Steelers over the past decade, as depicted in the graph below with data provided by ProFootballFocus.com, coincides with their return to a dominant offense since their last Super Bowl win in 2009. Under Munchak's guidance, the offensive line has finished in the top half of the league in four years straight--finishing #1 in 2018--and they let the coach walk? The offensive line has been one of the main reasons the trio of Leveon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger has put up huge numbers the past 4 seasons. And one of the ways to be successful on the field is to run the ball in order to control the clock, which all starts with a solid offensive line. Munchak's contribution to the team has been huge in turning this offensive line around, which in turn paid dividends for the rest of the offense. His guidance will surely be missed.

2009-24th, ‘10-32nd, ‘11-25th, ‘12-25th, ‘13-25th, ‘14-15th, ‘15-10th, 16-3rd, ‘17-12th, ‘18-1st

And Now, Defense

Per Pro-Football-Reference, the Steelers have been a top 16 NFL defense for the past five seasons, with 2018 being the worst ranking at 16th. The Steeler's takeaways (turnover ratio) in 2018 ranked 30th in the league with a dismal 15 total takeaways (8 INT’s and 7 fumbles). Coupled with the lack of takeaways, the defense also gave up big plays each game, especially in situations where they needed it the most. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Steelers defense in 2018 as their interior defensive line did their part by leading the NFL (tied with KC) with the most sacks: 52. The guys that play in the box, the defensive line and interior linebackers are doing their job, it’s the secondary (especially the cornerbacks) that need help to make plays, get more turnovers, and not give up the big play.

Artie Burns and Joe Haden on the outside corners need to be upgraded. Burns has played like a JAG (just another guy) and Haden is past his prime as he just turned 30. The Steelers defense has holes and opposing coaches exploited these weaknesses and ultimately lost games. For example, in Week 16 last season, Pittsburgh was up 28-24 over New Orleans, with 1:41 left on the clock in the 4th quarter and the Saints have it at Pittsburgh’s 32 with 3rd and 20 to go. Next play, Ted Ginn Jr. catches a 25 yard pass with Morgan Burnett 2 yards off his coverage. Steelers lose 31-28. A similar example happened in Week 13 when the Steelers ended up losing losing to San Diego after leading 23-7 at halftime. Those are just a few examples of games in which the Steelers were ahead and just had to stop the opposing team...but they couldn't. So it’s time to start upgrading, NOW.

What the Steelers Need

The Draft is here and the Steelers must take full advantage of a draft class that is ripe for the picking, offering many positions the Steelers need to improve upon. To improve their defensive unit, they’re going to need to draft one elite CB in the first round (such as Byron Murphy or Greedy Williams) and a top LB or Edge prospect in the 2nd round like D'Andre Walker from Georgia.

Although another pass catcher is needed due to Antonio Brown moving on, they need to draft defensive talents first and focus on WR depth in the mid-rounds. There’s plenty of talent in the 2019 WR class, at least in terms of finding a compliment to JuJu, with gems like Deebo Samuel, Andy Isabella, and Miles Boykin expected to go in the 2-4 rounds. Those players would fit into the Steelers scheme nicely as the X or slot receiver. Not to forget the other three Steeler receivers, 2nd year James Washington, Eli Rogers and Swiss Army knife Ryan Switzer.

As for their running game, the Steelers might try to shoot for the stars in the later rounds and pick up a RB with sleeper potential or even an Undrafted Free Agent. My favorite choice would be super sleeper Wes Hills from Slippery Rock (Check the tweet clip from @2on1FFBpodcast below). Conner and Jaylen Samuels could be a viable 1-2 punch if used appropriately, but they’ll need a serviceable back up. As mentioned earlier, their O-Line is one of the best in the league, now we’ll have to see if the coaching change makes a difference as the Steelers should have all five starting offensive linemen returning for the 2019 season (hopefully).

Your Fantasy Steelers

I’m currently down on almost all Steelers as fantasy viable options, except for maybe JuJu. All skill positions for Pittsburgh have a big question mark next to their name. JuJu is going to be drafted 1st of the Steelers skill positions players (in Redraft and Dynasty startup leagues), but I’d consider drafting him no sooner than the mid 2nd round. My concern is that he had the luxury of playing across Antonio Brown in ‘17-’18 and had less pressure, but now that’s not going to be the case. He’s going to be double teamed by defenses, so let’s see if he can prove his elite status. James Conner’s health and durability are concerning, as well as how the O-Line is going to perform. He’s not the fastest or most elusive RB but if the O-Line continues the dominance they established with their 2018 season in to 2019, he can be a RB1 again. Although, I’d prefer drafting him in late 2nd to early 3rd round, early fantasy mock drafts are showing him going sooner than that.

As for Big Ben, he’s on the decline and I’d prefer only drafting him in a two QB league, or waiting to pick him up off the Waiver Wire as I’d like to see what he’s got in 2019 before rostering him. If I had to take a flyer, I’d take one of three options: Vance McDonald, Jaylen Samuels, or Ryan Switzer. Vance McDonald (TE) could be a great alternate for the loss of Antonio Brown. He had his best season in 2018 with 610 yards receiving, 50 receptions and 4 touchdowns. Now this might not seem flashy, but he finished 12th among all TE’s. There’s great room for growth if the offense incorporates more TE friendly schemes. They say TE is the slowest progressive position in the NFL and yes he’s 28 years young but I believe he has two to three years of optimal fantasy performance left, barring injuries, as his durability is questionable. He has a ton of upside for 2019 and is currently ranked as my TE8 in PPR and TE Premium leagues.

Second flyer would be 2nd year RB Jaylen Samuels, especially in PPR leagues. I think he might be a late round flyer but can be very productive if used appropriately (think of a lesser James White). Lastly, here’s my Hot Take for the Steelers. I believe that Ryan Switzer will have a breakout fantasy season in 2019. I’m predicting he’s a top 30 WR in PPR leagues. This prediction is contingent on the Steeler's draft and their offseason moves. But if they completely avoid picking up additional talent in the WR department, Switzer will surprise. I think he can be a high volume slot WR, but will lack in the TD column. He’s quick, has great hands and is a utility player.

Finally, the Steelers need to put an end to the drama. They need to focus on locker room cohesion to be successful. I believe that 2019 will be an uphill battle for the Steelers. My prediction is that they finish top of their division, but barely. They will make the playoffs and lose in the first or second round. I don’t think they’re a Super Bowl contender this upcoming season, but hopefully their defense surprises everyone and can carry this team on their back. That’s the only way I see this team succeeding.

Be sure to reach out and follow me on Twitter @liekhus83