NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For all intents and purposes, the preseason ended for the Steelers last night at Nissan Stadium. The accounts of that game will show the Steelers defeated the Tennessee Titans, 18-6, to run their preseason record to 3-0, and even though it might be possible for a player or two to snag a roster spot or two on Thursday night in Charlotte, what you saw last night was a dress rehearsal for their 2019 regular season. For the Steelers, it's a season that’s being cast as a kind of referendum.
Tranquility vs. turmoil. Team vs. talent.
If it only were that simple.
This overly simplistic, some might even call it lazy, approach to the 2019 Steelers can be traced to the issues/distractions the team no longer will have as a result of the running back who now plays for the New York Jets and the wide receiver who may or may not be playing for the Oakland Raiders, pending the outcome of his most recent helmetgate grievance. Not to be sarcastic.
It’s overly simplistic and somewhat lazy to assign complete culpability for the Steelers playoffless 9-6-1 finish in 2018 to some combination of Le’Veon Bell’s absence and Antonio Brown’s petulance, but doing so is a lot easier for the talking heads living a couple of time zones away than it would be to delve into the pertinent on-field issues that actually derailed their season.
In no particular order, those issues included the complete unreliability of a placekicker who had been money in every clutch situation presented to him just one year earlier; a defense that was historically inept at creating takeaways; the offseason failure to replace the production and flexibility Ryan Shazier had contributed to said defense; and too many turnovers, which when combined with the pathetic total of takeaways created the kind of turnover ratio sub-.500 teams typically author.
There were other issues, other things that contributed to a defeat here or there or prevented a victory here or there, but those weren’t the recurring things that dogged the Steelers throughout 2018. And since it’s the recurring things that are most likely to derail a team’s season, what have the Steelers done in those areas in advance of the 2019 regular season to put themselves back on track? And how are those moves looking with a date against the defending champion Patriots looming in a couple of weeks?
With regards to Chris Boswell, it might seem as though the Steelers have done nothing, because they didn’t shop for a replacement during free agency, they didn’t draft a kicker, and they didn’t elect to bring in a veteran to compete for the job during training camp. But that shouldn’t be confused with doing nothing.
How the Steelers handled their placekicking situation could be viewed as a prudent approach, because from the time he was signed midway through the 2015 season through the end of the 2017 season, Boswell converted 89.5 percent of all field goal attempts and 87.7 percent of his attempts between 30-49 yards. And during that same span, Boswell was 15-for-15 on field goals in the playoffs.
Throwing him on the trash pile because of a bad season would’ve been the wrong thing to do, and so the Steelers stuck with him. Generally. They did convince him to postpone payment of a $2 million roster bonus until the end of the preseason, which in effect had Boswell kicking for his job and a nice chunk of change starting July 25 at Saint Vincent College. There certainly were some other things involved in this reclamation project, both physical and mental, but as of today it seems as though their plan is working.
Through three games of the preseason, Boswell hasn’t missed a field goal or a PAT, he has had nice distance on his kickoffs, and the sound the ball makes on contact indicates he’s hitting it well.
The 2018 Steelers defense was competent in most statistical categories: sixth in total yards allowed; sixth in passing yards; sixth in rushing yards; ninth in third-down conversions; third in sacks per pass attempt and tied-for-first in total sacks; 17th in red zone efficiency; and tied-for-16th in points allowed. But then competency descended into liability when takeaways weren’t factored into the equation.
The Steelers’ eight interceptions in 2018 tied the franchise low that had been set in 1940, during an 11-game season that included only 192 pass attempts by their opponents. Eight interceptions tied them for 28th in the NFL last season, and their 15 takeaways had them tied-for-29th.
They initially targeted the area during the offseason by signing unrestricted free agent cornerback Steven Nelson, and they put their money where their mouth was by trading up 10 spots in the first round to pick Devin Bush. They have talked about it constantly and emphasized it during classroom work and on-field drills consistently. Assistant coach Teryl Austin even mandated that all defensive backs work on the JUGs machine before or after every practice.
But through three games of the preseason, the Steelers had no interceptions. None. Three Tampa Bay quarterbacks, four Kansas City quarterbacks, and three Titans quarterbacks. Still none. It’s nice to talk about it in meetings and emphasize it on the field during practices and coach it every day, but at some point it has to start happening in games.
The move to get up high enough in the first round to add Bush was done in an attempt to replace the speed and playmaking ability in the middle of the field that was lost when Ryan Shazier injured his spine. So far, the player is fulfilling the promise the team has for him, but it’s still unknown whether his addition will have a tit-for-tat impact on the takeaway total. After Bush’s first preseason game, in which he recorded 10 tackles in the first half and then became a spectator, Coach Mike Tomlin offered the unsolicited opinion that the rookie’s first half was reminiscent of Shazier’s performance in the preseason home opener of his rookie year.
By all indications, Bush is the real deal, and he apparently has all of the skills and intangibles required for the role the Steelers envision for him. In fairness to him, however, Bush shouldn’t be expected to be the kind of impact player early in his rookie season that Shazier had become as a fourth-year pro. As a rookie Shazier finished with no sacks, no interceptions, no fumbles forced or recovered, and just one pass defensed in what turned out to be an injury-shortened season. Bush will make the Steelers defense better instantly, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean he’ll be capable of replacing Shazier’s production starting with the first series of the regular season opener.
The final issue of 2018 was too many turnovers, which brings the subject around to the most critical player on this roster. Because he is the quarterback, every play begins with the football in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands, which makes him the most influential player with respect to how many times the Steelers turn the ball over. And maybe the best news of this summer as well as the primary reason for optimism concerning this season is that Roethlisberger looks to be completely comfortable and at peace with everything associated with his job. Roethlisberger looks good, his arm is as strong and accurate as ever, he has the security of a three-year contract and the respect that comes with being the team’s unquestioned leader.
It was Darryl Drake’s idea for Roethlisberger to come into the wide receivers’ meeting room, take the clicker, and serve as a de facto coach during video review of games or practices, and interim coach Ray Sherman has seen enough value in it to continue the practice. It’s just another step away from the confrontational kind of relationship that existed in 2018 into a more understanding and collaborative one in 2019.
For his part, Roethlisberger is embracing the responsibility as well as the opportunity to be the driving force in helping this group develop and thrive even as it attempts to make up for the consistent production of a now-departed perennial All-Pro.
“I’m really excited about what we have,” Roethlisberger recently told Chris Simms of NBC.com. “There’s some catches that went to Oakland that are going to have to get dispersed among a lot of guys. Not one guy and that’s going to be the thing. It’s not one guy who needs to pick up the slack. It needs to be everybody, and that includes me. Making sure every guy gets the ball and make sure I don’t try to do too much.”
In his only preseason appearance, Roethlisberger completed 8-of-13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster. By his own lofty standards, it was an OK performance, but more important than what he did in less than one quarter of a preseason game is the awareness he has of what has to get done over the course of this season and what his role will have to be for it to happen.
The 2019 Steelers still are going to need a dependable placekicker, more takeaways, and a major contribution from their No. 1 draft pick to go along with having their core group of talented character guys assert themselves in both the on-field and off-the-field critical moments that make up every NFL season. Add a future Hall of Fame quarterback still at the height of his powers, and these Steelers have a chance.
A chance to win every time they take the field, and a chance to be taking the field until the first Sunday in February.