I didn’t choose the term “broken” lightly.
To be sure, the 8-8 Steelers suffered their share of injuries during the 2019 season; none more consequential than the Week 1 loss of starting QB Ben Roethlisberger for the season, courtesy of a torn elbow on his throwing arm. Ben’s normally prodigious elbow single-handedly deprived the Steelers of any real hope for the playoffs, although it should be noted they were in the playoff “discussion” until the final week of the season – a marked testament to the merits of oft-criticized head coach Mike Tomlin, whose 2019 coaching job may have been his best in a reasonably long career. Without a consistent presence at QB, the Steelers were forced to turn to their defense to win games, which proved to be a reasonably effective strategy overall. But really, what choice did they have?
As their fans are undoubtedly aware, the Steelers generally don’t dabble in free agency during the regular season (if at all), and this certainly held true after Roethlisberger’s injury with the team’s decision to stick with second-year backup QB (and initially a possible Roethlisberger successor) Mason Rudolph and rookie QB Devlin “Duck” Hodges. To be fair to both, the team’s position players – a strength as little as two seasons ago – didn’t provide much help to either backup. The offense’s anemic rushing attack did little to scare anyone (top rusher James Conner managed 464 yards and 4 TDs in an injury-mangled season), leaving defenses to consistently apply pocket pressure to the team’s inexperienced quarterbacks. Both quarterbacks struggled to find any consistency on their best days, although it’s fair to consider the drawbacks of the ultra-conservative game plans they attempted to execute – downfield passing is only really possible when teams call plays that run…downfield.
With both backup QBs seeing time yet not establishing much, the team opted to invest (some say too heavily) in their defense with their initially-puzzling trade for S Minkah Fitzpatrick from the openly-tanking Miami Dolphins. The trade obviously holds implications for team success in 2020 and beyond; sacrificing a first-round pick for a franchise that prizes them above all else couldn’t have been easy, but there’s no questioning the immediate returns – Fitzpatrick went on to have a Pro Bowl season while solidifying a problematic (in recent years) secondary. The defense in general seemed to play more effectively after Fitzpatrick’s arrival; the Steelers went on an 8-2 tear before dropping their last three games in the midst of another quarterback shuffle between Rudolph and Hodges.
The rest of the defense fared reasonably well. Previously-disappointing LB Alvin “Bud” Dupree finally delivered on his first-round promise with 68 tackles and 11.5 sacks; figures that may well put him beyond Pittsburgh’s price range as he enters free agency (he remains a strong candidate for the franchise tag). Fellow LB T.J. Watt continued to emerge as one of the game’s best all-around edge performers, while DT Cam Heyward posted another unheralded yet consistent campaign with 83 tackles and 9 sacks, including 11 tackles for loss. Rookie ILB Devin Bush ably backed up his lofty draft status with consistent playmaking across the middle, giving the team much-needed reliability at a notorious trouble spot.
Ultimately, the playoffs would’ve been superfluous for this team – they simply weren’t able to generate enough offense in any capacity to compete with the rest of the playoff field – so it’s left the team with a little more time to consider their needs going forward. It’s hard to imagine they won’t inquire about upgrading the existing slate of QBs; after all, “Big” Ben isn’t getting younger or less injury-prone, and it’s reasonable to assume his career could end at any time. This clearly necessitates something beyond Rudolph and Hodges, both of whom are expected back (in camp, at least) in 2020. Other obvious needs include a consistent TE and RB (extreme needs, both), some offensive line depth and some additional help defensively in the slot. It’s possible a long-term threat will emerge from WRs James Washington and Diontae Johnson, as both showed real promise in 2019, but the Steelers will probably add some WR depth in the draft as they look for an off-side presence to counterbalance holdover JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Overall, it’s a tough group to predict in 2020. It’s hard to envision another offensive season as poor as 2019 was, even after losing Roethlisberger, but defensively, the Steelers couldn’t have asked for much more. The ever-present challenge of remaining consistent will obviously be laid upon the defense while the offense undergoes a bit of a rebuild, as it remains to be seen how effective a returning Roethlisberger will be. Adding to his challenge will be establishing new rhythms and timing with the rest of the offense, so he’ll have to get started as soon as possible. Barring injury, this team should improve on their 8-8 record and should challenge for a playoff spot, as their needs are pretty evident and should be able to be addressed accordingly.
Broken limbs eventually heal, you know.