The Steelers have never had a losing season under Mike Tomlin, who succeeded Bill Cowher after the 2006 season, but their 9-6-1 mark in 2018 was in every way a disappointment. The team started 7-2-1 before going 2-4 down the stretch -- including losses to the Broncos and Raiders. And while it's easy to just blame the defense and move on, it was more than that over the final month and a half; costly turnovers vs. Denver in Week 12 and the sudden struggles of Chris Boswell vs. Oakland in Week 14 all but sealed Pittsburgh's fate.
Everything came to a head in the days leading up to the Week 17 finale against the Bengals. The Steelers were still in the playoff hunt and their best player, Antonio Brown, went missing. It all started with a midweek practice blowup with a teammate. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, who identified that teammate as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, reported at the time that Brown asked to be traded in part because of issues with Tomlin and Roethlisberger.
Three days after the Steelers beat the Bengals in what proved to be a meaningless game (Pittsburgh missed the playoffs), Tomlin spoke to reporters about the situation with Brown.
"I'm gonna address him and the circumstances but to be quite honest with you, we're going to information gather and deal with it like we do in all circumstances ... we're gonna deal with it appropriately and in-house," the coach said.
Tomlin believed Brown was battling injuries, though he didn't speculate on whether he could trust the receiver. The coach didn't hesitate when asked if one player, even one of the best in the league, can become more trouble than he's worth. "Certainly," Tomlin said. By March, the Steelers had traded Brown to the Raiders for just a third and fifth-round pick. This development came on the heels of officially losing running back Le'Veon Bell, who signed with the Jets. Put another way: Two of the best players in the league, who were key cogs in one of the most explosive offenses in the league, were now gone for good.
The Steelers managed just fine without Bell last season; James Conner ranked 16th in total value among all backs, according to Football Outsiders, and the expectation is that he'll only improve as he enters his third season. But questions about replacing Brown's productivity remain; yes, JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the best young wideouts in the NFL but he also succeeded because he was playing alongside Brown. Can he be a true No. 1? Part of any success he has will be determined by the players surrounding him.
And this brings us to three things the Steelers can do in the coming weeks to improve their chances at their first Lombardi Trophy since the 2008 season.
1. Add a tight end
The Steelers selected Michigan tight end Zach Gentry in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft but this was a curious choice because he's not an accomplished receiver and he struggles as a blocker. Put another way: He's not a like-for-like replacement for Jesse James, who signed with the Lions in the offseason. He's also not a Plan B for spelling Vance McDonald, who is a monster in the pass game. Instead, he's a developmental project who will need a couple seasons to grow into his role.
And while Xavier Grimble has shown glimpses of being a competent receiver, he's also entering his fourth NFL season and has never caught more than 11 passes (and that came during his rookie campaign in '16). If the Steelers are going to make up for the loss of Brown's production, they'll need to seriously consider adding an offensive-minded tight end. The problem, of course, is that the start of free agency is two months in the rear view, the team settled on a project in a deep draft class, and there isn't a lot left to sift through.
One possibility: Lance Kendricks, the Rams 2011 second-round pick who has never quite lived up to expectations. That said, he had one of his most productive seasons -- at least on a play-by-play basis -- with the Packers in 2018. Yes, he only had 19 receptions for 170 yards and a score, but he was 25th among all tight ends in value per play, just behind Eric Ebron and Zach Ertz. At 31, Kendricks is clearly neither Ebron nor Ertz but he could be a complementary piece in the right system. And it's hard to imagine any system better for Kendricks than Pittsburgh's.
2. Add a pass rusher
The Steelers addressed their biggest need in the draft and they had to trade up from 20th to 10th to get inside linebacker Devin Bush. But he could be a transformative presence on a unit that has struggled in recent years. Unfortunately, Bush isn't a pure pass rusher and while Pittsburgh has former first-rounders T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree playing on the edge there is no established depth behind them -- unless you consider Anthony Chickillo and Ola Adeniyi "established." Chickillo has 7.5 career sacks in four seasons and Adeniyi has a lone tackle.
Pittsburgh could have chosen not to trade up in the draft and hoped one of the elite pass rushers fell to them; the Redskins landed Montez Sweat at No. 26 and the Seahawks took L.J. Collier at No. 29. (Sweat has a heart condition that caused him to fall out of the top 25 and Collier isn't a true edge rusher.)
Ben Banogu went off the board in Round 2 but he's raw, and in Round 3, Chase Winovich, Jachai Polite, Oshane Ximines and Jaylon Ferguson were taken. All have upsides but none are considered elite, plug-and-play talents. Which helps explain why the Steelers were laser-focused on Bush and waited to take some Day 3 fliers on Northern Illinois' Sutton Smith (29 sacks the last two seasons) and Akron's Ulysees Gilbert (17 sacks the last two season). But neither is expected to contribute right away, primarily because both are from small schools and -- more importantly -- are decidedly undersized; Smith is 6-foot-1, 237 and Gilbert is the same height but seven pounds lighter. Put another way: Both are some 20 pounds too light to man the edge in the NFL.
This is why the Steelers may need to sift through the free-agency-remnants bin and hope they can find a situational pass rusher who can take some of the burden off Watt and Dupree.
Shane Ray may have the most upside mostly because he's just 25 years old. But had played in just 11 games last season and had a lone sack, which matched his total from 2017 when he appeared in eight games. But he's productive when he's healthy; Ray had eight sacks in 16 games during the '16 season but that's the rub: can he stay healthy?
Derrick Morgan, who is five years older than Ray, is also an option. He's been able to stay on the field but the results weren't there last season for the Titans where he managed a half-sack in 13 games. That said, his recent track record is much better than Ray's; Morgan had 7.5 sacks in '17 and 9.0 sacks in '16. With Ziggy Ansah recently signed, Morgan might be the Steelers' best option.
3. Add a safety
Pittsburgh surprised a lot of people by drafting Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 draft. He went on to have a solid rookie season, and while the Steelers are expecting a big leap in Year 2, there's the question of depth at the position. Sean Davis, the team's 2016 second-round pick, moved from strong safety to free safety last season and he was very good, even if the turnovers weren't there. But Davis is also entering the final year of his rookie deal and should he and the Steelers fail to come to terms, they'll need a contingency plan, which they'll also need if Davis is injured because the depth chart behind him includes second-year player Marcus Allen and converted cornerback Brian Allen, who has been mostly a special-teams contributor during his two NFL seasons. Eric Berry is 30 years old and has battled injuries, but he could be a short-term solution. It's unclear what type of money Berry will be looking for but the fact that the Ravens gave Earl Thomas a four-year, $55 million contract (with $32 million guaranteed) this spring could be informative. A cheaper, younger option: Tre Boston, who isn't nearly as dynamic as Berry can be, has also been healthy in recent seasons -- and you can't beat the price; he played on a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Cardinals in 2018. Boston ranked 24th among all safeties last season, according to Pro Football Focus, when he had three interceptions. The year before with the Chargers, he had five. The Steelers have lamented the lack of turnovers by its secondary and Boston would not only address that issue but do so at little cost.
It's not unusual this time of year for the Steelers to be underdogs in the AFC North; in the recent past both the Bengals and Ravens have been the favorites. What is strange, however, is that this time around the Browns have the best chance of any team in the division to play in the Super Bowl. According to Vegas, Cleveland is 16-1 to win it all while Pittsburgh is 20-1 followed by Baltimore (40-1) and Cincinnati (100-1).
The Steelers' odds would certainly improve by addressing the needs above.