This article is part of our Team Previews series.
After a 7–2–1 start, the Steelers lost four of their last six games, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The season was marred by distractions, from the season-long holdout of Le'Veon Bell to the benching of Antonio Brown in a must-win season finale. Both are now with new teams.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
Over the past few seasons Ben Roethlisberger has contemplated walking away from football more than once. Now, in the wake of inking a lucrative contract extension that included a $37.5 million signing bonus, the 37-yearold signal-caller is on track to stay with Pittsburgh through the 2021 season. Big Ben thus will look to bolster his already-impressive resume, which includes two Super Bowl titles, five Pro Bowl selections and the 2004 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Roethlisberger, the only quarterback in NFL history to record three games with at least 500 passing yards, continued to rack up numbers in 2018, leading the league with 5,129 yards through the air, while adding 34 TDs. On the flip side, he finished last season with a league-high 16 interceptions. With not a whole lot left to prove, why did the future Hall of Famer, who's taken more than his share of physical punishment over the years, delay his retirement? Perhaps he wants to set himself apart from Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, the other – and recently departed – members of the Killer B's. Minus the duo at his disposal, Roethlisberger will face the challenge of reaching previous heights with new co-stars, namely James Conner, in Bell's former backfield role, and JuJu Smith-Schuster as the team's top wideout weapon.
MOVING ON FROM BELL
With second-year back James Conner left to replace season-long holdout Le'Veon Bell, the 2018 Steelers recorded the lowest run-to-pass ratio (33.4 percent) of any team in five years. The team accrued 1,445 yards (on 345 attempts) on the ground in the process, which ranked next to last in the league. Though Conner didn't see the sort of volume Bell did during his fantasy-friendly run with the team, he did average a respectable 4.5 yards on his 215 carries over 13 games, and also hauled in 55 passes over that span. With Bell's lengthy contract saga finally a thing of the past, the Steelers move on with a backfield headed by Conner and buoyed by versatile backup Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell. Though Conner has the power to wear down opponents, the Steelers have no incentive to run him into the ground, which leaves room for Samuel to earn complementary carries and contribute in the passing game. The sturdy Snell could carve out a role as a short-yardage and goal-line specialist. Pittsburgh led the league with 689 passing attempts last season, and even a modest shift in strategy and game flow in 2019 should lead to a reduction on that front. With that would come added opportunities for members of the team's backfield, which is now seemingly a three-man show instead of one reliant on a superstar.
YOU CAN'T TELL THE PLAYERS WITHOUT A SCORECARD
When the Steelers traded Antonio Brown, fans were left wondering who, beside team MVP JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ben Roethlisberger would be throwing to this season. In Smith-Schuster and Brown, the Steelers had the most productive wideout tandem in the league in 2018, with the duo combining for 2,723 yards and 22 TDs on 215 catches. With Brown gone, Smith-Schuster is the undisputed No. 1 receiver in an offense that ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards each of the past five seasons. Still, the impact of losing Brown cannot be overstated, even with the signing of Donte Moncrief to a two-year deal. Moncrief is coming off a pair of down seasons, but he'll have an opportunity to revive his career, with Roethlisberger a major upgrade from the QBs he caught passes from as a Jaguar last year. Moncrief will face competition from 2018 second-rounder James Washington, who will look to take a step forward after managing just 217 yards on 16 receptions in his rookie season. There are plenty of targets up for grabs following Brown's departure, so there's value to be had in the player who absorbs the greatest share. The Steelers will welcome back Eli Rogers, who was only on the field for three games last year, but will have a chance to reclaim a slot role. Meanwhile, rookie Diontae Johnson adds depth and return skills to the mix.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: JuJu Smith-Schuster
For the first time since 2012, someone other than Antonio Brown led Pittsburgh in catches and receiving yards, as Smith-Schuster finished last season with 111 receptions (on 166 targets) for 1,426 yards and seven TDs. Smith-Schuster likely will see more looks but also more attention from defenses, now that Brown (168 targets in 2018) is gone.
RISING: Jaylen Samuels
James Conner enters training camp unchallenged as the backfield starter, but Samuels made a strong case to log most of the action on passing downs after hauling in 26 of 29 targets for 199 yards and three TDs as a rookie.
FALLING: Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger set career highs in both passing yards and touchdowns in 2018. That's a tough act to follow this season, especially with star wideout Antonio Brown no longer running routes for him.
SLEEPER: Diontae Johnson
James Washington and newcomer Donte Moncrief will look to battle it out behind top receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster. When the money is divided between two favorites, bet the longshot, in this case Johnson.
KEY JOB BATTLE – PLACEKICKER
While the Steelers appear mostly set in terms of their starters, there are still questions at some of the backup jobs. Training camp will be used to settle position battles between backup QBs Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, slot receivers Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer, and complementary running backs Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell. That said, one starting spot still not determined is kicker, with one-time Pro Bowler Chris Boswell looking to fend off undrafted rookie Matthew Wright. Boswell was awful last season, converting just 13 of 20 field-goal attempts, but he had successfully made 85 of 95 over the previous three years, including 7-for-9 from 50-plus yards. On the other hand – or foot – Wright has never kicked in an NFL game but ended his career at the University of Central Florida as the school's all-time leader in points. Six of Pittsburgh's seven losses (plus one tie) in 2018 were by an average of 3.5 points, so the coaching staff is likely to take a long look at the team's kickers. One or more missed kicks in the preseason could be the difference, and when you also consider that Boswell's roster bonuses were deferred until after the Steelers last preseason game, the final decision may not be made until just before Week 1.
DIONTAE JOHNSON – WR (Rd. 3, No. 66 – Toledo)
A crafty route runner who could climb the wideout depth chart.
DONTE MONCRIEF – WR (from Jaguars)
Could help the downfield passing game but is no Antonio Brown.
DEVIN BUSH – LB (Rd. 1, No. 10 – Michigan)
The team traded up to select the uber-athletic three-down linebacker.
BENNY SNELL – RB (Rd. 4, No. 122 – Kentucky)
Powerful north-south runner with strength to gain yards after contact.
STEVEN NELSON – CB (from Chiefs)
Should start in a beleaguered secondary still searching for answers.
ANTONIO BROWN – WR (to Raiders)
Asked for a trade after sixth straight season with more than 100 catches.
Le'VEON BELL – RB (to Jets)
His attempt to reset the NFL's running back market didn't quite pan out.
JESSE JAMES – TE (to Lions)
Departure should free up more tight end targets for Vance McDonald.
THE INJURY FRONT
Ryan Switzer, WR – Switzer avoided missing any games last season, despite going through the league's concussion protocol and injuring his right ankle. He did undergo offseason surgery to address the latter, but there don't appear to be any lingering effects, and he was able to participate in voluntary workouts this spring. Still, he isn't a lock to make Pittsburgh's 53-man roster.
Chris Boswell, K – A groin injury caused Boswell to finish last season on injured reserve after appearing in 15 games. Although fully recovered, he's coming off the worst performance of his career – hitting just 65 percent of his field-goal attempts – and is expected to face competition during training camp.
David DeCastro, G – DeCastro fractured his right hand Week 1 last season, which forced him to miss two games. He returned to play Week 4 and didn't miss any action the remainder of the season. That said, he skipped the Pro Bowl due to an undisclosed injury. Prior to the 2018 campaign, the guard had missed just two games in the previous five seasons and should return as a mainstay of Pittsburgh's offensive line, which is charged with protecting Ben Roethlisberger and creating holes for James Conner.