The year of 2018 has been a disappointment from start to finish for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year started with a shootout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and rode an ugly collapse down the stretch run of the following regular season. However, under talked about is the in-between, where this team struggled through the offseason, putting themselves in this position. The Steelers faced a crucial offseason given their roster status and multiple times came up looking like a 2018 Chris Boswell field goal attempt.
First, let me state this is not hindsight analysis. I have multiple podcast platforms and have written numerous articles to back my opinion. Most of these articles will show throughout the piece. Second, this is a piece about the Steelers offseason, and it barely talks about Le’Veon Bell, shocking, I know.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense fell apart towards the end of the 2017 regular season. A lot of that had to do with the loss of Ryan Shazier. While everyone understands the physical attributes that Shazier brought to the table, what was also unreplaceable was his ability to communicate and get his team lined up.
While most teams would employ the “next man up” mantra, the Steelers were caught without a next man up. They had learned that Tyler Matakevich might be a special teamer in the NFL, leaving L.J. Fort, a core special teamer as their only replacement. With that in mind, the team went to Sean Spence, a free agent off of the street to start for Shazier. Remember, the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to start Sean Spence off of the streets over L.J. Fort just one year ago.
As you can see, this led to a ton of issues.
While we all watch Ryan Shazier take unbelievable strides in his health, the business aspect of the NFL tells you that you have to plan for life without Shazier on the field and be pleasantly surprised if he ever did return. Knowing that you just went from a potential All-Pro to a player not even on a roster at the time within a week the idea heading into the offseason had to be that the inside linebacker room was far too thin for 2018.
Jon Bostic was a start. The biggest attribute he brought was communication. Given his value and what he was brought in to do, it is tough to argue with the Jon Bostic signing. However, again, with no top-tier talent, let alone depth, Bostic is not the cure to the disease.
The Steelers brought in Morgan Burnett. Burnett was a versatile 29-year old free agent from the Green Bay Packers coming off of the worst year of his career, where he missed four games. Burnett lacked athleticism and ball skills but like Bostic was a communicator. He also had versatility, and played anywhere from free safety, to in the box linebacker with the Packers. So Burnett would not directly replace Mike Mitchell, but instead have an impact on the loss of Shazier as well.
This signing has not worked out. Burnett has one start this season and has been inactive for five games. His injury issues started in the regular season and put the Steelers in a tight spot.
They drafted Terrell Edmunds in the first round, a highly athletic safety, who was raw between the ears. Still, when you combine his athletic upside with the communication of Burnett and Bostic, you are starting to piece together a lot of what you lost in Shazier. Edmunds could be a run and chase player and could play in the box, likely as a dime linebacker as a rookie.
They would have many versatile safeties, which is a great way to match up to the way the league is trending. However, with Burnett unable to fill his role as a starter in the early summer, Edmunds had to rush his progression and was moved from a specialty player as a rookie to the rookie with the second most starter snaps only behind the Colts Quenton Nelson.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, even when Burnett was healthy he not only couldn’t start for the team, but he also struggled in the role in which they laid out for the rookie to start the season.
When Morgan Burnett is on the field, the Steelers give up 8.25 yards per pass attempt. When he is not, they are allowing 7.22 yards per attempt. He has allowed 16 yards per target on 25 targets with three penalties and three touchdowns allowed. Burnett will be 30 next season and would save the Steelers roughly $3.6 million next year if cut, which is the likely scenario here.
While no one could predict Burnett would deal with all of the injuries, it is also fair to say that there were better options available. Tre Boston has played 877 snaps for the Arizona Cardinals. He would have been a direct replacement to Mike Mitchell at free safety, he is 27 years old and signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal. He was cheaper, younger and a scheme fit.
However, the team decided to move Sean Davis from strong safety to free instead. After firing Carnell Lake and hiring Tom Bradley, this may have been a decision admitting that Davis was a misevaluation at strong safety, with a chance to reinvent him in a new spot. With that in mind, Burnett could have been a better scheme fit than Boston.
However, Burnett was not a better fit than Eric Reid. I will not get into all of the politics of the matter but will note that before the offseason started, I predicted that the Steelers cared about winning too much to worry what those outside the organization thought.
Yes, the Carolina Panthers are not winning because of signing Reid. Still, when Reid is on the field, their yards per pass attempt allowed goes down from 8.99 to 8.11. Their explosive pass rate goes down from 19.3% to 15.6%.
Reid has played a lot of free safety this year for the Panthers. However, last year over 40% of his snaps came from the strong safety spot. And 7% came at linebacker. Here is an article I wrote showing Reid take on a variety of roles as perfect complimentary safety. This proves his versatility to be a fit whether at strong, free or chipping in to replace Shazier. Reid was 26, three years younger than Burnett. On a one-year, $1.4 million deal Eric Reid was a net positive signing.
Nonetheless, whether it be Reid, Boston or Burnett the Steelers had to know that they were not done yet. Even with Terrell Edmunds in the mix most of these moves were to make sure the defense upgraded from Mike Mitchell.
While they had impacts on the replacement of Shazier, the team still had a few small bandaids on the stab to the chest.
The Steelers tried to trade up with eyes on Leighton Vander Esch, and Rashaan Evans. Who knows what we are writing today had the mechanics of the situations been different. Nonetheless, in their attempts to trade up for Vander Esch and Evans came the apparent intention that this team needed help at linebacker.
The team whiffed on their first try and then packed up shop, signing Matthew Thomas as a UDFA. This features a second-round run through the end of the third that featured a wide receiver, a tackle, and a quarterback.
In today’s NFL, if you are taking a player in the first three rounds, they most likely need to contribute as a rookie. The Steelers had relied on Javon Hargrave and Cameron Sutton as rookies late into the season in the past two years, as this is the new norm.
James Washington has made his impacts, albeit not nearly to the heights some would have expected. Even Chukwuma Okorafor started a game in which he held up against Von Miller. Heck, the Steelers also needed their other third-round rookie to step up to the plate as well this season due to injury. Unfortunately he did not.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph the decision was questionable, to say the least. Nobody loved Landry Jones, but the team had just drafted Josh Dobbs to replace Landry Jones, and Dobbs did just that. However, in drafting Rudolph, it was clear the team saw a ceiling higher than Jones with Dobbs. They see a ceiling with Rudolph and in their eyes have to see Rudolph as a better quarterback. They traded up ahead of the rival Cincinnati Bengals in round three to make sure they had a third quarterback.
First, drafting to replace Ben Roethlisberger is not smart. The new CBA makes rookie contracts the most valuable weapon in the NFL. Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Mitch Trubisky, Pat Mahomes, the list goes on of quarterbacks taking considerable steps in year two after getting their feet wet in year one. The team spends the offseason loading the roster because of the extra cap space and all of the sudden that team is a contender. When do the Steelers plan to start Mason Rudolph?
Future aside, you cannot trade up in round three for a player you do not plan to play at all when you have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. We can worry about life without Ben when Ben is gone; the idea is to invest and win as much with him as possible.
Of course, we just watched a Super Bowl in which Nick Foles rode through the playoffs to victory. Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt frequently, and having a solidified backup could make a third-round pick at quarterback worthwhile, even in his rookie season.
However, Rudolph failed to beat out Josh Dobbs. Then, we saw Josh Dobbs look like a deer in headlights as he went 4-9 replacing Ben Roethlisberger against arguably the worst defense in the NFL. Roethlisberger threw fewer incompletions on 29 pass attempts.
The Rudolph pick is troubling because if he cannot beat out Dobbs-who, the team sees as a long-term backup-what is the ceiling of Rudolph? If he is not currently better than Dobbs, and Dobbs cannot step in off the bench and mustard enough first downs to beat the Oakland Raiders, what does this say about the evaluation of quarterbacks in Pittsburgh right now?
Had the team known that Dobbs would beat out Rudolph and Jones, they likely would not have taken Rudolph. That pick could have been spent on a linebacker with speed. Oren Burks, Dorian O’Daniel, Josey Jewell, Kenny Young, Genard Avery, Shaun Dion-Hamilton, and Leon Jacobs were all taken after Rudolph.
All seven have played at least 100 snaps this season at linebacker. Matthew Thomas has played four snaps and is on the practice squad. This is not to say that one of these specific players should have been the particular fit at the specific spot. However, all of them would have done more to the cause in 2018 than wear sweatpants on the sideline while the team needed a backup quarterback. They all would have bought into the process of being all-in. Any of those players added would have a team committing every resource to replacing a potential All-Pro candidate rather than hedging bets on the future.
Lastly, the Steelers did not do anything to add to their pass rush. The talk of the offseason was Nick Foles being a backup quarterback winning a Super Bowl, and the Steelers made sure they were prepared for the situation in which Ben Roethlisberger goes down on the road (whoops).
What was lost from the Eagles success was that they got to the Super Bowl on the back of a pass rush that rotated a variety of speed and power. Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, and Brandon Graham all consistently rotated to stay fresh and terrorize quarterbacks.
The Steelers have a stud in T.J. Watt; there is no doubt about that. However, he needs a crew of pass rushing friends, as evidenced by the Eagles. Remember Von Miller and the Broncos Super Bowl run? It helps to be Von Miller when you have DeMarcus Ware across from you and Shaq Barrett and a rookie Shane Ray rotating behind you.
The Steelers picked up Bud Duprees fifth-year option. This makes sense considering the lack of depth at pass rusher. The only other help this team has at pass rusher is Anthony Chickillo, who has 6.5 sacks in four years, one coming this year. They do not have any options behind him as they invested in UDFA Ola Adeniyi. Their lack of depth has shown throughout the season as T.J. Watt carries the group.
While everyone wanted to fill the airwaves with Le’Veon Bell talk all of these moves should have been presenting red flags from the start. The team admitted last season that they were more comfortable with a street free agent than L.J. Fort and now we see Fort playing a significant role the next season. Injuries happen, but teams are given the offseason and the draft to supplement and be prepared for them. It is tough to continue to kick the Rudolph pick, but philosophically it showed a team content with being 10-6 every season and hoping to catch a 13-3 here and there rather than a team who, in their own words, has a standard of Lombardi’s.
So, while the on-field mistakes continued to pile up throughout the season, it continued to meet expectations. They were good, but not quite all-in and ready to be good enough.
They missed on safety and pushed a rookie into a spot they were not quite ready to put him in yet. That chain reaction made the team slower at linebacker, as the team planned to cut into some of Shazier’s replacement with three safety sets.
On top of that, their lack of urgency when it came to replacing Ryan Shazier hurt them is two-fold. It hurt them in that their investments at backup quarterback still lost them a game against the Oakland Raiders, and their commitment to the backup quarterback position took away two lottery tickets that could have made the defense just good enough to the point where it did not matter who went 4-9 against the Oakland Raiders.
Is the problem fixable? Yes. Can the team have a home run offseason to get their average back in check? Absolutely. This year they have more money thanks to Le’Veon Bell, and will likely be saving cap space on Burnett and Marcus Gilbert.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are close. However, if they want to be up there with the best, they need this offseason to show the opposite results of this past one.