The Pittsburgh Steelers missed the postseason for the first time since 2013 after starting with a 7-2-1 record and then getting completely bulldozed by the AFC West. Analysts have hemmed and hawed about the reason for the abysmal end to the season. Some implicate poor coaching, locker room turmoil, and perhaps Twitter’s favorite argument - the absence of Le’Veon Bell. This argument has spewed into one of the most hotly contested debates - Why in the world did a team of this caliber miss the postseason?
The Bell Saga
At the start of the NFL season, the top story was related to the impending arrival of Le’Veon Bell, star running back on the receiving end of his second consecutive franchise tag. Bell and the Steelers had been negotiating a long term contract, but couldn’t see eye to eye when it came to annual salary and perhaps more importantly, guaranteed money. By July, Ian Rapoport reported that Bell had turned down a 5 year, $70 million contract with $33 million in guarantees.
Bell held himself out of Steelers Training Camp, as he did in 2017, but still all signs pointed to Bell signing his Franchise Tender in week 1 - including statements by himself indicating that 2018 would be his “best season yet”. He was a no-show for the Steelers’ first practice of the regular season on September 3, 2018, and thus opened Pandora’s box to question how the Steelers would go on without their star RB.
The decision to no-show drew significant criticism from Bell’s teammates including offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. Each week, Steelers players, coaches, and fans alike waited on word of whether or not Bell would make an appearance at the practice facility. The Steelers started the season 1-2-1 in his absence, leaving the league to wonder just how much Bell’s absence had affected the team. The Steelers denied the suspected turmoil in the locker room, and soon enough they sparked a six game win streak to end up 7-2-1.
During that six game win streak, James Conner posted 811 total yards and 8 touchdowns. The Steelers were hot, and although they couldn’t quite shake the Bell narrative, Conner certainly helped to ease the qualms of Steelers fans who had their worries about the run game in Pittsburgh. There were certainly big shoes to fill following Bell’s 2017 season where he finished with 1,946 yards from scrimmage and a career high 85 receptions.
The ever efficient Pittsburgh run game - Should the Steelers’ have paid Bell?
Perhaps it is their difference in running style that accounts for Conner’s perceived ineffectiveness when compared with Bell. Bell’s patience in allowing for blocking schemes to develop is the hallmark of his work; Conner’s philosophy is much simpler - be aggressive, and plow through the defense. Perhaps Conner’s running style is not as fascinating for fans to watch, but when comparing measurables, Conner outperformed Bell in almost all categories except total attempts and total scrimmage yards.
Despite the fact that Conner played 13 games in 2018 to Bell’s 15 games, it’s clear that Conner outperformed in most yards per touch measurables and total touchdowns. Prior to his ankle injury against the Los Angeles Chargers, Conner was on pace for 1,835 scrimmage yards, 69 receptions, and 17 touchdowns - an impressive stat line for any back, nonetheless one who received less than 10 carries in three games. There is a strong correlation between Conner’s number of carries and his effectiveness in the run game which would lead us to wonder - why didn’t the Steelers give him the ball on a more consistent basis? He struggled in games with less than 10 carries, averaging 2.3 yards per carry in those contests. In the 6 games that he received 10-19 carries a game, he averaged 4.59 yards per carry. Most impressibr, in the 4 games where he saw 20+ carries, he averaged 5.03 yards per carry. He demands a workload to get into rhythm, and when the Steelers made the point to use him, he crushed Bell’s stats.
Many have made the argument that Le’Veon Bell opened up the offense and that his absence changed the dynamic of their play. It has to be noted that the stats simply don’t align with this idea. The Steelers’ offense flourished in 2018, despite often uncharacteristic slow starts to their games. Ben Roethlisberger had a career year with 5,219 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. He completed 67% of passes (a top 3 year), and had two 1000+ yard receivers for the first time since 2011 (before Bell’s arrival). Tight ends, Vance McDonald and Jesse James, combined for 80 receptions and 1,033 yards. The sheer volume of successful offensive weapons in the passing game simply does not compute with this argument being made.
Although Le’Veon Bell has been a valued teammate and player with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s hard to justify the argument that he’s worth his demanded cap space. The stats have pointed to Conner’s effectiveness, and at a 2018 price tag of $578,000, he’s too good (and too affordable) to justify a $15+ million paycheck for Bell.
Why on earth aren’t the Steelers running the ball in the second half?
I’m hardly the first to beat the drum on the questionable offensive play calling by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers won every single game where they ran the ball more than 17 times in a game. Seems to be a pretty simple equation. If the team’s defense is struggling, run the ball, chew the clock, and keep the opposing offense off the field for as much time as possible. Many have made the argument that running the ball is a product of being ahead in the game - however, in all of the Steelers’ losses, at half-time, they were ahead or tied in six of these games, and down by 3 points in the other. Even by the end of the 3rd Quarter, Pittsburgh was up or tied in five of those 7 games, never down by more than 7 points in the other two losses. None of these scenarios should trigger an abandonment of the run game - particularly a run game that is effective.
As exhibited above, Bell averaged more rushing attempts than Conner in each of the four quarters. The biggest disparity was in the fourth quarter, a stat that exhibits the abandonment of the run when it was critical to win time of possession and keep the game out of the hands of a leaky Steelers defense.
The Steelers promoted quarterbacks coach, Randy Fitchner, to Offensive Coordinator in early 2018. Given his eight year tenure as the QB Coach and strong relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, it was not a far leap to assume that his quarterback was going to sling the rock often. Rather, what surprised fans was that the running game became an afterthought, even in obvious goal line situations. It affected time management, and possibly most problematic, it forced their defense to spend more time on the field than desired.
Against Kansas City, a defense that gave up the 6th most rushing yards in the league and the 3rd most rushing touchdowns, the Steelers’ last rushing attempt was with 3:15 left in the THIRD quarter. At that point, the Steelers were down by only one touchdown. In this contest, Big Ben had a total of 60 passing attempts and handed the ball off only 9 times with the Steelers missing a key opportunity early in the season to exploit a leaky run defense. Those that beat the Chiefs included: the Patriots (34 rushing attempts), the Rams (with an injured Gurley, still had 17 rushing attempts), Chargers (24 rushing attempts), Seahawks (43 rushing attempts), and Baltimore forced them into OT (40 rushing attempts).
Versus the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers are down by 3 points with nineteen minutes left in the game. They have two possessions in those nineteen minutes - and run the ball ONCE. Ravens score a field goal with 3 minutes and 37 seconds to go in the games, leaving the Steelers down by six points with two time outs. The next Steelers possession, Roethlisberger throws on the first three plays of the drive, ending with an interception on a pass intended for Antonio Brown. The Ravens score a field goal, and it’s game over.
Versus the Denver Broncos, Steelers are tied at half and tied to finish the 3rd quarter. With 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Steelers go down by 7 and have two possessions to tie it up. They complete 15 plays - 14 passing attempts, ONE rushing attempt. At Denver’s 2 yard line, ready to tie the game with 1:07 to go, the Steelers elect to pass. Ben targets Antonio Brown in double coverage, and the ball is intercepted easily. Game over.
Versus the Los Angeles Chargers, Steelers are up by 16 points at half and 8 points with 1:38 left in the 3rd. Pittsburgh has three offensive possessions after that point - they run 21 plays in that time - THREE rushing attempts to Big Ben’s EIGHTEEN passing attempts.
Versus the Oakland Raiders, the Steelers are up by 4 points at half, and remain up by 4 points at the end of the 3rd, with Ben on the bench since half time. Despite being ahead and playing with a backup QB, Steelers elect to have Dobbs keep or throw the ball 11 times and hand off to the RBs 8 times. For the Steelers’ final possession, Roethlisberger enters the game to execute a brilliant drive with 5 minutes to go. They throw on all 7 plays and score a touchdown to take the lead. However, after exercising an efficient passing game, they leave the Raiders three minutes on the clock - just enough time for the Raiders to drive the length of the field and score a touchdown to take the lead. With 15 seconds on the clock, Ben throws to James Washington, who laterals to JuJu, bringing the ball deep into Oakland territory. Boswell attempts a 40 yard FG to send the game into OT - he slips, and game over. In a game in which the Steelers had the lead for almost all of the second half, and they were playing with their backup QB, how do you only have 16 rushing attempts in the entire game?
Versus the New Orleans Saints, the Steelers are down by 3 points at half, and up by four points to end the 3rd quarter. With :02 in the 3rd (and the lead), Steelers elect for balance and to run some time off the clock - 5 rushing attempts, 3 passing attempts. Stevan Ridley receives his third carry of the game and first of the half, fumbling the ball and losing possession at a crucial moment in the game. Next drive, still up by 4 points, Steelers elect to abandon the rushing game, and have three straight pass attempts to go three and out. The fake punt fails, and the Steelers lose another opportunity to limit time of possession for the top 5 New Orleans Saints offense.
Everyone seems to put this failed season on the offense, but the numbers say differently.
Between the tumult in the locker room, the absence of Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger’s red zone interceptions, and the AB drama, it is easy to overlook the defensive struggles. Despite the turmoil perceived among the offense, the offensive unit actually made strides to improve on what was already a powerful offense. In 2017, the Steelers offense was ranked 8th best in the league scoring 25.4 points per game. In 2018, the offense improved to the 6th ranked offense in the league with 26.8 points per game.
Their defensive struggles can be highlighted by comparing almost every single measurable from the 2017 season to now. In 2017, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed the 7th fewest points - 308 total points on the season. In 2018, Steelers defense allowed the 17th fewest points - 360 total points on the season. Pittsburgh did not lose a game in 2018 when the defense held opponents to less than 24 points - which is not an unreasonable number to ask of your defense.
Unfortunately, yardage and points were only part of the problem. The defense failed to force turnovers at a historic rate - 15 total on the season, tied for the fewest in franchise history. They lead the league in dropped interceptions (13) and had 7 fewer turnovers this year than they came up with in 2017. They had 29 fewer tackles for loss, 4 fewer sacks. Fewer, fewer, fewer. This all comes down to the ability to come up with plays that can put pressure on opposing offenses while diffusing pressure on their own by providing them a shorter field.
Versus Baltimore in week four, we saw the defense bend to allow a FG on each of the 4 final Ravens possessions of the game. In Denver (an offensive disaster, I’ll give you), the Steelers defense allowed 24 points - the third highest score for the Broncos offense all season. In week 13, we saw the Steelers defense allow a score on each of the Chargers’ drives in the second half, on top of a special teams touchdown. We’re also going to have to agree here that having a linebacker cover Keenan Allen was not a smooth move - 14 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. In Oakland, the defense allowed two 4th quarter touchdown drives to give the Raiders the win. In the Saints game, the defense allowed 31 points and couldn’t make the crucial stop late in the 4th Quarter on the NO final TD drive.
Each of these games was a missed opportunity for the defense to force plays, make stops, and win games by holding opponents when the Steelers were in winnable situations.
How do we fix this defense? Steelers need a solid corner to play opposite Joe Haden. It’s time to come to grips with the fact that Artie Burns will not be a “thing” for the Steelers, and no matter how many times you bench him, it probably won’t ignite the fire. There’s also the gaping hole at inside linebacker, largely due to Ryan Shazier’s absence, who has not played since a catastrophic spinal injury sustained in week 13 of the 2017 season. In the 21 games prior to Shazier’s injury, the Steelers defense allowed a total of 378 points, an average of 18 points per game. In the 21 games since? They’ve allowed a total of 500 points, an average of 23.8 points per game. Trading up to grab Devin White in the 2019 draft would be the quickest fix. If the defense again finds itself unable to hold in crucial game situations, Keith Butler may be on the hotseat.
Final Destination took into action after the stolen Jaguars win: 8 defining moments of the 2018 season that changed everything - In Chronological order
1) The touchback that almost wasn’t - At the start of the 2nd Quarter in Denver, Xavier Grimble has a great run and catch. Grimble fumbles through the side of the endzone just an inch away from crossing the plane. Touchback - ball goes to Denver. This turnover was a momentum killer, instead of going up 7-3, the Steelers waste a great drive to a turnover in at the end zone.
2) Throwing to Brown in double coverage isn’t always the best judgement call - The Steelers have the ball at the Denver 2 yard line - ready to score a TD to tie the game with 1 minute on the clock. Steelers’ decide to throw the ball. Ben tries to squeeze it to Brown in an area with three Bronco defenders. The ball is easily intercepted. Game over. This was the 2nd interception of the game, both targeting Brown.
3) Not the first false start that led to a touchdown - At least not for the Los Angeles Chargers. In week 6, against the Browns, Russell Okung, left tackle for the Chargers, comes off the line early, which leads to a long TD to Tyrell Williams. This no call leads to the dismissal of referee Hugo Cruz after the game. Versus the Steelers in week 13, another extremely obvious false start, this time, on right tackle Sam Tevi - not called, leads to a Travis Benjamin 46 yard TD.
4) The first illegal block in the back that was ever not called - The number of punt return TDs in 2018 (7) was the fewest in the last 20 seasons. Returns have become almost unbearable to watch in today’s NFL, as we’ve seen an enormous uptick in the average number of illegal blocking penalties per game that have made it virtually impossible to return the ball down the field. Not for the Los Angeles Chargers though. With 12:54 to go in the 4th quarter, the NFL officiating crew missed an obvious illegal block in the back on a Desmond King 73 yard punt return touchdown. Chargers tie the game - 23-23.
5) Big Ben and the mysterious second half rib injury - While on the road in Oakland, up 14-10, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t appear from the locker room with the rest of his team after half amidst whisperings of a possible rib injury. The offense struggled under Dobbs for a quarter and half, and although Ben did appear from the locker room in the 3rd quarter, he remained on the sideline. In the 8 minutes of possession with Dobbs under center, he completed a total of 4 passes for 24 yards and an interception. Ben Roethlisberger came in for the final two drives of the game. He immediately drove the team down the field to score a go ahead TD and then put his kicker in FG range to attempt to tie the game at the end. When asked about Ben’s injury in the post-game press conference, Tomlin stated that Roethlisberger “probably could have come in a series or two earlier, but we were in the rhythm and flow of the game.” Sorry, Tomlin. There was no flow.
6) The Oakland Tales continue - After Big Ben/JuJu leads a triumphant last drive to bring the Steelers into field goal range, Boswell slips on the 40 yard FG attempt to tie the game to go in OT as the game clock expired. Why did all of Steeler Nation know, long before the snap, that the ball would never make it through the uprights?
7) The ghost of a PI Call - In the first quarter, on 4th and 1, the Saints go for it on the Steelers 34. Brees targets Kamara, who is covered by Joe Haden, deep right to the end zone. The ball sails over the pair, and with a light touch (or less) to the back by Haden, refs throws the yellow flag for defensive pass interference. First and goal, Mark Ingram scores at the 1. A call that swung momentum early against a team where momentum can mean everything.
8) Bad Juju - Still in New Orleans, with 0:42 in the game and the Steelers down by 3, the Steelers offense is driving, Ben throws a bullet to hit Juju with a catch and run for 7 yards. A fumble is forced and recovered by New Orleans at the NO 35. Game over. This was JuJu’s only fumble of his career - including college.
Down the stretch, Steelers lost 4 out of 5 games, three of those five of which they were without Conner, all of which were lost by a TD or less. The flukey nature of these losses is almost impossible to ignore, and it leaves us to question – if just one of these plays had gone differently, would we be talking about Bell vs. Conner right now? Would the week 17 Antonio Brown controversy have come out? Most importantly - would the Steelers have made the playoffs?
Unfortunately for the Steelers, it doesn’t look their woes have an immediate end in sight. Antonio Brown, a cornerstone of the Pittsburgh offense and undoubtedly one of the best in the league, has recently indicated he’d like to leave the team, and the Steelers are surely open to the idea. After going AWOL in week 17 practices, Brown was forced to sit for the game. Like clockwork, out came reports of a feud between Big Ben and his star wide receiver, perhaps not coincidentally, just the day before the team announced Juju Smith-Schuster as the Steelers MVP.
More recently, and perhaps more troublesome, have come reports of a domestic dispute between Brown and his daughter’s mother back in January. The league will be initiating an investigation on the incident, but it’s not a good look at a time where Kareem Hunt remains an free agent following a drunken dispute with a young women at a hotel in Cleveland. Even if Brown isn’t in for a suspension, the report is enough to make you wonder what kind of trade value the Steelers get for him at this point, despite the talent. In an age where teams take a hard line on domestic violence issues - when forced to - we will likely not be hearing the last of this incident. Either way, the Steelers should have a focus on finding ABs replacement this off season.
Where will the Steelers be at the end of the 2019 season? Only time will tell...