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Steelers Betting Preview: Will the Defense Have Trouble Without Ryan Shazier?

The Steelers could easily be the highest-scoring team in football, but will they go over their 10.5 Vegas win total with all of the questions surrounding the defense?

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Steelers 2018 win total: 10.5 (-105 over, -115 under)

Steelers 2017 record: 13-3

Key offseason acquisitions: S Morgan Burnett, ILB Jon Bostic

Key offseason losses: OT Chris Hubbard, S Mike Mitchell, WR Martavis Bryant, CB William Gay, S Robert Golden

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Five things to keep in mind before betting the Steelers’ win total

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1. Every spring, we make a list of “draft needs” for each NFL team, and then we shame the teams that did not fill said “needs.” Pittsburgh’s glaring need was replacing Ryan Shazier, a leader in the middle of the defense and an unusually athletic and active presence at linebacker. On paper, Jon Bostic and perhaps a bit of Tyler Matakevich are “replacing” Shazier alongside thumping-but-plodding Vince Williams. But essentially, the Steelers will solve their problem by playing three safeties much more often. They upgraded at free safety with Morgan Burnett replacing Mike Mitchell, whose lack of range caused him to play at Jabrill Peppers-type depth in centerfield. The question will likely be how Sean Davis and first-round pick Terrell Edmunds—athletic, physical but raw—come along. It’s going to be different. Is it going to be better? In the three meaningful games Pittsburgh played after Shazier’s injury, it allowed 38 points to Baltimore, 27 points to New England and 45 points to Jacksonville, all at home. Ben Roethlisberger was only able to bail the defense out in one of those games.

2. Of course, the offense is going to be good enough to bail out a questionable defense most weeks. Annual retirement rumors (until this year!) aside, Roethlisberger is very much still in his prime—due to the protections put in for quarterbacks and the increase in cerebral demands at the position across the league, you’re going to see more and more QBs play into their late-30s. Le’Veon Bell’s lack of long runs last season is mildly concerning, but this is truly a contract year for him. Antonio Brown is still Antonio Brown, and showed in the playoffs last year that he is still incredible even playing at 80% health. JuJu Smith-Schuster is rising, and James Washington might not be quite as explosive as Martavis Bryant, but he should be more reliable (as in, on the field more often). Throw in an offensive line that is exceptional on the interior and solid at the tackle spots, and you have what could easily be the highest-scoring team in football. There is a catch though…

3. Keep an eye on the home/road splits for this offense. Since 2014 (postseason included), the Steelers have averaged 29.8 points per game at home, but just 22.2 PPG on the road—no other team in football had more than a five-point differential between home and road scoring. If the defense is holding up its end of the bargain, averaging 22 points on the road is enough to win games. The Steelers have a .656 road win percentage over the last four regular seasons, third-best in the NFL (behind New England and Dallas), went 7-1 on the road last year and haven’t had a losing road record since 2013. But if the defense continues to struggle without Shazier, the road struggles will come, especially with second-half trips to New Orleans and Jacksonville, as well as (potentially improved) Baltimore and Denver.

Bengals Betting Preview: Revamped O-Line Can Make Cincy an Intriguing Playoff Sleeper

4. Speaking of improved opponents, the AFC North as a whole should be better. The Ravens still have a defense loaded with quality veterans, Joe Flacco looks to finally be getting back to his pre-ACL form and the Ravens finally loaded up on some flex pieces at tight end that should allow them to be much more diverse offensively. The Bengals addressed their Achilles' heel—the offensive line—with a quality interior lineman in Billy Price in Round 1 and a trade for solid-if-healthy left tackle Cordy Glenn. And the Browns, well, won’t turn the ball over 41 times. And that’s a start. The AFC North also matches up with the NFC South, probably football’s best division, and the AFC West, which could be sneaky good if Case Keenum repeats his 2017 performance and Patrick Mahomes meets even a fraction of the hype. And, of course, they get the Patriots, who they’ve lost to five consecutive times, and the Jaguars, who swept Pittsburgh at Heinz Field last year.

5. The Steelers had trouble letting go of James Harrison all those years in part because they didn’t seem ready to push their young edge rushers out of the nest. They don’t really have a choice now. T.J. Watt had a promising rookie year, and fellow former first-rounder Bud Dupree continues to flash in spots. They’re probably not going to be Bosa-Ingram this fall, but if Watt and Dupree end up going from pretty good to very good, it fixes a lot of issues with this defense.

PICK: UNDER 10.5 Wins

Other NFL team betting previews: Browns, BuccaneersBengalsGiants, SaintsPackers, Falcons, Chiefs, Bears, Chargers, Dolphins, Eagles, Seahawks