The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he considers the Pittsburgh Steelers, who finished 9–6-1 and second in the AFC North last year.
Pittsburgh’s offense remains potent but inconsistent. Ben Roethlisberger can play with either perfect discipline or haphazard timing—there’s no predicting which from down to down. Their passing game can deploy clever intertwined routes underneath, but the Steelers often fall into using basic iso routes out of spread-empty formations. Despite an outstanding line and a diverse ground game, this offense feels like it is more about making individual plays than establishing a rhythm. They could get away with this when Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were still on the roster, but now their skill players are good but not great, and the schematic inconsistency is more damaging.
JuJu Smith-Schuster fills Antonio Brown’s shoes. The third-year receiver is better inside than outside, but he’s potent anywhere, thanks in large part to his contested-catch ability. Like Brown in 2018, Smith-Schuster aligns all over the formation, including by himself on the weak side, where he draws double teams that clarify the QB’s reads.
A third-round rookie cornerback becomes important right away. The Steelers have a quality No. 1 corner in Joe Haden, who is a superb deep-ball defender, but their concerns at No. 2 corner persist. Ex-Chief Steven Nelson is porous in matchup coverage and Artie Burns, entering his fourth season, is officially a first-round bust. The Steelers want to diversify their scheme with more man coverage, but that’s only possible if Justin Layne, a physical press-cover artist from Michigan State, steps up.
The interior pass coverage improves. Slot man Mike Hilton remains disruptive, including as a blitzer. With the additions of first-round rookie Devon Bush (Michigan) and ex-Ram Mark Barron, the Steelers have athletic pass-defending linebackers that enable them to return to their two-backer nickel package. That’s a good thing, since they lack the secondary depth to keep playing a three-safety dime package.
Pittsburgh's defense remains a top-10 unit. The secondary’s flaws are hidden, for the most part, by one of the NFL’s most athletic defensive fronts. The biggest names are on the edge (rising star T.J. Watt and the under-refined but energetic Bud Dupree) but the brilliance is inside: defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and especially Cameron Heyward are powerful, sound technicians, while Javon Hargrave is the rare athletic nose tackle who can be featured on stunts and twists, including against the run.
BOTTOM LINE: The Steelers can mask most of their weaknesses, but the offense needs more schematic consistency.
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