With just sixty minutes separating the Pittsburgh Steelers from the playoff picture, the 2019 NFL season has begun to close it's curtains on a season that has provided nothing short of week to week headlines.
Prior to the start of the season, the Steelers were still widely considered to be talented enough to make a run at the postseason despite losing two All-Pro players on the offensive side of the football. A slew of injuries scattered across the season later, Pittsburgh heads into a must-win match-up on the road with a skeleton roster.
Ben Roethlisberger? Done for the season. James Conner? Can't seem to stay healthy. The same goes for JuJu Smith-Schuster, and when you take a gander at the rest of the offense, you'll agree that 2019 simply was the year of "next man up".
Injuries can happen to any team, however. There are no time for excuses in a league where all that matters is the W-L column, something the Steelers have historically mastered. Each team assembles a 53 man roster carefully, and injuries are strangers to precisely 0 of 32 teams in the league. The injury bug doesn't discriminate between future Hall of Famer or bench-warmer, and the Steelers found that out the hard way in 2019.
So when some suggest a potential 8-8 finish to be successful for head coach Mike Tomlin, it simply doesn't feel right. Not in Pittsburgh, a place where parades are expected following the first Sunday in February on an annual basis. In the NFL, you find a way to win, regardless of the circumstances.
That's exactly what Tomlin has done with this Steelers squad this season. Down his franchise quarterback and in a 0-3 hole to start the 2019 campaign, a lot of teams might have been ready to throw the towel in. Many fans were ready to throw their terrible towel in, too.
Had you told any Steelers fan the team had an opportunity to sneak into the playoffs in the last week of the season after starting 0-3, they wouldn't have believed you. It was a stretch, even for those of us who spend hours pounding away at keyboards.
Congrats, Pittsburgh. You were playing with house money and managed to build quite the stack of chips. No matter how the ending plays out, the black and gold and those who support them should view 2019 as nothing short of successful, for a number of reasons.
The Steelers discovered many truth's through the last few months, for better or worse.
We discovered that perhaps the future in a post-Roethlisberger era doesn't exactly look bright. 2019 provided us with some vital looks at both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, and without Roethlisberger missing time, perhaps the organization remains extremely confident in either of the two quarterbacks.
This season also brought the talents of Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers defense. Pittsburgh has yet to see a playmaker on the back end of it's defense since Troy Polamalu once roamed the hash-marks of Heinz Field. With or without Big Ben, number one or number thirty-two pick, the Steelers made the right move in trading for Fitzpatrick and there's little to support an opposing argument. Fitzpatrick's impact was felt immediately, and his presence alone appeared to boost a defense that is now recognized as one of the best units in the league.
This couldn't have been done without the talents of players such as T.J. Watt, a player who just now feels appropriately appreciated by those outside of the Steel City. 2019 saw Watt emerge as one of the league's best outside linebackers, as he elevated his play to another level where some may have thought unlikely.
The same sentiment could be carried for his counter-part in Bud Dupree. There's no shying away from Dupree's slow start to his career. However, in the final year of his rookie deal, Dupree flashed the true potential the Steelers saw when they selected him in the first round in the 2015 NFL Draft. Whether they keep him or not, the Steelers now know the capable talents of Dupree have come to fruition, a major win for the team in a season otherwise clouded by dark clouds.
2019 also shined it's light on free-agent signing Steven Nelson. Some were weary of signing Nelson, and maybe rightfully so. Aside from Joe Haden, it's hard to find successful signings in the defensive backfield of the Steelers. However, Nelson has stepped up tremendously and proved he's capable of providing plausible help opposite of Haden.
The defense has also witnessed the growth of rookie linebacker Devin Bush. Bush has proved worthy of every piece of draft capital general manager Kevin Colbert gifted to draft Bush, as the Steelers appear to finally have their modern-day inside linebacker who can run sideline to sideline with ease. While Bush still has work to do in his pass coverage, Bush's early returns has Pittsburgh excited for many years to come.
If there's one thing the 2019 Steelers can hang their hat on, it's their defensive prowess.
However, things get a little more serious when assessing the offensive side of the ball. We learned James Conner may not be the guy to carry the load in Pittsburgh's backfield for years to come like some thought following a fairly successful 2018 performance. While injuries have derailed Conner, the potential emergence of Benny Snell may come sooner rather than later. There's no celebrating a player sitting out, especially the likes of a hometown player who's battled for his life such as Conner. Yet it's best the Steelers get their reality check at the running back position before they hand money over unknowingly.
2019 has been equally disappointing for Smith-Schuster, yet the play of Diontae Johnson has given a newfound sense of hope for the Steelers receiving corps. Johnson has shown serious signs of becoming a lethal threat on the football field, and should James Washington continue to progress, the Steelers have themselves quite the trio of pass-catchers.
Lastly, we got to know the true grit of the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner wasn't able to mask mistakes behind Roethlisberger like last season, while defensive coordinator Keith Butler has managed to still keep his job despite thanks to the play of his players. While it remains to be seen who will stay or go after the season, the Steelers front office (and Tomlin, hopefully) have now seen the true strengths/shortcomings of both play-callers.
There's been a lot of negativity surrounding Tomlin for not capturing a Super Bowl during the "Killer B" era, and perhaps rightfully so. Those teams were too talented to not have made more noise in the playoffs, and it's nothing short of disappointing. People are even reluctant to credit Tomlin for his lone Super Bowl victory.
Yet what cannot be taken away from Tomlin, who has yet to have a losing season during his tenure in Pittsburgh, is his ability to maintain the ship no matter who is aboard. There were questions about Tomlin's future with the Steelers, and whether or not he lost the locker room over the last few seasons.
2019 proved that Tomlin was more than capable of getting his players to rally around his voice. Criticize the clock-management and his press-conference cliches, when it's time to go to war, his troops will follow.
So sure, the Steelers might not be adding another Lombardi to a trophy case that's collected cobwebs since 2008. Yet given all the positive that's come from a team that could have developed into a black hole, there's a lot to be excited about moving forward. With a healthy Big Ben, the Steelers have to be excited to see what this team can accomplish with what little time they have left with Roethlisberger.
Through this season, Pittsburgh has seen a lot of individual success while also receiving clarity on key issues. Regardless of how Sunday plays out, it's hard not to see 2019 as a successful season for the Steelers.