Season grade: Below-average. This season was well below the Steelers’ standards. They averaged more than 11 wins per game from 2014-17 but made 2018 more difficult with a three-game losing streak over a stretch of AFC West matchups in November and December. Defeating New England for the first time since 2011 was a breakthrough, but in a year when a playoff bye was attainable with more consistent play, the Steelers’ many lapses let the Baltimore Ravens keep pace in the AFC North. Considering the talent across the roster, it’s hard to escape the belief the Steelers could have done more with what they had. The largely lethargic Week 17 performance against Cincinnati highlights that belief.
Season in review: The Steelers faced tumult to start the season as Le'Veon Bell skipped Week 1, a decision that turned into a season-long holdout. Behind a stout offensive line and a proven passing game, tailback James Conner emerged as a legitimate threat. Despite a relatively healthy roster, the Steelers’ 1-2-1 start set the wrong tone for a contender. The Steelers recovered, like they usually do, and the rest of the season featured an amalgam of explosive performances and uneven play. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earned career highs in touchdowns and passing yards. Young stars such as T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster strengthened their breakout campaigns in year two. But the Steelers consistently ranked near the bottom of the NFL in turnover margin, which sort of defined their season. Going four games without an interception in the second half of the year resulted in three losses during that stretch. They couldn’t dictate the tempo consistently enough, and closing out games was often a struggle.
He said it: "We can beat anybody. We can also lose to anybody." -- Steelers guard David DeCastro
What is the Steelers’ definitive plan at running back? The Steelers technically aren’t done with Bell, a reality that casts a pall over the offseason until a firm decision is made: Transition tag Bell or let him walk into unrestricted free agency. The Steelers could argue the tag should be worth somewhere between $9 million and $10 million, resorting to the slotted 2017 number since Bell skipped a year. But the Collective Bargaining Agreement says Bell deserves 120 percent of his last salary ($14.5 million). The tag would allow Bell to negotiate with other teams with the Steelers having the right to match any offer. But they might want to wash themselves of the Bell saga altogether. In that case, they have Conner and fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels to develop as the future of the position. Both produced in expanded roles this season.
What will they do with Roethlisberger’s contract? Roethlisberger’s deal expires in March 2020, and the Steelers never relied more on Big Ben’s arm to win games than this season. The 15-year veteran performed among the league leaders in passing yards, touchdowns, passing attempts and interceptions. The mushrooming quarterback market calls for Roethlisberger to earn around $30 million per year, and with massive salaries for Bell and linebacker Ryan Shazier off the books, the Steelers will have cap space with which to maneuver. The Steelers drafted quarterbacks Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph in back-to-back years, but this is still Roethlisberger’s show. A three-year deal would take Roethlisberger close to age 40 and expand the Super Bowl window.
What does the defense need to get over the top? The Steelers' defense has been stuck on decent-to-good for a few years now. The leap to greatness has not been made. The Steelers consistently get pressure with their front seven behind Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt. They ranked among the top 10 in rushing defense and total defense late in the year. Joe Haden leads a secondary that experienced ups and downs in 2018 but made plays down the stretch. From subpackage linebackers to hybrid safeties, the Steelers tried just about everything at the inside linebacker spot opposite Vince Williams. The draft could provide a long-term solution for the loss of Shazier. Grab a speedy, rangy linebacker, maybe another corner, and Pittsburgh will be closer to a finished product. First, it must decide what to do with embattled corner Artie Burns, who was demoted early in his third season.