Steelers' hopeful 2019 outlook: Addition by subtraction

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Dolphins, Steelers among AFC teams with question marks (1:20)

Louis Riddick and Damien Woody list the Dolphins and Steelers respectively as teams with holes to fill before the season starts. (1:20)

PITTSBURGH -- With coach Mike Tomlin recently calling the departures of receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell a "cleansing" of sorts, it highlights a new era of Pittsburgh Steelers football.

But that word doesn't quite cover it all. Tomlin addressed another layer to all this much earlier, from the NFL owners meetings: mainly, a change in on-field ownership.

Young, ascending players will be emboldened.

"No disrespect to those guys or what they’ve been able to do over the course of their careers, particularly in Pittsburgh, but we had a Pro Bowl wideout on our team who’s still on our team from last year. We had a Pro Bowl running back last year who was on our team who’s still on our team," said Tomlin, referring to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner. "So, we’ve got good players. We’ve got good, quality players specifically at those positions. Will we need additional plays from other people? Certainly, but you have that discussion and make those statements year in and year out, and we do."

Starting with OTAs, which begin Tuesday, the Steelers hope to offset the loss of major talent with improvements in chemistry, depth and expanded roles.

The leadership growth of Smith-Schuster and Conner in year three will be one of many pivotal storylines, with two-thirds of the now-defunct Killer B's trio in different locker rooms.

The only "B" left, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, likely will address the local media on Tuesday from the team facility for the first time since Week 17 of last season. Good thing Roethlisberger led the league in passing last year, because there's serious ground to cover: From Brown's departure and criticisms of his former quarterback, ex-teammates taking shots at the QB and his new contract.

To be sure, it's hardly a guarantee Roethlisberger and younger offensive weapons can replicate the production of Brown and Bell, perennial All-Pros who broke multiple records together.

But fair or not, Brown and Bell alienated Steelers fans with contract disputes and trade requests. Conner and Smith-Schuster have the chance to win those fans back. To this point, Smith-Schuster has followed the playbook for young stars, combining team-first attitude with marketability and countless hours of community work. Conner endeared himself to the locker room last season, particularly with his quarterback and offensive line.

Both seem intent on minimizing distractions and maximizing play, which is what the rest of the locker room wants.

"Hopefully, everything will pass and it will be all about football," said defensive end Tyson Alualu of the headlines surrounding the Steelers dating back to September. "That will be great for our team."

That football focus undoubtedly will shift to the passing game, which features one player with an 800-yard receiving season in his career (Smith-Schuster). James Washington, Donte Moncrief and others will vie for the No. 2 receiver spot.

But true position battles are minimal, thanks to quality depth. Matt Feiler, Chukwuma Okorafor and Jerald Hawkins will compete for the right tackle job. Most positions are well-defined.

Either way, Tomlin is eager to shift focus to the on-field product.

"I think [the Bell and Brown sagas] have been highly chronicled and too chronicled," Tomlin said this offseason. "I think some things have been said that may or may not be true. All I know is neither one of those guys are members of our team anymore, so I understand that. I understand what that means. We focus our energy on those who are and their readiness and preparation."

The biggest positive from the recent talent drain is the edge injected into the Steelers locker room. A trendy top-10 preseason team for years is No. 16 in ESPN's recent offseason Power Rankings.

The sexy story in the AFC North? Not the Steelers, but the Cleveland Browns, who acquired serious talent but are not battle-tested.

“It’s funny everybody’s counting us out,” Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo said. “You still have to play."