Article by: Justin Imler
The NFL season officially gets underway this Thursday, and we can all rejoice together that we will finally have football every single week until mid February.
In this piece I’m going to attempt to be as unbiased as possible in explaining why I firmly believe that Pittsburgh will return as AFC North champs in the 2019-2020 season. The emerging Cleveland Browns have soared to the top of most people’s power rankings and thus, are their pick to take home the division crown for the first time in decades. Can you blame them? The Browns are now a media frenzy, with #1 overall pick Baker Mayfield setting rookie passing records, and superstar WR Odell Beckham Jr. joining the squad via trade this offseason, teaming up with fellow pro bowler, and best friend, Jarvis Landry. Not to mention the rest of the young talent surrounding them in RB Nick Chubb, TE David Njoku, CB TJ Ward, DE Myles Garrett, and many more.
As for Pittsburgh, they are being doubted for the first time in recent years, and I think that gives this team some added motivation to succeed in 2019. All eyes are on Cleveland, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think the AFC North will be the most competitive division with the AFC with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore all being in the mix throughout the season. Some people might forget that the Baltimore Ravens actually won the North last season, with the new look, run first offense led by QB Lamar Jackson. If I'm being honest, I’m not much of a believer in Jackson, and I think both Cleveland and Pittsburgh have more talent on both sides of the ball to compete for a strong playoff push.
For the remainder of this piece, I’m going to highlight a few areas of this new look 2019 Steelers team that I think are worth mentioning to back up my pick for them to still be contenders in the AFC this upcoming season.
Addition by Subtraction
I’m just going to get the most popular argument out of the way first. Most regular NFL fans know that star RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown are no longer in Pittsburgh, with Brown being traded to Oakland, and Bell signing a long-term deal with the Jets in free agency after holding out the entire 2018-2019 season. Now, even after losing two top tier guys, I still think Pittsburgh will be very successful on the offensive side of the football. Third year WR Juju Smith-Schuster and RB James Connor are both coming off of pro-bowl level seasons in 2018. I think Juju will fill the WR1 roll just fine. Will he produce the same numbers as last season? (111 catches, 1,426 yards, 7 Tds) probably not, but that’s totally fine. Juju will still get his looks, but while he’s drawing the double teams, that’ll leave openings for the rest of the WR core like newly acquired WR Donte Moncrief, and 2nd year guy James Washington.
As for the backfield, we already got to see what it’s like to have James Connor as the team’s starting back in 2018, and he did not disappoint. Connor had 1,470 total yards (973 rushing and 497 receiving), as well as 13 total TDs (12 rushing and 1 receiving) in just 13 games. What I’m the most excited for in this 2019 offense is the “running back by committee” approach that a lot of people are expecting. We saw some flashes from backup RB Jaylen Samuels last season when Connor went down with a leg injury (19 rushes for 142 yards against NE in week 15). I’m excited to see Samuels get into the mix more this season, as well as 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell Jr. out of Kentucky. Pittsburgh has been excellent at drafting skill position players in the past, so I expect big things out of this backfield heading into 2019 and beyond.
Both Bell and Brown brought amazing talent to the field each and every week, but with that talent came a lot of personality and overall distractions. With both of these guys gone, the Steelers can go back to being a team again, and be 100% focused on winning football games, and getting this franchise back where it belongs, in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh has had some very noticeable weaknesses in recent years, mainly on the defensive side of the football. The position of inside linebacker has been a major need since Ryan Shazier went down with that awful spinal injury in 2017. That need was finally addressed when Pittsburgh traded up to the #10 pick in this years draft to snag Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. This guy was an absolute monster for the Wolverines, and I expect the same type of play out of him for Pittsburgh. Bush is going to be thrown into the starting lineup right away, and will be the overall voice of this defense as soon as he’s ready. He has a lot of expectations right out of the gate, but he seems ready to tackle them head on, and prove himself worthy of that #10 overall selection.
The other major need that Pittsburgh addressed was the cornerback position. The Steelers signed CB Joe Haden in the 2017 offseason after being cut by Cleveland. Haden has stepped up ever since, being a lockdown corner for the black and gold. The lingering issue however has been who can complement Haden on a regular basis? We thought the answer would be 2016 1st round pick Artie Burns out of Miami, but even though he’s shown some flashes from time to time, he’s ultimately been a major disappointment.
So, this time around, Pittsburgh looked towards free agency to hopefully find the answer, and signed former Chiefs CB Steven Nelson to a 3-year, $25.5 million contract. Right now, to start training camp, Haden and Nelson have been the one-two punch at cornerback at the start of training camp. Overall, I can't wait to see how this new look defense plays in 2019.
No, I’m not talking about the number of Super Bowls this team is hoping to have after the season wraps up, I’m talking about the guy who’s worn that number for the last 15 years. Big Ben Roethlisberger is coming off of some of the best seasons of his career, and as long as he’s healthy and still throwing the ball, the Steelers will win football games. Roethlisberger led the league in passing in 2018 with 5,129 yards and added 34 TDs. The main concern that came along with these impressive numbers were his 16 interceptions, which is tied for the 2nd most in his career. The interceptions don’t worry me too much, if you watch the tape, a number of those balls were forced to the guy that used to wear #84 for Pittsburgh. Now that he’s gone, and not straight up demanding the ball, look for Ben to find the open man a lot more often, and make much better decisions.
What I’m hoping to see this season is a much more balanced offense. I’m all for Ben throwing the rock, because he’s shown that he’s capable of putting this offence on his back time and time again. However, this team needs to focus on establishing a running game early and sticking with it throughout each and every game.
My 1st Training Camp Experience
I got the chance to go to my first ever Steelers training camp this past weekend in Latrobe PA, and it was a great experience. I got to see a lot of the guys up close, get some autographs, and just watch the team practice, and see how some of the young guys were doing, and who was playing where. Here are some takeaways from my couple days at Steelers camp.
All in all, I’m very excited to see what this 2019 Steelers team brings to the table. Feel free to let me know what your expectations are for the AFC North this year, or some of your NFL predictions in general!
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