Facing plenty of adversity, notably injuries to key players, the Pittsburgh Steelers gave the 2019 season a good run.
Starting the season 1-4, the team went on an improbable 7-1 stretch before falling flat at the end of the season, losing their last three games. The end of the season was frustrating and heartbreaking as the team had hope: one more victory would've secured them a playoff berth as the AFC's sixth seed.
But that was not to be.
As the Steelers move into the new decade and begin plans for next season, there's some valuable lessons to be learned from their 2019 campaign, by those teams that ended up in the postseason.
There’s No Substitute For Talent
Most of us felt comfortable with the Steelers offense despite losing stars such as RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. The thought process was that the Steelers had their replacements set for the future.
As if that wasn’t enough of an uphill battle heading into 2019 for Mike Tomlin and company, franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down in the second week of the season – for the entire season.
The Steelers schedule didn't help either, as they also played playoff contenders right away with games against the Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens in four of their first five weeks, getting them off to a slow 1-4 start.
Often, the Steelers were at a disadvantage against teams due to a lack of experience and talent at key positions - especially quarterback. Proving that there's no real substitute for talent no matter how deep the roster appears to be.
Unfortunately, injuries are a part of the game and the Steelers were snake bitten. If you take a look at teams such as the 49ers, they had been subjected to losing seasons with Jimmy Garoppolo and others injured over the previous few seasons: a healthy San Francisco locked down the top seed in the NFC this season, proving that you need talent in order to succeed.
Seeing what Mike Tomlin was able to accomplish without his top talent is something that simply doesn’t happen often. Still, if the Steelers had Conner or Smith-Schuster full-time, we could assume that might've alleviated some of the issues their young quarterbacks had this season...
An Elite Quarterback Helps
While everyone expects them to take a look at adding pieces on offense, there are some rumblings about the quarterback situation. Many fans don't see Mason Rudolph or Duck Hodges as the future of the team, while others are skeptical about Ben Roethlisberger returning to his old form.
When looking at the postseason teams, three of the final four teams — the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, and San Francisco 49ers — all have elite passers such as Patrick Mahomes (last year's MVP), Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Pittsburgh had Big Ben, but lost him to injury halfway through a Week 2 loss to the Seahawks: coincidentally another playoff team with an MVP-level quarterback in Russell Wilson. Wilson ultimately led his team to the divisional round. bwin believed that Wilson would be the Seahawks best chance of beating the Packers in the playoffs, but in the end, they lost 28-23. (And yes, the refs still stink! But that's another topic!)
Other postseason quarterbacks include Ryan Tannehill, who has led the Titans with some brilliant play all his own, Kirk Cousins, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Carson Wentz, and Drew Brees.
Those are the sort of names you expect to see Roethlisberger's name next to when talking about playoff contending teams: and that's the kind of playmaker that was missing when he went on Injured Reserve.
His replacements flashed some of that ability and leadership, but ultimately it wasn't the same and we won't know until Rudolph or Hodges play again if they have the same capability.
Hopefully, either of those signal callers is capable, but the Steelers best bet, obviously, is that Ben Roethlisberger returns in 2020 in top form.
Still, getting everyone back and healthy (as mentioned above) should right the ship for 2020. However, there is concern that the Steelers need to start focusing on offense to replenish the cupboards so to speak.
It will also help to have a healthy offensive line (Ramon Foster missed several games while Maurkice Pouncey missed two due to suspension) and allowing the tight ends to do something other than block against stacked boxes preparing for those pair of unprepared quarterbacks.
Ben Roethlisberger will definitely help that shift and teams will once again have to respect the Steelers offense. When that happens, I believe a lot of the other offensive concerns will vanish.
Of course, that's why the quarterback position is so important in the first place...
End of Season Momentum
Mike Tomlin is no stranger to momentum. The Steelers sparked late, as they tend to do, following the month of September. However, December, traditionally one of Tomlin’s strongest months with teams he has coached, as been a letdown in the last two seasons.
The Steelers dropped their final three games, including losses to the Bills, Jets, and a Ravens team stocked with backups.
In 2018, Pittsburgh lost four of their last six games, dropping contests to the Broncos and Raiders (squads that were subpar) while losing to playoff teams such as the Chargers and Saints.
In order to make that final playoff push, the Steelers will need to find a way to ride that wave of momentum they’ve previously found in other seasons. By comparison, the Bills made the playoffs with a must-win game over the Steelers while the Titans secured the final spot in the AFC by beating the Texans.
Moving forward, our Steelers will need to take control of their own destiny, and come up big in every game—especially those with playoff implications.