The next man up for the Pittsburgh Steelers at quarterback wasn’t nearly varsity enough.
The play of the running backs and wide receivers often times wasn’t above the line.
And despite what many metrics indicate, my eyes told me that the play of the offensive line didn’t meet the standard.
In totality, the Steelers offense hung out to dry a borderline championship level defense. The results were 8-8 and a second straight season of no playoffs.
Where do the Pittsburgh Steelers go from here?
First and Foremost
All Steelers fans will have their fingers crossed from now until Ben Roethlisberger shaves his beard. Roethlisberger says he won’t shave until he is able to throw a football. When he does finally shave, hopefully he will shave a few pounds as well, like maybe 30 or so. It appears he is adept at eating with his left hand.
Provided Big Ben is able to come back, the Steelers will have a two year window to “go for it” as much as the salary cap will allow. Coincidentally this lines up with head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract. Lastly, it gives the Steelers two years to devise a post Ben Roethlisberger game plan.
The next quarterback certainly doesn’t appear to be on the current roster. Outwardly, Tomlin has given a vote of confidence to Mason Rudolph. It certainly sounds like they still want to give him a chance to be the backup, as well as maybe another shot at the future starting job. I don’t see it. As a matter of fact, I think it would be wise to bring in a veteran quarterback to back up Roethlisberger next year.
Who replaces Roethlisberger in a year or two? The Steelers hopefully won’t be drafting high enough to get a Trevor Lawrence type of college quarterback. I’m not sure they would ever trade enough to move up in the draft. Therefore the next quarterback may come from another organization. Giving full credit to my podcast partner Jed Donahue, keep an eye on Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. By that point, Stafford will be more than ready for a fresh start somewhere other than Detroit.
Age is setting in on this offensive line. Ramon Foster, one would assume, has played his last game for Pittsburgh. BJ Finney could be his replacement, but he too is a free agent and most likely will get paid more elsewhere.
Matt Feiler was a guy who graded out better than it appeared he played at right tackle. Many think the Steelers will move him to guard to take over for Foster, then move fan favorite Zach Banner in to the starting right tackle position.
Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva had drop offs in production this season. They aren’t going anywhere, so the hope is they have bounce back years in 2020.
I would like to see them go out and upgrade this area, but the salary cap may not allow for that plan, as there are other needs yet to discuss. Shuffling the cards may work, or it may get Roethlisberger killed. Is that a risk the Steelers are willing to take?
This position needs either an infusion of talent or an infusion of health.
James Conner had moments this year. Unfortunately he had more moments in street clothes because of constant injuries. Early in the season, while healthy, Conner performed well below an acceptable level. He is under contract for one more year, and at a reasonable price. Look for him to be back.
Benny Snell also had moments. He isn’t big, but he is a tough runner. I get the idea that Mike a Tomlin likes his style. Look for Snell to play a bigger role next season.
All other backs, not including fullback Roosevelt Nix, are pretty much useless. Jaylen Samuels will most likely return, but he is very marginal on his best day.
Would the Steelers dare reach out to the Jets, who most likely will make Le’veon Bell available. How he would fit under the salary cap may test Steeler capologist Omar Khan, but it may be worth the phone call.
There will also be plenty of high end running backs available with the Steelers’ second round pick in the draft. They have usually gone with the “best player available” thought process, so it’s tough to get a read right now.
The receiving unit, and that includes the tight ends, underperformed on the whole. JuJu Smith-Schuster kept his social media brand going strong, but his production on the field not so much. Whether JuJu just isn’t as good without a dominant receiver on the other side or maybe just lost focus this year, he finished as more of a question mark than sure fire top receiver. I think he would be much better suited in the slot. He has never been a real burner on the outside, but his route running would be more beneficial in the slot.
The best receiver on the team, without much question, was rookie Dionte Johnson. I questioned his selection a bit, but he more than proved that doubt unfounded. Johnson also invigorated the punt return unit, which was dead in the water with fair catch specialist Ryan Switzer back there. Johnson does need to work on ball security, but showed he has a real future in Pittsburgh.
James Washington showed a fair amount of improvement from his rookie season, and is more than capable of filling the number two or three receiver spot.
Tight end is the biggest disappointment in the receiving corp. Vance McDonald has shown glimpses of being a dominant force, but he is constantly injured. Nick Vannett, picked up from a Seattle, is a capable back up. The Steelers would be wise to drop the oft injured McDonald, freeing up some cap space, and look for tight end help on the free agent market, the draft, or maybe even both.
Chris Boswell became “the Boz” again this year. Kicking, like putting in golf, is 90% mental. So rather than say anything that may jinx Boswell for next year, let’s move on.
Jordan Berry had an out of body experience the first half of the season. He actually punted well. Then he went back to typical Berry, including a mysterious fake attempt and some fumbled snaps. He has to go.
Another person that should be replaced is special teams coach Danny Smith. He and his three pounds of bubble gum did not get the job done. It didn’t matter who was returning kickoffs, there were never any running lanes. Kick coverage was average at best, and it required a season ending injury to Switzer for him to place an actual competent returner in the lineup.
The defense needs to maintain its level. If there was a weakness, it was interior run defense. Javon Hargrave had a really good season, but he is not a typical 3-4 nose guard, ala Casey Hampton. Hargrave is probably gone via free agency. Again, you can’t keep everybody. Some of that slack will be made up by the return of Stephon Tuitt, who spent most of the year on IR.
The man the Steelers must get locked up, either by tagging him or negotiating a new deal, is Bud Dupree. Dupree finally had the type of season fans have been waiting for. Finding a high motor edge rusher isn’t easy, so keeping him is a must. He also plays with a nastiness the team needs.
Another under the radar guy that could slip out of town via free agency is Mike Hilton. Hilton is always around the ball, and he played the most amount of snaps in his career. He is a player I would hate to see them lose.
A defense led by JJ Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Joe Haden has the potential to be the best in the league.
The three game fade down the stretch of the season brought out the torch and pitchfork crowd once again.
“He didn’t have them ready.”
”He always loses games like this.”
”What was he thinking punting at the end of the Ravens game?”
Look, I’m on record last year of saying I thought a change was needed when, not only did he not get them to the Super Bowl, but they didn’t even make the playoffs.
This season showed me a different side of Tomlin. He kept that team together through lots of thick, and even more thin. I believe Tomlin became more involved, and certainly he had these players motivated.
The bottom line is he had these two guys playing quarterback.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 30, 2019
He still has faults. For example, JuJu may benefit from a head coach that would…ahem…encourage him to focus more on football and less on social media. But you folks that want Tomlin fired after this season need to crawl back under your rock.
In a salary cap league you can’t keep, and/or get everything you want. Here, in my opinion, is the list of priorities for this offseason and why.
- Offensive line- Fat Ben, or slightly skinnier Ben, needs more protection at age 38 than he may have needed previously. I’m not sure the requisite talent is currently on the roster.
- Defense- Keep Bud Dupree a Steeler.
- Tight End- Big Ben has always loved working the middle of the field with Heath Miller, Jesse James, and Vance McDonald. Miller is retired, James is in Detroit, and McDonald is probably in some type of cast, so addition here is a must. Would you bring James back, who sees limited reps in Detroit? Eric Ebron may be available from Indy. Spend another draft pick on a tight end?
- Running Back- Would you, could you, should you think about a Le’Veon Bell reunion. I would. You know what he brings to the table, and was not toxic ala Antonio Brown. Could you get by with a Conner/Snell combo? Maybe. Conner just doesn’t stay healthy. The draft may be the answer here.
- Wide Receiver- You have to assume JuJu will be better. Johnson and Washington are young and will get better. I would like them to add a depth guy, hopefully with better hands than Donte Moncrief.
- Coaches- I’m sure Randy Fichtner will be back as offensive coordinator, and that is unfortunate. He and Danny Smith should both be replaced.
The Steelers should be all in on these next two seasons with Roethlisberger. If he stays upright, the Steelers should be in the mix for the playoffs, and hopefully more. In the meantime they need to start planning for their post-Ben future.
The standard will be the standard, but having players good enough to meet the standard is always helpful.
Two Cent Takes
~This week numbers 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10 all lost. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s going to be a crazy season. Good luck to the selection committee this year trying to seed all these teams that seem very similar.
~The Big Ten is the best Conference, dominating the top 25. The ACC is way down, hurt by North Carolina’s disappearance.
- Overrated- Memphis. Without James Wiseman, the Tigers are more average than great. The loss to Georgia will probably be the first of several.
- Underrated- Florida State. Head coach Leonard Hamilton is underrated in his own right. He is 71, but looks 51, and can really coach. His Seminoles are always overlooked until they are still standing late in the NCAA tournament. He had to replace a lot of talent, and he has done so with his usual long, athletic players who can knock down shots. If they won the ACC I wouldn’t be surprised.
- Sleeper- San Diego State. Can an undefeated team be a sleeper? They play mostly late night(EST) so they go mostly unnoticed. They went into Logan, UT, and easily handled the Aggies of Utah State. They may not lose any time soon.
~Penn State beat Iowa Saturday in a designated home game played in the Palestra in Philadelphia. Patrick Chambers recruits Philly heavily and used this as a recruiting tool. The atmosphere was ten times better than at the Bryce Jordan Center. The BJC is not a great basketball facility, but you would hope the students get behind this team.
~I hope Steve Lavin never coaches again. He is fantastic both in the FOX studio and as a game analyst. He is also clever turning a phrase like, “They could open a bakery with all these turnovers.”
~Pittsburgh Penguins rising star Jake Geuntzel was hurt this week after slamming into the boards and will essentially miss the rest of the season. No team has been beset by more injuries than the Pens. They are playing really good hockey, and will get Sidney Crosby back soon. Look for Trader Jim(Rutherford) to make a move to replace Guentzel.
~The Houston Texans won a wildcard game, no thanks to head coach Bill O’Brien. O’Brien was lampooned on social media, and he continues to skate on thin ice. He has a star quarterback. He has a star receiver. He traded for a star offensive lineman. Yet his offenses are still inconsistent, to be kind. They will need to outscore the Chiefs next week, so O’Brien better have some good plays written on that play sheet of his.
~Buffalo is really close to being good. The AFC East is finally getting better slowly but surely. New England will no longer automatically have six wins in their back pocket.
~Joe Tessitore and Booger Macfarland are, well, not good. Tessitore makes every two yard run to set up 2nd and 8 an epic event. As for Macfarland, well he has no clue what he is saying. He capped his season of ineptitude by suggesting Buffalo run a draw play wit 20 seconds left in the game and no timeouts on third down with no ability to spike the ball to stop the clock and set up the game tying field goal. ESPN should be ashamed to put them on the air.
~The New England Patriots dynasty may finally be coming to an end. Losing at home to a team whose quarterback threw for only 71 yards is brutal by Bill Belichick standards. Tom Brady is finally showing his age, and is surrounded by the least amount of talent in a decade. Brady says he will be back. Will he, and will it be in New England?
~After pulling the same stunt earlier in the season himself by taking an intentional illegal procedure penalty to drain 40 extra seconds off the clock, Bill Belichick wasn’t amused when he was on the receiving end of it. If you are an average lip reader(kids look away) you will see how unamused he was.
— Tim Clark (@TrojanTim66) January 5, 2020
~I love watching Tennessee pound the ball down teams’ throats with bulldozer Derrick Henry. However, Trent Dilfer doesn’t win the Super Bowl often. And Ryan Tannehill is Trent Dilfer.
~I liked the Minnesota Vikings all year. I thought they had a really good roster. In the end, though, I didn’t trust quarterback Kirk Cousins.
He said it.
You knew he would. 🤣 pic.twitter.com/WPShBQBkDt
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 5, 2020
My bad, Kirk.
~The Saints end another season with a questionable interference call that doesn’t go their way. Difference this year is they didn’t deserve to win. Drew Brees looked old. He wasn’t even the best quarterback on his team. That honor goes to Taysom Hill. Oh, and Sean Payton, can you say overrated?
~I can’t believe there was a time I didn’t like Pete Carroll. What an amazing spirit, and he can coach a little bit, too.
~In case the Eagles didn’t suffer enough injuries leading up to the playoffs, Carson Wentz gets smashed(spearing anyone?) and is lost for the game. Enter 40 year old Josh McCown. It was a valiant effort, but you just can’t overcome that much.
~Hate parity all you want because it “waters down” the product. It also makes for great playoff games because there is not a lot of difference between the #1 seeds and the #6 seeds.
A Penny For My Final Thought…
College Football bowl season is over after tonight, save the championship game. Everyone wants to look back and see what all of the results mean. Talking heads try to turn the results in to referendums on teams, coaches, and particularly conferences.
I don’t think much can be made of the results. Minnesota’s win over Auburn was great for their program, but it didn’t mean the Big Ten was suddenly better than the SEC.
- The SEC is still on top. LSU, Florida, and Georgia were impressive. Oh, and Alabama is still really good.
- The Big Ten was adequate. Ohio State lost, but was the better team versus Clemson. Penn State won as they should, and Minnesota had the conferences best win over Auburn. The Big Ten’s biggest issue is how overrated Jim Harbaugh and Michigan is.
- The ACC has a Florida problem, as in Miami and Florida State continue to embarrass themselves.
- The PAC 12 has an LA problem, as in USC continues to embarrass themselves thanks to Clay Helton and the dysfunctional university administrators.
- The Big 12 doesn’t play anything close to championship defense. Ask Baylor how they liked playing a real defense in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma still hasn’t come out of the fetal position after the LSU beatdown.
My biggest takeaway from bowl season was the stupidity of the schedule.
There is no reason not to play the semi final games on New Year’s Day. Play the first semi final at noon. Keep the Rose Bowl in its typical time slot, maintaining its great tradition. Then play semi final number two after the Rose Bowl. The Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl can be played on the nights of the 30th and 31st.
Finally, don’t make fans wait two plus weeks for the championship game. Play it the following Monday night. This year that would be tonight.
Waiting that long isn’t generating excitement, it is diminishing excitement.
Just my two cents…
Tim Clark is a columnist and editor for PennSports.LIVE, and a wonderful writer of words. He is a lifelong sports fanatic with an eclectic mix of favorite teams including USC Trojans football, Louisville Cardinals basketball, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins in pro sports.