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2018 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Offensive Philosophy

Pittsburgh's proclivity to run its entire offense through two players has few parallels in modern NFL history. About 80% of the Steelers' rush attempts and 50% of their pass attempts go to Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Even when one or both players have missed games, the Steelers have typically preferred to keep their output concentrated rather than spreading it around more to offset.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs, Mason Rudolph [R]

Starting QB: Retirement talk be damned, Ben Roethlisberger is returning for another season as the starter for the Steelers. He's always a threat to miss a game or two due to injury, but Roethlisberger has top QB1 upside for fantasy owners each and every week. HIs numbers last year (over 4,200 yards passing, 28 passing touchdowns) should be easy for him to duplicate this season. Roethlisberger will be working without former Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley, but new Steelers OC Randy Fichtner spent the last eight years as the team's quarterback coach where he developed a strong rapport with Roethlisberger. Fichtner should put a system in place that works to Roethlisberger's strengths in a way we may not have seen since the days Bruce Arians was running the show. Antonio Brown is still playing at a high level, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is set to do more during his second season in the pros. With Le'Veon Bell still running the rock, things should continue to set up nicely for Roethlisberger in 2018.

Backup QB: Mason Rudolph could be the quarterback of the future for the Steelers...much to the chagrin of Ben Roethlisberger. With Roethlisberger throwing out retirement talk over the last couple of years, the Steelers felt compelled to add a young talent to the room. Rudolph is a big, strong-armed quarterback who throws beautiful deep passes. During his time at Oklahoma State, Rudolph filled the air with footballs and put up great numbers. He has a lot to prove coming from the Big XII, where defense is not really a thing. Rudolph also has a lot to prove when it comes to making plays under pressure. In 2017, he had one of the lowest blitz-per-dropback rates (14.0 percent) in major college football. Landry Jones can be the placeholder for the Steelers, but any thought of him being anything more than a career backup is long gone. Josh Dobbs is a literal rocket scientist (aerospace engineer major at Tennessee) but he's got a lot of work to do as a passer, and he's best suited as a developmental backup quarterback.

Running Backs

Starter: Le'Veon Bell
Backup(s): James Conner, Jaylen Samuels [R], Fitzgerald Toussaint, Stevan Ridley
Fullback(s): Roosevelt Nix

Starting RB: Le'Veon Bell has been franchise-tagged by the Steelers for the second year in a row. The two sides have until mid-July to get a long-term deal done, but things seem dire in that aspect at this time. Bell is staying away from offseason workouts and he could stay away up to and through training camp without a new deal in hand. Fantasy owners already know that Bell is a superstar who should be taken in the first few picks of every draft in every format out there. Even with multiple 1,000-yard seasons on the ground, Bell has not yet peaked as a running back. If he plays a full 16-game season, we could see Bell push for 1,500 yards rushing or more - while also snaring 75-plus passes.

Backup RBs: James Conner is a powerful player who can make a living between the tackles. The 2017 third-round pick was put on Injured Reserve with an MCL injury back in December. It's a bit of a concern as Conner also had an MCL injury back in college at PITT. If healthy, Conner could be a two-down back for the Steelers and grind out some tough yards on the ground. Jaylen Samuels was picked up in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, and he's one of the most versatile players in this entire draft class. Measuring in at 6'0" 225 pounds, Samuels can play running back, fullback, H-back, tight end and even line up in the slot. Samuels is a 'tweener who doesn't really have a true position, but that's not a bad thing. The Steelers should be able to find a way to utilize his unique skill set. Fitzgerald Toussaint is a veteran who needs to hang onto the rock, and he provides little excitement when toting the rock. Stevan Ridley is nowhere near the player he used to be, but there's a bit more left in the tank than some think. He's just veteran depth for the running back room in Pittsburgh.

Fullback: Roosevelt Nix is your classic blocking fullback. He'll catch two passes (like he has each of the last two years) but primarily is on the team due to his special teams work.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster
Backups: James Washington [R], Justin Hunter, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Quadree Henderson [R]

Starting WRs: Fantasy owners already know how special Antonio Brown is - they just want him to stay healthy (especially during the fantasy playoffs). A calf injury limited him to 14 games last year, but Brown did return for the Steelers Divisional Playoff Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars where he didn't quite have his normal level of explosiveness. With Ben Roethlisberger staying away from the retirement crowd, it's continued great news for the Steelers passing game, fantasy owners and Brown himself. He should be among the first names called in any draft format. JuJu Smith-Schuster came onto the scene as a rookie in 2017 and instantly became a fan favorite because of his personality and on-field performance. He got almost 1,000-yards receiving (917) as a rookie and regularly drew comparisons to a young Hines Ward because of his toughness, savvy and route running. Entering his second season, the sky is the limit for what Smith-Schuster can do. He's already earned the trust of Roethlisberger and now doesn't have to worry about Martavis Bryant stealing time or targets away from him in 2018. He finished as a top-20 fantasy receiver in 2017, and Smith-Schuster could break into the top 15 this season.

Backup WRs: James Washington reminds us so much of former NFL receiver Chris Chambers. Like Chambers, Washington has long arms and a large wingspan to snare passes that other receivers shorter than 6-feet tall have no business catching. Washington is not the biggest target (5'11") but his catch radius and crazy body control allow him to flourish all through the route tree. He can work the sidelines and has the competitiveness to win at the catch point, especially in the red zone. Justin Hunter has always had great potential, but he's never played up to the physical tools in his repertoire. He'll get a chance now to work as a fourth receiver for the Steelers and may get a few looks near pay dirt. Darrius Heyward-Bey is still big and fast. There will be a time or two that he gets onto the field and makes a catch to move the chains (he played only 89 snaps in 2017). Undrafted in 2018, Quadree Henderson was a PITT receiver and return man who could move up the depth chart with time and development.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jesse James
Backups: Vance McDonald, Xavier Grimble

Jesse James had a career high in catches and receiving yards last year with 43 catches for 372 yards. With so many weapons at the wide receiver position, James may not see a huge bump in his production. Vance McDonald is a favorite of the coaching staff, and he plays like a big-bodied wide receiver who can create mismatches every time he's on the field. Steelers reporters are speculating that McDonald could be a 'big part' of the offense in 2018. If McDonald stays healthy, a problem for him in 2017, we could have a sleeper tight end here. Xavier Grimble is a blocker only and won't get many targets.

Place Kicker

Chris Boswell: Chris Boswell signed his second-round level restricted free agent tender and will be the Steelers kicker again in 2018. He was in the top five in scoring and field goals, and should be a top five kicker again this year adding points to one of the league's top offenses. He made all four of his attempts from 50+ yards in 2017 after only attempting four kicks from distance in the first two years of his career, so the team is trusting him more on long range kicks. Boswell should be a target after the first 3-5 kickers are off of the board.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Fitzgerald Touissant, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Last year, JuJu Smith-Schuster was Pittsburgh's best kickoff returner, tying for the team lead in return attempts with Martavis Bryant. Bryant is now gone, but Smith-Schuster is projected to take on a much larger offensive role in his absence. The great unanswered question becomes whether Pittsburgh will minimize his special teams work to offset; most teams do, but the Steelers have a history of letting their stars play special teams, too, (see: Antonio Brown). If Smith-Schuster does see his role reduced, Fitzgerald Touissant is a serviceable and reliable alternative.

Punt Returners: Antonio Brown

Every year, the Pittsburgh Steelers spend all offseason talking about reducing Antonio Brown's role on special teams. They even take him off punt returns for the first few weeks of the season. Then they cave and put him back deep again. 2018 could be the year they finally commit, but there's plenty of reason for skepticism.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David Decastro, RT Marcus Gilbert
Key Backups: Jerald Hawkins(inj), Chuks Okorafor [R], Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Patrick Morris

Right guard David Decastro earned All-Pro honors last season. He and center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster form an elite interior blocking unit. The tackles are not quite as dominant as the interior. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is huge but still has occasional technical issues while right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed most of last season due to injury. The team drafted Chuks Okorafor to possibly replace Gilbert down the road and Patrick Morris from TCU should give B.J. Finney a run for the backup center job. Overall, the Steelers' offensive line ranks as a top-tier option as the season opens.

Team Defense

The Steelers led the league in sacks, were tied for ninth in interceptions and finished in the top 10-12 in most team defense fantasy rankings last year, but they could be in for a decline to mere matchup play without Ryan Shazier. The team signed Jon Bostic to take Shazier's spot in the base defense and drafted nickel/dime linebacker fit Terrell Edmunds in the first round, but the loss is still looming large over the defense. Sean Davis was banged up last year, and will likely move to free safety to take Mike Mitchell's place as the last line of defense. With better health from Joe Haden, growth from 2017 first round pick Artie Burns, and veteran contributions at strong safety from free agent pickup Morgan Burnett, the secondary could firm up. The Steelers certainly have an offense that can stake the defense to leads, but without Shazier, they aren't clearly in the draftable fantasy defense tier.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Javon Hargrave, DE Cameron Heyward, DE Stephon Tuitt
Backups: NT Daniel McCullers, DE Tyson Alualu, DE L.T. Walton

Starting DL: The front three has been the foundation of a perennially strong Steelers defense for much of the last decade; 2017 was no exception. The team's league high 56 sacks made a huge contribution to the fifth ranked pass defense, and the unit was solid versus the run with a top ten finish in yards allowed. In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt Pittsburgh has a pair of prototypical 3-4 ends who can both control the line of scrimmage to keep the linebackers clean and get after the passer. Heyward totaled 25 sacks over his first six years before exploding for team a high and career best 12 in 2017. Tuitt has been banged up over much of the last two seasons. He battled back and elbow injuries last year which led to his worst statistically production since recording 39 solo stops and 6.5 sacks as a first time starter in 2015. He is now healthy and the team expects a return to form. Javon Hargrave stepped into the lead role at nose tackle as a rookie in 2016 and wasted no time proving he belonged. At 305 pounds he is somewhat undersized compared to the typical 3-4 nose tackle, but is more mobile and athletic than most. Nose tackles in three man fronts are generally tasked with eating up space and/or blockers at the line. Hargrave however is more than just a space eater. He can make a little noise as a pass rusher and is adept at getting off blocks to make plays in the run game.

Backup DL: The Steelers are not a team that uses many players up front. Their starters generally play a lot of snaps and they rarely keep multiple backups. A lack of depth seemed to bite them a little when Heyward was lost in 2016 so they added another starter quality player in Tyson Alualu before last season. That addition paid off as Alualu stepped right in when Tuitt was battling injuries and the team never missed a beat. Having such a quality third option could lead to a bit more rotation at end in 2018. L.T. Walton was the team's sixth round pick in 2015. He has seen limited action over his three seasons with the team but made a solid showing last season when given increased opportunity. Walton is the kind of developmental player Pittsburgh is known for but he is unlikely to get on the field much if the team is not hit hard by injuries. Daniel McCullers had a good deal of opportunity while spelling Hargrave in 2016. Last season however, McCullers rarely got on the field. At 352 pounds McCullers is well suited to the typical nose tackle role of space eater but he lacks the quickness and athleticism Steelers coaches covet up front. Barring injury there is little chance of McCullers getting into the lineup as more than a situational short yardage guy or to spell Hargrave once in a while.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Vince Williams, ILB Jon Bostic, OLB T.J. Watt, OLB Bud Dupree
Backups: ILB Tyler Matakevich, ILB L.J. Fort, OLB Anthony Chickillo, OLB Keion Adams

Starting LBs: Steeler history is littered with great pass rushing outside linebackers but it has been a while since we have seen one. As a team Pittsburgh recorded a league best 56 sacks in 2017. The unusual fact being that no outside backer has exceeded 7 in any of the last three seasons. It is not a case of the team not reloading with talent at the positions. In fact they have invested several early draft picks there in recent years including second year man T.J. Watt who was a first round selection in 2017. Despite their commitment of resources to the outside linebacker position, it was defensive end Cameron Heyward leading the team with 12 sacks while inside backer Vince Williams was second on the roster with eight. The good news for this organization is that Watt was a close third with 7 as a rookie. He displayed a ton of potential giving the coaching staff hope for double digit sacks from an outside rusher for the first time in nearly a decade. Bud Dupree had a pedestrian rookie season producing 4 sacks as a rotational player. After missing most of 2016 with a groin injury he gave the organization a lot to be optimistic about late that year. Dupree started the final four games totaling 15 tackles with 4 sacks and a forced fumble. He managed a solid campaign including a career best of 6 sacks in 2017, but has still not become the dominating player the team expected when taking him twenty two overall in 2015. The loss of Ryan Shazier was a tough one for the Steelers last season and it may prove hard to overcome this year as well. The team signed Jon Bostic in free agency and they have high hope for Tyler Matakevich who stepped in last season. Bostic has never been more than a marginal two down starter since coming to the league with the Bears in 2013. Possibly the most telling fact being the linebacker starving Colts lack of interest in retaining him after last season. Vince Williams moved into the starting role last year after the team moved on from Lawrence Timmons. The loss of Shazier unexpectedly made Williams the centerpiece of the defense. He is a physical run defender with a great motor but there are some limitations to his game. The coaching staff was able to mask Williams average at best cover skills by turning him lose to rush the passer often. He has veteran savvy and proved to be a good leader on the field but the team may eventually miss the athleticism they had with Shazier.

Backup LBs: Unlike many teams in the NFL, the Steelers are not going to use a lot of players in rotational or sub package situations. Tyler Matakevich projects as the backup to both Williams and Bostic though there is some chance he will beat out Bostic for a starting spot. The third year pro is a developmental prospect that is thought highly of by many in the organization. Anthony Chickillo will be the top reserve at outside linebacker. He has 5.5 sacks in a limited role as the third man over the past two seasons and has proven to be more than adequate when called upon. Keion Adams was the seventh round pick of Pittsburgh last season. A developmental player who lost his rookie season to injury, Adams still has a long way to go before becoming a factor.

Defensive Backs

Starters: S Sean Davis, S Morgan Burnett, S Terrell Edmunds [R], CB Artie Burns, CB Joe Haden, CB Mike Hilton
Backups: S Marcus Allen [R], S Jordan Dangerfield, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Coty Sensabaugh

Starting DBs: Pass defense was the Achilles heel of the Steelers for a few years but they managed to turn their fortunes around in 2017. What made their success even more impressive was achieving it despite injuries and mid season lineup changes at the corner positions. The secondary got a big boost when Joe Haden came on board in late August and Artie Burns took a big step in his second season. This duo gives the Steelers an excellent cover tandem. The only thing missing from their game is a lot of turnovers. Haden and Burns accounted for one interception each last year. There were significant changes at the safety positions this offseason after Michael Mitchell was let go. Free agent Morgan Burnett was signed and rookie Terrell Edmunds was drafted in round one to join incumbent Sean Davis. All three are physical players with good size, speed, instincts and a history of big play production. Their versatility and interchangeability could give opponents fits. The big question early on will be where do they all line up? Davis had a big 2017 season with 92 combined tackles, 4 turnovers and a sack from the strong safety position but there is strong consideration being give to moving him to free safety. Burnett spent significant time at both strong and free safety during his career in Green Bay where he proved just as capable at either spot. The rookie is the wildcard in the safety mix. Edmunds too can line up at either strong or free safety but he also has experience at linebacker during his Virginia Tech career. The Steelers personnel moves, or lack thereof when it comes to replacing Ryan Shazier, points to them joining the current NFL trend of playing multiple safeties and using safeties as sub package linebackers. Regardless how they line up Pittsburgh has a talented collection of players at the position.

Backup DBs: There is not a great deal of experience behind the starters but there is some potential. Last year's third round pick Cameron Sutton played sparingly as a rookie but could be in the mix for sub package action in 2018. Rookie fifth round pick Marcus Allen is another physical strong safety type with the ability to work in the box and the potential to eventually see some time at linebacker. Jordan Dangerfield and Coty Sensabaugh are unlikely to have significant roles on defense despite having more experience than the younger players. Most of their contributions will come on special teams.

Last modified: 2018-06-16 12:40:55