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AFC Roundtable: Steelers season recap with Behind The Steel Curtain

NFL: DEC 22 Steelers at Jets Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, I will be running through a series of Q&As with our fellow SB Nation blogs across the AFC, checking up on the state of affairs for the Jets’ conference rivals.

We continue with a team in Western Pennsylvania that finds itself in a quarterbacking quagmire — the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dave Schofield of Behind The Steel Curtain was able to answer a few questions regarding Pittsburgh’s 2019 campaign.

1. Sporting a dominant defense, it seemed the Steelers were a good quarterback away from competing for a Super Bowl this year. How much did the quarterback position hold this team back?

The offense as a whole held this team back tremendously, and it started with the quarterback play. When the Steelers were forced to start their fourth-string quarterback who wasn’t even on any practice squad in Week 1, it’s a difficult situation to overcome. What made it equally difficult is the Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is completely all in on an offense run by Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, many in Steelers Nation feel that Ben Roethlisberger is the offensive coordinator of the Steelers as Fichtner is also the quarterbacks coach. Having to groom young quarterbacks and come up with an offensive game plan seemed to be too much for the Steelers this year because in 14 games without Ben things never really changed all that much. The Steelers got a little gimmicky in using the wildcat at times, but gimmicky cannot be exchanged for creativity. The young quarterbacks were asked to come in and do the same thing Ben Roethlisberger does or just check everything down in order to protect the ball. It was an unrealistic expectation for the season. Since the end of the season, the Steelers have hired a quarterbacks coach for next season (Matt Canada) who will hopefully help all the quarterbacks on the roster.

2. The Steelers were unable to make up for their passing struggles with a quality ground game, ranking 30th in yards per rush and rush offense DVOA. How would you spread the blame for this unit’s struggles across running back, blocking, and coaching?

The quarterback. It was the lack of a threat of an air attack which allowed defenses to continually stack the box in the running game against the Steelers. Add in the Steelers top to rushers on the season, James Conner and Benny Snell Jr, each missed time due to injury. An aging offensive line doesn’t help matters either. But beyond team stacking the box due to the quarterback situation, the most frustrating thing was a lack of deception in the running game as most teams knew exactly where the Steelers were going to go every time they ran the ball. The Steelers longest running play on the season was for 45 yards on a play where the running back ran the opposite way of the fullback. I don’t know if it was by design or mistake, but all the defenders flowed to the fullback and it opened it up for Trey Edmunds to go for 45 yards against the Colts. Most other times, teams knew exactly where the Steelers were going to run and just sent people there more than what could be blocked.

3. From a production standpoint, JuJu Smith-Schuster was a massive disappointment in his first season without Antonio Brown. Did Smith-Schuster’s individual performance truly see a dip in 2019? Or, are his lackluster numbers simply a product of quarterback play? Do you think he has what it takes to be the No. 1 guy?

While quarterback play is towards the top of the list, what might have been the biggest reason for JuJu’s lack of production in 2019 was he was dealing with injuries the entire season. Smith-Schuster injured his foot in Week 1 against the Patriots and was playing through the injury for the majority of the season. Even when he was on the field, he was drawing a lot of attention which the young quarterbacks could not always work around. But even being injured, having JuJu on the field to draw the double teams did help with the emergence of Diontae Johnson and James Washington in 2019. Whether or not JuJu is a true number one receiver remains to be seen, but if Johnson and Washington can continue their play in 2020, the Steelers may have three number two receivers which is not a bad situation.

4. Pittsburgh was amazing defensively, ranking third in DVOA. That represented a 10-spot leap from their #13 rank in 2018. What were the biggest reasons for the substantial improvement?

Personnel. Adding Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade for the Miami Dolphins was everything to this defense. He gave the Steelers someone who took away the deep middle of the field and is fantastic at communicating and setting up the entire defense. The Steelers also added Steven Nelson via free agency this past off-season. He may have had a better season than Joe Haden other than the interception numbers. He just wasn’t considered for the Pro Bowl because he shut down his side of the field so often teams were forced to throw more towards Haden. Add in the fantastic pass rush upfront along with Vince Williams being able to be the run-stopping linebacker he’s truly meant to be, and this defense looked as balanced as I’ve ever seen. Williams had been asked to be the pass-defending linebacker ever since the loss of Ryan Shazier. But now with Devin Bush in the mix, Williams helped shut down the run this year more than people realize.

5. How would you summarize Devin Bush’s rookie season? Where does he fit into the future of this defense, and how high is his ceiling?

He had a fantastic rookie year in my opinion. Not only did he lead the team in tackles, he led all NFL rookies. He just has instincts of where to go for the ball. He ranked very high in pass coverage when it came to man-to-man defense, but not so much in zone coverage. Struggling with playing an NFL zone during one’s rookie season is not unheard of in the NFL. Look for Bush to really come onto the scenes even more in his second season.

6. If you could add one offensive and one defensive player from any point in Jets history to the current iteration of the Steelers, who would you choose?

This is an interesting question. In thinking about the answer, I’m surprised at how many ties to Pittsburgh there are with the New York Jets. Between players coming from the area or even being former Steelers, there are a lot. On offense, I would have to say if the Steelers had a young Curtis Martin it would really help this team. As for defense, anyone who wouldn’t want to grab Darrelle Revis would be absolutely crazy. Right now the Steelers are very strong at cornerback so I’m going to go with the crazy notion of having both All-Pro safeties on the same team and add Jamal Adams next to Minkah Fitzpatrick.

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