Like all NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers had quite a few changes take place during the offseason with the main one being the trading away of wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. Additionally, the Steelers saw running back Le’Veon Bell, tight end Jessie James and linebacker L.J. Fort all leave via free agency. The Steelers, however, did have a few key signings during the offseason in wide receiver Donte Moncrief, cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Mark Barron and the result of all their offseason moves has resulted in Pro Football Focus, via ESPN.com, ranking their current projected starters the eighth-best in the NFL ahead of the 2019 regular season getting underway.
The insider article from PFF includes the following intro:
We dove into the Pro Football Focus database and ranked every roster as it stands right now, focusing on the expected starters. PFF grades every player on every play of every game of the NFL season, allowing us a comprehensive look at what each player has to offer for the upcoming season. Projected starting lineups on offense and defense are provided, including our player grades from the 2018 season.
Below are what PFF deems to be the Steelers biggest strength, biggest weakness and biggest x-factor based in the team’s speculated starters:
Biggest strength: The 2018 season was far from Ben Roethlisberger’s finest — only Eli Manning threw more turnover-worthy passes in the regular season — but the Steelers have a shot as long as Roethlisberger is under center. Yet despite his proclivity for putting the ball in harm’s way, the Steelers quarterback logged 42 big-time throws, second to only Patrick Mahomes, and his big-time throw percentage of 6.49% was good for fourth among the 30 QBs who threw 300 or more passes.
Biggest weakness: Once a jewel in the defense-heavy AFC North, the Steelers’ secondary failed to live up to expectations in 2018. Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks and safeties combined to allow a passer rating of 99.5 on throws into their coverage. That rank wasn’t just tied for 20th in the league, it was also the team’s second-worst single-season mark of the PFF era (since 2006). Of the eight players who played at least 100 snaps last season, only Joe Haden (70.9) graded above 70.0, so the Steelers will be looking for improvement in 2019.
X factor for 2019: JuJu Smith-Schuster. Now that Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have taken their talents elsewhere, this passing attack’s hopes rest on the shoulders of the third-year receiver. The USC product had a breakout season last year, as his 384 receiving yards from deep passes (passes of 20 or more yards downfield) were ninth most in the league, while his 660 yards after the catch was the best single-season mark by a receiver since Julio Jones in 2015. It appears that the sky is the limit for Smith-Schuster, and he’ll have to show he can do it as a true No. 1 in 2019.
The Steelers highest graded offensive player by PFF from last season still on the roster is wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (81.8) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (78.2) is slightly behind him. Defensively, all three staring defensive lineman, Cameron Heyward (84.9), Javon Hargrave (82.7) and Stephon Tuitt (81.8) are the highest graded, according to PFF. For what it’s worth, PFF has rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush (85.0), the team’s first-round draft pick this year, listed as a starter alongside Vince Williams (66.1).
Ranked ahead of the Steelers by PFF for this ESPN article are the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. And while the Cleveland Browns seem to be the early favorites of many to win the AFC North in 2019, PFF has their current starting roster ranked 18th overall and one spot behind the Baltimore Ravens. The Cincinnati Bengals, on the other hand, are ranked 25th overall on PFF’s latest offering.
Personally, I’m fine with the Steelers being ranked eighth overall by PFF as things stand currently here in late June. As long as the Steelers can remain relatively healthy all season and if Bush can hit the ground as a starter in Week 1, the Steelers should be considered the favorites to with the AFC North division in 2019 and thus make the playoffs and have a shot at winning a seventh Lombardi Trophy.