In spite of the developments of the prior 18 months, there was still a lot of optimism heading into the 2019 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. That is because, with the latter but without the former, the team still sent players at both positions to the Pro Bowl in 2018.
That would be then-second-year skill position players from day two of the 2017 NFL Draft. Second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster came up big with 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. He made it into the Pro Bowl as an alternate. James Conner, the running back taken in the compensatory portion of the third round, totaled nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage with 13 scores in the same number of games, and was voted in outright.
They were expected to be the featured nucleus of the offense around Ben Roethlisberger, but the fantasy fell well short of the reality with all three of them dealing with injuries of varying significance. Roethlisberger’s was the most severe, and the earliest, which impacted the opportunities for the others.
Not only do they need their quarterback to be healthy and capable in 2020, of course, they also need their former budding stars at the skill positions to show everybody that they are indeed who we believed them to be just six months ago. Cameron Heyward believes they are capable of doing that, but also knows it’s imperative that they do.
While acknowledging that injuries derailed their seasons, Heyward told Zach Gelb that he believes Smith-Schuster and Conner are “more than capable” of stepping up the way they played in 2018, and to even go beyond that.
“James can break any tackle. He’s strong with the ball and going to continue to get better. And JuJu’s gonna get better as well”, he told his host while doing the media rounds earlier this week. “I think he was 20 or 19 when he started in the league, and for him to have the career he’s had so far is unbelievable, but it’s time to transcend to that next level. We’re gonna need them to. We’re gonna need big plays day in and day out, but they’re capable of it”.
Outside of Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have some other young wide receivers who had nice moments for the team in 2019 in very compromised situations. James Washington is going into his third season and led the team in receiving yards last year. Diontae Johnson, a rookie this past season, led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns.
As for the running back position, Benny Snell figures likely to be the direct backup to Conner, while Jaylen Samuels and Kerrith Whyte could have complementary roles. Surely the entire weight of the offense won’t fall on the shoulders of their Pro Bowlers, but they will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting if this is to be a Super Bowl contender.