It wasn’t too long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ arsenal on offense was the envy of the NFL. A clear and convincing argument could have been made for both wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell that they were the best players at their respective positions in the entire league. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may not always make top-five lists, but he was at least recognized as a Super Bowl-contending passer.
While Roethlisberger is still here, albeit coming off of a very serious injury and having not yet proven that he is capable of playing, Brown and Bell are gone, and I don’t think anybody would argue that their replacements are better, or perhaps have even sufficiently ‘replaced’ them.
In the case of the latter, James Conner did make the Pro Bowl in 2018, the year Bell chose to sit out the season rather than play under the franchise tag for a second time. He is an obviously talented player when he is healthy, but as we saw last season, that is an important qualifier in his case.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was ‘lit’ in 2018—when he had Brown on the other side of him. He caught 111 passes that year for 1426 yards and also went to the Pro Bowl with his more established teammate. I doubt the Steelers have sent multiple wide receivers to the Pro Bowl in the same year very often in their history.
Due to a variety of factors, all three of these players had seasons in 2019 that were at least some level of disastrous. In light of this, it’s really not very surprising that the Steelers were looked upon unfavorably in an NFL.com list of the best ‘triplets’ in the NFL, defined as a team’s quarterback, running back, and pass catcher (not necessarily wide receiver. They ranked 17th, in fact, just in the bottom half of the league:
Roethlisberger’s return saves me from writing about Duck Hodges/Mason Rudolph, so the QB already earns a W in my book. To be frank, I moved Big Ben up and down the QB rankings too many times to count. When he’s right, the 38-year-old is elite. But when he’s off — especially on downfield passes — he’s a liability. The future Hall of Famer is still far better than the Steelers’ alternatives, but I’m not sure he’s still capable of taking a solid supporting cast and making it great. Based on his ranking above, though, you can see I’m not completely counting him out just yet. If JuJu wants the Steelers’ WR1 crown, he has to deliver no matter who’s under center. You can’t celebrate the receiver’s 1,426 yards while playing with Big Ben and Antonio Brown, then ignore that Smith-Schuster managed just 552 yards with Hodges/Rudolph. Same goes for Conner, who posted 41.6 fewer scrimmage yards per game last season (71.5, down from 113.1 in 2018) while battling leg and shoulder injuries. Given what we know, the middle of the pack feels right for this group.
The author obviously misses some very important facts in citing the statistics above, most notably the time that both players lost due to injury, not just in terms of games missed but in snaps played. Their production on a per-snap basis wasn’t as steep a dropoff as the raw numbers look. But nevertheless, there is reason for outsiders to look upon the Steelers’ offensive weaponry, particularly at the top, with some hesitation and skepticism until they show what they can do on the field again.