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PITTSBURGH — What was once the NFL’s most formidable threesome has one Killer B left.

Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are top-10 playmakers in their primes who will — barring a major upset — no longer be Steelers in 2019.

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That leaves Ben Roethlisberger working with an offense that must utilize different parts to win games.

Bell and Brown are irreplaceable talents. More pointedly, the chemistry between Roethlisberger and Brown might never be replicated in Pittsburgh. The duo broke records with Brown’s six straight 100-catch seasons. But what many have described as a love-hate relationship seemed to boil over in late 2018, and Brown wants his proverbial fresh start.

The Steelers never got to a Super Bowl with these three as primary playmakers, and now they have no choice but to make a retooled offense work.

This is how it happens.

JuJu’s Year 3 jump: JuJu Smith-Schuster is on a historic pace through his first two seasons.

Putting Smith-Schuster’s early-career success in perspective: His 11 career 100-yard receiving games tie Hall of Famer Randy Moss for most ever before a player’s 23rd birthday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Smith-Schuster has until Nov. 22 to break the tie.

But 2019 will be his toughest test. Without Brown drawing safety help, Smith-Schuster must show he can beat the top corners consistently.

Comparing Smith-Schuster to Brown is difficult because they are different players. Brown’s quickness and footwork have gone unmatched for the last half-decade. Smith-Schuster has quickness but relies more on strength, body control and sure hands to make his plays.

It’s up to Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger to take their connection to a new level. Late last season, the two found a rhythm in the back-shoulder play that could become their signature.

Embolden James Washington: Tight end Vance McDonald said it best when discussing the offense last year: The Steelers need Washington to realize how good he can be. McDonald brought up that point unprompted. Talent is not an issue with Washington, who makes difficult catches look routine in practice. The issue was confidence, which is common for rookies.
James Washington will have to translate his potential into big plays in the absence of Antonio Brown. Joe Sargent/Getty Images
If Smith-Schuster finds the safety shading his way more often, he’ll need Washington to make defenses pay for that decision. Washington showed signs of life late in the year with games of at least 60 yards in Weeks 15 and 17.

Washington is a low-key Texan who enjoys working on cars and the family farm. If his play catches up with his talent, the Steelers will have a long-term solution at the No. 2 receiver spot.

Rely on the running game: Roethlisberger was prolific last season with 5,129 passing yards, but even team president Art Rooney II said he’d like to see more balance in the offense.

Pittsburgh’s 689 passing attempts led the league by 45. That’s more than a full game’s worth. The Steelers pride themselves on having one of the league’s best lines, and good lines love to run the ball.

Not that Roethlisberger shouldn’t decide games with a healthy number of attempts. But a lineup of James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and perhaps a veteran (Frank Gore, anyone?) can stabilize things.

New England’s Super Bowl run is a reminder of how devastating a good ground game can still be.

Vintage Big Ben: Relying too heavily on a running game lessens the chance for Roethlisberger to get hot. There’s a balance to be found, but when Roethlisberger’s no-huddle offense is humming, not many quarterbacks leaguewide can catch fire like him.

The Steelers don’t want to lose that spark, which is why Roethlisberger has so much freedom within the offense. They will take the occasional mistake — including 16 interceptions last year, tied for the league lead — because the rewards are great.

The onus is on Roethlisberger to keep the offense prolific without Brown. Though the Steelers clearly will miss Brown’s infusion of playmaking, Roethlisberger excels at getting several playmakers involved. With Brown out of the offense, the need to force the ball lessens.

Find the right fits externally: The free-agency crop of receivers is not packed with star power, but Pittsburgh could comb for potential deals on a deep threat such as John Brown or a steady all-around player such as Randall Cobb or Tyrell Williams.
The Steelers’ offense values versatile receivers who can handle all three positions. The team’s coaches and personnel tend to value fit and ability over measurables — just get the best players. Antonio Brown’s cousin, 5-foot-10 receiver Marquise Brown, might be an intriguing draft prospect because of his ability to stretch the field vertically.

Landing a high draft pick in a Brown trade would give the Steelers three picks in the first two rounds, which they could use to bolster the offense from the outside in.

Spread the wealth: McDonald is poised for a third-year leap in the Steelers’ offense. Assuming he stays healthy, there should be enough plays over the middle for McDonald to increase targets from last year’s modest 72. The team could re-sign Jesse James, a reliable option in two-tight-end sets.

Eli Rogers caught 12 passes in a three-game return from a torn ACL and could return on a low-cost one-year deal. Ryan Switzer is poised to return as a kick returner who adds receiver depth.

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If Eric Smith had accepted the status quo, he’d be going to Super Bowl LIII as a member of the New England Patriots’ practice squad — a rare chance to have an up-close view of perhaps another chapter in a sports dynasty. He’d be heading home, too, because he grew up in the Atlanta area.

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“Everything would’ve lined up perfectly,” Smith said last week in a phone interview.

Instead of a fabulous homecoming, the big offensive tackle will be watching the game from his apartment in South Florida. With two weeks left in the regular season, Smith voluntarily left the Patriots to join the New York Jets’ 53-man roster. He went from a first-place, playoff-bound team to a last-place team on the verge of firing its coach.

Who does that?

Smith knows how that decision might be perceived, but he has no regrets. He loved his time in New England, but he believed the best opportunity for long-term growth was with the Jets. There also was a slight bump in pay. He made $65,000 from the Jets for the final two weeks; he would’ve made $40,000 on the Patriots’ practice squad. Yes, he has missed out on the trappings of a postseason run, but he says he’s cool with that.

“I know how they approach every game, so I had no doubt they’d make it to the level they’re going to now — the Super Bowl,” Smith said. “I knew all of that could be a possibility. As a young guy, it would’ve been easy to just say, ‘Oh, I’m around Tom Brady every day … [Rob] Gronkowski … all those great players.’ All of that stuff was great, you know what I’m saying? It was a hard decision to leave those guys.

“The day I left, I shook everybody’s hand before the team meeting that day,” he continued. “It was hard, knowing I’d be done in two weeks and knowing what I’d be giving up with the Patriots, just being part of that dynasty they have going on. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m happy with it.”

Smith is an outlier in that he chose to leave the Patriots; it’s not like he was sent packing. That should make him popular in New York. He probably deserves a billboard on the New Jersey Turnpike.

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The Jets were persistent. They tried to sign Smith to their practice squad at the end of the preseason, when he was cut by the Miami Dolphins. (He wound up with the Patriots.) They made another run at him around Week 11. When starting right tackle Brandon Shell went on injured reserve in Week 16, the Jets offered a place on the 53-man roster and a two-year contract (non-guaranteed).

“I’ve always been a believer in that third time is the charm,” Smith said.

The Jets have only two tackles under contract: Shell and left tackle Kelvin Beachum, both of whom will be free agents after the 2019 season. Smith will have a chance to compete for the swing-tackle job. In New England, it would’ve been a tougher climb up the depth chart. Even though left tackle Trent Brown will be a free agent, the Patriots still have Marcus Cannon and first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who will return from injury in 2019. Their interior is rock solid with David Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, as Smith noted.

Smith misses his former linemates and his coaches, the legendary Dante Scarnecchia and assistant Cole Popovich, but he had to make a business decision.

“I don’t regret it,” he said. “On my end, I felt it was a positive thing. The Jets are a young team with a young vibe, new coaches and new players coming in. They’re trying to build and I can make a name for myself.”

Smith will be reunited with new Jets coach Adam Gase, whom he described as a “really chill dude.” But he admittedly didn’t know Gase that well during his time in Miami, as he spent most of the 2017 season on injured reserve. A rookie free agent on IR is on the “back of the back burner,” Smith said. He has a much better feel for the Patriots. After all, he practiced on their scout team for 15 weeks. Peeling back the famous iron curtain that protects the Patriots’ bunker, he described what fueled them this season.
“Being part of the team all year, I heard the naysayers and everybody saying, ‘This is not your year. You’re not performing, blah, blah, blah.’ Me being on the inside and seeing how they avoid all the naysayers and all the negativity, it was really inspiring.

“We ignored everything people had to say, whether it was positive or negative. Coach [Bill] Belichick, he stood in front of us in all those team meetings and he said, ‘Forget the media, forget what everybody has to say. They aren’t here with us, they aren’t working with us and we’re going to continue to do what we do.’ Everybody said it’s not our year, and they’re heading back to the Super Bowl.”

Minus a 6-foot-4, 308-pound lineman who will be rooting for them, one last time.