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.