Coming off one of the most tumultuous years in franchise history, in which players likened the situation to the “Kardashians,” the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to return from chaos to consistency. 2018 marked a time where TMZ covered the Steelers more than Miley Cyrus. Every week a new controversy reared it’s ugly head, taking a toll on the locker room, leading to an epic collapse as the Steelers somehow lost 4 of their last 6 games, after a 7-2-1 start, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

The departures of franchise-staples like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell leaves a void in talent but opens the door for other skill position players to step up. Commanded by long-time gunslinger Ben Roethlisberger, backed by a young core featuring the likes of breakout speedster JuJu Smith-Schuster, hometown-hero wrecking ball James Connor, and young-playmaking pass-catcher James Washington, the Steelers have all the tools on offense to rectify last year’s shocking disappointment.

They also sport a much-improved defense led by the likes of sack masters TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward and adding an excellent prospect at middle linebacker in Michigan’s Devin Bush, someone who can hopefully fill the huge hole left by Ryan Shazier many years ago, acting as the quarterback of the defense.

Despite the optimism, it’s just as easy to see the Steelers flailing to a mediocre finish with the losses of Brown and Bell, the aging of Big Ben and the still suspect secondary.

The range of outcomes for this team is all over the place, so today, let’s breakdown who’s likely to make this team and what impact they’ll have on a season marred with more question marks than years past.

Quarterbacks

Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
  • Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
  • Backups: Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs
  • Preseason Cuts: Devlin Hodges

The quarterback situation is pretty cut and dry. Roethlisberger retains the starting gig after a career year with passing touchdowns and yards. Rudolph, the former 3rd round pick, enters his sophomore season in a tight contest with former Tennessee Volunteer Dobbs for the backup role. Regardless of who comes out on top, I’m sure the black and gold will keep three quarterbacks on the roster, with Samford’s Hodges playing well enough to earn a practice squad spot.

Running Backs

Credit: Justin Berl/Getty Images
  • Starters: James Connor (RB), Roosevelt Nix (FB)
  • Backups: Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds, Benny Snell
  • Preseason Cuts: Malik Williams, Travon McMillian

The Pitt product is slotted to be the bell cow for the black and gold, with converted tight end Samuels acting as a change-of-pace receiving back. Fullback Nix again will be used for his toughness and versatility. Snell was taken in the 4th round of the draft this year and has done enough in practice to maintain a role on the team, while special teams stud Trey Edmunds has impressed enough to likely snag a roster spot. If not, he would be a guarantee for the practice squad if another team didn’t claim him.

Wide Receivers

Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports
  • Starters: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington
  • Backups: Diontae Johnson, Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer
  • Preseason Cuts: Tevin Jones, Diontae Spencer, Johnny Holton, Trey Griffey, Brandon Reilly

The former USC stud is set to become Big Ben’s de-facto #1 target and should be up to the challenge after a breakout year garnering his first pro bowl appearance. Smith-Schuster will be complemented by reliable veteran Moncrief, known for his productive years in Indianapolis and coming to the Steelers after an up and down year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team is also set to feature 2nd-year receiver Washington, a breakout candidate with his tendency for game-changing plays.

Behind them, the Steelers will mix in prospects like this year’s third-round pick out of Toledo Johnson, with his mix of receiving and returner ability. They’ll also likely keep both Rogers and Switzer for their Special Team’s contributions.

Tight Ends

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  • Starter: Vance McDonald
  • Backup: Xavier Grimble
  • Preseason Cuts: Christian Scotland-Williamson, Kevin Rader, Zach Gentry, Trevor Wood, Micky Crum

The former 49er became a meme with his vicious week 3 stiff arm on Buccaneer’s safety Chris Conte, which actually ended Conte’s season. He’ll look to be the best tight end the Steelers have had since Heath Miller. Behind him will be the inconsistent hands of Grimble, who makes the team purely off his blocking prowess.

While Gentry has a shot at making the 53, I don’t believe his performances have warranted a spot. Look for the Steelers to be scouring the free agent pool for a third-string tight end after roster cutdowns.

Offensive Line

Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports
  • Starters: Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Matt Feiler
  • Backups: Zach Banner, Chukwuma Okafor, BJ Finney
  • Preseason Cuts: Fred Johnson, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassenauer, Garrett Brumfield, Patrick Morris, Jerald Hawkins, Damian Price

Once again the Steelers come back with a consistent and powerful offensive line led by pro-bowlers DeCastro and Pouncey and complimented with the power of Villanueva and veteran toughness of Foster, with practice squad success story Feiler rounding out the big boys upfront. Banner and Okafor should get some looks if someone were to get hurt or as rotational pieces filling in along the line.

Defensive Line

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  • Starters: Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave
  • Backups: Daniel McCullers, Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs
  • Preseason Cuts: Connor Sheehy, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles, Greg Gilmore, Winston Craig

Heyward will continue to anchor one of the stronger defensive lines in the NFL, complimented by the big and nimble Tuitt and Hargrave. Behind them, utility guys like McCullers and Alualu will act as situational/fatigue lineman, while 6th round pick Isaiah Buggs shows promise as a rotational pass rusher.

Linebackers

Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports
  • Starters: TJ Watt, Vince Williams, Mark Barron, Bud Dupree
  • Backups: Devin Bush, Tyler Matakevich, Ulysees Gilbert III, Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper
  • Preseason Cuts: Sutton Smith, Christian Kuntz, Jay Elliott, Robert Spillane, Tegray Scales

Watt will continue to lead the charge as the Steelers best pass rusher coming off a Pro Bowl year and his team-leading 13 sacks. Dupree will look to shake the label of “draft bust” as he gets one more shot to prove he was worth the first rounder the Steelers used on him a couple years ago. Long-time vet Williams will continue to terrorize ball carriers from the inside, while veteran safety/linebacker hybrid Barron comes in to replace Jon Bostic as the other inside guy. First round pick Bush should eventually surpass Barron in playing time, but to start the season will be the third guy in the pecking order with Matakevich and UG3 handling many hats on special teams.

Chickillo has been a staple as a rotational pass rusher who can wear many hats and should continue to stick around with the upside of Adeniyi making the cut as well, despite his current injury. The final guy may be a surprise as Skipper’s stellar preseason play elevates him to the roster for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers try to hide him on the practice squad.

Cornerbacks

Credit: Matt Sunday/DKPS
  • Starters: Joe Haden, Steven Nelson
  • Backups: Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton, Artie Burns, Justin Layne
  • Preseason Cuts: Trevon Mathis

Even in his later stages, Haden remains one of the better cornerbacks in the league and one bright spot in the dark and cruel unit that is the Steelers secondary. Coming in to hopefully alleviate those coverage woahs is Nelson, a former Kansas City Chief who the Steelers were high on back in the 2015 NFL Draft. Hilton and Sutton will hold down the nickel and dime slots while hopefully Artie “gets burned” Burns never touches the field. Oh yeah, Justin Layne exists too.

Safeties

Credit: Ron Schwane/AP Photo
  • Starters: Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds
  • Backups: Marcus Allen, Kameron Kelly
  • Preseason Cuts: Jordan Dangerfield, Marcelis Branch, Dravon Askew-Henry, PJ Locke

Davis and Edmunds have proven to be tackling machines and will continue to develop their ball hawk skills, while Allen and Kelly show promise, especially Kelly, who has outdone Dangerfield on Special Teams. With that said, the Steelers could keep Dangerfield on the roster.

Specialists

Credit: Neville E. Guard/USA Today Sports
  • Kicker: Chris Boswell
  • Punter: Jordan Berry
  • Long Snapper: Kameron Canaday
  • Preseason Cuts: Ian Berryman, Matthew Wright

The Aussie felt some competition from Berryman, but he’s still the superior punter, while Boswell remains the best kicker on the roster despite the awful year he had.

Overall, there’s several avenues the Steelers can go down. If Big Ben continues to play like last year, coupled with a healthy Connor and Juju stepping up to ascend to elite status, the offense should still be one of the most explosive in the league.

Defensively, with a unit that already has a knack for pressuring the quarterback, the Steelers just need to stop giving up passing touchdowns and big plays and they should be a formidable unit.

The path to the division is there, despite the Cleveland Browns’ major improvements. However, if Ben regresses and the secondary gets torched again, an 8-8 finish could be the result when it’s all said and done.

Ultimately though, the Steelers still just have too much talent to not be competitive. I see a 9-7 finish and a good chance at either taking the division or notching a wild card spot, especially with the steps back the Indianapolis Colts are likely to take.

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