By Jake Mysliwczyk
It’s been less than a week since the Pittsburgh Steelers finished their 2019 season and I figured that was a long enough grieving period for a season that was lost before it ever really got started.
I’m certainly not the only one who had high hopes back in August for this team to make a decent postseason playoff run, but here we are 8-8 and the only reason for us to watch the postseason is to root against the Ravens and the Patriots.
The ship started sinking in week two with the loss of starting quarterback Ben Rothlisberger. Big Ben led the offense and each week we watched as that unit fell apart week-after-week and the defense was called upon to not only prevent the other team from scoring but put points on the board themselves.
Backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges tried their best to fill in for Roethlisberger. But neither could carry the load for extended periods. Although Rudolph’s time on the turf was filled with an entire career’s worth of excitement.
Rudolph was hit in the head with a football helmet on national television in an incident that made headlines across the country and was a first-of-its-kind brawl to take place in the NFL. We also saw Rudolph get knocked out cold after a hit from Ravens safety Earl Thomas, which lead to a scary scene as Rudolph was carted off the field and diagnosed with a concussion. He was then benched in the game at Cincinnati for performance issues (translation: he couldn’t complete a pass to save his life or his job). He then left the game against the Jets with a season-ending shoulder injury just a few weeks ago. However, despite his rough season, Head Coach Mike Tomlin has already anointed Rudolph as the second-string quarterback for 2020
From Rudolph, we moved onto Devlin Hodges, the pride of Samford University, who looked like a solid replacement for Rudolph after he was pulled in Cincinnati. After about two games at starting quarterback, though, Hodges began to look nervous and uncomfortable on the field. He had trouble completing passes, although when you think about it, he started performing exactly how undrafted rookie free agent quarterbacks are expected to play. He threw four interceptions the following week against Buffalo and two more the week after that against the Jets before being pulled for Rudolph. But regardless of his play, “Duck” Hodges gave fans something to be excited about. Duck Calls and duck masks started making their way into the stadium and it was fun to watch this small-school quarterback win games at the highest level.
I would be remiss to talk about Hodges’ season and not finally tell a story that I’ve been saving since that win at Arizona. The game fell during “My Cleats, My Cause” week in the NFL. Players had custom shoes painted to bring attention to a charity and to show off their personalities a bit. As I was waiting to board my flight to Arizona to shoot this game, I received a text from Hodges who got my number through another photographer. He had forgotten his personalized cleats and was trying to have someone bring them to the airport so I could bring them down. Schedules couldn’t line up, however, Current Associate Publisher Bethany Ruhe knew that newly elected Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam was coming to the game and hadn’t yet left. Calls were exchanged that led to the following pretty awesome picture. Hallam had a pretty good year herself, unseating a long-time incumbent to become Allegheny County Council’s youngest-ever member. In fact, she was being sworn into office as this story was going online.
James Conner is a great guy with a very inspiring backstory but his performance was limited this year because of injuries. It’s a shame because toward the end of the season you look at any comment section about Conner and it’s all, “He’s made of glass; he should be cut.” While it’s sad. there does seem to be some truth to the claim. He missed six games to injury and ended the season with only 464 yards and four touchdowns; not even half of his 2018 stats: 973 yards and 12 TDs. Conner is still under contract for another year, so hopefully, the off-season will allow him to get healthy for 2020.
Another key injury also befell wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. In Cleveland, he sustained a knee injury causing him to miss the next four games. JuJu also had a quiet year, only putting up 552 yards and 3 touchdowns compared to his 1,426 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2018. After the trade and emotional implosion of Antonio Brown, Smith-Shuster was supposed to be the No. 1 wideout. But he struggled with the double teams that used to fall on Brown and he couldn’t get in a rhythm with either of the two Steelers backups after Roethlisberger went down.
But things weren’t all bad. The Steelers defense was on pace to post historic numbers that matched those put up by the famed 1974 Steel Curtain defense. The defense in 2019 posted 20 interceptions, 54 sacks, and 22 forced fumbles. Minkah Fitzpatrick had five interceptions making the decision to trade with Miami to get him was probably the best move GM Kevin Colbert made all year. The only thing to do in the off-season is to sign outside linebacker Bud Dupree. This was his final contract year and his performance highlighted by 11.5 sacks, easily warrants at least a two-year deal.
This season started with three losses and ended the same way. Almost a repeat of 2018, but I can’t help but to look back at a couple of these games and think how close the Steelers were to beating the Seahawks, 49ers, Ravens, Bills and Jets. All of these games were lost by less than seven points. A lot of those losses can be traced back to bad calls in key moments. One that stands out is the horrible play call by offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner in the Bills game. The Steelers were on the Bills’ 10 yard-line and Fitchner called a wildcat play, a direct snap that running back Jaylen Samuels fumbled and the Bills recovered.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin did the best with what he had. In fact, given the quarterback situation, he did far more than anyone thought the team was capable of. But in the end, the Steelers’ lack of offensive talent finally caught up to the team.
If you take the situation as a whole, finishing 8-8 is an accomplishment. And while the combination of Rudolph and Duck wasn’t good enough to bring complete success, at least it was a rush for fans jumping on and off each quarterback’s bandwagon. In fact, the whole situation is best summed up with the incredible video from the pre-Christmas Jets game: