By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Can JuJu Smith-Schuster adequately replace Antonio Brown?
In a league full of assholes, violent offenders and whatever the hell Richie Incognito is, JuJu Smith-Schuster appears to be the good guys’ good guy. He loves his bike, he goes to proms when asked and he uses his money and celebrity to help underprivileged kids get toys and glasses and food-insecure senior citizens to get hot meals. But beyond that, he’s a really good wide receiver and competitor. He’s the latest in a long line of wideouts to step into the Steelers limelight when his predecessor wore out his welcome (except for Hines Ward who was a constant for 11 seasons). That lineage since 2004 has been Plaxico Burress to Santonio Holmes to Mike Wallace to Antonio Brown and now JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown still had a year left on his contract and posted a career-best 15 touchdowns last season along with nearly 1,300 yards. The other guys on the list were good when they left, but they weren’t that good. So now, Smith-Schuster has to carry the load for a team that likes to throw the ball around. Smith-Schuster saw a lot of balls come his way last year and while he had more yards than Brown, he had half as many touchdowns. But that could have stemmed from the constant conflict between Ben Roethlisberger and Brown, two megalomaniacs who constantly fought. When Brown didn’t get the ball, he complained loudly. When Roethlisberger felt like it, he’d rip Brown publicly like it was his birthright. But attitude-wise, Smith-Schuster isn’t an Antonio Brown-type player. That will go a long way to quelling on-field tensions and that, when combined with JuJu’s immense talent, means a lot more scoring opportunities.
Can anyone adequately replace JuJu Smith-Shuster?
Smith-Schuster’s success will also depend on who lines up opposite JuJu in that number two receiver position. That may be this team’s biggest unknown. A solid receiver in the two-spot takes pressure off of your top guy, allowing him to make big plays. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the options look a bit shaky. The team signed veteran free agent Donte Moncrief in the off season and he joins James Watson, Eli Rogers and a 5’8 Ryan Switzer as the Steelers main targets. Switzer will be a fun option out of the slot, and then it comes down to Washington, Moncrief and Rogers as the “best” options. Rogers and Washington (who was a rookie last year) have seen limited touches. And while Moncrief is the veteran, he’s never had more than 733 yards in five seasons and was only over 500 yards one other time.
Will James Conner get 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns?
Yes. How do we know? Because fantasy football nerds are calling him a top-five running back. You can have all your fancy scouting reports, but at the end of the day, I’m following the advice of guy who smells like Cheetos and drinks an obscure IPA that no one has ever heard of.
Will Bud Dupree finally live up to the Steelers expectations?
Inside linebacker Devin Bush, this year’s first-round draft pick, has been getting a lot of attention this preseason; and with good reason. His performance against Tampa in the first preseason game was stellar and he will be a force for years to come. The most intriguing story on the Steelers defense, in my opinion, is outside linebacker Bud Dupree. Dupree is a 2015 first-rounder whose talent came with a high ceiling. But he hasn’t lived up to the team’s expectations. However, the Steelers did exercise Dupree’s final-year option and are paying him $9.2 million. He’ll be a free agent at season’s end so his future not only with the team, but on any team, hangs in the balance. He told The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette, “That just puts more fire up on you to go out and have a great year,” he said. “Guys have their best years in their contract year. Confidence is a key with yourself and within your team and unit. I’d rather it be like this right now for one year. I’m going to go out and do my thing, help my team.”
Is the Steelers offensive line the best in football?
Once again seeking advice from the fantasy nerds, most outlets that rank these kinds of things have the Steelers in the top five, and most have them in the top three. But, I prefer to look at the intangibles. Like, in 2009, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 50 times. The team began to rectify that problem through the draft in 2010. By 2014, they had assembled a line that has been dominant the past several seasons. Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are as talented as any other unit. Need more proof? Last year when Le’Veon Bell sat out, he was barely missed with James Conner running behind that unit.
How much better can T.J. Watt get?
After a solid rookie season, Watt blew up expectations posting a monster sophomore season from the right outside linebacker position. He had 13 sacks, 118 total tackles (50 of them solo) and six forced fumbles. He’s 24 years old and is now joined on the right side by rookie Devin Bush. So, if you’re planning to bet on Watt having a down year, put it on Jacksonville to win the Super Bowl instead, because there’s a better chance of that happening.
Who will be the Steelers kicker, Chris Boswell from 2018 or Chris Boswell from 2017?
The 2018 version of the Steelers kick was about as useful as a hockey puck at a baseball game. He missed seven field goals and five extra points. His field goal percentage tanked from 95 percent in 2017 to 65 percent. He’s kicking well in the preseason and it’s likely one of these two guys will show up on opening day. Which one is a coin flip.
Is it time to take the Cleveland Browns seriously?
It was time to take them seriously on the first game of last season when the Steelers ended up tying the Browns, who hadn’t won a game since some time in 2016. Cleveland ended the season at 7-8-1 and were no joke beating the Ravens and the Eagles. Baker Mayfield is probably going to be every bit the stud that the Browns hoped he would be. Nick Chubb is going to be a top back in the league and the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. means this team will compete all season and, if we’re not careful, be a contender down the stretch.
How good will Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown be?
One sat out all season, the other pouted and got a trade. No matter how you feel about either, these are two of the best athletes in the NFL. But we are going to be following their respective teams because we want to know how they will do.
When it comes to Bell, we’re going to find out really quickly if he was as good as he was because of his own talent or because of the Steelers offensive line. Bell is a Jet now and they have one of the worst offensive lines in the game. Bell has done some amazing things on the field, and I can’t wait to see if he can do it alone.
As for Brown, where do you start? He wanted out of Pittsburgh and the team obliged with a trade. The offseason was a chain of ridiculous events and his preseason in Oakland has been a side/shit show. First he gets frostbite because he didn’t wear proper footwear into a Paris cryotherapy tank, and more recently he’s walked away from the team because the NFL won’t let him wear his more than decades-old helmet because it’s not approved by the league. Brown apparently loves that helmet more than his toes, because he seems more upset about this. Will Brown have a big season year? That depends on Brown. He’s his own worst enemy and could just as easily shoot himself in the foot.
Finally, and most importantly, will the Steelers players, ownership and fans stop engaging in activities that range from unnecessary to downright heinous?
Yes, this is a football preview, but we’re well past the time of pretending that the game doesn’t have pretty serious issues, and the Steelers are no exception. Every season, Deadspin does a great feature called “Why your team sucks.” It used to be funny to read these and laugh at the “shenanigans” of other teams. But the actions outlined in these pieces aren’t funny. The Steelers have problems that go beyond and are more important than on-field performance.
Drew Magary wrote the Deadspin piece and he points out all of the Steelers blemishes. For example, fans seem to have completely “forgotten” that Roethlsberger has been accused of sexual assault twice. He’s also accused of being a jerk in the past, but if you want to look past that, it’s fine. But it says something unflattering about us as fans who can cheer for the guy now because he’s a gifted athlete.
The other main issue is the increasingly violent behavior of fans in the stands. During a game last year against the chargers, several fights broke out, including one where a pregnant Chargers fan was choked by a Steelers fan. No security came to their aid, no police, nothing. In fact, if the Current hadn’t seen a photo that was taken by a sideline photographer, it might not have gotten exposure. It’s something we at least need to think about as the 2019 season draws near.