NFL 2019: Steelers eyeing unity minus departed stars
PITTSBURGH -- The word Ramon Foster chose wasn't by accident.
Asked what he expects the identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers to be in 2019 following the high-profile departures of star wide receiver Antonio Brown and versatile running back Le'Veon Bell , the second-longest tenured member of the roster behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger offered a typically blunt assessment.
"A team," the left guard said. "When you see us on the field. The way we play offense, defense, special teams, you should know that we're a team. It's not the teams that have 10 Pro Bowlers on the team that wins the Super Bowl most of the time. It's the team that you can usually watch them and see that they're playing team ball."
Something that wasn't always the case during the waning days of the "Killer Bs" era. The Steelers spent a significant portion of 2018 talking about Brown's latest meltdown or Bell's extended absence.
Though they insisted those issues didn't spill onto the field, sometimes they did. Brown's very public offseason divorce began when he went AWOL before a must-win regular-season finale against Cincinnati following a dust-up with Roethlisberger and was benched by coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers found a way to edge the Bengals anyway with Brown standing in a fur coat on the sideline , a fitting image for the way the perennial All-Pro isolated himself from the rest of the roster. While the victory over Cincinnati wasn't enough for Pittsburgh to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013, it also served as a jumping off point of sorts. The Steelers believe they can survive and even thrive with Brown now in Oakland and Bell getting paid by the New York Jets.
"AB is a Hall of Fame player, so there's going to be some things that change," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "But we have a great receiving corps here that works really, really hard, and the guys are really, really locked in. They have a lot to prove. When you lose a Hall of Fame player the next guy has to step up."
Roethlisberger won't lack for candidates. The Steelers signed free agent wide receiver Donte Moncrief and drafted speedy Diontae Johnson in the third round to join a unit that includes JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington. The group is dedicating the season to wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. The popular Drake - a longtime friend and mentor to Tomlin - died on Aug. 11 . One of the last things Drake told his players before his passing was "never choose good when great is available." It's a lesson Smith-Schuster and his teammates are taking to heart.
"Don't settle for less, don't be satisfied with what you have now," Smith-Schuster said. "When great is out there, go achieve it."
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh opens what it hopes is a quietly successful season on Sept. 8 in New England:
BEN BEING BEN
Coming off his second NFL passing title, the 37-year-old Roethlisberger felt good enough about the core surrounding him to sign a contract extension that runs through 2021. Roethlisberger is perhaps in the best shape of his career. In a division featuring rising young quarterbacks in Cleveland and Baltimore, he's in no mood to pass along the torch. After reaching the Super Bowl three times in his first seven seasons, he hasn't returned to the sport's biggest stage in nearly a decade despite his gaudy statistics.
"I want to win Super Bowls," Roethlisberger said. "Truthfully, that should be all of our motivation because that's what's driving me right now."
After attempting to use veteran Jon Bostic as a Band-Aid at inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier's career in jeopardy due to a spinal injury suffered in December, 2017, Pittsburgh began the process of moving on when it traded up in the first round to grab linebacker Devin Bush. At 5-foot-11 and 234 pounds, Bush makes up for in tenacity what he lacks in size. He made 10 tackles in his preseason debut , shedding blocks from 300-pound linemen with ease and showcasing precocious instincts.
"I just love to make plays," Bush said. "I love to play football."
Good thing, because Pittsburgh's ability to stay in the thick of the AFC North will rely heavily on Bush's ability to become a disruptive force in the middle of the defense.
BOUNCE BACK BOZ?
The Steelers felt so confident in kicker Chris Boswell following a Pro Bowl season in 2017 they rewarded him with a four-year contract. Twelve months later, Boswell entered training camp fighting for a roster spot after making just 13 of 20 field goals last season. A handful of misses - most notably a botched 40-yard attempt on the final play in Oakland in December - played a significant factor in Pittsburgh's slide from 7-2-1 to missing the postseason. Boswell promised to get right in the offseason and he's been lights out during camp.
Considering Pittsburgh's margin for error likely decreased with Brown gone, the team can't afford to squander scoring opportunities. Boswell returning to his 2017 form would help.
WEST COAST WOES
The Steelers have struggled when heading west in recent years; look to losses in Denver and Oakland in 2018 - two teams that finished a combined 10-22 - as proof. Pittsburgh will play west of the Rockies three times in 2019 when it makes trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Arizona. Anything less than a 2-1 mark in those games would negatively impact the Steelers' shot at getting back to the playoffs.
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