With all that’s gone on in the world this year, most people would gladly trade 2020 to have 2019 back.
If you take away coronavirus, social injustice and natural disasters, however, there’s still a chance for Steelers fans to remember 2020 more fondly than 2019.
For the Steelers, 2019 meant life without Ben Roethlisberger. The franchise quarterback went down in Week 2 with an elbow injury that required surgery and was lost for the season.
Thanks to a defense that led the league with 38 takeaways and ranked fifth in points and yards allowed, the Steelers remained in contention for a playoff berth right up until Week 17 but ultimately fell short and finished 8-8.
Offensively, the Steelers ranked 30 th in yards, their worst showing in that category since 1989, when they were dead last out of the 28 teams that were in the league at the time.
The Steelers missed Roethlisberger in 2019. We know that.
What we don’t know is how much they missed Antonio Brown.
Roethlisberger has made a full recovery from elbow surgery. He no longer has to endure an injury that according to Ed Bouchette of The Athletic had been nagging him for years.
But has anyone considered that possibility that without Brown, the Steelers still might struggle to score points?
With all the offseason talk centering on Roethlisberger and his elbow, Brown has been out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and deservedly so. Wherever he is, he can’t help the Steelers or any NFL team right now. But right up until he went off the deep end late in the 2018 season, Brown pulled the Steelers’ feet out of the fire plenty of times throughout his career.
Without Brown’s Christmas Day goal-line stretch in the final seconds against the Ravens in 2016, the Steelers probably don’t win the AFC North and might not make the playoffs. The Dolphins ended up as the No. 6 seed in the AFC that year, and the Steelers lost to the Dolphins in the regular season and therefore would have lost the playoff tiebreaker.
Yeah, there was the Facebook Live fiasco after the Steelers’ playoff win in Kansas City that year, but that’s not the reason the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
In 2017, the last year they made the playoffs, the Steelers finished 13-3 and won four games on last-minute field goals by Chris Boswell. In three of those games, Brown set up those field goals with big plays.
In Week 10 at Indianapolis, Brown caught a 32-yard pass from Roethlisberger with 45 seconds left. Boswell kicked a 33-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Steelers a 20-17 win.
Two weeks later at home against Green Bay, Brown caught passes of 23 and 14 yards, the latter with 13 seconds left, on the game-winning drive. The Steelers won 31-28 on Boswell’s walk-off 53-yarder.
Two weeks after that, at home against the Ravens, Brown hauled in a 34-yard pass with 1:08 remaining and Boswell’s 46-yard field goal in the final minute was the difference in the Steelers’ 39-38 victory.
Who will Roethlisberger turn to now in these tight spots? Sure, he won two Super Bowls without Brown, but the most recent was 12 years ago.
The Steelers have been back to the Super Bowl just once since then, and without Brown they probably don’t even make it that far in 2010.
This was Brown’s rookie season, before he emerged as an elite receiver in the NFL. In the divisional playoffs against the Ravens in Pittsburgh, Brown went all David Tyree and pinned a 58-yard reception to his helmet with just over two minutes left to set the stage for the deciding touchdown in a 31-24 win.
The following week, it was Brown who made the game-clinching catch on third down in the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets in the AFC championship game.
Brown made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and broke out as a generational player in 2013 when he caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards. From that point right up until he went rogue in 2018, an argument could have been made that Brown was the best wide receiver in the NFL.
There’s little doubt that Roethlisberger will one day be enshrined in Canton, but he’s never been part of the best-quarterback-in-the-NFL debate. Top five at certain points of his career? Maybe. But unlike Brown he’s never been THE best at his position.
Since Brown checked out before the Steelers’ Week 17 game against the Bengals in 2018, Roethlisberger has played 10 quarters without him. The Steelers scored 29 points during that stretch, which amounts two-and-a-half games. He threw one touchdown pass and two interceptions during that time.
This doesn’t mean that the Steelers should seek out a reunion with Brown. They have long since moved on and in terms of team chemistry they’re probably in a better place.
To get back to the playoffs, however, they need a true No. 1 receiver. JuJu Smith-Schuster was supposed to step into that role last year, but fell flat on his face, catching just 42 passes with three touchdowns in 12 games.
We’ll find out this season if Smith-Schuster faltered because he didn’t have a competent NFL starting quarterback throwing him passes, or if he just can’t beat the double-teams that come with the territory of being the team’s leading receiver.
Smith-Schuster caught a 97-yard touchdown in the third quarter of a 20-15 win at Detroit in 2017 and also that year his 69-yard reception set the stage for Jesse James’s infamously overturned touchdown in the loss to the Patriots.
While there is evidence that Smith-Schuster can rescue the Steelers in ways similar to Brown, it’s outweighed by his track record of failure in big moments.
In Week 16 of the 2018 season, Smith-Schuster fumbled away an opportunity for a game-tying field goal in the final minute at New Orleans, and that 31-28 loss cost the Steelers a playoff spot.
In Week 16 of the 2019 season, Smith-Schuster allowed a fourth-down pass from Devlin Hodges to go right through his hands with 44 seconds left on the road against the Jets in a 16-10 loss that kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.
It would help if Smith-Schuster can do a better job rising to the occasion when the Steelers are in hot water. But ultimately, it will be up to Roethlisberger to prove that the Steelers missed him in 2019 much more than they missed Brown.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets