Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

There was a lot to like about the Steelers’ 2019 season. There also were some things that weren’t so good.

Pretty much all of the good stuff happened on the defensive side of the ball, where T.J. Watt emerged as an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award candidate from his outside linebacker position, Minkah Fitzpatrick solidified the secondary from his free safety spot after being acquired from the Miami Dolphins, outside linebacker Bud Dupree erased any thoughts he was a bust and Cam Heyward solidified his position as one of the top defensive linemen in the league.

The Steelers led the NFL for the third consecutive season in sacks, posting 54, one off the franchise record. They also led the NFL in takeaways with 38.

And they did all of that despite playing with precious few leads, having won only two games by more than a touchdown.

Imagine what this defense could accomplish with an offense that actually, you know, scored points and possessed the football.

That was the main issue in 2019. Playing without Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters, the Steelers had to play a pair of quarterbacks, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, who had never before appeared in an NFL game.

That lack of experience had a trickle-down effect on everything, both on offense and defense.

The Steelers failed to score 30 or more points in a season for the first time since 1971. And the second half of the season was a wreck. Running back James Conner appeared in only seven quarters, gaining 84 rushing yards on 19 carries. Star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was nagged by injuries, catching 12 passes for 109 yards in the final eight games, four of which he missed.

Is it any wonder the offense struggled?

The effects of that showed in the final three games, when the Steelers scored only 10 points in each one, losing all three, to fall out of postseason contention.

The Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens played things conservatively on offense, knowing the only way the Steelers could beat them is if they allowed Pittsburgh’s defense to make a big play. A punt wasn’t a bad thing.

And they blitzed the Steelers relentlessly, knowing Hodges, who started those three games, wouldn’t know how to handle it.

That all can change in 2020 with a healthy Roethlisberger, something the team is confident it will have.

“If we would have had (Roethlisberger) here this season, it would have been a different season,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “When he gets back, I think it’s going to be a different story.”

Even if Roethlisberger returns at 80 percent effectiveness, just his above-the-neck knowledge makes this a better team in 2020. Remember, he did, after all, lead the league in passing yards in 2018 while also throwing a career-best 34 touchdown passes.

• There seems to be a prevailing feeling the Steelers need to fix their offensive line. But there’s nothing wrong with the line that a healthy Roethlisberger can’t help with his ability to audible.

Rudolph and Hodges didn’t have that ability.

That’s why the Steelers’ top draft pick, which will come in the second round at pick No. 49, should be on another offensive weapon, preferably a running back who can be an every-down player. Remember, the Steelers selected Le’Veon Bell with pick No. 48 in 2013.

The Steelers just can’t trust Conner to stay healthy.

  • Head coach Mike Tomlin was adamant that Rudolph will be the No. 2 quarterback in 2020. And that makes sense.

Having played in 10 games, eight of them starts, Rudolph now qualifies as a veteran backup. And realistically, the Steelers aren’t going to sign a backup who is better.

Rudolph finished with 13 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in nine games, leading the team to a 5-3 record in games he started.

Charlie Batch was 6-3 in his career with the Steelers in games started in place of Roethlisberger with 12 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. And he was a good “veteran” backup.

Rudolph will continue to get better. And he’s making just $1 million in 2020. That matters.

The bottom line is that with Roethlisberger’s cap hit set to jump to more than $30 million in 2020, there isn’t a backup quarterback this team can afford to sign that gives the Steelers a chance to win more than Rudolph.

And, in reality, Rudolph played six bad quarters of football this season at Cleveland and Cincinnati. Outside of that, he wasn’t bad.

Today’s picks

The Saturday AFC games are already in the books, so we’ll pick from the two NFC games this week.

New Orleans (minus 7 ½) over Minnesota: The Vikings are banged up in the secondary and the Saints, at least to me, look like the best, most healthy team heading into the postseason in the NFC. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins also is 0-15 straight up and 1-13-1 in his career when facing a team that ended the season with at least 12 wins. The third-seeded Saints won 13 games. Take the Saints, 34-20

Seattle (minus 1 ½) over Philadelphia: It’s tough to send an 11-win Seahawks team on the road, but that’s life in the NFL. And the Seahawks were 7-1 on the road and 4-4 at home. The Eagles will be missing the entire right side of their offensive line, which is meaningful, and talented tight end Zach Ertz is banged up. Russell Wilson also should have his way with the Philadelphia secondary. Take the Seahawks, 27-24

Last Week: 3-2 Overall: 44-39-1

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghsports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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