At 7-2-1 coming off an amazing comeback win against Jacksonville, all seemed fine in Pittsburgh. Another division title was essentially guaranteed, and a run at the Super Bowl seemed legitimate given the weak AFC and parity across the entire NFL.
Instead, the Steelers lost four of their last six, fell flat on their faces blowing several fourth quarter leads and were thoroughly out-coached and out-played during a stretch of miserable football that will go down in NFL history. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Steelers are the third team to start 7-2-1 or better through 10 games and fail to reach the playoffs since the current format was adopted in 1990. Both the other teams (Dolphins, 1993, Raiders, 1995) lost their starting quarterbacks to spur on the collapse.
The Steelers, generally blessed with good health throughout the season, delivered an all-time choke job by losing to the Broncos and Raiders and tying the Browns before blowing a late lead against the Saints in Week 16.
The questions have never been louder in Pittsburgh than they are right now. Should Mike Tomlin stay as head coach? Is the team's Super Bowl window closed? Will they finally be aggressive in acquiring top talent in the offseason?
The answer is yes, no and dear God I hope so, but probably no.
Allow me to elaborate with the offseason moves Pittsburgh must make to return to the postseason.
Fire Keith Butler, Danny Smith and Joey Porter
Obviously getting rid of Butler is the most important move the Steelers can make this offseason. The number aren't even close to describing how awful he was as defensive coordinator. Unprepared, completely oblivious to mismatches, constantly out-schemed...the Butler era in Pittsburgh was a disaster that left you speechless with its ineptitude at times. It needed to end after last season, and if it doesn't end moving forward, the Steelers will get the same results they did this year.
Danny Smith's special teams unit was a penalty-ridden mess this season. They have been consistently one of the more mistake-prone groups in the league, and his attention to detail might be worse than Tomlin's. Outside of a few blocked kicks, this unit was a disaster all season long. Time for fresh blood there.
Joey Porter's lack of emphasis on teaching pass rush has taken its toll. Yes, T.J. Watt is figuring some things out, but Bud Dupree is reaching bust status, and Anthony Chickillo joins others like Jarvis Jones who haven't improved a lick under Porter. There is no good reason why he should keep his job.
Keep Mike Tomlin...but install support around him
I have a lot of doubt that the Steelers current direction can be altered with Tomlin at the helm, BUT I have even more doubt about entering a head coach-hiring circus as a team without desirable draft capital, a long-term future at the quarterback position or a ton of cap space. A new head coach will want those things in place so he can build his own team, and it just doesn't make sense to do that with Ben Roethlisberger still in place.
Ben didn't play great this season, but the ability is still there, he just has to be a better decision-maker. I can't see how a process that would involve a third offensive coordinator in as many years would be a good move for him, and as he goes, so goes the Steelers offense. Despite some weird play calls down the stretch, Randy Fichtner had a really strong first season as offensive coordinator, and disrupting that side of the ball doesn't seem like a great idea.
So, despite his deficiencies, Tomlin should remain for now. It's a veteran roster that respects him and loves him, and the Steelers definitely can win under him. It's just a matter of how high the ceiling is. I don't believe they can get back to the Super Bowl under him, but they've got a better chance at it with this group than they do with a new head coach. And if they suck again next year? Then it's likely time to move on from Tomlin and look for the future at quarterback.
Pittsburgh should bring in a clock management specialist to tell Tomlin what to do situationally, since he has clearly shown a complete inability to handle that aspect of his job. He also needs better advice in the replay department, as his track record with the challenge flag is abysmal. Lastly, a strong schematic-minded defensive coordinator has to be a huge priority. Tomlin isn't a schemer, and the Steelers have been at their best with coaches who were terrific in the Xs and Os/details department.
Trim the fat
First, don't re-sign any of your free agents except maybe Ramon Foster and L.J. Fort. We know Le'Veon Bell is gone. Anthony Chickillo, Coty Sensabaugh, Dan McCullers, Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton don't give your roster anything desirable. Time to find backup interior defensive linemen with some juice and pass rush ability. The NFL is loaded with defensive line studs that play in a rotational role. Pittsburgh can easily upgrade those spots in free agency or on day three of a loaded NFL Draft class.
On offense, I'm ok with bringing Jesse James back, but if another team pays him as a starter, see ya. He isn't worth that in the slightest. Justin Hunter and Darius Heyward-Bey are done in Pittsburgh.
I want Foster back for offensive line cohesiveness, but it will depend on the price tag. B.J. Finney is ready if he walks. Fort is a good reserve linebacker and special teams player who has improved every year. He shouldn't start, but he's better than Jon Bostic.
Speaking of Bostic, cut him asap. He and Morgan Burnett don't carry any value for the future, and both were extremely disappointing signings this offseason. Clear a little cap space and open up roster space for better talent.
Artie Burns gotta go too. Doesn't save you much money, but he isn't going to get right and the Steelers need the roster space. Loading up with talented corners should be the top priority.
Get aggressive in free agency (or trades)
Unlike past offseasons, the Steelers will have plenty of cap space to make moves this offseason, getting the roster where it needs to be for a run at another NFL title. The priorities should be clear: acquire a game-changer in the secondary at all costs.
Preferably that starts at cornerback, with Joe Haden likely to return on one side next year, but no clear answers at the position outside of him. Free agents that will be available include Morris Claiborne, Darqueze Dennard, Bryce Callahan, Bradley Roby, Ronald Darby and Jason Verrett. Woof. I like Callahan, but he's a slot only and the Steelers biggest need is on the outside. Darby, Verrett and Claiborne are hurt often, and Roby is coming off a rough season.
Verrett will be dirt cheap so I don't mind signing him, but he can't be counted on for anything. In reality, I don't see any of those players helping Pittsburgh much defensively. I also don't trust Kevin Colbert to evaluate corners through the draft well enough to help this team, which means the Steelers better be willing to part with draft assets to get a top corner via trade.
Call about Patrick Peterson, Jalen Ramsey, Chris Harris, Desmond Trufant. Yes, all of them are long shots. The reality is that the Steelers have painted themselves into a corner and now have no choice but to be desperate for playmakers in the secondary. Not everything about a team is easy to fix, but with several top 100 cornerback prospects already announcing they are heading back to school, the Steelers might have to fix this problem before the draft.
Sign a starting linebacker in free agency
It's not just cornerback, however. If the Steelers absolutely can't land a quality corner, safety, linebacker and pass rusher become big priorities, either via free agency or trades. You can't enter the draft with holes at all four spots. And, in case you were confused, if you sign Bostic or Sensabaugh or Burnett in the offseason, you still have a hole at all of those spots.
As much as I'd love it, it is probably not realistic to believe the Steelers will sign one of the top edge rushers to a big contract, and the safety crop isn't very inspiring, but the linebacker group possesses at least one player who should be a future starter for the Steelers.
Jordan Hicks is the guy I would want to take a chance on. He's been banged up a lot in his career, but when he's on the field, he can cover and make an impact. Seven interceptions and four defensive touchdowns in four years in Philly. He's missed 21 of 64 games, so you're taking a chance, but that should also drive the price tag down.
The other options:
K.J. Wright: He was hurt most of this season, but he's been a good player for awhile now in the NFL. Consistent and can cover. Don't touch him if the price tag is high, but at an affordable rate, he would definitely help.
C.J. Mosley: I'm worried about the decline already setting in for Mosley after this season, but he would be the best linebacker on the Steelers roster immediately. He's not a cure all, but he helps instantly in run defense.
And that's it, basically. This draft class is a dumpster fire at linebacker, so you've got to fix the position before April to feel good about it.
Draft Priorities: ball skills and splash players
If cornerback is still a major need (likely): Washington's Byron Murphy and Georgia's Deandre Baker look like the top options to be available at no. 20. Have some questions about Baker's long speed and athleticism, but we can talk more about that as the draft process unfolds. Murphy hasn't declared yet.
Steelers are going safety? Only two names make sense as a free safety in Round 1: Deionte Thompson and Nasir Adderley. I would love Adderley, but the Steelers aren't going small school in the first round. Hopefully he's there in the second.
More than likely, Sean Davis remains at free safety next season next to Terrell Edmunds and ball skills remain a big concern for the group as a whole.
Linebacker? In Round 1, Devin White is the only target I can currently see making sense, and he comes with major question marks for me. Instincts and processing aren't where I'd like them to be.
It's a long-shot they go pass rusher in Round 1, but the options are plentiful if they do. Kentucky's Josh Allen, Florida's Jachai Polite, Florida State's Brian Burns are all options that fit schematically, although you probably have to trade up for Allen.
Defensively, Burnett can't start at dime 'backer next season, which could make versatile Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson a fit in Round 2.
Bud Dupree joins Bostic, Burnett and Burns/Sensabaugh as Steelers that cannot start in 2019, which makes finding an edge pass rusher a top priority in the offseason. The question is, will the Steelers feel that way as well, or are they content with Dupree's spotty production?
-Fire Keith Butler, Joey Porter and Danny Smith
-Keep Mike Tomlin...for now. The future can wait another year. It's unlikely the current Steelers roster structure inspires top head coaching candidates to come calling just yet.
-Be aggressive to fix the defense in the offseason. A playmaking corner and coverage linebacker are huge priorities. Seek a trade for a corner. If you give up your first and a pick next year and come away with a great cornerback and sign Jordan Hicks, it's a good offseason.
-If the Steelers keep their first round pick, they probably still need a corner. That's the top priority at no. 20. Pass rusher is no. 2 in my opinion, but Steelers will probably lean linebacker.
-There is depth at wide receiver, interior defensive line and running back in this class, so no need to take any of those positions early. Focus on the back seven defensively and replacing Dupree on the edge in the starting lineup. Drafting three offensive players out of four picks in the top 100 last year was a mind-bogglingly dumb move that can't be repeated in 2019.
You're welcome, Steelers fans!