It is, in other words, about moving on for good from the Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown sagas and beginning to find out whether the Steelers can make this addition-by-subtraction thing work.
“We’re focused on the guys that are here,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said as he stood on the field after practice last week. “Those are the guys that are going to help us win. Yeah, I love the guys we have here. … The good thing is, that was last year. We don’t need to worry about last year. We need to focus on what we have in the future and what’s at stake for this team, what this season holds for us. We’re excited for this season because it’s new, right? Last year’s record was last year. Every team’s record is 0-0. So we’re just excited to get going.”
A 2018 season that began with Super Bowl aspirations came undone amid turbulence. Bell, the ultra-versatile running back, sat out the entire season in a contract stare-down with the team in which some teammates took the unusual step of voicing their public displeasure with his absence. Bell passed up last season’s $14.544 million salary with the Steelers and signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the New York Jets in March.
The Steelers accommodated the wishes of Brown, one of the league’s most productive wide receivers, by trading him to the Oakland Raiders in March after he became increasingly disgruntled in Pittsburgh, in part because of a clash with Roethlisberger. The Steelers, amid all the drama, missed the playoffs last season, ending a streak of four straight postseason appearances.
These days, they don’t blame last season’s on-field failures entirely on the discord.
“Within our team, we always just play for each other,” tailback James Conner said. “In our locker room, [it] was always so tight. So it was really like it wasn’t an issue for us. Media outlets made it an issue. … Last year, it just wasn’t enough. So we’ve got to be better this year.”
But players also acknowledged that cohesion is needed this season.
“I just feel like we’ve got to focus more, having that chemistry and building our team together,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said.
Conner and Smith-Schuster are emerging stars who are expected to become offensive mainstays. Conner ran for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games last season, beginning to write a football success story to match his real-life inspirational tale. He was declared cancer-free in 2016 after undergoing chemotherapy treatments following a diagnosis of Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma while at the University of Pittsburgh.
Among this season’s goals, Conner said, is “just being available more” after he was sidelined late last season by a high ankle sprain.
“It’s hard,” he said. “In football, injuries are going to happen. You can’t escape that. But just missing those last three games of the season kind of hurt. We just need to make the playoffs. If we’re winning, everything else will take care of itself.”
Smith-Schuster had 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He is certain to draw increased attention from opposing defenses without Brown in the lineup.
“Now that they see me as a No. 1 [receiver], everyone’s probably watching,” Smith-Schuster said. “Everyone tries double-teaming, stuff like that.”
But Smith-Schuster replacing Brown as the No. 1 wide receiver isn’t the only issue. The Steelers also must find effective complementary receivers among a group of players that includes Donte Moncrief, Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer, James Washington and Diontae Johnson.
“He doesn’t need to fill any shoes,” Roethlisberger said. “He just needs to be the best JuJu he can be. And that’s a pretty good one so far. He needs to keep getting better. We’ve got some other guys, whether they’re new guys or second-year guys or guys that have been here a little while. … I’m excited for that group.”
Roethlisberger, at 37, continues to chase a third Super Bowl title. In April, he signed a two-year contract extension that runs through 2021, putting aside for now the retirement speculation of recent years.
“When you sign a three-year contract — I’ve always honored my contracts,” he said. “I think some of those talks came when contracts were [expiring], when you were never sure what’s going to happen. And this is such a physical sport. You also can’t control your injuries, your health and things like that. Having a family, you always take that into consideration. Now that I signed a new deal, I’m going to be out here and honor that contract.”
A lot must come together for the Steelers to return to being true contenders. But the process is taking place, at least to this point, in relative calm.
“We’ve got playmakers all around,” Conner said. “The defense is looking sharp so far this camp. And the offense is looking sharp, too. We’re going to put it together. We’ve got to make plays with the guys we’ve got, and we have a great group of guys. I’m excited about it.”