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Steelers fans should brace for the worst in 2019

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are, barring a couple of miracles, set to enter the 2019 season without two of their biggest stars. Despite what some might say, these losses have a chance to set the organization back quite a way, if only for the short term.

The big picture: Le’Veon Bell is set to hit the open market, and Antonio Brown will almost assuredly be traded. Offensive lineman Ramon Foster could also leave in free agency, and Ben Roethlisberger could be due for a steep decline in production.

What the Steelers are missing: Despite some young, talented players set to take on bigger roles, it would be foolish to think losing Bell and Brown won’t be tough to replace.

  • In just 62 career games, Bell has racked up 7,996 yards and 42 touchdowns from scrimmage.
  • Incredibly, that averages out to 129 yards per game, which ranks No. 1 in NFL history (over Jim Brown) for players who have at least 50 starts (h/t Field Yates).
  • Brown has also put up all-time-great-type stats in his first nine seasons (130 games). He’s hauled in 837 receptions for 11,207 yards and 74 touchdowns.
  • The 30-year-old receiver has gotten better with age, posting an average of 114 catches for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns per season the past six years.

Young guns: As we mentioned, the Steelers do have a couple of exciting young players who will try and fill the void.

  • When healthy last season, former Pitt star James Conner was very productive. He averaged 113 yards and a touchdown per game.
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster is a dynamic pass-catcher who exploded last year. Hauling in 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns (including this remarkable 97-yard score).

Here’s the rub: The two young stars do have incredible potential, but questions remain.

  • It’s not a given that Conner will be durable. He missed three games due to injury last season and injured his knee in college before receiving the diagnosis for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
  • Smith-Schuster is good enough to rack up stats without Brown in the lineup. But you can’t just replace 15 touchdowns — nearly half of Big Ben’s total last year.

Old quarterback problems: Let’s not forget that, while Big Ben did throw for over 5,000 yards last year he’s on his last legs — literally and figuratively.

  • As remarkably durable as Roethlisberger has been, he’s also been subjected to a myriad of injuries throughout his career.
  • Roethlisberger has also more than hinted at his retirement in recent years and seemed ready to quit until the Steelers drafted his potential replacement.

Then there’s this: Despite obvious friction between Big Ben and Brown, there can be no denying how much the quarterback relied on his veteran receiver on third downs and in the red zone. Simply put, Brown’s production will be missed, and not just a little bit.

The bottom line: The Steelers might be able to withstand the losses of Brown and Bell. But it’s more likely that they struggle even more in 2019 than they did last year.

The defense is good. But given Roethlisberger’s age, the uncertainty surrounding the long-term health of Conner and the loss of one of the league’s best receivers, the offense might be a lot worse off than people want to imagine.