Remembering The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Soap Opera Of The NFL

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Steelers cornerback Joe Haden (23) intercepts a throw by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Pittsburgh’s 17-10 win over New England in Week 15. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Chaos is many things. It’s hectic, it’s entertaining, it’s messy. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were all of these things, and more. 

This Steelers team was one of the most unique and memorable teams, at least in recent memory, but for all the wrong reasons. The 2018 Steelers, who oftentimes looked more like a high-budget soap opera than an NFL organization, at one point in the season sat at 7-2-1 and had a 93.3% chance to win the AFC North, would close out the season losing four of their final six games, falling to 9-6-1, failing to qualify for the playoffs. 

The sheer level of drama and bad off-the-field antics by multiple players led to mockery of the Steelers from many sources, including UrinatingTree, a Pittsburgh-based YouTube sports commentator who made a spoof of NBC’s Days of Our Lives entitled “Days of Our Steelers” in which he commented on and covered the drama that surrounded the Steelers. He had enough material to make a new episode every week. 

The drama would start even before the first snap of Week 1, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s reaction to the Steelers drafting quarterback Mason Rudolph, showing visible surprise in a radio appearance on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan.  

In addition to that, Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell’s infamous contract holdout loomed over the Steelers off-season. Bell, who was coming off an amazing season in which he rushed for 1,291 yards and caught for 655 more, had refused to sign the franchise tag the Steelers placed on him, and did not report to Pittsburgh’s training camp. 

Bell wanted more guaranteed money in his contract, a request the notoriously stingy Steelers refused.

While the situation between Bell and the Steelers was contentious, it was still expected that Bell would sign and play for the Steelers. 

Not to be outdone, wide receiver Antonio Brown had also had a very interesting off-season, facing lawsuits from an incident in April in south Florida in which Brown had thrown items off the balcony of his 14th story apartment, nearly hitting a child who was on the pool deck below. The lawsuit would end up in a settlement in April of 2019, but it was quite the story at the time. 

Former Steelers legend James Harrison made headlines for his comments on head coach Mike Tomlin, saying he needed to be more disciplined. 

The Steelers also decided to build a wall around their training facility on the South Side, citing “drones and so forth.”

The season hadn’t even started yet, and this team was already swimming in chaos. 

Meanwhile, when the season did start, Bell was still absent from the team, meaning rookie James Conner, the third round draft pick out of the University of Pittsburgh, would be the starting running back. 

Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked in Week 1 against the Browns. Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

Week 1 against the Browns was a slugfest for Pittsburgh. A gloomy, rainy day in Cleveland that saw Ben Roethlisberger throw three interceptions and the rookie Conner fumble the ball at a crucial time in the game, allowing Cleveland to push the game to OT, where both the Browns and the Steelers missed field goal chances to win the game. The game itself ended in a tie, but for Steelers fans, it felt much more like a loss.

The Browns had ended their 17 game losing streak in the most Browns way possible, by not actually winning, and Le’Veon Bell’s tweets immediately after the game caught the eyes of some in the media

The Steelers would actually lose in Week 2, falling 42-37 in a shootout against the Kansas City Chiefs. Of note in this game, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had a career high 13 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. Brown was visibly furious at the coaching staff during the game. 

Linebacker Bud Depree also had a brief stint in the press as well, snapping back at a fan who heckled him on social media. 

It wouldn’t take long for Brown to find himself in the headlines once again too. After a piece from Jesse Washington was published focusing on Brown’s social media use, Brown took to Twitter and threatened Washington, apologizing days later

In another Twitter incident, he also fired back at a reporter who suggested that Brown owed his success and big money contract to Ben Roethlisberger, to which Brown responded “trade me, let’s find out.” 

Pittsburgh would finally win in Week 3 in Tampa Bay, a game that included Vance McDonald’s famous stiff arm en route to a 75 yard catch and run touchdown, and after a loss against Baltimore, would win back to back to head into the bye week 3-2-1. 

Meanwhile, Le’Veon Bell was still absent from the team. Bell said he would return to the Steelers during their bye week, but was still a no show, instead living it up in Miami until November 5th, eight days before

Wide receivers Antonio Brown (84) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Philip G Pavely/USA Today Sports

the November 13th deadline that Bell needed to sign his tag, otherwise he would not be eligible to play the rest of the season. 

Harrison once again made headlines, suggesting Bell should show up in Pittsburgh at the last moment and then fake an injury. 

The attitude around Bell took a toll on the locker room, and while some were still hopeful to see Bell come back, others weren’t as keen or simply didn’t care. 

“Honestly, no one cares anymore,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said at the time. “Why would I? I don’t want to waste the energy. I have to block some of the best players on the best defense in the world. Do you think I’m going to worry about a guy who’s not here?” 

The Le’Veon Bell situation was a HEAVILY discussed issue amongst Pittsburgh and, to a lesser extent, national sports media, and as his absence dragged on longer and the deadline to sign and play came closer, the speculation only grew. 

It was around this time Brown once again found himself in the media, after he was cited for speeding over 100 miles per hour on McKnight Road. 

Bell would soon be back in town, being spotted playing a game of pickup basketball in Pittsburgh.

In spite of Bell’s continued absence, the Steelers continued to rack up wins, including a 52-21 rout of the Carolina Panthers, who were 6-2. 

With just days before the deadline for Bell to sign, the speculation on whether he would actually show only grew, but the months-long saga finally came to an end when November 13th came…and went, with Bell never appearing. It officially put an end to Le’Veon Bell’s time as a Steeler. 

The Steelers would soon clean out Bell’s locker, which had gone untouched for months. 

Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris (96) intercepts a pass, sealing the game for a Denver win. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey/AP

Meanwhile, the Steelers were riding high, sitting at 7-2-1 after a comeback win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pittsburgh was atop the AFC North, widely regarded as almost guaranteed to win the division and a lock to make the playoffs. Neither of these would happen, and things would only go downhill from here. 

In Week 12, the Steelers would drop a game in Denver against the measly Broncos, falling to 7-3-1. Ben’s comments on Brown and rookie wide receiver James Washington would catch eyes in the media after the game. 

The following week, the Steelers would blow a 16 point lead to the Los Angeles Chargers, ultimately losing the game 33-30 on a last second field goal while the Steelers, almost laughably, jumped offsides three straight times on the final play. 7-4-1.

The next week, the Steelers would lose to the 2-10 Oakland Raiders, who had a late stage comeback in the 4th quarter and ultimately won thanks to a botched attempt at a game tying field goal by Chris Boswell, who was in the middle of the worst season of his career. Ben would go down with an injury mid-game, placing backup Josh Dobbs in the QB spot temporarily while Ben was being looked at.

After disputing reports, it was revealed Ben had suffered multiple cracked ribs, but was late in getting the results thanks to an outdated X-Ray machine at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. 

7-5-1.

And all of the sudden it’s panic time in Pittsburgh. 

A three game losing streak, in which the Steelers could have won all three, had suddenly thrown the Steelers into a tailspin and put their playoff aspirations on life support. 

After the Oakland loss, Steelers legend Rocky Bleier ripped the Steelers, saying he was done with the team and called for the removal of Boswell, defensive coordinator Keith Butler, and maybe Tomlin himself. 

As if the team wasn’t in dire enough straits, Week 15 offered a matchup against Pittsburgh’s  nemesis, the 9-4 New England Patriots, just about a year removed from their infamous 2017 matchup in which Jesse James’ catch was ruled not a catch. 

Before the game, Mike Tomlin said it would be “Redemption Sunday,” and what a game it turned out to be. 

With no James Conner in the lineup, rookie running back Jaylen Samuels got his second career NFL start, and wide receiver Eli Rogers made his first appearance of the season, fresh off the Physically Unable to Perform list after recovering from a torn ACL. Ben, despite the ribs, would also play. 

A fun side note to this game as well: Before the game, JuJu Smith-Schuster showed up at a Steelers fan tailgate, snagging a hot dog while there. 

The Steelers struck first, with an opening drive touchdown to go up 7-0, only for New England to answer with a touchdown of their own to tie the game. Pittsburgh would put up a second touchdown early in the second quarter, the last points either team would see until very late in the third quarter, when Patriots kicker Stephen Gostowski made a 33 yard field goal to put the game at 14-10. 

Steelers defensive players Vince Williams (98), Mike Hilton (28), and Terrell Edmunds (34) after successfully stalling New England’s last gasp drive. Photo Credit: steelerswire.com

On the other side, Chris Boswell, who came into the game with the most missed kicks in the NFL during the 2018 season, missed another earlier in the third quarter, but would see some redemption late in the fourth, booting a 48 yard field goal right down the middle to put the Steelers up 7 with 2:34 left to play in the game. 

After three weeks in which they fell apart at the end of games, the Pittsburgh defense stepped up and stopped Tom Brady’s offense, and the Steelers won 17-10. New England had suffered back to back December losses for the first time since 2002. 

Meanwhile, the Antonio Brown situation was only deteriorating even further, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. 

At 8-5-1, Week 16 still proved to be a pivotal matchup for Pittsburgh, in New Orleans to take on the 12-2 Saints. No one at the time knew this game would be Brown’s last game as a Steeler. 

In a competitive, back and forth game, the Steelers found themselves down 3 points with around a minute to play. After three straight incomplete passes, the Steelers started to find a way to march down the field, but on a screen pass near field goal range, JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was having an amazing year, had the ball popped free from his hands, and New Orleans recovered the fumble. 

As the Saints took knees to end the game, the broadcast cut to JuJu in tears on the sidelines, as teammates tried to console him, a truly heartbreaking image. 

Months later, Brown would publicly call out Smith-Schuster for the fumble on Twitter.  

After the game and despite the fumble, the Steelers named JuJu the team’s MVP for the 2018 season, a move that enraged Brown and was suggested to be the tipping point for him with the Steelers. 

With the loss to the Saints, the Steelers now needed to win in Week 17 against Cincinnati AND have the surging Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens for Pittsburgh to make the playoffs. Mike Tomlin had initially told the media that Brown was undergoing tests for a knee injury, but Brown had instead reportedly gotten into an argument with a teammate, throwing a football in anger at them before choosing to skip team practices the rest of the week. Brown had shown up on Sunday expecting to play, but was instead benched, leaving at halftime. 

The Steelers, while definitely not looking like a team who needed to win to stay alive, dragged themselves to a 16-13 win, with newly acquired kicker Matt McCrane going a perfect three for three on field goals after Boswell was placed on IR. 

While the Steelers had (barely) done what they needed to do, all they could do was watch as their fate was ultimately in the hands of the Browns. 

Steelers players watch the Browns-Ravens game on the jumbotron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports

The jumbotron at Heinz Field broadcasted the fleeting minutes of the Browns-Ravens game, as Steelers fans and players alike sat and watched, cheering and hoping for a Browns win for the first time in history. 

Baltimore would end up knocking off the Browns, 26-24, thwarting Cleveland’s 4th and 10 try to keep the game going, ending Cleveland’s hopes of a (technically) winning season and officially knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoff picture. 

And that was it. 

A team with so much potential and talent, had wasted a year away. A team that started 7-2-1, and had a 93.3% chance to make the playoffs had failed to qualify. 

A few days after Pittsburgh’s season was over, Brown appeared on “The Masked Singer,” because, why not? 

Their late-season December collapse was a major talking point after the season, and started a deeply concerning three year streak of December collapses, falling from 8-5 and in the playoffs to 8-8 and on the outside looking in in 2019, and once again in 2020 falling from 11-0 to 12-4. 

The drama and absolute chaos was a glorious gift for sports media, both local and national, who had endless hours to discuss the latest drama the Steelers were experiencing every week. Days of Our Steelers was racking up thousands upon thousands of views. 

Antonio Brown would publicly request a trade in February of 2019, tweeting a farewell to the Steelers and their fans and saying it was time to move on. A trade to the Bills was nearly completed before Brown had protested and refused to go to Buffalo, and the trade was soon killed. 

Eventually, Pittsburgh would find a trade partner in Oakland, trading Brown to the Raiders for a 3rd and 5th round draft pick, who would end up being wide receiver Diontae Johnson and tight end Zach Gentry, respectively. 

The story of Antonio Brown post-Steelers is certainly quite the tale to tell, and you can read all about it here, but let’s just say it was not full of sunshine and rainbows. 

Le’Veon Bell had a much more quiet post-Steelers career, hitting the open market in 2019 and signing the contract he desired with the New York Jets, earning himself $52.5 million, with $35 million in guaranteed money. However, less than halfway through his deal, the Jets released the disgruntled running back, who eventually signed with the Kansas City Chiefs to play in tandem with Clyde Edwards-Helaire. 

After Kansas City, Bell would have short stints with the Ravens and Buccaneers (briefly reuniting with Brown) before pursuing other interests. 

And as a sick joke to Steelers fans, both Brown and Bell would make it to a Super Bowl before Pittsburgh would, as Brown’s Buccaneers would meet Bell’s Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, giving Brown his first Super Bowl ring. 

JuJu Smith-Schuster would go on to grow as the WR1 for the Steelers, playing in Pittsburgh through 2021 when he departed to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs. James Conner, a heroic cancer survivor, played through until 2020, when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. 

While neither Smith-Schuster nor Conner had reached quite the stellar numbers as their predecessors, both were still amazing in their own right. 

This team will forever go down as one of the most chaotic not just in franchise history, but in league history. A true soap opera under the guise of being a professional football franchise. A team with Super Bowl aspirations that had blown a chance at an amazing season that ended in spectacular collapse.