Mark Madden: Steelers’ chances to win AFC North hinge on Chris Boswell
As Steelers training camp at Latrobe fast approaches, the biggest issue involves somebody who’s not really a football player.
If kicker Chris Boswell finds his form from 2017, the Steelers win the AFC North. If Boswell had maintained that form last year, the Steelers would have won the division.
Instead, Boswell missed seven field goals and five extra points. His errant kicks directly flushed two victories (at Cleveland and at Oakland) and hindered the Steelers badly in several other games.
Boswell was the biggest reason the Steelers missed last year’s playoffs.
Given the disposable nature of the position, that makes keeping Boswell for 2019 a bit surprising but not gratuitously so.
The Steelers had to choose between two gambles: Gamble Boswell reverts to again being elite, or gamble someone walks in off the street and does better.
Given the Steelers paid Boswell a signing bonus of nearly $7.3 million when he inked a five-year contract last season, the former gamble makes sense.
Another kicker is nonetheless walking in off the street, namely undrafted rookie Matt Wright from Central Florida.
Wright’s chances of winning the job are minuscule, but one wonders: What if Boswell has the shanks throughout the preseason? How do the Steelers react?
Kickers don’t deal in the intangible. They make or miss, and everybody sees what happened. If Boswell stinks in the exhibitions, it starts a dumpster fire.
Fixing a kicker is an inexact science. In 2016, the Steelers cut an injured Shaun Suisham in favor of Boswell. Last year, the Steelers brought Suisham in to work with Boswell. The replacement consulted with the replaced.
The other Steeler who isn’t really a football player seems in deeper kimchi than Boswell.
Punter Jordan Berry finished 30th last season in punting average (26th in net) and could be pushed (and perhaps ousted) at Latrobe by Ian Berryman, an undrafted rookie from Western Carolina. Berryman’s chances are more realistic than Wright’s, but Berry signed a new deal in March.
The depth chart seems mostly set when it comes to actual football players.
One notion is interesting: Why not use rookie Devin Bush and free-agent signing Mark Barron together at inside linebacker?
It’s largely assumed the two are competing for snaps, with Barron an insurance policy in case Bush’s adjustment goes slow. It’s early, but Bush appears to be fitting seamlessly. Vince Williams, the other inside ‘backer, is charismatic but mediocre.
Barron (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and Williams (6-1, 233) are listed at virtually the same size. Barron is faster and better at covering. Bush and Barron on the field at the same time provides a two-‘backer nickel that would be better than a three-safety dime given the Steelers’ shortcomings at safety.
It will mostly be a pedestrian preseason for the Steelers. Preseasons are for most teams. The depth charts and rosters are all but predetermined.
The Steelers have some minor storylines: Mike Hilton vs. Cam Sutton at nickel. Can JuJu Smith-Schuster step up and be a No. 1 receiver? Who steps up to be the No. 2 receiver? Can new cornerback Steven Nelson trigger takeaways? Can the offense be better without Antonio Brown? (It will be.)
Then there’s the evolution of the culture. If the Steelers win, it gets perceived as better. If the Steelers lose, the absence of Antonio Brown gets bemoaned.
If the kicker makes at least 90 percent of his field goals, a lot of troubles disappear. If he doesn’t, troubles multiply.