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Year in review: Story lines that shaped Pittsburgh sports in 2018

| Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, 8:03 a.m.

As we look back on the year in Pittsburgh sports in 2018, we reflect on what could have been, what wasn't and what exceeded expectations.


For Steelers, sour taste amid high expectations

The calendar year began with such great promise for the Steelers, who had won 10 of their final 11 games in 2017 to extend their postseason streak to four consecutive seasons. But it was a bitter end to 2018. The Steelers lost four of five heading into Week 17. And despite a win over the Bengals, they were left out of the playoff picture.

The Steelers' first game of 2018 was a stunning home loss to Jacksonville in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Closing out the year were four blown fourth-quarter leads between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

While the Steelers clinched their 15th non-losing season in a row, 2018 won't qualify as a banner year, with their playoff hopes having coming down to Week 17 after a 7-2-1 start. And with a win that got them to 9-6-1, they got no help as the Baltimore Ravens came away with the AFC North title and the Indianapolis Colts claimed the final wild-card spot.


Capitals finally top Penguins in playoffs on way to Stanley Cup

In hockey circles, 2018 will be remembered as the year the Washington Capitals finally put their foot down and won a Stanley Cup championship. In early May, their boots landed squarely on the necks of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After a slow start to the 2017-18 season, the Penguins found their stride right around the holidays and were the NHL's hottest team throughout January and February. When they got a four-goal game from Jake Guentzel to dispatch the hated Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, a three-peat — an unprecedented accomplishment in the league's salary-cap era — started to come into focus.

In the second round, the Capitals put a decisive end to any of that sort of talk. A parade of odd-man rushes by Washington's talented forwards put the Penguins on their heels. Evgeny Kuznetsov's overtime winner in Game 6 ended it, and defending champions were defending no more.

"I think we had a great chance to do it again with the team we have and the way we were playing," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "I don't think we got dominated by that team, but we have to tip our hat to that group. They capitalized on the chances they got."


Yes, that guy

Looking back, perhaps we all should have listened back in January when Le'Veon Bell said he "would definitely consider" sitting out the 2018 season if the Steelers placed a franchise tag on him for the second consecutive year in the spring.

The Steelers did just that, and, sure enough, Bell ultimately missed the entire season. One by one, usually accompanied by great mystery and fanfare, deadlines (real and manufactured) passed: the July 17 NFL cut-off date to negotiate a contract extension, the July 25 opening of training camp, the start of regular-season practice Labor Day, the Week 7 bye during which Bell told ESPN he'd report, and the final 4 p.m. Nov. 13 deadline that Bell needed to sign his tender by to be eligible to play this season.

During none was Bell seen at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. So, on Nov. 14, his erstwhile teammates playfully looted his locker.

On the bright side, Bell's absence gave way for former Pitt star James Conner to thrive. In his second season, Conner was selected as the AFC's starting running back for the Pro Bowl.


Pirates fans soured by Gerrit Cole trade were surprised later

For just the fourth time over the past 26 seasons, the Pirates posted a winning record in 2018. And for what seemingly has been almost as rare, they were proactive in adding accomplished veteran players to their roster, too.

In the end, though, the ultimate result was largely unchanged from most of the past quarter century: the Pirates missed the postseason after finishing in fourth place in the National League Central.

But the 82 wins they posted represented progress, especially for a season that was preceded by the unpopular trades of their ace (Gerrit Cole to Houston) and proverbial face of the franchise (Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco). The additions of starter Chris Archer and closer Keone Kela at the trade deadline were as startlingly unexpected as they were gleefully welcomed by the fanbase.

With a rotation featuring Archer, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove coupled with a bullpen that includes closers Kela and Felipe Vazquez, legitimate 2019 playoff hopes are justified.


Pitt football fulfills its promises

There can be no argument that Pitt did make progress in coach Pat Narduzzi's fourth season. After winning five games in 2017, Pitt won seven and the ACC Coastal championship ahead of the Sun Bowl on Monday against Stanford.

While reaching the ACC Championship game and losing to Clemson, 42-10, Pitt managed to produce two 1,000-yard rushers — Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall — for the first time in school history. It was a remarkable achievement during a season when the passing game failed to provide balance to the offense.

There seems to be stability at the important positions of quarterback and head coach, but quarterback Kenny Pickett needs to take several steps forward before defenses will truly fear him. He can't do that unless the head coach develops better pass catchers and blockers.

Overall, it was a good year for Narduzzi's program, even if Pitt loses in the Sun Bowl, which would mean ending the season on a three-game losing streak. Also, it would be the fifth season of seven losses each in the eight years since Dave Wannstedt was fired.

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