As an all-too-appropriate rain fell upon the grass of M&T Bank Stadium, a Pittsburgh Steelers outfit on the road in week 17 could only look on in frustration as their 2019 season washed away, giving in not merely to a Ravens team missing key starters, but more so to complete psychological and emotional exhaustion.
The Steelers went on one roller coaster of a ride in 2019, having lost star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in week 2 to an injured right elbow. The black and gold fought valiantly not only the rest of the game, but for the next several weeks, barely outplayed by future divisional round or better playoff teams in the Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens, losing all three games by a combined 9 points.
Despite the clear limitations of second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph (and later undrafted rookie Devlin “Duck” Hodges), there was reason to believe the Steelers could overcome the early season adversity. Elite defensive play and superb coaching by Mike Tomlin and staff had the Steelers on track for a playoff berth until the very end.
However, with more injuries plaguing key skill players Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner along the way (as well as a season-ending injury to valued defensive end Stephon Tuitt in week 7), the Steelers simply couldn’t piece together a cohesive offensive attack week-to-week, scoring 20 points or more only twice and averaging a paltry 14.1 points per game during the second half of the season.
Fast-forward to 2020, and there’s optimism abound in the Steel City. With a now-healthy Big Ben, a top defense returning most of its starters, and a highly-respected coaching staff, do the Pittsburgh Steelers have what it takes to return to the playoffs after a two-year drought? Let’s take a look at the key factors at play for the Steelers heading into the 2020-21 season:
- Can Ben Roethlisberger Still Play at a Top-Tier Level?
Even most casual NFL fans know how important the play (and health) of Ben Roethlisberger is to the Steelers’ aspirations this year. It’s easy to forget that in 2018, amidst the other-worldly play of Patrick Mahomes and his 5,097-yard, 52 touchdown season, it was actually Roethlisberger that led the league in passing yards (5,129).
In Big Ben’s one full game in 2019, he didn’t exactly light the NFL landscape ablaze, but neither did most teams against what was a stellar New England defense that didn’t give up a passing touchdown until their 22nd (!) quarter of action in 2019. The point is, the last time we got a full season’s look at Big Ben, he was still a high-level quarterback. The only hurdle stopping Roethlisberger from returning to form at the not-too-old age of 38 is the unknown of his right elbow after badly tearing three of its five flexor tendons.
I don’t see him throwing it all over the yard quite like he did in 2018, but with this current iteration of the Steelers, he shouldn’t have to. If they can manage Ben’s reps and don’t ask too much of him, the expectation is that Pittsburgh will get a shot in the arm over last year’s quarterback play with their future hall-of-famer back in the saddle. Their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl depends on it.
2. How Will Big Ben’s Supporting Cast Fare?
Much was made last year of the exodus of Antonio Brown from the Steelers offense. While the Steelers can definitively say they’re glad to be rid of the headache that was A.B. the person, it remains to be seen how their offense truly looks with him out and Roethlisberger in. If Ben is going to return to form, he can’t be expected to do it entirely on his own.
As aforementioned, the injury plagued 2019 campaigns of key offensive pieces Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner expedited Pittsburgh’s fall towards the bottom of many offensive metrics. The Steelers were ranked 31st in passing yards per game, 29th in rushing yards per game, and 27th in points per game in 2019. If the Steelers want to reach the promised land this season, they’ve got to get more from Ben’s supporting cast.
To their credit, the front office has tried to assist in the endeavor, using their first pick (Round 2, Pick 49) in this year’s draft to take a shot on 6-4, 238 pound Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool, who drew athletic comparisons to Calvin Johnson after posting a stellar 40 yard dash time (4.42) for his size. In the fourth round, the Steelers also selected Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, a running back known for his speed who’s expected to add an explosive change-of-pace element to a running back room filled with some uncertainty after James Conner’s injury-laden year.
Outside the draft, free agent acquisition and speedy tight end Eric Ebron hopes to form a good duo alongside returning tight end Vance McDonald. Throw in the continued development of promising second- and third-year receivers Diontae Johnson and James Washington, and suddenly the Steelers should feel relatively confident in both the depth and potential of their skill positions.
Perhaps their biggest question mark outside of Big Ben himself is an offensive line that went from elite to hovering somewhere between good to league-average last year. As three of their returning starters begin to age (Center Maurkice Pouncey- 31; Right Guard David DeCastro- 30; Left Tackle Alejandro Villanueva- 31), one has to wonder if Father Time might acquaint himself with a consistently vaunted offensive line sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, last year’s right tackle Matt Feiler should provide familiarity at left guard after Ramon Foster’s retirement. What still remains to be seen is who starts at right tackle between two massive, but unproven players in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Even if this offensive line returns to form in 2020, it feels inevitable that Pittsburgh will be staring at more turnover in the trenches next season.
3. Will the Defense Maintain or “Regress?”
Before I get a potential tidal wave of Steelers fans in my mentions, let me be clear: this Steelers defense is really, REALLY good. They’re elite, no questions asked. The front seven in particular might be the best in the entire NFL. Star outside linebacker and All-Pro T.J. Watt (who finished third in the defensive player of the year voting) and Bud Dupree make for arguably the most fearsome pass rush duo in the league, with developing rookie Alex Highsmith (third round- Charlotte) being groomed for the future.
The rest of the second level of Pittsburgh’s defense is nothing to sneeze at, either, as 2019 top selection and bottle rocket Devin Bush looks to build on a promising rookie campaign at middle linebacker next to solid veteran Vince Williams. The defensive line also boasts stud defensive end and All-Pro Cameron Heyward, whose 29 sacks over the last three seasons can be anything but overlooked, and should only be aided by the return of complementary piece Stephon Tuitt.
While we’re at it, let’s throw in a secondary that includes not only play-making free safety and All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick and developing strong safety Terrell Edmunds, but three of the top twenty-five cornerbacks heading into 2020 according to Pro Football Focus (Steven Nelson- 15th; Joe Haden- 19th; Mike Hilton- 25th). No matter how you slice it, Pittsburgh’s defense is absolutely LOADED and should lead the defensive talk of the league next year.
So why am I still a little hesitant? What got somewhat lost in last year’s football conversation as the Steelers struggled offensively was the fact that, by two significant measurements, they were the league’s best defense. Not only did they lead the NFL in sacks (54), but turnovers, as well (38).
While it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Pittsburgh sitting atop the league in sacks next year, turnovers are a far different story, regardless of the quality of their defense. Statistically speaking, teams almost always see substantial regression in this metric after leading the league. Winning the turnover battle is key in football, but the reality is there are too many lurking variables in causing them. I see no reason why Pittsburgh won’t likely follow suit.
But don’t fret, Terrible Towel wavers!
What I will offer is that less turnovers might actually be a positive sign for a defense that watched their offense finish 26th in time of possession last year. With more consistency from a Roethlisberger-led offense, less play time could mean less opportunities to pad the stat sheet for what should still be a top three defense.
4. How does the Schedule Look?
The schedule looks pretty nice, actually. The Steelers have the league’s second easiest schedule behind the archrival Ravens thanks to 2019’s worst division, the NFC East, being in the out-of-conference rotation this year for the AFC North. The one caveat is the fight for the division could be as heated as ever, with the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals all improving on paper from a season ago in what should be the AFC’s toughest division.
However, even if the Steelers can’t secure the division title, the addition of a third wild card team this year in each conference bodes well for a team supremely motivated to get back to the big dance.
Record Prediction: 10-6; Wild Card Berth
“Woah, this guy just waxed poetic about our team! What gives?!?” While 10-6 may seem a little harsh to some, the Steelers have a lot going for them this year, and I do expect them to return to the playoffs.
My cautious optimism comes from some uncertainty regarding the health of Big Ben, the questions that could arise along the offensive line, and the lack of dynamism in the running back room should Roethlisberger decline a little (my sincerest apologies, James Conner fanatics). But who knows what could happen in a season with COVID-19 looking steadily over its shoulder? Only one thing is certain: football is back, and hopefully here to stay.