Season Outlook 2020: Pittsburgh Steelers
2019 was an odd season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. All hope was thought to be lost after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with an injury in week two. The Steelers had other plans however, as they traded for Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick soon after. The move gave the defense a spark, and gave Pittsburgh hope. In the end it wasn’t enough though. Pittsburgh finished with an 8–8 record, and missed the playoffs.
The 2019 Steelers were a tale of two sides of the ball. Pittsburgh’s defense carried the team the majority of the year. Last season, the Steelers’ defense ranked top-five in total yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, and points allowed per game. They also finished the season with the most sacks, and the most takeaways. The unit was one of the best in the NFL, and was the main reason Pittsburgh even competed for a playoff spot.
The offense on the other hand was one of the worst units in the league. The Steelers finished in the bottom-six in total yards per game, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, and points per game. The unit also had the fifth most giveaways last year.
The offensive struggles were due to one main factor: injuries. Many of Pittsburgh’s key offensive players were injured at some point last season. Running back James Conner missed six games last year, while receiver Juju Smith-Schuster missed four. Then there’s the big one. QB Ben Roethlisberger missed 14 games last season, which caused Pittsburgh the most problems.
The Steelers probably would have made the playoffs last season if they had any competent quarterback play. Instead, they rolled out Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, who showed why they’re backups. In eight games, Hodges averaged just under 133 passing yards per game, while throwing for 5 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Rudolph, who performed better than Hodges (which isn’t saying much), also had his struggles. In 10 games, he averaged 176 passing yards per game, and had 13 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and four fumbles. No matter how good Pittsburgh’s defense was last season, it was going to be tough to overcome such poor quarterback play.
2020 is a new season however; and Pittsburgh has an opportunity to be dangerous.
The team is fully healthy. Ben Roethlisberger is back, which should instantly elevate the offense. The last time Roethlisberger started a full season (2018), he finished with 5,129 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. Juju Smith-Schuster is healthy, and will have a great opportunity to return to his 2018 self (1,426 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns) with Roethlisberger back. James Conner will also be looking to regain his 2018 form, where he finished with just under 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns.
The return of Big Ben alone should open up the entire offense. On top of that however, Pittsburgh decided to add to the unit during the offseason. The Steelers selected Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool (1,037 yards, 13 touchdowns in 13 games last season) and Maryland running back Anthony McFarland Jr. (1,107 scrimmage yards in 2018) in the NFL draft. The team also signed tight end Eric Ebron, who is coming off a down year in which he only played 11 games. If Ebron gets back to performing like he did in 2018 (750 yards, 13 touchdowns), then Pittsburgh got a steal in free agency.
While the Steelers will be gaining a ton of talent back from injury, they’ll also be returning a big staple of their team: the offensive line. The o-line is usually a dominant part of the Steelers team, and this year is no different. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is ranked ninth heading into the season according to Pro Football Focus. Big Ben should have plenty of time to find his returning weapons this upcoming season.
So where does a resurgent offense coupled with a dominant defense leave the Steelers this season?
Best case scenario, the Steelers are the third best team in the AFC this year. Equipped with Roethlisberger’s return, and a cakewalk of a schedule (second easiest in the NFL), Pittsburgh has the opportunity to be just a notch below Baltimore and Kansas City. If they made the Conference Championship game I would not be surprised. Worst case scenario, they’re still a playoff team, just with an earlier exit (say Wild Card round). Either way, the Pittsburgh Steelers should be poised for a playoff return in 2020.