Schedule: @NYG, DEN, HOU, @TEN, PHI, CLE, @BAL, BYE, @DAL, CIN, @JAX, BAL, WAS, @BUF, @CIN, IND, @CLE
Additions: TE Eric Ebron (FA), FB Derek Watt (FA), OL Stefen Wisniewski (FA), DL Chris Wormley (Trade), WR Chase Claypool (Draft)
Losses: OL Ramon Foster (Retired), DL Javon Hargrave (FA), OL B.J. Finney (FA), S Sean Davis (FA), TE Nick Vannett (FA), FB Roosevelt Nix (Cut)
As you can see by the short lists of both additions and losses, the Steelers are pretty much running it back in 2020. That’s understandable, given how they finished 8-8 despite crippling injuries. The most important, of course, being Ben Roethlisberger’s. Big Ben will be in Canton one day, so his loss was obviously devastating. Especially given how the team skimped on the backup quarterback position. In relief, the terrible twosome Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges combined to offset an utterly dominant defense. Ideally, neither of those guys will have to see the field next season and Pittsburgh will actually reap the rewards of the defense’s game-changing plays.
While Big Ben is back, he might not be the guy we’re accustomed to seeing. Last year, his season was ended by an elbow injury similar to those requiring Tommy John’s surgery—a procedure rare in football, but is a near-death sentence for baseball pitchers. Still, no matter what version of Roethlisberger we see, he’ll be an improvement.
His return will benefit everyone on the offense—a much-needed boost after rough years for pretty much the entire unit. Juju Smith-Schuster fell way short of expectation in his first season as WR1. Maybe we understated Antonio Brown’s role in his production, but regardless, 2020 should be closer to his past team MVP form. There’s a couple receivers nipping at his heels, too. Both James Washington and Diontae Johnson seemed to adjust better to Roethlisberger’s injury than he did, so we’ll see how the targets shake out now that number 7 is back.
Another threat is rookie Chase Claypool. A bit of a tight end-receiver hybrid, his freaky athleticism has been making noise in camp. Pittsburgh’s actual tight end, Eric Ebron, is more valuable in fantasy than real life in my opinion. His consistency and blocking issues keep him from the greatness his 2018 stats would indicate. He and incumbent Vance McDonald are more co-TE1s than starter and backup. Despite each player’s weaknesses, the duo has exciting potential.
Running back James Conner is another guy looking for a bounceback. Le’Veon Bell’s replacement only suited up for 10 games and was banged up for most of the games he did play in. Health has been an issue throughout his young career, but in 2018 he showed what he’s capable of when he and the offense are humming. Pittsburgh has a ton of intriguing young depth behind him as well. Benny Snell has looked so good in camp that many are speculating he could have a role regardless of Conner’s availability. Currently in the concussion protocol, rookie Anthony McFarland was one of the most explosive backs in the draft and warrants a few touches a game himself.
To help all their promising backs, the Steelers are going to need a better season from the offensive line. After years of elite play, they took a major step back last season. Barring David DeCastro’s recent injury turning out to be serious, they should reverse that in 2020. It’s not a coincidence that their down year came without Roethlisberger. With so many long-tenured guys, they and Roethlisberger make each other better. So long as Matt Feiler transitions to guard well and Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor fills in admirably at right tackle, this unit should be great once again.
The defense lost a couple good players in Javon Hargrave and Sean Davis, but I’m not worried. Given the awful positions the offense put them in, they might have been the best in the league last year. Plus, Davis missed almost all of last season and his injury played a huge role in the Steelers landing Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s unlikely the former Dolphin makes as many big plays, but he could be a better overall player in his first full season with the team. Starting next to him is Terrell Edmunds, who’s had an up-and-down career since being a surprising first-round pick in 2018. At corner, the trio of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton is supremely underrated.
Pittsburgh’s front seven is regarded as one of the best in the league, and rightfully so. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree fly off the edge while Cam Heyward is just as scary in the middle. That trio might haunt quarterbacks’ nightmares more than any other in football. Stephon Tuitt doesn’t put up the same numbers as those three, but he’s just as great. Tyson Alualu will head up the group effort to replace Hargrave, but the new Eagle’s loss will be felt. In just one year, Devin Bush proved himself to be one of the better linebackers in football. Year two could bring a jump to being one of the best. After leading the league in takeaways, the Steelers are due for some regression on that front. Outside of that, there’s no reason to expect a drop off defensively.
Roethlisberger’s elbow is the main and really only concern I have with this team. The defense is top-notch and the offense should take a major step forward. Mike Tomlin reminded everyone how great of a coach he is last season. With a schedule on the easier side, Pittsburgh has a good shot at double-digit wins. I still think Baltimore takes the division, but anything’s possible with these two rivals.
What’s your record prediction for the Steelers? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.