The Pittsburgh Steelers have always prided themselves on depth. It helped keep them in the playoff race for much of last season, despite losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to injury in Week 2 and being hampered with injuries to other top players—they had an 8-8 record. It has also kept them in the highest tier of NFL success across multiple decades.
The Steelers have continued to add depth via the draft and free agency but haven’t won a playoff game since 2016 and completely missed the postseason the last two years. They’ll have a hopefully healthy Roethlisberger, who will be a key to their 2020 success, as well as starting running back James Conner and top wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. In order for Pittsburgh to find success this upcoming season, it will need a playoff win and a full season from Roethlisberger.
The Steelers could see some renewed competition in their division with the new-new-look Cleveland Browns and No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow with the Cincinnati Bengals. The expanded playoff field will also present a challenge, but Pittsburgh has been well equipped—for years—to at least make the playoffs, which is why a playoff berth will not be enough here. They can look to their offense that will have plenty of position battles and new talent and their formidable defense to get back some of that postseason glory they became accustomed to.
Roethlisberger won’t be playing much longer. He is 38 and coming off an injury to his throwing elbow, which required surgery. The one-and-a-half game sample from last season isn’t enough to completely push Roethlisberger out of the door. He’s coming with his own new-look in 2020, one that’s happier and lighter, according to offensive linemen David DeCastro. Roethlisberger will have to improve his touchdown-to-interception ratio too. In 2018, he had a league-high 16 interceptions and has thrown at least 13 since 2015. It will certainly help to have key playmakers healthy and productive.
Smith-Schuster will need to be both after he slightly regressed last season. The fourth-year receiver played in 12 games and recorded just 552 yards and three touchdowns on 42 catches; all of these marks are career lows. Smith-Schuster’s lackluster season wasn’t solely due to Roethlisberger’s absence, he was also dealing with multiple injuries after being on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit in Week 11 and then missing time with knee issues. Smith-Schuster will need to get back to the receiver we saw in 2018 when he finished the year with 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns.
Pittsburgh’s receiving corps has had its fair share of stars. Smith-Schuster, along with second-year pass-catcher Diontae Johnson, who had a break-out rookie season with 92 catches for 680 yards and five touchdowns, and second-round draft pick Chase Claypool can bring this unit back to prominence. There will be interesting position battles to watch on offense, particularly with QB3 and multiple running back spots. Paxton Lynch could beat Devlin Hodges out of the No. 3 spot and there are a number of potential backs who could move into RB2 and RB3 behind Conner; Benny Snell and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. are projected to fill those roles. There are also questions surrounding the offensive line and how effective it can be. If one caveat to 2020 success is Roethlisberger staying healthy, the offensive front will need to at least sustain its level of success, but this year it will be without left guard Ramon Foster, who retired following the 2019 season and backup guard/center B.J. Finney, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks in free agency.
The defense has been stalwart after tallying a league-best 38 takeaways and only surrendering 4.7 yards per play last season. The Steelers are maned with Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and T.J. Watt, all of whom were first-team All-Pros in 2019. While the offense was severely lacking in Roethlisberger’s absence, the defense rounded out the top five. If Pittsburgh can bring everything together this season, it should, almost easily, find success.