Updated: May 17, 2020
The Pittsburgh Steelers are primed for a bounce back year in the wake of a 8-8 2019 campaign. For a franchise as historically dominant as Pittsburgh a .500 season is nothing to be proud of. However, contextually it is somewhat of a miracle they managed to win eight games. The season was marred by injuries, the most important being quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's UCL tear in week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks. Add on injuries to his backup Mason Rudolph, along with limited availability from RB James Conner and WR Juju Smith-Schuster and the offense was atrocious ranking 30th in the NFL - averaging only 276 YPG and 18 points per game. They had 25 total TDs and had more lost fumbles (11) than rushing TDS (7). So how did they manage an 8-8 record?
The 2019 Steelers success was largely due to a defensive renaissance anchored by all pro TJ Watt and new acquisition (also an all-pro but who’s counting) Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh boasted a top 5 defense, giving up 304.13 YPG (5th), 194 Passing YPG (3rd), 7 rushing TD’s (T-1) and led the league with 38 takeaways (1st).
I’d attribute this success to both excellent coaching (I owe mike Tomlin a serious apology) and proactive managing from GM Kevin Colbert. Colbert traded up to the tenth pick in the 2019 draft for LB Devin Bush, filling the gaping hole left by Ryan Shazier following his career ending neck injury in 2017. Bush played in 82% of all defensive snaps, and had as impressive a freshman season as any. Next up was the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick. After an 0-2 start, and losing your franchise QB to injury, many general managers would have packed it in and tanked for an absolutely stacked 2020 draft. However, Colbert realized what the defense sorely was missing: a big play, dynamic free safety with great ball skills and football IQ. So he traded his 2020 1st for Minkah Fitzpatrick. With Pittsburgh, Minkah had 9PD, 5 INT, 1FF, 1FR and 2 TDs, one of which basically won the game against Indianapolis.
The best part about the Steelers defense is that they’re young. This core will grow together as a unit and will be wreaking havoc for a long time. Outside of Javon Hargrave leaving for the Eagles, all the pieces remain. A healthy Stephon Tuitt will help anchor an already dominant D-line and our new acquisitions Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks Jr. will have time to develop into starters.
A quick aside on Highsmith and Brooks: these two are mean, mean players. They love to hit and cause as much damage as possible. Highsmith was described as a “pass rushing demon” at the NFL draft and can help stop outside QB plays due to his speed. (Lamar im looking at you) Brooks Jr. meanwhile is a bit less polished, but can absolutely lay the boom. If Pittsburgh can develop him, look for him to challenge Terrell Edmunds for the starting spot at SS in the coming years.
The offense on the other hand had several key acquisitions. Mainly, Ben returning gives Pittsburgh an opportunity to become an offensive juggernaut again. Lets not forget he threw for 5,129 yards in his 2018 season. Obviously this is tentative, if he get’s re-injured we could be in serious trouble, but by all accounts he seems to be rehabbing just fine.
Our first draft pick was WR Chase Claypool at 49, a physical freak from Notre Dame. This guy is 6’4, 238 with a 4.42 40 time. Many have compared his tool set to hall of famer Calvin Johnson, although that is a bit rich. He’s a less polished route runner and doesn’t quite have the hands of Johnson but has time to learn. Pittsburgh’s WR draft pedigree leads me to believe this is a solid pick. His use as a slot could cause serious redzone mismatches alongside Washington, Diontae Johnson and Juju.
Oh and Eric Ebron. Ebron was signed by Pittsburgh this offseason and I’m quite excited to see him paired with Big Ben. In his final season with Andrew Luck Ebron caught 13 TD’s and was a redzone monster.
Finally of note is Anthony McFarland Jr, RB from Maryland who can absolutely rip off chunk plays with a 4.3 40 time. He’ll likely be used sparkly with Conner, Snell and Samuels available, but it will be interesting to see.
Overall, our offense is looking to have some serious juice going into the 2020 season. Our hall of fame QB is back. Our O-line is still elite, Even with the loss of Ramon Foster, as I can see Matt Feiler filling that role. Our receiving corps got a necessary shot in the arm, which should allow JuJu to have a huge bounce-back season. If Conner stays healthy, Pittsburgh has as solid rotation of RB's and they can run by committee all over teams. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to this revamped offense led by Bionic Ben and his cyborg arm.
2020 SEASON PROJECTIONS:
Sept. 14 at NY Giants, 7:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) – W
The NY Giants have been making the right steps rebuilding; however, I believe they’re still a bottom tier NFL team as of right now. Expect a low scoring game here as Ben and the offense takes time to adjust. James Conner will go for 150 all purpose yards and carry the workload. 20-6 Steelers.
Sept. 20 vs. Denver, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – W
Pittsburgh’s vaunted D will be a formidable test for Drew lock, Jerry Jeudy and company. Heinz Field home opener and Big Ben’s homecoming will lead to an offensive show. Denver doesn’t have a bad defense with Von Miller, A.J Bouye and company, but I expect a blowout here. 37-14 Steelers.
Sept. 27 vs. Houston, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – W
Two things to note here: 1) All of the Watt brothers will be playing in the same game for the first time. 2) Bill O’Brien has ran the Houston Texans into the ground. With that being said, Deshaun Watson is one of the most electrifying players in the NFL, and he can shine through the dysfunction of the Texans. Unfortunately for Watson, he was sacked an NFL leading 55 times last year. Pittsburgh’s D will have their way with the Hopkins-less Texans and sack Watson 5 times. 27-17 Steelers.
Oct. 4 at Tennessee, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS)- L
Tennessee is a very good football team. Their AFC Championship game run was no fluke. Tennessee has a very sneaky secondary that could pose a problem for Randy Fichtner and Ben. Their smashmouth running game will have a serious test against Pittsburgh’s front six, leading me to believe this will be a close game. 20-14 Titans.
Oct. 11 vs. Philadelphia, 1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) – W
This game is a coin-flip in my mind. The Eagles have caught a lot of flack from their fans for the 2020 draft, however I believe they did a solid job. Jalen Raegor fills the deep threat that Wentz desperately needs, and with DeSean Jackson returning this could be an explosive offense. Look for them to exploit Terrell Edmunds in box coverage. Pittsburgh’s offense should be firing on all cylinders by now and the Eagles secondary isn’t the greatest following the loss of Malcom Jenkins. I expect a lot of redzone mismatches with Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron. Ben wins it on the final drive. 28-25 Steelers.
Oct. 18 vs. Cleveland, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – W
Cleveland this, Cleveland that. Oh, they got Conklin. Oh, they signed Austin Hooper. This team is going to be better than they were last year, but Baker and the offense have to deal with a 3rd coach and a 3rd playbook in three years. If Cleveland wants success they will have to lean on Kevin Stefanski’s pension for outside runs and QB roll outs. Jedrick Wills will take some time to adjust to LT in his rookie campaign. From an organizational standpoint I just can’t see Cleveland getting over the hump just yet. Their defense is also trash still following the loss of Schobert. S Grant Delpit was a great 2nd round pick but will take time to develop. I see Pittsburgh taking some serious revenge here for Cleveland’s antics last season. Baker’s turnover problem will be on full display here and Minkah, Haden and Watt will run amuck. 35-17 Steelers.
Oct. 25 at Baltimore, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – L
Baltimore is a scary team. Their offense is dynamite, their defense is solid, the coaching is there. The rich got richer with a stacked draft class in Patrick Queen and J.K Dobbins. I expect this to be a close game, Pittsburgh will likely have to abandon the run early which will force ben to make some throws against a dangerous secondary. Pittsburgh hasn’t found a way to stop Lamar Jackson just yet, and with the game being in Baltimore, I see a loss coming here. 27-20 Ravens.
Nov. 8 at Dallas, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS) – L
I hate to say it, but I think Dallas wins this game. They had a down season last year, but with the addition of Cee-Dee lamb the offense is terrifying. Bringing in fresh blood via Mike McCarthy will also help Dak and company progress into a superbowl contender. That being said, the loss of Byron Jones might sting the cowboys secondary. I could see Ben putting on a show in Jerryworld and JuJu having a huge game. It will be close, and it will be a shootout. 45-37 Cowboys.
Nov. 15 vs. Cincinnati, 1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) – W
The Cincinnati Bengal’s are going to be a very serious problem for the AFC North in a few years. However, they’re just not there yet. Expect a poor season from the Bengal’s as their defense and offensive line are sub-par. 35-10 Steelers.
Nov. 22 at Jacksonville, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – W
Over the past few years the Jaguars have been Pittsburgh’s boogeymen. However, this is not the same team that beat them in 45-42 in the playoffs. Only DL Calais Campbell and LB Myles Jack remain from the vaunted 2017 Defense. This game is mismatch hell for the Jagaurs. Ben will probably torch them for a 50 burger, utilizing the entirety of his receiver core. Then he’ll say something about how he’s getting revenge for his horrible games 3 seasons ago. 52-17 Steelers.
Nov. 26 vs. Baltimore, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) – W
This is the game I’m looking most forward to. Thanksgiving, prime time. AFC North bloodbath. With Tomlin and Butler studying the tape from their first encounter I believe Pittsburgh will split the season series here at Heinz field. There’s not much more to say than this will be a fantastic football game. 26-21 Steelers.
Dec. 6 vs. Washington, 1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) – W
This is going to be a blowout. Redskins are making the right moves, Chase young will be an immediate plug and play star, but they are just not a good team as of right now. Riverboat Ron is still having nightmares from his 2018 matchup against Pittsburgh. 45-10 Steelers.
Dec. 13 at Buffalo, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) – L
BUFALLOOOO. I love the Bills. They’re a grinder blue collar team just like Pittsburgh. If the government permits, I will be attending this game and I will be going through a table. We saw last season just how good the Bills defense is. Their front 6 is nasty, their secondary is anchored by who I believe to be the NFL’s best corner Tre’Davious White. They tallied 4 interceptions against Pittsburgh last year, albeit that was without Ben. I truly believe the Bills are turning a corner, and if Josh Allen can continue to progress him and Diggs can become one of the NFL’s best duos. This will be a close game, and a defensive battle - but I think Buffalo wins it. 23-17 Bills.
Dec. 21 at Cincinnati, 8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) – W
Once again, a young and talented Cinci team won’t be able to handle the Pittsburgh pass rush and Burrow gets eaten alive on national television. 28-13 Steelers.
Dec. 27 vs. Indianapolis, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – W
Indianapolis has a good football team. At this point they will be fighting for a playoff spot. Philip Rivers and TY Hilton could be a dynamite paring. Their offensive line is one of the best in the NFL and will be a challenge for TJ Watt and company. However, I don’t see Indianapolis winning in December in Heinz. Ben is built for games like this. 35-28 Steelers.
Jan. 3 at Cleveland, 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) – W
At this point Cleveland will be fighting tooth and nail to be an 8-8 team, however, Pittsburgh will easily handle them, putting the nail in Stefanskis coffin and relegating Cleveland yet again to a sub .500 franchise. 45-6 Steelers.
So there you have it. 12-4. They make the playoffs and lose in the AFCCG to the Chiefs. Oh yeah, and TJ watt wins DPOY with 16.5 sacks and 9 FFs, 5 FR and 2 picks.