As we enter the 2020 season, the past 12 to 18 months have seen many twists and turns in the storylines of the Pittsburgh Steelers. After parting ways with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell last offseason, the team got off to an 0-3 start, which included the loss of Ben Roethlisberger for the season. Entering Week 4 of the 2019 season, it seemed as though the season was over before it really got started.
Then the team acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick who breathed new life into the defense, which was the catalyst for their contention in the wildcard race as they salvaged an 8-8 season despite everything. Following the roller-coaster that has been the past year or so, the Steelers have a whole new set of storylines heading into the start of the 2020 season.
3. Will this be the final season for certain fan favorites?
An intriguing set of storylines to watch in 2020 will be the players going into the final year of their contracts with the Steelers, especially these three fan favorites:
One of the longest-tenured Steelers and one of the unquestioned locker room leaders, Heyward will enter his final season under his current contract. While he is among the top defensive linemen in the game, the price tag his talent commands, combined with his age, could lead to 2020 being his swan song in Pittsburgh. That is unless he is convinced to take a hometown discount.
The 2018 Pro Bowler took a big step back in 2019. Sure, while a lot of that can be chalked up to injury and the fact that the Steelers had no passing game to compliment the run, it was clear that James Conner wasn’t a game-breaker in the same way Le’Veon Bell had been.
With Benny Snell Jr. improving throughout last season, the addition of Anthony McFarland through the NFL Draft, and the veteran signings this offseason has seen, it is clear that Conner needs to show up in 2020 or the team will let him walk in March.
This is the most important season in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s career. Following the departure of Antonio Brown, the expectation was that Smith-Schuster would step into the No.1 role and build off his 2018 season in which he had 111 receptions. Instead, he compiled just 42 receptions and less than half of the yards that he accumulated in 2018.
While the quarterback play is an easy reason to point the finger, it didn’t hinder the play of rookie Diontae Johnson, who led all first-year receivers in receptions. Alongside Johnson, the Steelers drafted Chase Claypool in the second round and also have former third-round draft pick James Washington looming as well. Much like Conner, the writing is on the wall for Smith-Schuster; go off or get out.
2. Can The Steelers Get Back On Top Of The AFC North?
The Steelers are in unfamiliar territory as they seem to be the afterthoughts in their own division. The Ravens went 14-2 last season and MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson was the media darling of the league. Meanwhile, Baker Mayfield and the Browns owned the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Plus, the Bengals are getting considerable attention after drafting Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.
While this isn’t to say that no one is paying attention to Pittsburgh, it is to say that the Steelers aren’t used to sharing the limelight in their own division. I wouldn’t expect it to stay that way for long. Remember, this is the team that deferred in overtime and gave the ball to Baltimore because coach Mike Tomlin saw how well his defense was doing against the Ravens’ young quarterback. The gamble worked, as Pittsburgh quickly got the ball back and was a Smith-Schuster fumble away from a potential game-winning drive.
With the defense back and possibly even better with Stephon Tuitt returning after missing most of the season with a pectoral injury, as well as with Ben Roethlisberger back at the helm, there is no reason to think the Steelers can’t win another AFC North title. Speaking of Roethlisberger…
1. How Will Ben Roethlisberger Look After Surgery?
Of the storylines surrounding the Steelers in 2020 no single storyline is more impactful that this one. The health of Pittsburgh’s two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback will be the difference between being Super Bowl contenders and fighting for a playoff spot, much like we saw in the 2019 season.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the stability of Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired elbow. In his YouTube documentary “Bigger Than Ben,” he says that he has dealt with pain in his right arm nearly his entire career and that the pain he felt in Pittsburgh’s home opener against Seattle was the sharpest he had ever felt, which ultimately turned out to be the injury resulting in his season-ending surgery.
No quarterback of his age has ever come back from such an injury and been successful, and this is somewhat of a unique circumstance as we haven’t seen this particular injury too much. Because of this uncertainty, many are skeptical of the Steelers being a real threat in the AFC.
How does Roethlisberger feel?
That said, Roethlisberger is nothing but optimistic. He says this is the lightest he has been in “13 or 14 years” and that he hasn’t thrown the ball without feeling pain for as long as he can remember. The elbow surgery may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the 38-year-old passer. If Roethlisberger feels as good as he claims, there is no reason to believe he won’t perform and help the Steelers as they fight among the elites in the NFL.