Ben Roethlisberger is back from the elbow injury that wiped out most of his 2019 season. And while Big Ben may not be in “the best shape of his life,” he’s about as chonky as usual, and he looks and sounds poised to make the Steelers Super Bowl sleepers in 2020.
In Roethlisberger’s absence, the Steelers rebuilt their defense around the young core of Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and T.J. Watt, while a deep and diverse group of offensive weapons learned to survive despite pitiful quarterbacking. Mike Tomlin’s team nearly secured a Wild Card berth last season with Devlin Hodges handing off to Kerrith Whyte and throwing to Diontae Johnson last year. We’re about to find out what they can do with Big Ben throwing to Juju Smith-Schuster and handing off to James Conner.
What scenarios exist for the Steelers in 2020?
Roethlisberger threw for 5,124 yards and 34 touchdowns two years ago. Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes. Conner gained 1,470 scrimmage yards and scored 13 touchdowns. If this trio comes close to returning to 2018 form, the rest of the roster is good enough to make the Steelers a legitimate rival for the Chiefs and Ravens.
Roethlisberger is 38 and coming off significant elbow surgery. His backups remain Hodges and (somehow) Mason Rudolph. The Steelers went 0-3 and scored just 10 points in their final three games when opponents figured out all of their offensive tricks and wrinkles. With an injured or washed Big Ben, they risk picking up right where they left off.
An impressive defense
Watt led the NFL in combined sacks and tackles for a loss with 28. He tied Chandler Jones for the league lead with eight forced fumbles.
Devin Bush finished eighth in the NFL with 62 tackles short of the first down as a rookie last year. With one of the fastest defenses in the league, the Steelers were a tough team to generate big plays against. Opponents recorded just six rushing plays of 20-plus yards (tied for third lowest in the NFL) and zero rushing plays of 40-plus yards.
On passes of 15-plus air yards, Steelers quarterbacks had a completion rate of just 35.3% (only the Panthers had a lower rate), an efficiency rating of 54.2 (Panthers again), and produced just six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Not to make Steelers fans nervous, but Roethlisberger was just 3-of-13 with a pick on passes of 15-plus yards before getting injured, so not everything can be blamed on Ducky and Slurry at quarterback.
Are there any fantasy football stars in Pittsburgh?
James Conner and Smith-Schuster
Conner is firmly planted among the RB2 “featured backs with questions” (Todd Gurley, Chris Carson, etc.) tier in most drafts. Similarly, Smith-Schuster is hanging out at the top of the WR2 tier among receivers with dicey quarterback situations (Allen Robinson), crowded depth charts (Calvin Ridley), or flaky reputations + crowded depth charts (Odell Beckham).
Both Conner and Juju should be viewed as boom-or-bust selections: Draft them in their tiers, but have a Plan B (and perhaps Plan C) ready just in case. The fact that Mike Tomlin isn’t a big fan of running back committees makes Conner the safer selection.
Johnson led the NFL in receptions from zero to five yards downfield last year: 27 receptions on 32 targets for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson is a burner with moves, so he should reprise his role as the guy who catches the shallow drag and tries to turn it upfield.
But fantasy sharps are hip to Johnson, he’s showing up in the eighth round in ADP. That’s a steep price for someone who will have to share targets with Smith-Schuster, James Washington, rookie Chase Claypool, and others.
The Steelers, Ravens, and 49ers will be the first defenses off the board in most drafts, depending on the scoring systems and such. I like the Steelers better than the others. They have more playmakers (Watt, Minkah, Bush, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden) than the Ravens and a weaker slate of opposing offenses than the 49ers.
Are the Steelers Super Bowl sleepers?
The 2020 Steelers have the highest variance of any team in the NFL. They could easily be in the AFC Championship race if everything breaks right, making them fashionable sleepers as a Super Bowl pick. They could also end up like last year’s Chargers: A little too old at quarterback, a little too young at other key positions.
It’s trite to say that it all comes down to the quarterback, but it all comes down to the quarterback. The season opener against the Giants won’t be much of a test, but later tests against tougher foes will reveal whether the real Big Ben is back or gone forever. Adjust your expectations, fantasy lineups, and everything else accordingly.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Projection
Either 11-5 or 5-11. Let’s be bold and go with 11-5, second place in the AFC North.