From top to bottom, the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers may be the most talented team in the Ben Roethlisberger era. While it was all about the defense for Pittsburgh in 2019, the offense is being overlooked in terms of the top units in the league. They may not have too many bonafide superstars on the offensive side of the ball, but the unit is still littered with talent and depth, which has led to multiple playmakers battling for spots and playing time. Let’s take a look at what the Steelers offensive depth chart will look like in 2020.
Who will start at guard and tackle?
Following the retirement of left guard Ramon Foster, the Steelers announced that right tackle Matt Feiler would shift inside and fill the spot Foster left vacant. Doing so meant that the Steelers would have to replace Feiler on the outside.
Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor have been with Pittsburgh the longest at the position, but the Steelers signed Stephen Wisniewski from the Kansas City Chiefs to potentially claim the starting role.
Wisniewski played both guard and tackle with Kansas City, being an intricate piece in the Chiefs Super Bowl run, so his versatility is a proven commodity. Don’t be surprised if he is the guy called upon to start on the right side in Week 1.
Former All-Pros Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are back at center and right guard, respectively, as is two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. As long as this unit stays healthy, it should once again be amongst the league’s most elite groups.
Who will be the bell cow in the backfield?
Since Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season, Pittsburgh’s ground game has been noticeably less effective. While James Conner earned a Pro Bowl nod in his first season as a full-time starter, it’s clear that Bell’s patience in letting holes open up and his ability as a receiver has been sorely missed.
2019 was an especially tough season as the Steelers ranked 29th in rushing yards per game. Conner missed six games and averaged less than 50 yards per game in each contest in which he did play. Benny Snell Jr. became the starter in Conner’s absence, but he averaged just over 32 yards per game.
What is Anthony McFarland’s outlook for his rookie campaign?
While many will attribute the struggles in the run game to the lack of efficient passing, it was clear the Steelers run game needed another piece to get the unit back toward the top of the league, so adding Anthony McFarland to the mix could eventually do just that.
The fourth-round draft pick out of Maryland is going to be an instant contributor to the offense. He is an absolute rocket when he gets in open space and his field vision is what will make him stand out among the other backs.
Conner will be the one who starts the season, getting the majority of the carries, while Snell and McFarland get their fair share as well. Wendell Smallwood is another guy who will be competing for playing time and it could come down to him and Jaylen Samuels as to who will be the odd man out when the season starts.
That said, don’t be surprised if McFarland’s role gradually increases and he becomes the feature back by the middle of the season. If that is the case, this could be James Conner’s final season in Pittsburgh.
Where does Chase Claypool land in the pecking order?
If there is one rookie with the most hype regarding all the Steelers’ new additions, it’s Chase Claypool. The rookie out of Notre Dame has earned praise from the Steelers’ coaching staff, defensive backs, and even Ben Roethlisberger himself throughout camp. So where does that leave him in the wide receiver pecking order?
The No.1 in the receivers’ room to start the season will be JuJu Smith-Schuster. However, much like Conner, Smith-Schuster dealt with injuries and saw his progression take a large leap backward in 2019. In his absence, Diontae Johnson emerged as a go-to target in the offense, leading all rookies in receptions and becoming an All-Pro in the return game. James Washington also continued to get better in the second half of the season. That leaves a small question as to where will each receiver begin the season on the depth chart. The somewhat simple answer is that there will be a great variety of combinations.
After an injury-plagued 2019 season, how does JuJu Smith-Schuster project moving forward?
Smith-Schuster will be the predominant slot receiver, as he has been since his rookie season. Johnson and Washington are much better outside the numbers, but that’s not to say they won’t get snaps from the inside alignment. Claypool is the one receiver whom the Steelers should feel completely comfortable lining up anywhere. His height gives him an advantage over the vast majority of cornerbacks in the NFL, and his speed at his size would make him practically unstoppable in the slot.
Ray-Ray McCloud and Ryan Switzer seem to be battling for the kick returner role, and whichever of the two doesn’t get that spot will have to prove their worth for the fifth or sixth receiver position on the depth chart with Deon Cain and the newly-signed DeAndre Thompkins.
Claypool is the receiver with the most upside among all of Pittsburgh’s wideouts and I wouldn’t be shocked if he were to become the Steelers go-to target sooner rather than later. Much like Conner, Smith-Schuster has stellar counterparts at his position and if he doesn’t produce, he could be wearing new threads in 2021.
How will the offense perform in 2020?
Everyone who is doubting the Steelers in 2020 points to Roethlisberger, claiming he won’t be the Big Ben of old following his elbow surgery. The thing is, he doesn’t have to be.
Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges combined for 2,828 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. That is the bar that has been set for Roethlisberger this season. He doesn’t have to throw for 5,000 yards and be an MVP candidate. The Steelers were 8-5 with three games left even with that quarterback play because of their outstanding defense.
That’s not to say that Roethlisberger can’t or won’t be able to play at the top of his game, but if he is at a bare minimum the 20th best quarterback in the NFL and the defense replicates its success of 2019, the Steelers are a playoff team.
With Roethlisberger saying he is pain-free for the first time in his career and being lighter than he has been in years, expect this offense to take flight in 2020 and look for the Steelers to be back on familiar ground as serious Super Bowl contenders.