After an injury-filled 2019 season and back-to-back years without a trip to the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers head into a crucial offseason in their quest to get back to the Super Bowl. Coach Mike Tomlin’s squad clawed its way to an 8-8 finish after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost early in the year due to an elbow injury, but the offense was unable to muster more than 10 points in each of its final three games to make a push at the final wild card spot.
Roethlisberger’s health is the biggest question mark surrounding Pittsburgh’s 2020 squad, but the front office also has a few areas to address. The Steelers need to acquire younger depth up front on the offensive line, sort out their rushing attack and decide whether or not to resign lineman Javon Hargrave, defensive back Mike Hilton and linebacker Bud Dupree on defense.
3 Burning Questions for the Pittsburgh Steelers
1. Ben Roethlisberger’s Health
When the 2020 NFL season begins, Roethlisberger will be 38 years old and coming off elbow surgery that forced him to miss 14 games in 2019. Roethlisberger didn’t appear to be in decline in 2018 after throwing for 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns to 16 picks. However, his completion percentage through two games in 2019 (56.5) was the lowest of his career. A healthy Roethlisberger is essential to Pittsburgh’s hopes of another Super Bowl in 2020. On the positive side for the Steelers, a good supporting cast is around the veteran quarterback. The offense brings back an experienced offensive line, a running back corps that returns James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and Kerrith Whyte, and an emerging group of receivers that features Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington.
It’s also essential for the Steelers to continue developing backup Mason Rudolph in case Roethlisberger isn’t 100 percent. The addition of Matt Canada as a quarterbacks coach should help in that regard.
Simply, if Pittsburgh wants to push Baltimore in the AFC North, it needs Roethlisberger to be 100 percent and performing pre-elbow injury. His progress this offseason will be monitored closely in the Steel City.
2. Bud Dupree’s Status
With T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree coming off the edge at outside linebacker, Pittsburgh’s pass rush led the NFL with 54 sacks. Watt paced the team with 14.5 sacks, while Dupree contributed 11.5. Watt is one of the top defensive players in the NFL, but the Steelers have a big decision to make on Dupree. The Kentucky product is set to hit free agency, and there’s no obvious replacement behind him. Dupree had a career season (11.5 TFL and four forced fumbles) in a contract year, so the cost to keep him won’t be cheap. The Steelers could use the franchise tag on Dupree and attempt to work out a long-term deal before the 2020 season.
Pittsburgh’s defense should be one of the best in the NFL next year but losing Dupree would be a significant setback. The Steelers have to find a way to keep Dupree on the roster for 2020, while also looking for ways to add to the edge spot through the draft.
3. The Rushing Attack and Offensive Line
Bud Dupree’s status isn’t the only free agent situation Pittsburgh must deal with, as cornerback Mike Hilton (restricted), offensive lineman B.J. Finney and defensive lineman Javon Hargrave are free agents. While those play out, the Steelers need to take a close look at the ground game. In 2018, the offense averaged only 4.2 yards a rush and finished 31st in production (90.3 ypg). The outlook wasn’t much better last season. Pittsburgh ranked 29th in rushing offense by averaging 3.7 yards a carry and averaged only 90.4 yards a game. James Conner led the team with 464 yards, with rookie Benny Snell finishing second (426). Conner hasn’t stayed healthy for a full season, and Jaylen Samuels (175 yards) is suited for an all-purpose role. Kerrith Whyte flashed potential in limited time but isn’t an every-down back. Is Snell the answer or are the Steelers comfortable with a rotation? Regardless of who is toting the rock, the offense needs more production out of its ground game in 2020.
Guard Ramon Foster could be a cap casualty, but even if that transpires, the Steelers will have three linemen over the age of 30 starting in 2020. It’s time to start thinking about the future here and something the front office should address in the draft.