The 2019 season came down to one factor for the Pittsburgh Steelers: Without Ben Roethlisberger, they just weren't a playoff-caliber team. Now that he's recovered from elbow surgery, the question becomes whether they contend once again.
That's not to say they were bad. Head coach Mike Tomlin nearly pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat by leading the team to the postseason — they did win seven of eight at one point — on the backs of a dominant defense. With the arrival of Minkah Fitzpatrick, not only did the Steelers rank fifth in total yards and total defense, but they also led the league with 38 turnovers forced.
But even with a great D, it's hard to overcome the loss of their franchise icon. In 2018, Roethlisberger became the seventh quarterback to ever pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season, which helped Pittsburgh become the sixth-best scoring offense. But when Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges led the team last year, they fell to 186.3 passing yards per game, ahead of only Washington, and the 27th-best scoring offense.
Roethlisberger says that he has "no doubts" he'll be back and better than ever, but that may be a tough ask at 38. This will be his first season without Antonio Brown since 2009, and JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like a shell of his old self when defenses made him their top priority. Perhaps they will have to respect him (and a disappointing James Conner) more when the Steelers have a competent quarterback, but red flags abound.
Still, with nowhere to go but up on offense, there is plenty of reason for optimism surrounding this team. The Ravens have pulled away has heavy AFC North favorites, but if any team could benefit from the seventh playoff team per conference, it might as well be the Steelers. In each of their last five non-playoff seasons dating back to 2009, they were the seventh-ranked team in the AFC and would have made the postseason under the current set-up.
Can the Steelers return to the playoffs with a healthy Roethlisberger, or will they remain one game out of the postseason once again? Athlon Sports asked several editors to share their predictions for just how Pittsburgh's season will play out and what the team's record will be when all is said and done.
Pittsburgh Steelers Game-by-Game Predictions for 2020
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Pittsburgh's hopes of a seventh Super Bowl title hinge largely on how healthy quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is after elbow surgery cost him most of the 2019 season. If healthy, Roethlisberger is capable of guiding the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory. But if he struggles to return to form, Pittsburgh could be headed for another 9-7/8-8-type season. Roethlisberger's return should help the entire offense return to form and will keep defenses from keying too much on the running game, helping clear running lanes for James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. Despite the lackluster production on offense last season, the Steelers boasted one of the best defenses in the NFL. This unit will be as good as any in 2020, and the extra firepower on offense will take some of the pressure off this group to be perfect every week. Baltimore is the favorite in the AFC North, but Pittsburgh isn't far behind.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
If Ben Roethlisberger can stay healthy and stave off Father Time enough at 38, Pittsburgh should be right back in the playoff hunt this season. The defense is solid, the running game is capable of bouncing back (and potentially in a big way if James Conner shows his 2018 form), and there are enough weapons at Big Ben's disposal to put up his customary numbers. The margin of error for Mike Tomlin's team is not very big, and I expect they will endure one or two tough stretches, but with an expanded playoff field, the Steelers should win enough games to claim their spot.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
The end is within sight for Roethlisberger, but don't forget just how good he's been lately when healthy. And even a marginal upgrade over last season's passers puts the Steelers squarely in the playoff picture. They'll need to come up with some big wins over other playoff-caliber teams like the Texans, Titans, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Colts to get there, so they'll certainly have to earn their way to the postseason. But given their tough defense, they're a good bet to win at least half of those games. It may be tough to keep their more expensive players like Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree around for long, but it's easy to see them going out with a bang.