The Steelers bet big on themselves in the days following Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury. Instead of looking ahead to 2020, Pittsburgh promptly swung a trade with the Dolphins to acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and parted with a first-round pick many believed could be as high as the top five. Instead, the Steelers scraped together eight wins despite some compromised quarterback play, and Fitzpatrick had an All-Pro season. Ultimately, the pick they parted with (No. 18) was well worth it for a player who helped transform the Steelers defense into one of the league’s best.
Now, with Roethlisberger determined to return to his old form and Fitzpatrick hitting his prime, the Steelers’ expectations are clear: End the two-year playoff drought by playing the kind of football Pittsburgh’s been accustomed to for multiple generations.
Roethlisberger’s return should bring a return to normalcy. Every last member of the offense was affected during his absence, as the Steelers had to find creative ways to pick up first downs and score points with Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges under center. The question, though, is what Roethlisberger will have left to give as he attempts to come back from a serious injury to his throwing elbow. Roethlisberger has done this plenty of times throughout a career filled with bumps and bruises that have left him hobbling down the field, but this is his biggest challenge yet. “I’m throwing without pain for the first time in years,” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March. “Some games, I would have a little pain. Some games, I would have a lot of pain. … To be able to throw without pain now? That feels nice. That’s a nice feeling. I know I’m not getting any younger, but I feel younger because I don’t have any pain.”
Put RB James Conner near the top of the list of those who could benefit from a healthy Roethlisberger. One year removed from a breakout season of close to 1,500 yards from scrimmage, Conner struggled in 2019 and was limited to 10 games because of injuries. Conner has missed a combined nine games over the past two seasons, so health is now a legitimate concern for the fourth-year player. Pittsburgh has invested draft capital at the position for three straight years, so a by-committee approach featuring Conner, Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels and new rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. can’t be ruled out. Pittsburgh hasn’t had much trouble getting production out of the position since Le’Veon Bell’s departure, but the caveat is Roethlisberger, who is incredibly effective at getting the ball to running backs in short passing situations.
JuJu Smith-Schuster never really got rolling in 2019 thanks to Roethlisberger’s injury and injuries of his own. That means 2020 will have to be the year he proves or disproves the notion he can be a leading man without Antonio Brown on the field. For now, he’s the top dog in a young receiving corps that seemingly got better and more diverse in the draft thanks to the second-round selection of Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool. The 6'4", 238-pound target has blazing speed and tight end size to make tough catches in the red zone. He should be a nice complement to Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson — all of whom were selected in the second or third round in the past four drafts.
The signing of tight end Eric Ebron was one of the biggest in a relatively quiet Steelers offseason. Pittsburgh is hoping it gets the 2018 version (66 rec., 750 yards, 13 TDs) as opposed to last year’s (31/375/3) to pair with hard-nosed Vance McDonald, who is back for a fourth season after reworking his contract. The offensive line they’ll assist features one new face, Stefen Wisniewski, who is set to fill the void left by Ramon Foster, who retired after 11 seasons in black and gold.
The Steelers are rolling it all back on defense in 2020 with the return of all their major contributors. And why wouldn’t they? This was the unit that kept Pittsburgh afloat while the offense floundered without Roethlisberger. Some weeks, they singlehandedly won games because of their ability not only to create turnovers, but also to turn them into points. No one forced more turnovers in 2019 than the Steelers (38), and they needed every single one of them because they also ranked in the top five in turnovers committed (30). Banking on that kind of production would be a stretch, but the Steelers are well equipped to once again be among the league’s best.
The defensive line should be boosted by the return of Stephon Tuitt, who missed the final 10 games of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Pittsburgh certainly survived without him, but they’ll gladly welcome him back to a defensive line that features big Dan McCullers in the middle and Cameron Heyward on the opposite end. Entering his 10th season, Heyward is coming off his third straight Pro Bowl and second All-Pro nod in the last three years. Instead of slowing down as he enters the latter stage of his career, he seems to be getting better, and that has meant big problems for opposing offensive linemen, who have seen him collect more than half of his 54 career sacks in the past three years.
The Steelers’ linebacker corps got a jolt of energy from Devin Bush, who started all but one game in his rookie season. He already appears to be well worth the trade Pittsburgh had to make on draft day, when it moved up 10 spots to nab the former Michigan star, and he’s helped fill the massive void in the middle left by the retired Ryan Shazier. With the middle settled thanks to Bush’s arrival, Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers thrived with massive production that will be hard to replicate in 2020. All-Pro T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 26 sacks and a whopping 12 forced fumbles. In the final year of his contract, Dupree, who had struggled to get going through the first part of his career, had a lot to play for in 2019. He didn’t get quite what he wanted, as the Steelers gave him the franchise tag, but that means he’ll once again be playing for a new contract in 2020.
Fitzpatrick truly was the missing piece for a Pittsburgh secondary that has been completely revamped over the course of a few years. He did a little bit of everything in the back end of the Steelers’ defense. Most importantly, he got his hands on the ball and changed games with backbreaking turnovers, two of which he took to the house for touchdowns. A player like that makes everyone around him a little bit better, and that’s true of teammates such as veteran Joe Haden, who has seemingly tapped into the Fountain of Youth since joining the Steelers, Steven Nelson and dangerous slot corner Mike Hilton. SS Terrell Edmunds has started all but one game since the Steelers made him a first-round pick in 2018, and though he hasn’t been the playmaker that Fitzpatrick has become, he’s certainly filled his role admirably on a Pittsburgh defense that has few areas of weakness.
After putting a scare into Steelers Nation in 2018, Chris Boswell appears to be back to his old self and is coming off a season in which he missed just two field goals (and hit all of his extra points). Jordan Berry hasn’t provided much stress for the Steelers at punter since he joined the team in 2015. Pittsburgh might have found something with Diontae Johnson at punt returner, as he took one back 85 yards for a touchdown and averaged more than 12 yards per return in his rookie season.
Everything about this Steelers season hinges on Roethlisberger’s elbow. If he’s back to the way he played in 2018, this is a legitimate challenger to the budding Ravens juggernaut in the AFC North. If he’s not, the Steelers will still pull together a handful of wins because that’s what they always do, but they’ll likely be staring at their first three-year playoff drought since before the Steelers drafted him.