Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Season Recapby Andersen Pickard January 21, 2021 0 comments
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season was an emotional rollercoaster. They surged to an 11-0 start before losing to the nameless Washington Football Team, followed by losses to the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. They pulled off a miracle comeback win in Week 16 against the Indianapolis Colts but lost to the Cleveland Browns to conclude a 12-4 regular season.
Pittsburgh secured a playoff spot with its AFC North title but was embarrassed by the Browns in the opening round. Cleveland, who practiced just twice the week before and played without head coach Kevin Stefanski and key offensive lineman Joel Bitonio (both due to COVID-19), scored 28 unanswered points in the first quarter and held on to win, 48-37.
After their elimination, the Steelers parted ways with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett, and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley.
Following a drama-laden campaign, it’s time to look at everything that went right, the plethora of things that went wrong, and the smörgåsbord in between.
What Went Right
The entire defense impressed once again this year, leading to a clear top-three defensive finish. Their pass rush ranked first in PFF’s end-of-season analysis while their secondary checked in at No. 3.
The big-bodied core, made up of three of the 10 best pressure players in bruising T.J. Watt (73 pressures) and fellow studs Stephon Tuitt (71 pressures) and Cameron Heyward, terrified opposing quarterbacks even held eight of the league’s top running backs to an average of just 60.4 rushing yards per game. (This statistic featured Kareem Hunt twice, Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor, James Robinson, Miles Sanders, and Ezekiel Elliott.)
The quicker, more agile secondary ranked first in football with a 41.7 percent successful pass-play rate and second with a 45.9 passer rating on throws of 10 yards or more. They also finished third in PFF’s end-of-season secondary rankings. The core of the defense was anchored by Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton, who both finished in the top seven in coverage grade at cornerback. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a true star who is becoming a perennial Pro Bowler, also came up big, finishing with the third-best coverage grade among all safeties.
Finally, pass protection was a strength of the Steelers, though this is not a compliment for the entire offensive line. Nevertheless, they allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be pressured on just 21 percent of plays, which was the lowest rate in the league. While part of this is thanks to the veteran quarterback’s never-seen-before ability to throw the ball quicker, PFF still ranked the Pittsburgh O-line at No. 4 in pass blocking.
What Went Wrong
Pittsburgh’s defense was great, but their offense was dreadful more often than not.
Ben Roethlisberger battled a knee injury for most of the season but appeared in all 15 games, sitting out just the final contest. He started off the year strong, with some folks even discussing him as an MVP candidate, but started to struggle more when the running game faltered. The woes of the ground game forced him to throw more, making incompletions and three-and-outs a common theme. In the first six weeks of the season, Roethlisberger averaged 6.76 yards per passing attempt and threw a touchdown on 6.01 percent of his passes. In the final nine weeks, he averaged 5.98 yards per passing attempt and completed touchdowns on just 5.08 percent of his attempts. Interestingly, he averaged two-thirds of an interception per game during both game stretches, meaning his interceptions-per-attempt rate did drop in the second portion of contests.
James Conner was also frustrating, playing in 13 games and tallying 721 yards on 169 carries, giving him 4.27 yards per carry and 55.46 yards per game. He also added 215 yards on 35 catches. He found the end zone just six times, all coming on the ground. Benny Snell Jr. served as a reliable complement but struggled when carrying the load of a starter. In games that Conner missed, Snell averaged just 49.7 rushing yards, 20.3 receiving yards, and 0.3 touchdowns.
Finally, the pass-catching core can be described as mediocre at best. While the offense was forced to have big games through the air, the Steelers familiarized themselves with failed efforts far too often. The unit finished second-worst in both drops (30) and firsts downs per reception (48.1 percent). Second-year breakout player Diontae Johnson had a solid season, but he led the team in drops. In fact, his 13 dropped passes (nine percent of his total receptions) were more than twice as many as the next wide receiver (Chase Claypool, six) and ended up resulting in his benching vs. the Bills. Tight end Eric Ebron also struggled with butterfingers (seven drops, 7.7 percent).
Team Award Winners
0MVP – T.J. Watt
Watt exploded as an elite member of the NFL’s top defensive class. He led the NFL with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss while adding 53 tackles and 43 quarterback hits. He earned a Pro Bowl nomination and received All-NFL First-Team honors. Watt will continue to be a relentless force and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Chase Claypool
Claypool emerged as a shining rookie after a breakout, four-touchdown game versus the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5. He finished the year on a fairly inconsistent note but remained a critical part of the Steelers’ offense. When all was said and done, he tallied 62 catches for 873 yards and nine touchdowns in 16 games. If JuJu Smith-Schuster walks in free agency, Claypool could become one of the league’s most important pass-catchers. He certainly impressed in his rookie campaign.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Alex Highsmith
Highsmith wasn’t a star but still showed signs of potential throughout the year. He played well enough to earn starts in each of the last six games. The third-round pick accrued 48 tackles, including five for a loss, six quarterback hits, two sacks, and one interception. It’s tough to tell what Highsmith’s role will be next year, but after exceeding expectations as a rookie, his future looks bright.
Biggest Surprise – Diontae Johnson
Once again, the team lacked a true surprise breakout player. Nevertheless, wide receiver Diontae Johnson played well enough to win the award. The second-year pass-catcher showed potential last season but truly took his game to the next level in 2020. Outside of his miserable 13 drops, he posted 88 catches for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. He could find himself in an even bigger role with Smith-Schuster potentially departing. Such a move would leave Johnson in a prime spot to garner more action.
Biggest Disappointment – James Conner
As alluded to above, Conner, an impending free agent, struggled this season. His stats were subpar and he was not the reliable workhorse running back that the Steelers were counting on. However, he likely won’t return to the team in 2020. Look for the Steelers to instead go after one of the top running back prospects in the NFL Draft.
One Burning Question
What will the offense look like in 2021?
This is a burning question that lacks a true, clear answer. Johnson and Claypool will return, but Smith-Schuster and Conner are both expected to leave. Roethlisberger should be back but is never a guarantee to stay healthy. Meanwhile, his protection will take a hit with Alejandro Villanueva‘s impending free agency and Maurkice Pouncey expected to retire. The defense is set, but the offense needs drastic help this offseason.
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