Cody Flavell | May 9th, 2020
Last season is one Steelers fans would like to forget. Upon losing Ben Roethlisberger in the second game of the year, everyone was treated to a steady diet of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Despite the defense being among the top five in the league statistically, the Steelers’ offense suffered. One has to respect the fact that they were nearly a playoff team with such mediocre quarterback play. An optimist would say the Steelers could be a significantly better team with Roethlisberger back at the helm. With all of that taken care of, I’m going to make five bold predictions for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020.
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Roethlisberger throws for 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns
Roethlisberger has thrown for 30+ touchdowns only three times in his career. However, he did so in 2018 when he stayed healthy and played all 16 games. His offensive weapons also included Antonio Brown and a healthy James Conner. His current offense doesn’t quite live up to those standards. In free agency, the Steelers did go and get Eric Ebron to partner with Vance McDonald at tight end. Roethlisberger likes to get his tight ends involved. He’ll also have a very young and highly skilled receiving core in 2020, including second-round pick Chase Claypool. His numbers certainly won’t disappoint assuming his elbow holds up. He reportedly is throwing without pain for the first time in years.
Steelers defense ranks number one in turnovers
Last season’s acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick changed the dynamic of the Steelers’ defense. As the offense sputtered into a downfall, the defense legitimately scored enough to win games on most occasions. They were getting to the quarterback at an astounding rate. This forced many quarterbacks to throw ill-advised passes to the Steelers’ ball-hawking defense. Even the big-hitting front seven forced a fair share of strip-sacks.
With the Steelers retaining Bud Dupree, he and T.J. Watt should continue to be one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos. The Steelers did lose Javon Hargrave in free agency but will get Stephon Tuitt back following his torn pectoral injury last season. Cameron Heyward is still in the prime of his career too. Devin Bush and Vince Williams combine for a nice linebacker duo. Bush even had a fumble recovery touchdown himself. Certainly, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Fitzpatrick will continue to make plays on the ball. Terrell Edmunds will need to step up as well to retain his job opposite of Fitzpatrick. This will lead to the Steelers defensive unit leading the NFL in turnovers.
Diontae Johnson outperforms JuJu Smith-Schuster
Things were rough offensively for the Steelers last year. Rudolph and Hodges’ combined incompetence led to the young receiving core being shut out on many occasions. With Roethlisberger back, everyone’s numbers should rise. James Washington was challenged by Roethlisberger to step up in 2018, Washington’s rookie season. He played much better last year leading the team in receiving yards. Meanwhile, everyone sees Smith-Schuster as the team’s top threat. However, I believe Johnson blossoms into the Steelers’ best receiver after a surprisingly effective rookie campaign. The Steelers arguably draft receivers better than the entire NFL. Smith-Schuster was a second-round choice. Johnson is a 2019 third-rounder.
Johnson is a speedy receiver that separates from defenders well. With the ball in his hands, Johnson is a dangerous threat to clue defenders attempting to make a tackle. While Smith-Schuster is talented, expect Roethlisberger to use Johnson’s skill set since he hasn’t had the chance to work with him yet. Smith-Schuster likely may be out of Pittsburgh after this season when he is going to be due a significant raise. Johnson could become the Steelers’ top target in 2021 with a breakout season.
Offensively, the Steelers rank top-five in rushing
Conner has had a multitude of injuries in his NFL career. When healthy, he proved to be a starting-caliber running back. His 2018 season resulted in a Pro Bowl despite missing four games. In his 12 games, he recorded 973 yards and 12 touchdowns as well as adding a touchdown reception. In an injury-riddled 2019, Conner barely averaged 4.0 yards per carry and found pay dirt only seven times total. Pittsburgh has built a solid, albeit aging, offensive line. Given the health, Conner will blossom and succeed in 2020.
Anthony McFarland is a fourth-round draft selection of the Steelers this season. He has some question marks but can be dangerous in open space. Benny Snell is a fourth-round pick of the Steelers last year and saw some success in limited time on the field. There is a lot of potential for the Steelers’ run game and I believe they’ll find it in 2020.
T.J. Watt leads the NFL in sacks
It is a wonder how Watt was still available to the Steelers at number 30 in 2017. Considering his family’s heritage and athletic prowess, the former Wisconsin product clearly could’ve gone higher. Fortunately, the Steelers got his services and he has repaid them with 34.5 sacks in three seasons. Each season, he has raised his sack total and I expect him to top the 14.5 sacks he produced in 2019.
As eluded to earlier, the Steelers will bring back 10 of their 11 starters from an elite defense last season. While the Hargrave loss is significant, Chris Wormley is an adequate replacement for him. Tuitt’s pending return will be a big one, too. Dupree being cut loose to chase the quarterback last season instead of dropping into coverage resulted in both he and Watt seeing a large uptick in their stats. Granted continual health in 2020, the defense’s talent should lead to Watt getting to the quarterback at an elite rate.
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