Charles Dickens wrote the famous words "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times". It honestly could describe so many aspects of life in 2020, but it aptly describes the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers fairly well.
The Best of Times had to be the 2019 Steelers defense that led the league with 38, yes THIRTY-EIGHT!! turnovers. That number included two non-offensive touchdowns, which was two short of James Conner's rushing touchdown total in 2019. Safety/ballhawk Minkah Fitzpatrick came over in a trade early in the season and the defense did an about face immediately. In the first two games of 2019, ones without Fitzpatrick, the Steelers gave up an average of 30.5 points per game. Over the last 14, the Steelers gave up...just over 17 points per game. Sure, he wasn't the ONLY reason, but his arrival allowed the pieces to fit into place perfectly on defense.
The Worst of Times was the 2019 Pittsburgh offense. Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played injured in the first two games, then was sidelined for the rest of the season after elbow surgery. The offense did what it could with Mason Rudolph and Devlin 'Duck' Hodges manning the position, but the failure over the final three games to put up more than ten points on the scoreboard kept the Steelers out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
So, the Texans will travel to the Steel City to face a seemingly revitalized Steelers crew in Pittsburgh, one week after they go through the Chiefs-Ravens two week gauntlet to start the season. Not the way any team would like to start the season, but it's time to saddle up and travel to Pittsburgh for the first time since 2014. Let's get to Know our Week 3 Foe - the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2019 Schedule - Record 8-8, missed playoffs
L, @ New England Patriots 33-3
L, Seattle Seahawks 28-26
L, @ San Francisco 49ers 24-20
W, Cincinnati Bengals 27-3
L, Baltimore Ravens 26-23
W, @ Los Angeles Chargers 24-17
W, Miami Dolphins 27-14
W, Indianapolis Colts 26-24
W, Los Angeles Rams 17-12
L, @ Cleveland Browns 21-7
W, @ Cincinnati Bengals 16-10
W, Cleveland Browns 20-13
W, @ Arizona Cardinals 23-17
L, Buffalo Bills 17-10
L, @ New York Jets 16-10
L, @ Baltimore Ravens 28-10
Steelers OFFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 90.4 ypg (29th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 186.3 ypg (31st)
Total offense per game - 276.8 ypg (30th)
Turnovers lost - 30 (19 INT, 11 Fumbles lost)
Projected Steelers starting offense in 2020
QB - BEN ROETHLISBERGER (injured for entire 2019 season, minus opener)
RB - James Conner
FB - DEREK WATT
WR - Juju Smith-Schuster
WR - James Washington
WR - Diontae Johnson
TE - Vance McDonald
LT - Alejandro Villanueva
LG - STEFEN WISNIEWSKI
C - Maurkice Pouncey
RG - David DeCastro
RT - Matt Feiler
Other Key Offensive pieces
TE - ERIC EBRON
WR - *CHASE CLAYPOOL
RB - Jaylen Samuels
RB - Benny Snell
QB - Mason Rudolph/Devlin 'Duck' Hodges
RB - *ANTHONY McFARLAND
** - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2020
The Steelers didn't make a ton of earth shattering moves during the offseason to inject life into this offense; honestly, it just needs to get Ben Roethlisberger back, healthy, under center. His return, though, should help get this offense back on track for a few reasons. First of all, he is Ben Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Fame quarterback with plenty of gas still in the tank. Secondly, Pro Bowl players like Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner floundered without Roethlisberger leading the charge so Ben's return should help raise the games of these two key stars as well. Third, the one addition they did make, signing mercurial tight end Eric Ebron, flew under the radar a bit but can be an immediate hit. If Ebron can find his 2018 form with Roethlisberger leading the way, the Steelers could provide a handful of matchup issues for defenses' intermediate cover guys.
Big Ben should never be taken for granted but when people argue the greats of all-time, he's often not mentioned. But, in his absence, his greatness may have been cemented as the Steelers struggled mightily without his playmaking ability and, shoot, just his ability to run the Steeler offense with consistency. Rudolph and Hodges each had a moment in a big win or two, but the cracks in the quarterbacks' armor were evident in the final three weeks of the season. If Ben is properly healed, and there's no reason to expect otherwise, the Steelers offense should be rounding into shape by the time the Texans arrive in week three.
Over the past three or four years, the Steelers have been forced to go deep down the depth chart to find ball carriers due to injuries. What that has done, though, is provide the Steelers with three excellent ball carriers that all possess different skill sets in the backfield. James Conner is the Pro Bowl bellcow back that MUST stay healthy. Jaylen Samuels is the jack of all trades, do-it-all dual threat. Benny Snell was a late round surprise in 2019 that ran for 426 yards, second on the team as a rookie runner. GM Kevin Colbert sprinkled in some speed with the addition of rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. (Maryland) to really round out this group. Conner is the star, but these four should all find a way to impact this offense in 2020.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
Ask anyone who follows the NFL who led the Steelers in receptions and touchdowns in 2019 and it probably would take all day to come up with Diontae Johnson. As a rookie, he piled up 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns and is primed to take an even bigger step as a second year player in 2020. Smith-Schuster is the key, though. He's been the meal ticket since he arrived, but his injuries (and Ben's injury) derailed his 2019 campaign on arrival, basically. If Johnson takes another step and Smith-Schuster rebounds, while Ebron finds his 2018 form, LOOK...OUT. The Steelers first draft pick was Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool who's a big target with serious speed down the field. This combination, sort of like at running back, is intriguing, if nothing else.
There's not a ton of change on the offensive line. Four of the five starters return; the fifth was guard Ramon Foster, who retired this offseason. This group has been together for a while and it shows in its cohesion on the field, but the run game production wasn't great in 2019. As such, this quintet must provide more holes for this running back group, with or without Ben. Teams loaded up to stop the run with no fear of Rudolph/Hodges, so it was a struggle. However, this talented line should never lead a run game that averages just over 90 yards per game. Don't expect that to happen again in 2020.
Steelers DEFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 109.6 ypg (14th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 194.6 ypg (3rd)
Total offense Allowed per game - 304.1 ypg (5th)
Turnovers generated - 38 (20 INT, 18 Fumble recoveries - Steelers were +8 in TO margin)
Projected Steelers starting defense in 2020
DE - Cam Heyward
DT - CHRIS WORMLEY
DE - Stephon Tuitt
OLB - T.J. Watt
OLB - Bud Dupree
ILB - Devin Bush Jr.
ILB - Vince Williams
CB - Joe Haden
S - Minkah Fitzpatrick
S - Terrell Edmunds
CB - Steven Nelson
Other Key Defensive pieces
DE - Tyson Alualu
OLB - *ALEX HIGHSMITH
Nickel - Mike Hilton
S - *ANTOINE BROOKS
** - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New starter in 2020
The turning point for this entire group was the addition of Fitzpatrick, but let's be clear, this defense was already loaded before Fitzpatrick came over from Miami. T.J. Watt is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Cameron Heyward looks as if he could play at a high level for the next five years, at a minimum. Devin Bush Jr. blossomed into one of the best young players in the league as a rookie. Bud Dupree finally tapped into his enormous potential in a vital contract year. The pieces really came together in 2019 nicely and they're pretty much all back together in 2020.
The one player that the Steelers will miss in 2020 is defensive tackle Javon Hargrave who signed a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason. He had four sacks and controlled the inside of the Steelers front, yet the front won't lack for firepower with a healthy Heyward and Tuitt still on hand. In six games in 2019, Tuitt had 3.5 sacks and was on pace for a Pro Bowl campaign. But, like someone else we all know well, Tuitt's season was derailed by a pec injury. Chris Wormley was added through a trade with Baltimore, so he'll find time on the field along with Daniel McCullers, Tyson Alualu and seventh round draft pick Carlos Davis. It'll be the second stout 3-4 base, AFC North defensive front that the Texans must face in weeks two and three.
This might be the best group of backers in the entire league. Watt leads the way with his ability to wreck the game off the edge and Dupree was finally able to break through in a contract season. The two outside menaces combined for 26 sacks, two interceptions and 12 forced fumbles. The Steelers moved up in the 2019 Draft to draft inside linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and that move paid off handsomely. He led the Steelers with 109 tackles and has just scratched the surface of what he can do for this defense.
Fitzpatrick, obviously, was the focal point for the entire defense and he was magnificent. He had two non-offensive touchdowns, had five interceptions and generated seven of the team's league-leading turnovers. But, he wasn't the only secondary member to make the Pro Bowl. Cornerback Joe Haden also had five interceptions and looked more like the young player that starred in Cleveland than one entering his 30s. But, there are still questions. Is Steven Nelson the answer at the other cornerback? Furthermore, Terrell Edmunds was up and down in his second season at safety. So, if there are question marks on this defense to be addressed, it's in the back end with this Steelers secondary.Know your For