Pittsburgh fans are expecting good things once their beloved Steelers take the field for the 2020 season. I even wrote a piece earlier this week about how the Steelers should be contenders this season. But what if the team comes up short again? What if fans are asking “why?” once more at season’s end? If—and this is definitely an “if” statement—this unfortunately ends up being the case, it will probably be due to one or more of the following reasons.
No. 5: The real contenders in the AFC are just that, while the Steelers are pretenders
Did the Steelers do enough during the offseason to get better? Did they acquire the right talent to be able to compete with AFC powerhouses like the Super Bowl-champion Chiefs and two-time AFC North-champion Ravens? I know most fans would like to think so, that Pittsburgh simply needed its franchise quarterback to return in-order to ascend back up to the ranks of AFC contender. However, what if the Steelers offseason additions that included tight end Eric Ebron weren’t enough to close the gap between them and the team with the reigning Super Bowl MVP in Patrick Mahomes or the team with the reigning NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson?
For that matter, what if they’re not even on par with teams like the Browns, who will probably be good one of these days?
No. 4: Too many pandemic distractions
Coaches hate distractions. Players hate distractions. Unfortunately for all NFL coaches and players, 2020 figures to be nothing but one huge distraction, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic that is already threatening to shutdown the entire preseason. Players must deal with socially distancing themselves in locker rooms, team meetings, and will probably be discouraged from hanging out together after work hours. Furthermore, there will likely be very few if any fans in NFL stadiums in 2020, which may go a long way in subduing the intensity most football players must summon in order to play a violent sport. Also, players—maybe even really important players—may be lost for a period of time due to testing positive for the virus.
Which teams will have the mettle to deal with this “new normal”? Will the Steelers be one of them? I recently wrote that, thanks to their never-flinching head coach Mike Tomlin, they will likely be one of the teams that doesn’t blink during what figures to be the most unusual season in league history.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it so.
No. 3: The Steelers defense regresses in 2020
On paper, the Steelers defense appears to have all the talent necessary to repeat its epic showing from 2019 when it finished fifth in total yards, first in takeaways with 38, and first in sacks (again) with 54. But the NFL has a habit of figuring teams out, specifically certain units. What if this happens in 2020? What if some key players simply have down years? That’s been known to happen, right? What if the sacks stay the same, but the thing which truly took the defense to a new level a year ago—takeaways—drops off? There are many who are of the opinion that takeaways are largely a matter of luck. I don’t tend to agree. No, I think excelling at takeaways is largely the result of having many play-makers who specialize in wreaking havoc and having a nose for the football. The Steelers appear to have a bunch of players like this. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t regress in taking the football away in 2020. If they do, will it help to neutralize what seems to be an elite defense?
No. 2: A key injury to a defensive player
It was no secret that the Steelers were thin at various positions heading into the 2020 offseason, including many on the defensive side of the ball. Until further notice, the Steelers have unproven backups at outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety. While they have stars at all of those positions, if a serious injury would befall one of them, well, that could spell trouble.
I don’t think the Steelers defense is as ill-equipped to handle a major loss as it was in 2017 when Ryan Shazier was lost in December with a serious spinal injury, but you remove T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick or even Vince Williams from that unit, and it could once again be a defense ripe for the picking.
No. 1: Big Ben is a Big Bum, despite being 100 percent healthy
Many folks—including yours truly—are under the assumption that a Ben Roethlisberger who is 100 percent recovered from major elbow surgery will be a Ben Roethlisberger who is back to his old self or at least close enough to it to be really effective once again.
But what if that’s not the case? He is 38 years old, and he wouldn’t be the first quarterback to fall off a cliff around this age. Peyton Manning was 39 in 2015, his last in the NFL, and the drop off in arm strength and effectiveness even from his previous year was pretty noticeable.
No athlete has ever defeated Father Time, and Big Ben won’t be the first. One of these days, his unique physical gifts and talents will fail him for good. What if it’s this year?
Of course, it will be some time before we know if any of these reasons end up costing the Steelers a chance at the postseason. Hopefully it ends up being a question which never gets to be asked.