As much as the Steelers offense sputtered in 2019, expecting everything to fall back into place would be setting the team up for failure. So what should fans realistically expect from various positions going into 2020?
Heading into 2020, the Steelers are operating with the assumption they will have a fully healthy Ben Roethlisberger. It may be hard for the Steelers to truly know how healthy Ben is due to restrictions with Covid-19. While Roethlisberger does not participate in every practice during training camp or game in the preseason, this offseason was going to be especially crucial for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Their defense is Super Bowl caliber today, but overall team success will solely be on the shoulders of number 7.
Pittsburgh has acknowledged they need to get better at running the football. This proud franchise had once established an identity of great defense and running the football. Obviously the game has changed, but for the Steelers, finishing 28th in rushing is unacceptable. When Ben went down, everything changed for the Steelers offensively and it was never going to put up the numbers it was capable of with Roethlisberger than without. The return of Big Ben makes everyone’s job easier and will certainly help out the running game. Given the potential for a shortened preseason and/or training camp, I expect the Steelers to go back to old school Steelers football. Don’t expect 40 rushing attempts a game, but I certainly expect the pass to run ratio a lot closer to 50/50 than in recent years when Roethlisberger was healthy. Kevin Colbert can say they think Ben may come back better than he was pre-surgery, but it does not mean they need to go out and throw the ball 40 times a game either.
A good defense can help build a good offense. To me, this is the key for the Steelers offense heading into 2020. Their defense is stout enough that the offense just needs to not turn the ball over and score at least 20-24 points a game. The Steelers are in win now mode and their defense is championship caliber, so the offense just needs to be slightly above average. I hate to use this term for Roethlisberger, but he needs to be a great game manager and utilize his elite defense.
It is fair to assume JuJu Smith-Schuster will also have a strong bounce-back year after an extremely disappointing 2019 campaign. JuJu dealt with injuries all year and suffered from inconsistent quarterback play. He will also be entering the final year of his rookie contract and if the Steelers do not extend him prior to the start of the 2020 season, he will just have more motivation to bounce back. Diontae Johnson had a great rookie season all things considered. Pittsburgh found another receiver gem in the middle rounds with Johnson. He figures to put up monster numbers with the return of Roethlisberger. James Washington also figures to develop more with Ben returning as Washington’s conditioning and work going into last season really paid off.
Eric Ebron was signed as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, giving the Steelers a weapon at the tight end position they have not had since Heath Miller retired. Ebron is not Miller because he is not as complete of a tight end like Miller was, but his athletic ability as a pass catcher is something the Steelers have simply not had. He will drop the occasional pass, but if the Steelers get the 2018 version of Ebron, they will be very pleased.
Expect Roethlisberger’s return to have a huge impact not only on offense but for the whole team heading into 2020. Putting all these things together while not asking Ben to do everything will ultimately determine the Steelers success throughout the season and beyond.