The 2020 NFL season is surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty. As other leagues across America are scrambling to begin playing again, the NFL has remained optimistic they will start on time. But whether or not that will be possible remains very much in the air. I think most NFL fans can agree that no football in 2020 would be a worst-case scenario for the Steelers, but if the season does take place, what would realistic worst case, and best case, scenarios look like?
Earlier this week, Pro Football Focus released their projections for these best and worst case situations. Through their research and development team they were able to perform a large number of simulations which predicted how each game would end up. They then used those results to predict what a season in which everything goes right, or everything goes wrong, for a team would look like. Much to my dismay, their projections for the Steelers did not show a high amount of optimism for the team this season. Here's what they had to say:
10th percentile outcome: 5-11
How they get there: Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the same guy upon his return. Either he is rendered unavailable by another injury or he continues the downward trend we saw from 2017 (86.5 PFF grade) to 2018 (78.2 PFF grade). In both cases, this offense is in trouble. The Steelers would be hard-pressed to field a worse offense than their 2019 unit — a group that ranked dead last in expected points added per play — but even more things going wrong could lead to a result like this. The turnovers they secured in bunches in 2019 aren’t there anymore, and their success in close games swings in the opposite direction.
90th percentile outcome: 10-6
How they get there: Roethlisberger’s return makes this offense viable again, which is all it needs to be with one of the better defenses in the NFL returning. The pass rush may have lost Javon Hargrave, but it returns a healthy Stephon Tuitt — who was enjoying a tremendous start to his 2019 season before going down with an injury. It’s a pass rush that led the NFL in team pressure rate last season. The secondary, anchored by Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, continues to build on its strong play, and very few teams have much success against the unit as a whole.
To be fair, these predictions did not take into account the top 10% and bottom 10% of simulations. There were probably a few simulations which had the Steelers win 12, 13, or even 14 games, but since it occurred such a small percentage of the time, they considered them to be outliers and left them out. Still, considering the Steelers went 8-8 last season without their quarterback and with numerous other injuries plaguing the team, these projected win totals seem awfully low. Other teams with the same upper and lower limits for their win totals include the Lions, Bears, Cardinals, Falcons, Redskins, Eagles, Raiders, Broncos, Dolphins, and Bills. While a few of these teams should certainly have similar predictions as the Steelers (The Eagles and Bills, for instance) the fact that the Redskins and Dolphins are being given the same minimum and maximum win totals as the Steelers is somewhat ridiculous. Obviously these are just best and worst case scenarios and not an indication of what the actual predicted win total is for these teams, but it is still shocking to see the Steelers in the same boat as some of the NFL's weakest teams.
In terms of a worst-case scenario season, I can't see how anyone could predict a 5-11 season from this Steelers team. For starters, they are being coached by a man who has never had a losing season in 13 years with the team. Last season may have been the best example of his inability to finish worse than 8-8 as despite a 1-4 start and lack of starting quarterback he still managed to finish at .500. This season, they are getting back that starting quarterback and are keeping almost all of their key pieces on both sides of the ball. Even if Ben Roethlisberger isn't the same player he was before his injury, it's hard to see him playing worse than last year's quarterbacks especially with the cast of developing offensive playmakers around him. Considering Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner both also missed significant time last season, it's hard to imagine a world where the Steelers finish with a significantly worse record than their 2019 campaign. Even in a worst case scenario, a 5-11 record just doesn't seem realistic.
At the other extreme, 10-6 seems like a pretty low cap for a team that's getting back and adding so much talent this season. It wouldn't be surprising if Ben Roethlisberger returns playing at or even above his level of play from 2018 when he threw for over 5000 yards. The Steelers defense has no real holes for the first time in years, so if the offense can return to their 2017/18 form, why can't the Steelers win 12 or 13 games. Given that the Bears won 12 games back in 2018 with Mitch Trubisky at the helm, there's no reason the Steelers star-studded defense can't carry them to that same total. Additionally, the Steelers have one of the easiest strength of schedules for this season. If you base it off of last year's winning percentages, in the entire NFL only the Ravens have an easier schedule than the Steelers. Pittsburgh's opponents have a combined 2019 win percentage of just .457 so 10 wins just seems like a very conservative "best case scenario" for a team with so many things going for them in 2020. I'm not going to say an undefeated season is at all realistic, but I also don't think it's unlikely that the Steelers only lose 4 or 5 games and enter the playoffs as the 2 or 3 seed in the AFC.
So what do you think a realistic ceiling for the 2020 Steelers? And what about a floor? Let us know in the comments.