Predicting what will happen in a given NFL season is an extremely difficult task. There are so many different factors and unknowns that can take a team which was expected to win their division and leave them struggling to win 5 or 6 games. For these reasons I tried to stay away from announcing any of my personal predictions for how the Steelers will perform this year, but a recent Bleacher Report article inspired me to change my mind. The article was written by Gary Davenport and described his "9 Bold Predictions for the 2020 NFL Season". The very first item on the list states that the Steelers will win the AFC North this season. I'm sure many Steelers fans will disagree at how "bold" of a claim this really is given the talent and experience on the Steelers roster and coaching staff, but either way his claim got me excited to release a few of my own bold predictions for this season.
James Conner greatly exceeds expectations and rushes for over 1300 yards on his way to a second Pro Bowl appearance
Maybe it's the fact I just finished his autobiography "Fear is a Choice", or maybe it's just I'm a sucker for a good story line, but I have a feeling James Conner is going to explode in 2020. Entering the last year of his rookie deal, Conner is under pressure to perform at his best, especially considering the Steelers have taken a running back every year since he’s been drafted. I think he is more than prepared to rise to the occasion. People forget back in 2018 he was fifth in the league in rushing yards and second in the AFC before he got hurt in Week 13 against the Chargers. He was playing at an extremely high level, and as long as he can stay healthy, I don't see why he can't return to his 2018 form this season. As Ben Roethlisberger continues to age, the Steelers are going to have to rely more on the running game. Furthermore, the Steelers finally have a defense capable of getting the opposing team off the field and putting the ball back into the hands of the offense, something that hadn't been the case before last season. I think these compounding factors will combine for the perfect storm and lead to a massive season for James Conner.
Diontae Johnson and Juju Smith-Schuster both break 1000 yards and establish themselves as an elite duo
While this prediction is a little bit less bold than some of the others on this list, I still thought it was worth including. Despite his struggles last season, I don't think anyone would be surprised if JuJu Smith-Schuster breaks the 1000 yard mark now that he is getting back his quarterback. The question then becomes whether or not Diontae Johnson is ready to make a big sophomore leap and elevate himself to the same level as some of the NFL's best wide outs. Given his sharp route running and impressive ability to make people miss in space, I think he has a great chance to do so. A healthy Roethlisberger will hopefully mean a much improved offense. And even if there is more of a focus on the running game, the passing attack should find more success than it had last season. Johnson should benefit from the high snap count and experience he got as a rookie which will help him transition into an elite number two wide receiver. By the end of the season, I expect JuJu and Johnson to be the next great wide receiver duo in Pittsburgh, putting any lingering questions about whether the Steelers should have kept Antonio Brown to rest.
The offensive line is less stout and sends 0 players to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2013
While I am highly optimistic the Steelers offense will improve in 2020, the one position group I think will regress is the offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey's age has begun to show in recent years, and even though he is still a solid center, he is not playing at the All-Pro level he used to. Alejandro Villanueva is among the better left tackles in the league but considering he missed the Pro Bowl last year and is also getting up there in age, I don't think it's likely that he will make it back to Las Vegas (this year's Pro Bowl destination) this season. The player standing in the way of this prediction is David DeCastro, who has made each of the last 5 Pro Bowls and hasn't shown any signs of regression in his play. While it seems very possible that DeCastro will continue his dominance, these are supposed to be bold predictions, so I will stand by my statement and say that something, either an injury or a decrease in production due to a weaker supporting cast around him, keeps DeCastro from making his 6th straight pro bowl. There's no denying that the Steelers offensive line is aging quickly, and I expect it to show this season.
The defense sets a new team record for sacks in a season
The Steelers have led the league in sacks in each of the past three years, with 56, 52, and 54 respectively. I expect them not only to lead the league again this season, but also break the franchise record that was set back in 2017. The outside linebacker position only improved this offseason with the addition of Alex Highsmith. When you add his talent to a room that already includes a rapidly improving T.J. Watt and a man on a mission to prove himself and earn a new contract in Bud Dupree, you create a lethal combination. Additionally, the Steelers are getting back Stephon Tuitt, who was on pace for over 9 sacks before his injury last season. Cam Heyward is sure to remain a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line, and newcomer Chris Wormley could help to replace some of the production lost by the departure of Javon Hargrave. I have little to no doubt the Steelers will once again find themselves at the top of the league in sacks, and I'm giving them a great chance to set a new franchise record.
Two players take home awards at NFL Honors
The Steelers were unfortunately skunked during last year's NFL Honors ceremony (except in Hall Of Fame inductees). Entering 2020, I'm predicting it will not be the case again, and in fact, I see two Steelers players taking home big awards. The first is Comeback Player of the Year, which I see going to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. According to Betting Dime he already has the best odds to win the award at +300. I wholeheartedly expect him to exceed expectations and win by a landslide. The second, and less likely, award that I expect a Steeler to win is Defensive Player of the Year which will go to T.J. Watt. After finishing third in voting last season, Betting Dime has him listed at +1500 odds, good for fourth best in the league. His older brother J.J. has already won the award 3 times, and after T.J.'s impressive 2019 campaign, I expect him to win his first in 2020.
So what do you all think of my bold predictions? And what are yours? Let us know in the comments below.