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2020 could be a defining year for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Despite not being Super Bowl favorites, the standard is still the standard for the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. This may be the last chance for the organization to achieve its ultimate goal with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin leading the way.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp handout photo

It’s easy to kick someone when they’re down.

As it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they’ve seemingly been down for a number of years. They’ve been down in terms of making the playoffs, which they haven’t since 2017. They’ve been down when it comes to winning playoff games, which they haven’t done since the 2016 season. They’ve been down in the eyes of their fans, considering they’ve only won three postseason games since the last time they went to the Super Bowl, which hasn’t occurred since the first year of the previous decade.

And, oh yeah, they’ve been down in terms of actually winning a Super Bowl, something that hasn’t happened around these parts for 12 years.

Winning the next Super Bowl has and will always be the goal of the Steelers and the greatest desire of their fans. When it hasn’t happened for a while, people start to ask why. They start to question things, namely the head coach and whether or not he’s the right man to lead the way. Actually, when it comes to Tomlin, the questions about his abilities as head coach began to crop up not too many years after Pittsburgh’s 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Like any head coach in the National Football League, Tomlin has his detractors—many of whom will never give him credit no matter what. But he also has his supporters—many of whom will always look for excuses.

Believe it or not, if Tomlin had to agree with one group of Steelers fans, he’d likely side with his constant detractors. Why? Like them, his standards are incredibly high. In fact, the most famous of all the Tomlinisms is “The standard is the standard.” Fans long ago knew what that phrase meant—Super Bowl or bust—and they’ve never let him forget it.

He wouldn’t want it any other way. Tomlin has said on many occasions that he’s only had one successful season as the Steelers head coach, a job he’s held since 2007, and it’s no mystery as to which season he’s referring to.

Will 2020 finally be the year Tomlin has a second successful season and the Steelers have a seventh?

It depends on a number of factors, starting with the franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who spent all but six quarters of the 2019 campaign down and out after suffering a major elbow injury in Week 2.

To the surprise of many, the Steelers defense, a unit that had been beleaguered for quite some time, rose up in Roethlisberger’s absence and became the strength of the team, something that carried it to eight improbable victories. There were suddenly defensive superstars all over the place, from T.J. Watt, to Bud Dupree, to Joe Haden, to Steven Nelson, to Cam Heyward, to the newly-acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick. Not only was the defense still getting after opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 54 sacks, with 38, it finished number one in takeaways.

Opportunistic, a fierce pass-rush and pretty darn stingy in the points department, too. That’s right, the Steelers allowed only 18.9 points per game—or just under two points more than the weekly goal of Dick LeBeau’s legendary units many years earlier.

Yes, the quarterback play of both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges left a lot to be desired. Yes, the offense was mostly abysmal. Yes, the Steelers achieved their eighth victory in early December and, much like the previous season, collapsed down the stretch after having the inside track on a postseason berth.

But 2019 was a little different than 2018, right?

Tomlin’s supporters said yes, while his detractors still said #FireTomlin.

Again, though, if you were to ask Tomlin, he’d likely side with the detractors.

Last year, despite its Cinderella feel, was not the standard.

Will a returning Roethlisberger, even at the age of 38, even after undergoing major elbow surgery that included the reattachment of three tendons, be the difference?

It says here that he will. It says here that the Steelers, even minus long-since departed superstars Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, may have their most complete football team since that aforementioned last Super Bowl appearance a decade ago. The Steelers may not have a Killer B at receiver or a Killer B at running back, but they should have enough offensive weapons to make life difficult for opposing defenses, provided Roethlisberger is back.

Will he be all the way back? I’m not sure what that even means. But if Roethlisberger can be the best version of himself at the age of 38, that may be enough. If he can lead the offense to roughly a touchdown more than the 18 points a game it averaged in 2019, that may be more than enough.

Why? You can’t have your most complete football team in a decade without a great defense. It says here the defense has yet to peak and it may have a few more years of dominance left in it before it does.

The Steelers of the mid-1980s started to fade into obscurity not long after Terry Bradshaw retired in 1984. That was a half-decade removed from Pittsburgh’s first major Super Bowl run.

Bradshaw had already been in the NFL for a decade by the time the Steelers 1970s Super Bowl run came to a close. As for Roethlisberger, he was still in his 20s when the second Super Bowl run ended in 2010.

Maybe that’s why it still feels like it hasn’t ended yet. Maybe that’s why the Steelers have held on and remained competitive for so many years after Super Bowl XLV.

Those who keep kicking the Steelers while they’ve been down—namely, those in the national media who feel as if the likes of the Chiefs, Ravens and even the Bills have passed them by with younger teams and younger franchise quarterbacks—seem to want them to remain where they’ve been the past two Januarys—at home.

But it doesn’t matter if the Steelers aren’t the favorites to win the AFC or even the AFC North in 2020. It doesn’t even matter that the season will be conducted during a pandemic that will likely prevent fans from attending any games.

The only thing that matters is the standard is still the standard in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers don’t achieve that ultimate goal and desire in 2020, what happens after that could shape the team’s course for many years to come.

That’s a lot to think about. That’s a lot of pressure on a proud organization and a proud head coach.

The Steelers and Mike Tomlin wouldn’t want it any other way.

Super Bowl favorites or not, the standard is still the standard in 2020.