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An unlucky 2019 may make 2020 a great year for the Steelers

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The Steelers’ balance of youth and experience, forced by a snake-bit 2019, may wind up making the 2020 squad a winner.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers
Just take the sack, Duck. It’s not worth it.
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Most of us in Steelers country probably remember 2019 as one of the unluckiest in memory. First, Antonio Brown lost his mind in the offseason and got himself traded for a song (just after Le’Veon Bell officially found a new home). Then, six quarters into the campaign, Ben Roethlisberger suffered the first season-ending injury of his brutal career, and the Steelers couldn’t even summon Landry Jones (on contract with the XFL) to play stopgap. Injuries hobbled Pro Bowlers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, as well as rising star Stephon Tuitt, and three camp darlings who made the team (Kam Kelly, Johnny Holton, and Donte Moncrief) wound up as liabilities. Just as their defense seemed to hit its stride, the offense slipped underwater; the black and gold went on to lose five one-score games (four against playoff teams), and miss the playoffs.

I’m looking at it very differently today. In my estimation, the Steelers’ 2019 season was one of the luckiest of any team in football. Not because of how that season finished, but because of how it set the team up for 2020. This opinion rests on one undeniable fact:

NFL: NOV 18 Steelers at Jaguars
Now imagine this conversation on Zoom.
Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020 offseason is a mess.

Offseason training regimens are being rearranged, truncated, conducted partially on Zoom, and otherwise twisted into a caricature of the typical year. What it means to be “on the team” is being redefined as we speak, and no one seems to know how long the season will ultimately be. Getting rookies up to NFL speed in this environment will be a unique challenge – insurmountable for some. Moreover, with no preseason games, building team chemistry with new faces (rookie or otherwise) will be very difficult. In this kind of environment, experience (both in the league and on the team) is crucial.

And yet, this season will also see reduced conditioning regimens and less time to work on technique and precise positioning (i.e. to coach). That is, speed on the field (to recover from inevitable communication breakdowns) and resiliency in the training room (to heal from “poor conditioning” injuries) will also be crucial this year too. And these are usually the hallmarks of youth.

That’s a tricky balancing act for all 32 NFL teams. The ideal team is full of young, athletic players, who nonetheless have real-game experience with each other and at the NFL level in general. And oddly, that sounds a lot like the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger trying to find someone he recognizes among Steelers skill players
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

This team, amazingly, returns almost every starter from last year.

The only shake-up on the offensive side will come along the line, where Ramon Foster retired, veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion Stefen Wisniewski was signed, and some shuffling figures to ensue. Eric Ebron was also brought in to start at tight end, but if there is any learning curve for Ebron or chemistry deficiency with Ben Roethsliberger, 2018-19 starter Vance McDonald is still on the team, and perfectly able to take over any time. Meanwhile, backup skill players like Benny Snell Jr. (who figures to get significant playing time whether starter James Conner is injured or not), or Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges (who hopefully won’t see the field much), got tons of high-pressure, meaningful game experience last year, should they be called on again.

Similar ratios work on the defense as well, where at least ten presumptive “ones” return for the Steelers this year. The only question mark in the top tier is whether Tyson Alualu or Chris Wormley will start at nose tackle – a position that sees only around 25% of defensive snaps anyway. Depth at linebacker is troubling (though the starting four look very good), but the rest of the defense is in excellent shape. The secondary in particular (i.e. the area where communication and chemistry are probably most crucial), returns all four starters, as well as quasi-starter Mike Hilton. Importantly, this unit is also backed by game-tested subs (like versatile Cam Sutton, and special teams ace Jordan Dangerfield).

NFL: NOV 24 Steelers at Bengals
Apropos of nothing, I’ll never see Duck’s #6 without thinking of Bubby Brister
Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite all this game-experience, the Steelers are VERY young.

In 2019, the Steelers were the fourth youngest roster in the AFC (tied for seventh in the NFL), with an average age of 25.9 years. But averages don’t do justice to this. Here is the projected depth chart for offensive skill positions (discounting rookies):

QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph (25 years old this year, eight starts in 2019), Devlin Hodges (24, six starts in 2019), Paxton Lynch (26, former 1st round pick in Denver). Discounting Roethlisberger, their average age is 25 years.

RB: James Conner (25 years old, 22 career starts, 1 pro bowl), Benny Snell Jr. (22, two starts in 2019, with a lot of late-game, close-down experience), Jaylen Samuels (24, ten career starts over two years), Kerrith Whyte Jr. (24, acquired midseason; played in all six games). Average age: 23.75 years.

WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster (23 years old, 32 career starts, 1 pro bowl), Diontae Johnson (24, twelve starts in 2019, led team in catches, 2nd team All Pro KR), James Washington (24, sixteen career starts, led team in receiving yards last year), Deon Cain (24, acquired midseason, three starts in 2019). Average Age: 23.75 years.

Every single name I just listed (except Roethlisberger) is still playing on a rookie contract.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Bush & Fitzpatrick’s combined age in this picture is equal to mine combined with zero.
Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

On defense, All Pro/DPOY candidates Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt will play this season at ages 24 and 26, respectively. Terrell Edmunds just turned 23 and has already logged 31 starts. Playmaker and rising star Devin Bush is only 22. Even some of the veteran players are younger than you’d think: Steven Nelson and Stephon Tuitt, for example, are both only 27 this fall; Mike Hilton is 25.

Moreover, young backups all over the roster have more experience now than they normally would were it not for the injury bug of 2019. This includes Snell, Rudolph, Hodges, Samuels, and Whyte, but also Zach Gentry (24), Isaiah Buggs (24), Ulysees Gilbert III (23), Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (23), Tuzar Skipper (25), Robert Spillane (25), Marcus Allen (24), Chukwuma Okorafor (23), Justin Layne (22), and Cam Sutton (25) – average age in 2020: 23.6 years. All of these guys spent time on the game-day roster last year, and all will be better for it. Some of this group may amount to very little (they’re not all guaranteed a roster spot even), but they’re all very young – practically rookies by age – and yet, none are “still learning the pro game” the way a true rookie would. This is important because...

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets
Insert Chase Claypool when necessary. Until then, just keep winning with these guys.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Steelers’ 2020 rookies don’t need to start.

I know it’s been said a thousand times, but man, did the Steelers pick the right year to trade away their first round draft pick. Minkah Fitzpatrick (their de facto first round selection) is younger than seventh round pick Carlos Davis, but clearly won’t need the rookie learning curve as he’s already an All Pro and didn’t even get a full season with the team last year. Fitzpatrick’s “gap year” with the Dolphins acclimated him to the pro game, and as his trial-by-fire last season indicated, there is zero need to help out the new guy, like there would be if he’d been a genuine 2020 first-round draft pick.

You may have noticed I’ve been avoiding rookies so far in this discussion. That’s not a mistake; it’s sort of the point. It’s been five years (2015) since there wasn’t a rookie listed as a primary starter on this team. And in the last thirty (I stopped looking at 1990), there has been only one season that was essentially free of rookies starting – 2003, when only four rookies made the roster, and only one started at all (Ike Taylor who started one game; Troy Polamalu started zero). But the Steelers appear poised to start no rookies in 2020. One can imagine Chase Claypool starting occasionally as third option at wide receiver, or Alex Highsmith filling in for injury for a game or two. But barring disaster (or pleasant surprise), the Steelers won’t be forced to push anyone onto the field before they’re ready to contribute. Whatever this draft class provides will be icing on the cake.

It’s not many 8–8 squads that can confidently boast that rookie contributions are a luxury, not a need. But this one can.

Los Angeles Rams v Pittsburgh Steelers
Secret star of this photo: Bill Cowher, trying to figure out who Terrell Edmunds is
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Conclusion:

Once upon a time, the biggest problem teams had in sustaining success was reliance on older players already too deep in decline. But in recent years, the combination of salary cap and standardized rookie contracts has forced teams to rush young players onto the field, often before they’re ready. As Cowboys (and former Packers) coach, Mike McCarthy, recently put it: “The younger the league, the less experienced the league is and with that, the quality of play doesn’t start off at the same level... particularly in the early part of the season.” In other words, inexperience shows up on the field, especially in the first few games. The more teams push rookies and new players onto the field before they’re ready, the clumsier those games will be.

I suspect that clumsiness will be on display across the NFL in 2020 like it never has been before.

The Steelers won’t be immune to sloppy play (who is?), but they seem built to minimize it better than most. This team is young, athletic, experienced, and more battle-tested than they’ve been given credit for. Most of these guys are the same ones who weathered a 1-4 start to claw back to the playoff hunt last year, despite a huge number of them being rookies and practice-squaders. Seasons like the Steelers’ 2019 cultivate a toughness, a togetherness, and a confidence in the depth chart not many teams can boast. Add a healthy Hall of Fame quarterback into the mix and you’ve got yourself a potentially lethal squad in Pittsburgh. CBS Sports recently called them “a sleeping giant”; that sounds about right to me.

Who knows what that will amount to on the field. Certainly not me. And it’s not out of the question for the team to start the new season with the parking break still on. It wouldn’t be the first time. But given the experience level of the Steelers young players — along with Roethlisberger’s impatience about getting back on the field, and the defense’s familiarity and excellence last season — I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers hit Week 1 already airborne while the rest of the league is still trying to find their keys.

Go Steelers.