One of the things that really stood out about the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2019 campaign is how far they progressed with pretty much zero creative output from the quarterback position.
Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury left the Pittsburgh franchise short of their stellar QB for some 14 games, and the fact that the Steelers even managed to get within a whisker of the playoffs is something of a miracle.
Ben Roethlisberger & Chase Claypool (27 yards)
➤ Air Distance: 47.3 yards
➤ Distance from Sideline: 0.2 yards
➤ Roethlisberger Under Pressure, Double Coverage
Completion Probability: 13.8%*
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 14, 2020
Or maybe it’s not. Mike Tomlin marshaled his defensive unit into producing astronomical numbers last season, in fact it was the best that the Steelers have defended since they banked a 12-4 record in the AFC North back in 2011.
Quality defensive play, backed by an enhanced offensive line and the return of Big Ben after his long layoff; it’s not difficult to see why fans of the brand are starting to get a little excited about what 2020-21 has in store for Pittsburgh.
But will that be a run to the play-offs, or maybe something even more substantial?
Taking Down the Ravens
Of course, before any quiet chatter about the postseason can begin, we have to talk about the Baltimore Ravens.
Do they look like they are going to regress this season? It’s hard to come to that conclusion, given that they are incredibly stable, remarkably solid in all departments and possess that little bit of X-Factor courtesy of Lamar Jackson’s cannon of a right arm.
But this is what the NFL is all about – rising to the challenge – and if nothing else the Steelers’ defense will remain resolutely difficult to breach. And while the Steelers remain second favorites to progress from AFC North according to the latest sportsbook odds, the gap to the Ravens has certainly been closed. It may be tough to see past the Ravens in the outright markets but the Steelers could provide value in the moneyline and point spread markets as they could easily surpass expectations due to going under the radar compared to some of the other teams expected to be play-off contenders.
The defense were up to their old tricks against New York Giants in the opening day 26-16 win, with T.J. Watt in the kind of form that saw him get the nod as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.
But then you had guys like Bud Dupree, with his awesome all-action style, and the whirling dervish Terrell Edmunds coming to the party, and studs such as Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t even need to be at their best to keep the Giants at bay.
Basing your whole game on defense is something of a risky strategy – that can only take you so far, but upon solid foundations are sturdy homes built.
"The Pittsburgh Steelers deserve a lot of credit. I'm telling you, this is going to be a dangerous team, a dynamite team, week in and week out."@AdamSchein is FIRED UP about this Pittsburgh Steelers team! pic.twitter.com/4hGyOsW4ZU
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) September 15, 2020
The Creative Spark
With a reliable defense, there is an opportunity for the Steelers to be more expansive in their attacking play.
Clearly, the return of the fit-again Roethlisberger will be the spark that adds come creative to the Pittsburgh offensive action, and the hope is that the quarterback’s quality will aid the catchers in their quest to return to form.
Make no mistake, players like JuJu Smith-Schuster don’t become scrubs overnight, and there is plenty of potential in the jet-heeled running of Diontae Johnson, who is yet to really thrive at the Steelers given that Roethlisberger has been absent for much of his young career to date.
And then there was the burst to prominence of Bennie Snell, considered no more than a back-up option at the franchise but whose performance against the Giants – 113 rushing yards from nine plays – really did catch the eye.
Indeed, Tomlin believes Snell can mature into the kind of player that Pittsburgh can call on deliver in the offensive half of the field. “He is a quality player and one that is maturing and emerging, and one who answered the bell when called upon,” were the coach’s words.
Stefen Wisniewski can comfortably fit into a couple of different roles in the offensive line, and his experience could prove very useful as he looks to cajole his youthful teammates into more dynamic attacking play.
Is this the best offensive unit in the NFL? Absolutely not, far from it. But is it an improvement on the Steelers circa 2019? The early signs would suggest as much, and combined with one of the finest defenses around Pittsburgh natives have every reason to be positive about the season ahead.