We have arrived. The 2020 NFL Season is upon us. We have come a long way since the end of 2019 when a listless Steelers offense got swept away by the Ravens in a rainstorm. Looking back, the 2019 season felt like it took years off our lives. We saw our franchise quarterback go down in Week 2, only to have Kevin Colbert pull the strings on a trade to bring Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh and revolutionize the defense. Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges certainly had their struggles at quarterback, but the defense returned to the form of a Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Only an overtime loss to the Ravens and a disastrous Thursday night in Cleveland marred the Steelers record in October and November.
But when December hit, the chickens came home to roost. Injuries finally caught up with the Steelers and the scoring production dropped by about a touchdown per game. The defense remained stellar but the offense limped to the finish and the Steelers dropped their final three games. In the end, the Steelers missed the playoffs for the second straight season. In retrospect, given the severe limitations of the starting quarterbacks and the injuries 2019 was probably Mike Tomlin’s best coaching job to date.
Little did we know that the Super Bowl in early February would be the last time a major American sporting event would take place for many months. Through the long dark road of quarantine we held on to the hope that the pandemic would subside enough that football could take place in the fall. March Madness was cancelled. The NHL and NBA were put on hold. Baseball was delayed. The Olympics were postponed. Different sports devised different “comeback” plans. The NBA and NHL used a “bubble” method. The MLB enacted safety protocols (which some teams broke, leading to outbreaks) but kept playing games in empty stadiums. The NFL’s plan was similar – safety protocols but keep the normal schedule in place. The safety plans cost us a preseason, but it was a sacrifice worth making in order to have a normal regular season. Some teams may have fans this season while others may not. But by all accounts, the NFL’s plan is working. Football will happen.
Padded practices began for NFL teams in mid-August.
From Aug. 12-Sept. 5, the NFL administered 64,058 COVID-19 tests to players … and there were 5 new confirmed positive tests. Total.
The protocols are working. And we have football Thursday night.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) September 8, 2020
The season is here. The roster is set. The Steelers held a modified training camp. On the field, the first few games figure to be sloppy as teams try to find their rhythm out of the gate. The biggest structural change to the NFL this season is the addition of another Wild Card team to the playoffs. This means that only one team per conference will receive a first round bye. Next year, a 17th regular season game will be added to the schedule.
The Steelers offense was so dreadful in 2019 it is almost not worth analyzing. They ranked in the bottom five in the league in points, yards, and turnovers. Injuries and inconsistent quarterback play doomed the Steelers offensive output. With Ben Roethlisberger back at the helm this year, it might be better to look back at 2018 when the Steelers ranked 4th in yards and 6th in points for a perspective on 2020. In 2018, Ben Roethlisberger led the league in passing yards (5,129) but also in interceptions with 16. One key to the 2020 season that persists through the last two years is limiting offensive turnovers.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backups: Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs
Practice Squad: Devlin Hodges
Ben is back, and that is the most important thing that could happen to this offense. Not only is he capable of fitting balls into tighter windows than Mason or Duck, but he can throw with timing and anticipation – something that was dreadfully missing last year. Additionally, Ben has the depth of knowledge and experience to call audibles and make changes at the line as well as adeptly running the no-huddle offense. The Steelers can go as far as Ben can take them this year. Buckle up.
Starters: James Conner, Derek Watt (FB)
Backups: Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland
Practice Squad: Trey Edmunds, Wendell Smallwood
In 2018, James Conner accounted for 1470 yards of total offense and scored 13 times. Last year, Conner had less than half of that total (715 total yards, 7 TDs). In 2018 Conner missed 3 games due to injury and last year he missed six. When healthy, he is capable of being a Pro Bowl back, but he has yet to complete a full season in his NFL career. The Steelers have the depth at running back to be able to spell Conner in certain situations to limit his exposure. Jaylen Samuels is a capable runner outside the tackles and decent receiver, but lost a lot of his explosiveness after a mid-season knee injury last year. Benny Snell wound up as the team’s second-leading rusher (426 yards, 2 TDs) finishing just 38 yards behind Conner. Snell is a power runner whose legs never stop and solid between the tackles. He can be the “icer” for this team to run out the clock late in games (which was where Conner got hurt against the Chargers last year). Derek Watt was brought in to replace Rosie Nix at Fullback and gives the Steelers another receiving threat as well as a special teams force. Anthony McFarland is a speedy scat back out of Maryland who may contribute as a returner early and as a 3rd down back as the season moves on.
Starters: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington
Backups: Chase Claypool, RayRay McLoud
Practice Squad: Deon Cain, Amara Darboh
The Steelers have the benefit of three receivers they can move all around the field and create matchup nightmares. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers best receiver ever through his first two seasons but was hindered by injury and quarterback play last season. James Washington led the team in yards (735) last season. Diontae Johnson was the only receiver to play in all 16 games and led the team in targets (92), catches (59), and touchdowns (5). Many are looking for Diontae to have a breakout campaign in 2020 but the one area of concern is with ball security – he had 5 fumbles last season. With all three healthy along with Ben being back there will be plenty of options in the passing game. Additionally, the Steelers used their first draft pick on “Mapletron” Chase Claypool who was the talk of training camp with his size, frame, and catch radius. Expect the Steelers to ease Claypool into the lineup (in a similar way to Martavis Bryant – mostly as a red zone target and deep threat early on with increasing responsibilities as the season goes on). RayRay McLoud was a late addition to training camp but made the team due to his kick return abilities and can also be a contributor in the slot.
Starters: Vance McDonald, Eric Ebron
Backups: Zack Gentry
Practice Squad: Kevin Rader
After the departure of Jesse James in free agency, the Steelers never really figured out their second tight end spot. Last year was a revolving door that featured Nick Vannett and used Zach Banner as an “eligible” in running situations. They went out to address that deficiency this offseason by signing Eric Ebron. The former Top 10 pick has had an up-and-down career. He has the size and athleticism to stretch the seam and be an absolute force in the red zone but has also been plagued by bad drops. With both Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron, the Steelers will have the ability to mix-and-match sets and formations and can throw out of two-TE sets much more easily than in prior years. Both are listed as “starters” here because we expect to see a lot of 12 personnel groupings this season.
Starters: Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Zach Banner
Backups: Chuks Okorafor, Stephen Wisniewski, JC Hassneauer, Kevin Dotson
Practice Squad: Jarron Jones, Anthony Coyle, Derwin Gray
Offensive line is arguably the deepest position on the Steelers roster. The biggest change this year is the retirement of Ramon Foster and shuffling of Matt Feiler from Right Tackle to Left Guard. Feiler is probably better suited as a guard but was able to hold his own as a tackle last season. Zach Banner, who saw playing time as a “tackle eligible” last season, won the camp battle with former third round pick Chuks Okorafor for the starting Right Tackle spot. Okorafor will be the swing tackle and may also see some time in rotation with Banner. The Steelers brought in Stephen Wisniewski as the top interior lineman backup and he has the ability to play either guard or center. Kevin Dotson is a rookie who turned some heads in camp with his road-grading style. The Steelers offensive line was under seige at times last season, routinely facing 8-man fronts as defenses dared Mason and Duck to beat them over the top with their arms. Having Ben back in the fold should help the line as well with better audible calls and stretching out defenses.
How big of a difference did Minkah Fitzpatrick make? Through two weeks the Steelers gave up 33 and 28 points. After Minkah’s addition no team scored more than 24 points in regulation against the Steelers until the Ravens scored 28 in Week 17. Baltimore also scored 26 in an overtime game but had just 23 in regulation. With Minkah in the lineup teams averaged just 17 points per game against the Steelers. Both the Patriots and Seahawks had over 425 yards of offense. The 49ers put up 436 yards in Week 3, but after that no team broke 350 yards and only the Chargers in Week 6 had more than 330. In fact, the Steelers held 9 of their last 14 opponents under 300 yards of offense and produced over 2.5 turnovers per game in addition to leading the league with 54 sacks.
Starters: Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Stephon Tuitt
Backups: Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Chris Wormley
Practice Squad: Henry Mondeaux, Dan McCullers
Cam Heyward just signed a contract extension that will essentially keep him as a Steeler for life. Heyward is the leader of the defense and is a two-time All Pro. The only starter from last season that the Steelers lost was nose tackle Javon Hargrave. However, Stephon Tuitt returns from a season-ending injury. Tuitt was absolutely dominant through 6 games last season before he was injured. If Tuitt can return to that form the defensive line can be one of the best in the league. The concern here is that Tuitt has yet to play a complete season as a starter but is a force to be reckoned with when he is out there. Tyson Alualu will step into the nose tackle role but can play anywhere on the line. The Steelers traded a pick to the Ravens to acquire Chris Wormley while Carlos Davis and Isaiah Buggs were late-round picks each of the last two seasons.
Starters: TJ Watt, Bud Dupree
Backups: Ola Adeniyi, Alex Highsmith
Practice Squad: Jayrone Elliott
The Steelers invetsments in young, raw pass rushers finally paid off last year. For the first time in a decade (since the days of Harrison and Woodley) the Steelers had two players finish with double-digit sacks. TJ Watt should have won Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 14.5 sacks, 36 QB Hits, 14 tackles for loss, 8 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. On the other side, Bud Dupree broke through in the last year of his rookie deal with 11.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 4 forced fumbles. Ola Adeniyi will be the top backup and is a bit of a James Harrison clone in that he is smaller but strong and plays with leverage. Alex Highsmith was the Steelers’ 3rd round pick out of Charlotte and has a motor that does not stop – he will contribute primarily on special teams this year as he works to develop his pass rushing repertoire.
Starters: Devin Bush, Vince Williams
Backups: Ulysses Gilbert, Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen
The Steelers traded up in the 2019 Draft to take Devin Bush, their first Top 10 selection since the year 2000. Bush will step into a starting role alongside Vince Williams and will be an every-down linebacker. Williams will likely play only on early downs and be replaced in obvious passing situations. Last year, after Stephon Tuitt was injured, the Steelers kept Williams on the field in passing situations but used him mostly in a blitzing role. Ulysses Gilbert has the athleticism to cover the field, but spent his rookie year on IR and is still a bit of an unknown. Robert Spillane is a special teams guru in the Tyler Matakevich role. The interesting note here is that Marcus Allen, who was drafted as a safety, is listed on the depth chart at inside linebacker. This solidifies the notion that the Steelers want to be able to essentially use an extra strong safety in the middle of the field in passing situations in a “dimebacker” role.
Starters: Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton
Backups: Cam Sutton, James Pierre, Justin Layne
Practice Squad: Trajan Bandy
Other than defensive line, cornerback is the Steelers deepest position. Haden and Nelson are arguably the best tandem of cornerbacks in the league and Mike Hilton is a high quality slot defender. Cam Sutton has the ability to play anywhere in the defensive backfield (including safety). Justin Layne, a third round pick in 2019, is still a bit of an unknown and working his way into the lineup. James Pierre was one of the stars of camp, making the team as an undrafted free agent.
Starters: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds
Backups: Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield
Practice Squad: Antoine Brooks, Curtis Riley
The trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick payed immediate dividends for the Steelers last season. Now, he will be the anchor of their defensive backfield. Former first round pick Terrell Edmunds needs to take a step forward this season as his coverage abilities were an obvious weak spot in the defense last year. In fact, his brother Trey Edmunds (who is a running back) had more interceptions than Terrell did last year. Edmunds needs to be better at identifying where the ball is going and finding it in the air. Sean Davis, who left in free agency after his rookie contract expired, was cut by Washington and signed off waivers by the Steelers. Davis knows the system and provides depth at both safety slots. Jordan Dangerfield made the team once again thanks to his special teams ability.
Starters: Chris Boswell (K), Dustin Colquitt (P), Kameron Canaday (LS)
Practice Squad: Corliss Waitman (P)
Our long national nightmare is over. Jordan Berry is no longer the Steelers punter. Over the last five seasons Berry averaged 44.2 yards per punt. However, he was a much better punter in warmer weather (45.5 y/p in September) than when the weather got cold (42.9 y/p in December). Replacing Berry is 15-year veteran Dustin Colquitt who was cut by the Chiefs. While Colquitt’s distance is not definitively longer than Berry’s, he is much more consistent in all situations. Chris Boswell rewarded the Steelers faith in him with a bounce-back season last year. Boswell surpassed Shaun Suisham in field goals made last year and will likely pass Roy Gerela for third on the Steelers all-time kicking list this season.
The hated Ravens have won the division title each of the last two seasons but have yet to win a playoff game with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Their rushing attack is difficult to defend and Baltimore has gone all-in on surrounding Jackson with speedy offensive players. Defensively, the Ravens improved over the offseason with a complete revamp of their defensive line. Baltimore is, unfortunately, still the team to beat in the division after a 14-2 campaign last year. Cleveland is a team that looks talented on paper but once they put on their jerseys are still in fact the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals tanked their way into Joe Burrow and should be more competitive this season.
Kansas City is the defending Super Bowl Champions. All roads to the AFC title run through Kansas City. New England will have a different look this season with Cam Newton at quarterback and a defense with a number of players opting out of the season. Tennessee reached the AFC Championship Game thanks to a dominant rushing attack led by Derrick Henry and rewarded Ryan Tannehill with a significant contract this offseason. Houston also gave Deshaun Watson a sizeable deal but traded away their best offensive player in DeAndre Hopkins. Buffalo made the playoffs last year and is considered the favorite to win the AFC East with the uncertainty in New England in the post-Brady era. Indianapolis signed Phillip Rivers because they couldn’t get enough 4th quarter interceptions with Jacoby Brissett. The Jets came on late last year to finish 7-9 despite Adam Gase’s questionable coaching style. Denver and Oakland also finished 7-9 last season but both have some question marks as well. The Chargers and Dolphins each drafted quarterbacks in the Top 10 this season and will work them into the starting lineups at some point while Jacksonville is in the tank for Trevor Lawrence.
The biggest change this season is that with three Wild Cards making the playoffs, only the #1 overall seed will receive a first round bye. The obvious contenders for the AFC Crown are Kansas City and Baltimore. Tennessee, Buffalo, and Houston were all playoff teams last year. New England will have to adjust to the post-Brady era and has some uncertainty. Beyond that, the Steelers with Big Ben returning are absolutely a contender in this field. They are almost certainly one of the top three teams in the conference and should be right in the mix for the playoffs, where anything can happen.
After kicking off the season on Monday Night against the New York Giants, the Steelers will play all 1pm Sunday games until their bye week at the beginning of November. The Steelers will have their toughest slate of games early in the year when they face 4 playoff teams in 5 weeks with games against Houston, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Baltimore (with Cleveland in between Philly and Baltimore). Thankfully, 3 of those games are at home. By the time the Steelers hit the bye week, they should have a very good sense of where they stand against the top contenders in the AFC. After the bye, they face Dallas at 4:25 before 1pm games against Cincinnati and Jacksonville. The Steelers and Ravens will play at Heinz Field on Thanksgiving Night. December brings a Sunday night game in Buffalo and a Monday night game in Cincinnati. Three of the last four games are on the road, but none of them are long trips (Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland). The Steelers only have to leave the Eastern Time Zone twice this season with trips to Tennessee and Dallas.
Follow the Steel City Blitz crew on Twitter:
- @SCBlitz for articles, important news, and gameday tweets
- @SteelDad for takes about IC Light Mango and the Harbaugh family
- @BenAnderson58 for salary cap analysis and a jovial outlook on life (smart-assed remarks)
- @thesteelersnat for a little bit of everything from GIFs and jokes to level-headed analysis
- @EllieFinnerty for all Troy Polamalu content, peanut butter whiskey drink recipes and our expert on Tea Time (proper crumpets are essential)
- @Derrick_DaKidD for video analysis, detailed breakdowns, and draft prospects
- @kguise_ for highlight and pump-up videos
- @SteelUK for Steelers history
- @CoachCurran42 for an insight into football coaching
- @Aaron_G09 for graphics and info on The football team that Harbaugh can’t beat
- @waveonn for marketing, music and fantasy football
- @WPIAL_Blitz for Pennsylvania High School Football content
Subscribe to the Steel City Blitz Podcast on any of the following platforms:
The pieces are in place. The board is set. Ben is back. The defense is stocked. There are playmakers all over the offense. Objectively, this looks like a Pittsburgh Steelers team capable of contending for at least a spot in the AFC Championship Game if not potentially the Super Bowl. Kansas City and Baltimore are expected to once again be the cream of the crop, but as we have seen in previous years – one injury can derail an entire season. Hopefully the Steelers are able to survive the injury bugs this season, though they are deep enough at many positions to be able to have capable fill-ins for a game or two. Schematically, the Steelers will be able to go back to running a more complex offense and can use the No Huddle once again with Ben back in the fold.
With the looming departures in free agency and salary cap decreases, the Steelers have essentially gone all-in to win this season. Everything is in place. The season is happening. While they may start slow, don’t panic. The October portion of the schedule is the most difficult. This will be an odd season – particularly because of the limited practicing and lack of preseason. Most teams will look sloppy in September. But Super Bowl trophies aren’t won in September. They are won in Februray. Winning the Super Bowl is about a team improving throughout the season and playing at their best when the playoffs roll around in January. The Steelers can lay the foundation early then build momentum into the final quarter of the season and on to the playoffs. With seven playoff teams, the Steelers absolutely should make the playoffs and once they get there – anything can happen. Seven is back. The time is now. No time to look back. No distractions. No waiting. Just a singular team focus on one goal: the Lombardi Trophy.