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Can the Steelers be Serious AFC Contenders in 2020?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2019 season was a mixed bag filled with injuries, defensive turnovers, and one coach trying to keep it all together. Tomlin was dealt a poor hand and instead of folding, he led his troops to an 8-8 record despite no offensive spark all season long. Coming into 2020, the Steelers will have the right pieces coming back to improve upon last year’s final output. 

However, the early expectations amongst media and fans alike seem to be that the Steelers will be just another middle of the road or fake contender in the playoffs. The most common prediction surrounding the Steelers this upcoming season revolves around Big Ben falling off and them finishing with an overall record of 9-7. While Ben will not put up great numbers, he has all the right pieces around him to be a vast improvement from last year’s quarterback play, which will greatly improve the Steelers chances in the AFC.  

In Free Agency, the Steelers lost some power in the trenches with interior defensive lineman Javon Hargrave signing with the Eagles and Ramon Foster retiring from NFL Football. Hargrave provided significant interior quarterback pressure and was consistent at stopping the run. 

The Steelers have more than enough big bodies to replace him in Alabama made defensive tackle Isiah Buggs and Tyson Alulu. All filled in Stephon Tuitt’s role nicely last season with productive numbers in their 3-4 scheme.

Foster was one of the most consistent Steelers players over the last half-decade. He rarely got hurt and opened up running holes on the left side of the field all game long. 

To replace him the Steelers signed Offensive Guard from the Chiefs Stefen Wisniewski.  Whether he can meet Foster’s consistent production will be uncertain until the season kicks off, but he does have championship experience which can lead to a positive locker room influence.

The most notable signing is Eric Ebron agreeing to two years for $12 million. Ebron is a former Pro-Bowler who has had a somewhat up and down career. While he is a big and athletic target, he also has a tendency to drop big completions down the field. 

The good news for the Steelers is this signing is more of a luxury than a necessity because of the Steelers current starting tight end Vance McDonald. Ebron will join McDonald to make up the best current tight end duo in the NFL. Both will be great targets for Ben who loves throwing down the field to tight ends with big play ability.  

In the NFL Draft, the Steelers made six selections, three on each side of the ball. Their first pick was Chase Claypool from Notre Dame. This is the only player who will probably earn significant playing time as the rest of the selections were at positions that already have a clear starter. Claypool has an outstanding physical profile that is only matched by the great Calvin Johnson. 

At 6 foot 4 inches and 238 pounds, he ran a 4.42 40 yard dash and had a 40.5 vertical jump at the Combine. He possesses wide receiver skills in a tight end’s body and finished with over 1000 yards and 13 touchdowns in his senior season. While picking him in the top 50 may seem like a bit of a reach, the great fit with the Steelers makes him worth it. 

The Steelers can line him up in creative ways to create a good match-up. He will be able to outrun slower linebackers and catch the ball over smaller corners and win the match-up against opposing teams’ 3rd or 4th best cover players. 

Alex Highsmith can be Dupree’s replacement in the future but for now, he could give Dupree some extra motivation to earn his long term deal with productive play this season. The Steelers had a solid draft class and added some good talent for the future but only a couple of players will make an immediate impact for the team in 2020.    

In 2019, the Steelers had one of the best defenses in the NFL. They ranked 4th in point allowed per game and 1st in total turnovers forced. The elite defense gifted the sub-par offense a short field more than any team in the league and carried the team to 8 wins. Nearly every starter from the Steelers 2019 defense will return this upcoming season. 

On the front lines, the Steelers lost Javon Hargrave but will return Stephon Tuitt from a season-ending torn pec injury suffered in mid-October. Cam Heyward is coming off of the best season of his career, as he was a 1st team All-Pro in 2019.  The return of Tuitt combined with Heyward and Alulu’s steady presence will be able to generate plenty of pressure and make it tough to establish a run game for any team. 

At the linebacker position, the Steelers have the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL in superstar TJ Watt and Bud Dupree. The duo combined for 26 sacks and punished every offensive line they faced in 2019. Heading into 2020, Dupree will be motivated to earn a long term contract from the Steelers. Watt gained serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year and given his age, there is no reason to think he will not be in the race for the award this year. 

Inside linebacker Devin Bush had a very good rookie year in which he led the Steelers in tackles with 72 and had 2 interceptions with a forced fumble. The most impressive trait shown was his high football IQ combined with his elite speed to cover run plays sideline to sideline. 

Vince Williams brings more experience to a young linebacker core, but he thrives most being the second-best linebacker on the field. That is why it is critical for Bush to build upon his good rookie year and develop into the clear number one middle linebacker. 

The secondary has been a weak spot turned into a strength in recent years thanks to GM Kevin Colbert’s off-season moves over the last couple of years. The moves have paid off as the Steelers were the third-best team against the pass in 2019. 

At the Cornerback position, the Steelers have two veterans who still get the job done in Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. While both are not the best of the best in the NFL, they have the versatility, physicality, and ball skills to shut down lots of opposing teams receivers. If Haden can catch the ball in the air more rather than tipping or dropping it, the Steelers can lead the NFL in turnovers again. 

Moving back on the field, Minkah Fitzpatrick was a grand slam trade acquisition last year totaling 5 interceptions and multiple forced and recovered fumbles. He is consistent against the run and pass and has turned into one of the best safeties in the NFL. The Steelers mix of budding superstars at all three levels and productive veterans will give them a chance to win any game they play this season.  

The real key to an improved product for the Steelers is health on the offensive side of the ball. Last season Big Ben, James Connor, and Juju Smith Schuster all missed significant time throughout the season. This resulted in a poor offensive product and a tired defense game in and game out. 

Rudolph and Hodges were at best serviceable against bad competition and at their worst, they had games with multiple turnovers against playoff teams. The Steelers proved that even with this subpar quarterback play, they could still compete for a playoff spot. 

Big Ben does not need to have a great statistical year for the Steelers to make the playoffs. In reality, he just needs to sustain average quarterback play with a moderate amount of turnovers and the Steelers will be in better shape than they were in last year. 

The last season Ben was healthy, he led the NFL in passing yards and threw 34 touchdowns. He was in a high volume system where he threw the ball twice as much as they ran it. He was asked to throw the ball so much because 2018 was the Steelers’ first year without Bell for an entire season. 

The run game will be more productive because of the return of James Connor. The Steelers will lean on him for early-down yardage and let him bruise his way downfield. He and Benny Snell Jr will allow Ben to throw less and put him in good situations when he is asked to pass. The offensive line will still remain one of the NFL’s best. Decastro remains one of the best guards in the NFL and Pouncey will continue to clear holes up the middle. 

Ben will not only have a run game to lean on but the Steelers will have lots of returning weapons for Ben to throw to. Ebron and McDonald are big targets that Ben will rely on when scrambling out of the pocket. 

Juju Smith Schuster will be called on to be a true number one receiver and deliver a steady statistical output.  He had a rather disappointing season last year, but it didn’t help that he had bad quarterback play and dealt with an injury.  With a fresh start and all the talent he has, there is no reason to not expect him to step up. 

The development of both James Washington and Dionte Johnson will be the deciding factor for this team’s offensive product. Washington stepped into a number one receiver role and was inconsistent throughout the season. He showed flashes of big-play ability on deep balls and that is where he must shine this season. Ben is a much better deep ball passer than either Rudolph and Hodges. so that should allow Washington to gain some consistency in the deep pass game. 

Dionte Johnson had a very underrated 2019 and will be Ben’s go-to wideout in the short passing game. He has the speed and route running to separate off of secondary corners as he led all NFL rookies in catches with 680 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. 

With all the weapons that surround Big Ben, the Steelers offense will be much improved in 2020 and will be the difference-maker when playing against playoff teams in 2020.  

The Steelers will have the second easiest schedule in the NFL with games against all the teams from the AFC South and NFC East. The East and South are two of the weakest divisions in the NFL and the Steelers will be able to go at least 6-2 in those games. 

A few of the competitive match-ups with other AFC challengers include the Colts and Broncos at home and the Titans and Bills on the road.  The Steelers possess the potential kryptonite for these teams as they all have decent quarterback play but nothing that can match the Steelers vaunted defense. The Steelers have the pass rush to make running an offense difficult for below-average quarterbacks in Rivers and Tannehill. 

The Steelers will match up against the Broncos in week 2. In 2019, the Steelers/Bills game was close but it ultimately boiled down to the Steelers poor offense costing them a chance to win the game. Big Ben improved play at the quarterback position will put the Steelers on top as he is more trustworthy in a close game than Josh Allen. 

The Steelers revamped and improved offense will give them the chance to finish tight games and lead to an improved record of 11-5 and a playoff spot. While they may not be able to hang with the elite teams in the conference such as the Chiefs and Ravens, they will be more than capable of handling the second-tier teams in the AFC.               


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