2020 NFL Team Previews: Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 NFL Team Previews

By Professor MJ

Pittsburgh Steelers



1. Introduction

Can you believe the Steelers have not had a losing season in 16 years? That’s truly remarkable!

Under Mike Tomlin, the team has compiled a 133-74-1 record, a 64% win percentage.

Last year, Pittsburgh lost its starting quarterback in the 2nd game of the season. They got off to a bad 1-4 start, but still found a way to fight back by winning seven of their next eight meetings.

Sitting on an 8-5 record, the Steelers were right in the thick of the playoff race. Unfortunately, the offense completely sputtered down the stretch by scoring exactly 10 points in each of their remaining three regular season games. All of them were losses, which allowed the Titans to grab the final playoff spot.

2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)

Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges rated as the 35th and 37th-best quarterbacks out of 37 qualifiers last year. I think it’s fair to say that neither delivered.

When the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph out of Oklahoma State in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft, he seems destined to be the natural successor to Ben Roethlisberger. The organization is probably left scratching its head after what we saw last year. He completed just 62% of his passes, while throwing 13 TD passes and 9 interceptions in 10 games.

After Devlin Hodges started his career with a perfect 3-0 record, Duckmania was in full flight in Pittsburgh. The team held an 8-5 record at the time and had a good shot at making the playoffs. However, it all came crashing down as he threw one TD pass and got picked off on six occasions over the final three meetings.

Considering last year’s abject disaster on offense, 38-year old Ben Roethlisberger will enter training camp as the clear starter. Obviously, the million dollar question will be whether he can still play at a high level or not after missing 14 of the 16 games last season.

Big Ben has a lengthy injury history and his body has taken a toll over the years. He is a statue in the pocket, so he’s susceptible to taking big hits. To me, he has a high chance of getting hurt during the course of a 16-game schedule.

The year before, 2018, he did post a career-high in TD passes with 34, but he also threw 16 interceptions (second-highest of his career). He also had a better supporting cast at the time that included Antonio Brown at wide receiver.

In summary, Roethlisberger will clearly bring better play under center in comparison to what the Steelers had in 2019. I do believe he can still throw the ball pretty well, but he’s unlikely to stay healthy for a good portion of the season.

2.2 Running Backs (RBs)

After rushing for close to 1,000 yards, racking up close to 500 receiving yards and getting into the end zone a total of 13 times in 2018, James Conner disappointed a lot last year. He rushed for just 464 yards in 10 games, while his yards-per-rush average dipped from 4.5 to a meager 4.0.

Conner has trouble staying on the field. Since Le’Veon Bell left the team, Conner has missed nine games in two years. His star is quickly fading.

That being said, you could make a case for him being slowed with leg injuries. Also, poor quarterback play didn’t help. He could potentially rebound in 2020.

Jaylen Samuels also had a year to forget. He posted a horrific 2.7 yards-per-carry average; he simply couldn’t run between the tackles. He is pretty good as a pass catcher, though. Mike Tomlin tends to prefer using just one back, but Samuels could turn out to be valuable as a third-down back.

Benny Snell was the lone guy at the position that didn’t disappoint too much. The rookie fourth-rounder out of Kentucky had a few good outings when called upon to fill in for injured players. His role could expand in 2020.

2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)

JuJu Smith-Schuster is probably the happiest guy in the locker room regarding the return of Ben Roethlisberger to the lineup.

He had by far his worst career season with 42 catches, 552 receiving yards and 3 TDs. He did miss four games due to injuries, but those are not good numbers at all for a rising star.

Smith-Schuster will be entering a contract year and he’s still very young at just 23 year old. Injuries and dismal QB play were certainly key factors to explain his down year.

James Washington took a big step forward in his development despite the struggles at quarterback. After a 16-217-1 receiving line in his rookie season, he posted a nice 44-735-3 line last year. He should be a nice contributor in 2020.

Diontae Johnson made a name for himself last year after averaging, over the final four meetings of the season, 5.8 catches for 64 yards. The 2019 third-rounder also led the team with 5 TD receptions.

In other words, the Steelers already had a nice trio of young promising wideouts, which is why they surprised many by selecting Chase Claypool in the middle of the second round last April. He has elite size and explosiveness, while also being tough to bring down. He caught 66 passes for 1,037 yards and 13 TDs as a senior with Notre Dame.

2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)

After five mediocre years, Vance McDonald had a breakout 2018 season with the Steelers. He caught 50 passes for 610 yards during that year. However, he regressed to just 38 receptions for 273 yards. That amounts to a pedestrian 7.2 yards-per-catch average, which was BY FAR his lowest of his career.

The team moved on from Nick Vannett, who was no more than a depth alternative and not much of a threat as a pass catcher. The new TE in town will be Eric Ebron, who has played four years with the Lions and a couple with the Colts.

Ebron was a #10 overall pick in the 2014 draft and he will be playing his age-27 campaign. He has a lot of talent, even though much has been made of his tendency to drop some passes. He can also make acrobatic catches, though.

Don’t sleep on Ebron. He had a career year a couple of seasons ago with 66 catches, 750 yards and 13 TDs. His numbers took a big dip last year, but he was repeatedly slowed with ankle problems. He underwent surgery during the offseason, hoping to be back at 100%.

2.5 Offensive Line (OL)

Maurkice Pouncey is one of the top paid centers in the league, but he’s not playing like a top center at all.

Last year, he obtained the lowest PFF grades of his nine-year career. He finished next-to-last among 37 centers with a putrid 51.5 mark. Can he make it among the top 10 players at the position next year? It seems unlikely given he will be playing his age-31 season. Still, it’s hard to believe he won’t do better in the upcoming season.

Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva finished as the #20 and #24 tackles in the NFL (out of 81 qualifiers), according to PFF grades. Both went undrafted, but have done a fair job in the most recent seasons.

Ramon Foster retired after 11 seasons. He is likely to be replaced with Stefen Wisniewski, who started as a backup with the Chiefs, but was forced into the starting lineup during their Super Bowl run. He is a very decent player.

The last piece of the puzzle on the offensive line is David DeCastro. His best years seem past him, but he’s still a serviceable guy. From 2013 to 2017, his PFF grades lied between 77.9 and 89.0. His marks have taken a dip recently: 72.3 and 71.0 in the two most recent years.

Notice how four out of the five starters are 30 years or older.

2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE

On top of Ben Roethlisberger missing almost all of the 2019 season, the Steelers also saw James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster go down to injuries. Having them all on the field when the 2020 season begins will be a huge boost for an offense that struggled mightily last year.

Also, acquiring the very talented pass-catching tight end Eric Ebron will give Big Ben an additional weapon to work with.

The aging offensive line worries me, though. Pittsburgh QBs were among the most-pressured QBs in the league last year (adjusting for the number of dropbacks). No other team averaged fewer yards before contact per rush.

Still, overall I’ve got to go with a moderate upgrade. QB play was awful last year and it will improve dramatically if Roethlisberger stays healthy (a big “if”). I also like their young group of receivers. Pittsburgh’s offense finished 27th in points scored in 2019; a jump to the #13-#18 range is likely.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)

Only Aaron Donald received a higher PFF grade than Cameron Heyward last year. His play has really peaked over the past three seasons, in which he has averaged 9.7 sacks per year. He’s a dominant force against the run also.

After three “okay” seasons in which he never got a PFF grade above 70, Stephon Tuitt’s play also peaked in the following three years with marks always above 80. Unfortunately, a torn pec ended his 2019 season after six games.

Just like Heyward, Tuitt is a good run stuffer and he rushes the passer well. Indeed, he has racked up between 3 and 6.5 sacks in each of his past five seasons. Tuitt was viewed as the 5th-best DL among 114 players by PFF rankings last year.

The team lost Javon Hargrave who signed with the Eagles. He was also outstanding, but the team could not afford to keep him.

Tyson Alualu will provide some depth on the interior of the defensive line. He has never played like the #10 overall pick the Jaguars made him to be in the 2010 draft, but he has done a fair job in his three years with the Steelers.

The Steelers also acquired Chris Wormley from the Ravens. He hasn’t been a difference maker thus far in his three seasons in the league, but he’s been above-average defending the run.

3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)

T.J. Watt blew by the competition to finish as the #1 edge defender in the entire NFL last year. His numbers were breathtaking: 14.5 sacks, two interceptions and eight forced fumbles (that’s right, eight!!!). He topped his 13-sack season the year ago as a sophomore.

Bud Dupree also enjoyed the best season of his career. I don’t mean to downgrade his accomplishments, but Watt’s presence certainly helped receiving less attention from opponent’s offensive lines.

Dupree set career-highs in tackles (68), sacks (11.5, which was way higher than his previous personal-best of 6), tackles for a loss (16) and forced fumbles (4). He was a monster and is entering his prime years at 27.

3.3 Linebackers (LBs)

Devin Bush was the #10 overall pick in last year’s draft. So far so good for the prospect from Michigan, although there is room for improvement.

He ranked as the 36th-best linebacker in the league last year out of 89 qualifiers. He struggled against the run early on, but improved this aspect of the game down the stretch.

Mark Barron has never been a great LB in this league, but his play was adequate until it plummeted in 2018. He bounced back a little bit last year; his PFF ranking was slightly below-average. The team decided to release him in the offseason.

Following Barron’s release, Vince Williams will probably get more playing time. He was on the field for just 37% of the snaps, but earned high marks from PFF. He only recorded 2.5 sacks, but he significantly improved his game against the run and in coverage. He will be playing his 8th season with Pittsburgh.

3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)

Steven Nelson’s journey in the NFL has been impressive, as shown by his PFF grades improving in each of his first five seasons. It culminated last year with the number 6 spot out of 112 cornerbacks. His coverage skills were very good.

Starting opposite of Nelson is Joe Haden. He’s a former first-round pick taken by the Browns in 2010. His first five years in Cleveland went smoothly, but his last two were pretty bad.

He then joined the Steelers in 2017 and has received 69.3, 70.9 and 70.3 PFF marks in his time with Pittsburgh. Such grades put him as an above-average corner. He has picked off eight passes in three years in the Steel City.

Despite being an undrafted free agent, Mike Hilton is sticking around as a nickel corner. His play has been good enough to keep him with the team.

Cameron Sutton is also a three-year veteran. As a former third-rounder, you’d expect him to be higher on the depth chart than Hilton, but that has not been the case. He did step up his game last year, but needs to show more in order to get additional playing time.

3.5 Safeties (S)

Minkah Fitzpatrick was traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers at mid-September. Many draft picks were involved, but Fitzpatrick was essentially traded for a first-round pick, which turned out to be the #18 selection in the 2020 draft.

He was phenomenal for the Steelers, including five interceptions and one touchdown. He was also exceptional against the run. In other words, he was everything the Steelers were hoping for.

The other starting safety is Terrell Edmunds. Just like Fitzpatrick, he was also taken in the 1st round of the 2018 draft (17 spots lower than Minkah). He hasn’t been nearly as good, though.

Edmunds’ play last year put him in the 59th spot out of 87 safeties, according to PFF grades. He had an almost identical mark the year before. He’s still young, so the organization is hoping he can step up his game a little bit in 2020.

2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE

There’s been very few changes to this defense, which is good news for two reasons.

First, the team allowed the fifth-fewest points last year, so why change a winning formula?

Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to shorten training camps, in which case playing with familiar faces will turn out to be a big advantage. Players won’t have as much time to get accustomed playing with new guys.

Losing a great player like Javon Hargrave hurts, but the blow will be alleviated by the fact that the team was already loaded on the interior of the line with Heyward and Tuitt.

The team also lost starting LB Mark Barron, who was an average player.

I like the fact that many key pieces on this defense are still very young, and therefore likely to improve even more: T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds.

Last year, the starters missed very few games due to injuries, except Stephon Tuitt. The injury bug is much more likely to cause more damage in 2020, than to cause less of it.

Based on these reasons, I’ll predict similar production as 2019, which would be fantastic!

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

4. Regular Season Wins

According to sportsbooks, the Steelers are expected to win 9 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?

Here is the methodology I used in order to answer this vital question:

  • Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
  • Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
  • Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
  • Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
  • Count the proportion of seasons where the Steelers won more or less than 9 games.

Here are the results (excluding the simulated years where they won exactly 9 games, in which case your bet would have tied):

  • Tip: Bet OVER 9 wins
  • Return On Investment (ROI): +11.1%
  • Rank: 24th-highest ROI out of 32 teams
  • Minimum odds required to bet (i.e. ROI = 0%): -139

Here are BetOnline’s point spreads for the Steelers’ 16 regular season games:

  • HOME: 0 vs BAL, -9.5 vs CIN, -4.5 vs CLE, -6 vs DEN, -5 vs HOU, -2.5 vs IND, -1.5 vs PHI, -10 vs WAS.
  • ROAD: +7 @ BAL, +2.5 @ BUF, -4 @ CIN, +1 @ CLE, +3 @ DAL, -6 @ JAX, -3 @ NYG, +2 @ TEN.

      Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020.

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