“I am very nervous by the way. I am not sure why,” Ben Roethlisberger said at the beginning of a Zoom call with reporters last week. “I haven’t spoken to you guys in so long. Forgive me if I take a minute to think about some of my answers.”
Rarely does any quarterback admit to being nervous, especially a 38-year-old quarterback entering his 17th NFL season. But Roethlisberger is coming off of the longest absence in a career with many absences. Just two weeks into the 2019 season, Roethlisberger went on injured reserve with an elbow injury that required surgery. Three tendons that ripped off the bone needed to be reattached. With Ben on injured reserve, the Steelers offense went from one of the league’s best in 2018 to one of the worst in 2019. By the grace of Mike Tomlin and an elite defense, the Steelers went 8-8 after starting 1-4 and almost made the playoffs.
Entering the 2020 season, the Steelers look ready to contend for the Super Bowl—if Roethlisberger can stay healthy. That has been Pittsburgh’s default for about 15 years, but in 2020 the feeling is even stronger. Roethlisberger told reporters last week that he is unaware of any NFL quarterback who has torn three tendons in their elbow. There is little precedent for his recovery, and the 38-year-old has played a full season just four times in his 16-year career. But Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March he has complete confidence in his return and is throwing without pain for the first time in years.
“I have no doubts I’m going to be able to come back and play well,” Roethlisberger said. “None.”
Without a healthy Roethlisberger last year, the offense was abysmal. Roethlisberger was replaced first by Mason Rudolph, a 2018 third-rounder out of Oklahoma State, and then by Devlin Hodges, an undrafted free agent from Samford University who was good enough at duck-calling to earn the nickname “Duck.” Coincidentally—and appropriately—a duck is also a nickname for wobbly passes. With Rudolph and Hodges at QB, one of the NFL’s best offenses became one of the worst. Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards in 2018 (total and per game), but of the 35 quarterbacks with at least six starts in 2019, Rudolph was 31st in passing yards per game and Hodges was last. Pittsburgh, which ranked second in passing yards in 2018, fell to second-to-last in 2019. The team went from 313 passing yards per game (more than the career average of Patrick Mahomes) to 186 yards per game (fewer than the career average of Mahomes’s backup, Chad Henne). In 2019, Pittsburgh cracked 200 passing yards just four times, and two of those instances were against Cincinnati and Miami, with another coming from Roethlisberger in Week 1. Rudolph and Hodges were not ready for NFL action last year, and opposing teams knew it.
The Steelers were expected to be worse after getting rid of wide receiver Antonio Brown the previous spring. But Brown’s absence was not the primary reason for the dropoff. Defenses disrespected the Steelers quarterbacks by overplaying the run (Pittsburgh faced the fourth-most box defenders in the NFL last year, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac), leaving the Steelers with the choice to run into an overloaded box or rely on an overwhelmed quarterback.
Those two bad options got worse when starting running back James Conner suffered an ankle injury in Week 4. By the end of the season, the Steelers ranked 29th in rushing (90 yards per game), barely more than the division-rival Ravens averaged in rushing yards after contact (85 yards per game). To understand just how much the Steelers offense dropped off, consider that from 2018 to 2019, Pittsburgh’s league ranking went from:
- Fifth in yards per drive to 30th
- Ninth in points per drive to 31st
- Fifth in touchdowns per drive to 31st
- First at scoring touchdowns in the red zone to worst
Using advanced metrics, it looks worse. The Football Outsiders DVOA efficiency statistic adjusts for context (e.g., 3 yards on third-and-2 is not equal to 3 yards on third-and-8), and the Steelers offense plummeted from sixth in DVOA in 2018 to dead last in 2019. That is the fourth-biggest one-year drop in their database, which goes back to 1986.
The good news for Steelers fans is they’ll likely never root for a worse offense than they did last year. The bad news is that if Roethlisberger isn’t healthy, the Steelers are looking at the same backup quarterbacks they had in 2019. Despite Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, and Case Keenum all signing contracts as backups this offseason (not to mention Colin Kaepernick being available and Cam Newton signing for cheap), Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges are still no. 2 and 3 on Pittsburgh’s depth chart. The only other QB Pittsburgh has is Paxton Lynch, who has four touchdowns in four years and will go down as the worst Broncos draft pick of a decade that included using the 25th pick on Tim Tebow.
While the Steelers offense was sad in 2019, the Steelers still entered Week 17 with a chance to make the playoffs because their defense was elite. In 2019, Pittsburgh’s defense gave up the fifth-fewest points and yards, led the NFL in takeaways, and ranked third in Football Outsiders defensive efficiency behind only the Patriots and 49ers. The Steelers also led the NFL in sacks for the third straight season. Edge rusher T.J. Watt made the All-Pro team and was the highest-graded edge defender by Pro Football Focus. Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, whom the team traded for the day after Roethlisberger was placed on injured reserve, rejuvenated the defense with the best secondary play the Steelers have seen since Troy Polamalu, posting five interceptions. Combined with cornerback Joe Haden, Pittsburgh turned one of its weaknesses—secondary depth—into a strength. Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. provided the roving middle linebacker spot the Steelers missed in 2018. All of this made Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin look wise for his decision to retain defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
But the Steelers defense may not be as good in 2020. Defensive performance typically fluctuates year to year more than offensive performance does, especially when a team relies on turnovers. Pittsburgh had 38 takeaways last year after just 15 takeaways in 2018. That league-leading number is likely to come down in 2020, but Pittsburgh doesn’t need its defense to be every bit as good as last year if its offense is significantly better.
There is a lot to like about Pittsburgh’s offense. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a spectacular first two seasons in the NFL in 2017 and 2018, but last year was the worst of his career, as he accumulated just 552 yards and three touchdowns across 12 games. On the one hand, it’s tempting to give him a mulligan for his 2019 season given the injuries to his toe and his knee plus horrendous quarterback play; on the other, it was his first year without Antonio Brown drawing attention away from him. In JuJu’s previous 30 games, he scored 14 touchdowns and averaged 78 yards per game, all before he turned 23, suggesting he can be a superstar. Second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson is also promising. Johnson is a 2019 third-rounder out of Toledo who was compared to Antonio Brown for his similar size (5-foot-10, 183 pounds) and skill set even before he was drafted. Last year Johnson led all receivers in average separation, according to Next Gen Stats, quite the feat for a rookie. Pittsburgh also has receiver James Washington, the team’s second-rounder from 2018 who struggled in his rookie year with Roethlisberger. But Washington had the best stretch of his career in the final two months of 2019 (ironically, Washington was Rudolph’s top receiver at Oklahoma State for three seasons, but in Pittsburgh Washington played better with Hodges). Along with rookie receiver Chase Claypool (a convert from tight end), and tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald, the Steelers have plenty of young options at pass catcher who need to step up. Conner is the clear starter at running back, though the depth chart behind him is murky. Still, the Steelers have an excellent chance to be closer to a top-five offense than a bottom-five one in 2020.
By almost any metric that matters—wins, playoff appearances, Super Bowls—the Steelers have a case as the second-best team in the 21st century after the Patriots. But now their division has a completely different vibe. In the past, the Ravens relied on a strong defense, the Bengals merely flirted with competence, and the Browns tripped over their own feet. Now the AFC North has the youngest collection of QB talent in the sport. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson represent three of the past four Heisman Trophy winners, two of the past three no. 1 draft picks, and the reigning NFL MVP. (Perhaps most amazing of all is that Jackson is a month younger than Burrow.) Jackson led the Ravens to a 14-2 record, a division title, and the no. 1 seed in the AFC. As their rivals surge, Pittsburgh’s perpetual playoff perch relies on a more precarious version of the same old story: If Ben can stay healthy ...