The offseason has come and gone, now we are officially into training camp and evaluating the roster to see who makes the cut. In this article, I am going to breakdown the Pittsburgh‘s positive changes from 2019 to now, that could have a huge impact on the team’s success.
Obviously, the biggest difference from the 2019 season is the return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. The impact a healthy Roethlisberger will have on the team, both offensively and defensively, is crucial to finding success in the 2020 season. The Steelers’ finished last year with an 8-8 record, which ending the season at .500 is not bad considering they had one of the worst ranked offenses in the NFL.
Here’s a shocking statistic for you that compares the last two seasons. In 2019, with starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined due to injury, Pittsburgh’s offense had 4,428 total yards (rushing/passing combined). In 2018, although the team missed playoffs, Roethlisberger himself had more passing yards (5,129) than the total combined yards of the 2019 offense.
Big Ben’s Impact on Defensive Production
Now, it’s time to breakdown Roethlisberger’s impact outside of passing statistics. With an injury plagued roster, the steel curtain defense returning to dominant form is responsible for the team’s eight wins last season. But what impact will a healthy Big Ben have on the defensive side of the ball?
Roethlisberger’s return contributes in a few different ways that will ultimately create even more defensive production. To start, it takes a hefty workload off the defense’s shoulders and allows for less “on-field” time. A huge factor in the games they lost last year was that the defense simply cannot do everything. No matter how well the drive went for this unit it seemed, because of a turnover heavy offense, they were right back on the field two minutes after the possession changed.
Another way Roethlisberger’s return will help the defense will be by scoring points. It does not matter how well a team can lockdown an opponents offense if scoring one touchdown or field goal will be the deciding factor. Meaning, the defense would do all this work to keep Pittsburgh in the game and the offense just could not score points. This creates the hardest issue to overcome for a unit, having poor “morale”. How can a defense show up late in the fourth quarter “confidently” looking for a stop, when they know there’s a good possibility the offense still won’t be able to win the game after they did their job?
Big Ben’s Impact on the Run Game
It is no secret that the best offenses in the NFL have a nice balance between the rush and the pass. This is something the 2019 Steelers’ offense lacked tremendously. The beauty of having an effective rushing attack and an effective passing attack is it creates many avenues for offensive success. It keeps the defense guessing as to what you are going to do. It allows for the coaches to go deeper into the playbook with play-action passes and RPO (Run/Pass Option) plays.
For Pittsburgh, having a strong passing game means the secondary starts to chip back off the line-of-scrimmage more than usual. Also, it means loading the box with way fewer natural run stoppers and more pass rushers. This will open giant holes in the run defense down the middle of the field. When a defense is guessing pass, the rushers normally line up on the edge and they also sub out a linebacker and sub in their nickel cornerback. All of this can lend a hand to a more productive run game, but it all starts with Roethlisberger creating a scary passing attack.
The offense will stay nearly identical as it is still led by, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. Try not to forget Fichtner first took over as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator January 18, 2018. The 2018 season was a year to remember for, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and newly hired coordinator Fichtner. This was the year Roethlisberger solidified himself with only seven other quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards.
But there has been a lot of noise surrounding the two new additions to the coaching staff, Matt Canada quarterback’s coach and Ike Hillard wide receiver’s coach.
This is Canada’s first go in the NFL as a coach. But fans should expect big things from this new face in the Steelers’ organization. His style of offense and quarterback work is perfect to apply to Roethlisberger. Canada is no stranger to a pocket passer with a big frame. He was one of the main contributors that developed Colts’ starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett in college. Brissett has had turnover issues in the NFL but under Canada for two seasons at NC State he managed to limit those turnovers to only 11.
The question about Brissett is if he is a franchise quarterback or not and where is his ceiling? These are questions that Roethlisberger has already answered with Super Bowl rings. So, as fans we should expect Canada to mesh very well within our system. Possibly, adding an edge we were missing in terms of getting the most out of Big Ben and playing to his strengths.
The other new addition to the coaching staff, Hillard, unlike Canada only coached in college for two years before entering the big leagues. Even though Hillard never got to be on a super successful team, his development of top wide outs has been proven season after season.
In 2011, Hillard got his first NFL job and was hired as the assistant wide receiver coach for the Miami Dolphins. Being assistant he did not have much say over this particular group of wide receivers. But he did get appointed to directly help harness the talents of Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Hillard’s efforts in the Dolphins’ organization was enough to land him an advancement the following season.
Within one year he went from assistant receiver’s coach for Miami to the #1 wide receiver coach for the newly named Washington Football Team. During his first run with Washington he worked with veteran receivers, Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon. Hillard spent one season with Washington and then moved onto be the Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver coach. His time in Buffalo was spent molding then rookies, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, into the respected talents they are today.
Hillard has shown he can work with veterans to maximize what they have left but also, he’s shown the ability to develop top prospects into NFL caliber players. To get Steelers’ fans even more pumped about the addition of Hillard I am going to provide a list below of all the wide outs he has coached in the NFL since 2011. Some established talents, some washed up that he served a type of resurgence to their career, and some fresh rookies that he has turned into legit receiving threats.
- Brandon Marshall
- Brian Hartline
- Davone Bess
- Santana Moss
- Pierre Garcon
- Leonard Hankerson
- Josh Morgan
- Brandon Banks
- Aldrick Robinson
- Marquise Goodwin (rookie when Hillard started working with him)
- Robert Woods (rookie when Hillard started working with him)
- Steve Johnson
- Chris Hogan
- Marcus Easley
- Pierre Garcon
- Desean Jackson
- Santana Moss
- Ryan Grant
- Andre Roberts
- Jamison Crowder (rookie when Hillard started working with him)
- Josh Doctson (rookie when Hillard started working with him)
- Michael Floyd
- Paul Richardson
- Trey Quinn (rookie when Hillard started working with him)
- Terry McLaurin (rookie when Hillard started working with him)
Free Agents and Rookies That Will Make an Impact
Pittsburgh surprisingly was able to resign most of their roster from last season. They also acquired a few players from free agency and the NFL Draft, that will prove to be major pieces of the puzzle moving forward. I am only going to talk about the ones I believe will have playing time and an impact on the field.
Eric Ebron, Tight End
The worry, much like Big Ben, for tight end Eric Ebron is health. But let’s assume he will be healthy while we look back at the seasons he was healthy in and the production he delivered. 2018 was his breakout performance. Ebron played in all 16 games and finished the year with 13 touchdowns, 750 yards, and a catching percentage of 60%. Being targeted 110 times and catching 66 of those is remarkable for the tight end position. Even looking back at last year’s performance, Ebron only started in two games due to injury and he still had over 300 yards and three touchdowns.
The stat that pops off the page the most to me though, is Ebron’s average yards per catch. This is a stat that proves Ebron’s worth to the Steelers. Pittsburgh has shown over the years, with names like Heath Miller, that they prefer a tight end that can be a huge threat in the passing game.
Average Yards Per Catch by the Season
2014 (rookie season) – 5.3 yards per catch
2015 – 7.7 yards per catch
2016 – 8.4 yards per catch
2017 – 6.7 yards per catch
2018 – 6.8 yards per catch
2019 – 7.2 yards per catch
Derek Watt, Full Back
The signing of full back Derek Watt will be huge for the Steelers. Unlike the Steelers’ full back in recent years, Roosevelt Nix, Watt isn’t just known as a lead blocker. He’s what we call a “utility” player, someone that does a little bit of everything on the field.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin had this to say about Watt during a Zoom meeting early Thursday morning with Steelers’ media, “The known aspect of his game that was really attractive to us was his high-level of productivity on special teams”. Tomlin went on to explain they are well aware of his skills at his respected position as well, but it is impossible to overlook the production he brings to special teams.
Anthony McFarland, Running Back
Getting drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft has some Steelers’ fans under valuing what running back Anthony McFarland brings to the team. But, only a couple weeks into the NFL training camp period we are seeing high praises coming from the coaching staff for the rookie. In a press conference Tuesday, coach Matt Canada discussed the rookies talents in training camp so far by saying, “He is an explosive back, a dynamic back. He can take a five- or eight-yard gain and make it a very big play in a hurry.”
In an interview with Missi Matthews, starting running back James Conner explained what he has seen from his rookie teammate so far, “He looks real good. He’s so fast, and he’s picking up protection and route concepts, so he’s making a lot of progress in the short amount of time that he’s been here. He’s gonna be a playmaker for us”.
It seems his stock is finally getting bought by media and the fans. Behind The Steel Curtain wrote an article recently titled, “Why Anthony McFarland Needs to be the Talk of Steelers Training Camp”, comparing the young NFL back’s skillset with two household names across the NFL, Tarik Cohen and Darren Sproles.
There is also a lot of potential coming from a few other new additions to the team. As of right now though, we are unsure about the playtime they will receive. Two of those players being rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool and rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith.
The only reason I did not breakdown their impacts to the team is simple, the depth chart lists JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson as their first three wide receivers. On the defensive side of the ball, Alex Highsmith is slotted behind superstar T.J. Watt and emerging force Bud Dupree. So realistically, without any injuries it is safe to assume, even though they may be super talented, they aren’t going to get a ton of “on field” time.
As I said earlier in the article, the team has done an outstanding job resigning most of the players. But just like any other offseason there will always be a few negatives that arise. Negatives such as, losing Mark Barron to free agency and veteran offensive lineman Ramon Foster retiring.
You literally could not say enough about the potential this Pittsburgh defense has. But if you were going to nitpick and identify one weakness, I would say it has to be strong safety, Terrell Edmunds. Not resigning Barron could cause nightmares down the stretch for the way they play defense and the personnel it requires.
A quick explanation, often last year the Steelers would switch out linebacker Vince Williams and sub in Barron at linebacker for coverage reasons on passing downs. This year with Barron not on the team, they are in a position where they must rely on Williams, who is more of a run stopper, to take a lot of responsibility in coverage. Also, just the fact they had another body able to play safety and linebacker helped the team with depth and production. We have high hopes for the replacements for the positions we did lose, but it would have been nice to at least keep Barron for depth and situational play calls.
Overall, as a fan there is not much to be mad about when debating the 2020 roster. This lineup has something that the team has not had since before the “Bell and Brown” era, BALANCE. If all the key pieces mentioned throughout this article stay healthy, it is hard to believe Pittsburgh will not have a successful 2020 season. In my opinion, with the starters and depth they have, it is playoffs or bust for the Steelers.
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