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Big Ben’s Return Equals a Seventh Ring?

After almost an entire season without their leader, Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers fanbase is filled with anticipation for his return. The 2020 season begins the chase for the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl ring. Most NFL fans seem to be writing off the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, assuming the sustained injuries and being past his prime will be too much for Roethlisberger to overcome. Big Ben has a different perspective on the situation, though, after his season-ending elbow injury he feels he will return better than ever.

However, the last time fans got to watch a Pittsburgh Steelers’ team lead by Roethlisberger was in 2018. They missed out on the post-season that year, which has made other fanbases forget how well Big Ben performed and how dangerous he is when healthy. In the 2018 season, Roethlisberger joined elite company becoming one of only eight quarterbacks to ever throw for 5,000 yards in a single season and set a franchise record with 34 touchdowns. Also, he finished the 2018 season with the most completions (452) and most yards (5,129) amongst all NFL quarterbacks.

The Defense

The Steel Curtain Starters

Every Steelers’ fan knows the “Stairway to Seven” rides on the shoulders of Big Ben’s health and play on the field. But one area the team and fans know they do not need to worry about is their all-star defensive lineup. This is a Steelers’ defense that may very well set the new sack record in the upcoming 2020 season. With 50+ sacks for three straight seasons, the Pittsburgh defense is likely to repeat that effort once again with a very similar cast.

Though, one thing that is a bit different than recent years is the secondary. The secondary on this Steelers’ roster is just as strong as the front seven for the first time in several seasons. We are bound to see another ball hawking season from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Joe Haden is another beast on the field for the Steelers’ defense. Even though he is in the latter half of his career, Haden normally still has his opposition locked down. There isn’t enough we could say about cornerback Steven Nelson as well. Proving with his statistics and production on the field he is one of the very best man-to-man coverage corners in the NFL.

PositionStarters
Defensive TackleCameron Heyward
Defensive Tackle Chris Wormley
Defensive End Stephon Tuitt
Outside LinebackerT.J. Watt
Inside LinebackerDevin Bush
Inside Linebacker Vince Williams
Outside Linebacker Bud Dupree
Cornerback Joe Haden
Cornerback Steven Nelson
Free Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick
Strong SafetyTerrell Edmunds

New Additions

Although, most of the starters are returning players from last season, the new additions will have immediate impact. First, even though defensive tackle Chris Wormley only has 2.5 sacks in his young NFL career, they both came in the second half of the 2019 season. With only six starts for the Ravens’ defense last year, Wormley saw his production rise as he got more playing time. On November 10, 2019, Wormley had his best outing to date against the Cincinnati Bengals, posting four tackles, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, and one sack. The young defensive tackle has shown glimpses of greatness that should only improve in a system that is always looking to pressure the quarterback.

Next, we have the Steelers’ third-round draft pick, Alex Highsmith. Highsmith’s senior year at Charlotte proved how effective he could really be. Playing 13 games, he recorded a career high 75 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, 15 sacks, and two forced fumbles. The fact Pittsburgh has slotted Highsmith as star linebacker T.J. Watt’s relief, shows how highly the organization views the rookie pass rusher.

The Offense

The offense has some strengths, but is facing crucial weaknesses heading into the 2020 season. The biggest question mark for this unit is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s return from injury. Will Ben be able to bounce back? Roethlisberger made this comment regarding his return in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I’m throwing without pain for the first time in years.” If this holds true, this is a very good sign for fans anticipating having their Super Bowl winning leader back under center. In my opinion though, the biggest strength this offense can rely on is the run game behind an exceptional offensive line.

Offensive Lineman on the Roster

  • Maurkice Pouncey, C
  • David DeCastro, G
  • Matt Feiler, G/T
  • Alejandro Villanueva, T
  • Zach Banner, T
  • Chukwuma Okorafor, T
  • Derwin Gray, T
  • John Keenoy, C
  • J.C. Hassenauer, C
  • Christian Montano, G
  • Kevin Dotson, T
  • Jarron Jones, OL
  • Anthony Coyle, T
  • Christian DiLauro, T
  • Stefen Wisniewski, G

It’s safe to say, on paper, there is no need to worry about the protection Ben Roethlisberger will receive from this highly touted unit. Let’s take a closer look and breakdown the four main players that make up this powerhouse lineup.

The Big Four

The big four is the four players, from the list above, we all know will be starting on the offensive line.

Maurkice Pouncey, Center

Although he had his worst year to date last season, Pouncey continues to prove, with his play on the field, he is a top center in the NFL. With Ben Roethlisberger returning, it should make for even more production, based on chemistry and confidence, from the future Hall of Fame lineman. Barring any unfortunate injuries, there is no need to worry and we will more than likely see a Pro Bowl season performance from Pouncey.

David DeCastro, Guard

Another future Hall of Fame lineman, DeCastro, is entering the 2020 season coming off his fifth straight Pro Bowl season. In 2015, DeCastro’s fourth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career and has not missed out on one since. The 2012 draft pick is just now hitting his prime, at 30 years of age there are no signs of this dominant force for the Steelers’ line slowing down.

Matt Feiler, Tackle/Guard

Even though nothing jumps off the page like the previous two lineman, Matt Feiler has been consistent for Pittsburgh. Since stepping up in week three of the 2018 season for the injured tackle Marcus Gilbert, Feiler has shown tremendous improvement. This improvement led to him being named the starting right tackle in week 8. The consistency Feiler offers became crucial for Pittsburgh moving forward. The team traded Marcus Gilbert in the offseason to the Arizona Cardinals. The trade created a battle for the starting role at right tackle between Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Jerald Hawkins, and Matt Feiler. Feiler ended up winning the role and started all 16 games for the Steelers in 2019.

Although, this season, Head Coach Mike Tomlin confirmed Feiler’s move to left guard. Which opens up a battle between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner to be the starting right tackle for the 2020 season.

Alejandro Villanueva, Tackle

Of the big four, Villanueva was the only one that seemed to taper off a bit last season. I don’t think the Steelers are looking to replace him as starter just yet. But like proven in the past with Marcus Gilbert, if there’s a solid backup to turn too they are not afraid to move on from a household name. His play heading into this season will be a concern for Pittsburgh. But overall not much of a worry as they believe in the two younger tackles that are slotted behind the veteran in the depth chart.

The Three Main Keys to Success This Season

#1 Staying Healthy

The big injury under the spotlight is Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow. The 38-year old quarterback’s health is by far the biggest key to the Steelers being a true contender this season. Another player that hasn’t finished all 16 games of a season since being drafted is running back James Connor. When healthy Connor has been able to produce some amazing results on the field. But both seasons (2018,2019) he got to suit up as the starting running back he faced injuries to the knee and the lower leg. Ultimately, these injuries only allowed the back to complete 13 games in the 2018 season and 10 games in the 2019 season. Connor’s health will remain something to pay attention to as the season progresses.

Obviously, the team needs all of its starters to stay healthy to have the best outcome possible. But in my opinion, Roethlisberger and Connor, are the biggest losses the team could face if injured again. We all witnessed the severity of Big Ben staying healthy for the Steelers to do well. One thing many fans are not looking at though, is the amount of drop backs and hits Roethlisberger will take without the run threat from Connor.

#2 Weapons

The Search

The Steelers have struggled the past two seasons establishing new weapons. Since moving on from superstar wide receiver, Antonio Brown, and top running back, Le’veon Bell, they have tried to build new weapons for Ben Roethlisberger but haven’t exactly been successful. They have created some decent playmakers, but no where near the effectiveness that Brown and Bell brought to the team.

The Veteran

Pittsburgh has noticed and addressed some of the holes they had in terms of playmakers by signing tight end Eric Ebron. Coming off an injury plagued season, Ebron, if returned to healthy form will be a huge contribution to this Steelers’ offense.

The Rookies

Another step in the right direction was drafting rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool. Claypool finished his final year at Notre Dame with great numbers. Putting up 1,037 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, in just 13 games. One thing the team has also done to address the concern of playmakers, is sign a plethora of running backs to compete to land on the 53-man roster. The top three running backs on the depth chart seemed to be locked in. Starting with James Connor, then Benny Snell Jr. and last but not least fourth-round draft pick Anthony McFarland.

Many Steelers’ fans were taken by surprise when, rookie running back Anthony McFarland, was drafted to their team. Pittsburgh has a solid backfield, but they clearly lack one thing, home run playmaking ability. This makes McFarland an extremely intriguing player and will likely see a healthy amount of touches on the field.

The Unknown

One last sleeper weapon that I believe may help the playmaking abilities of this roster, is the acquisition of running back Wendall Smallwood. Smallwood is not going to be the starter or even get much playtime to be honest. But they brought him onto the team, anticipating sending Kerrith Whyte Jr. and Trey Edmunds to the practice squad. The former Washington and Philadelphia player is not going to make or break this roster, but he will provide for a serious third-down passing threat coming out of the backfield.

#3 Run Game

I was stuck between the run game and Ben Roethlisberger’s on field production, for my third key to success in the 2020 season. Ultimately, I chose the run game. There are many factors that go into why I picked this to be a point of emphasis. Mainly though, because a strong run game will take a lot of the pressure off of Big Ben. The more successful the run game is, means the less hits Roethlisberger takes. Also, it sets up big plays over the top of a defense that starts selling out to stop the run. Furthermore, it creates a confusion to the opposing team. If they can lineup in similar formations and the defense cannot read what is coming their way, they will have tons of success with RPO’s and play action passes.

If things go anything like the 2018 season, James Connor will be the one taking most of the responsibility for the run game. But there have been a lot of talks lately that running back Benny Snell Jr has hit new strides. It is believed that Snell will have a huge role in the offense this season. It is even possible, if Connor’s production does not stay consistent, that we see Snell get a shot to start at running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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