When was the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers felt this good about a team who went 8-8 and looked as bad on offense as they did in 2019? They ranked 27th in scoring last season, averaging 18.1 points per game, in a year in which they scored three non-offensive touchdowns and led the league in takeaways.
But they also ranked fifth in defensive points allowed, allowing just 18.9 points per game. And their offense operated without Ben Roethlisberger almost all year long. Even in the brief period of time for which he was on the field for the first game and a half, he was clearly playing through pain, which he confirmed late last week speaking to Ron Cook for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
That the Steelers still managed to pull out an 8-8 record is almost solely a testament to the remarkable strides that the defense made, courtesy of the acquisition and maturation of players such as T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, and Steven Nelson, helping to put together one of the best groups in the league.
Minus Javon Hargrave, but also getting Stephon Tuitt back from injury, this unit remains largely intact for 2020. Some players will regress after having at- or near-career-best seasons, like Dupree, but others will only continue to get better. I’m thinking especially of Bush, their rookie first-round draft pick in 2019. These guys have Roethlisberger anxious to get things going again.
“I’m excited about our team. I think we’re all excited about next season already”, he told Cook. “As much as the fans and my teammates want me out there, I want to be out there even more. I saw last season what this team is capable of doing. I’m pushing myself to come back better than ever”.
The front office just got him a new toy to play with in tight end Eric Ebron, who caught 13 touchdowns for 750 yards in 2018, while retaining Vance McDonald. They also return the young trio of 23-year-old wide receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson, while James Conner heads into his fourth season looking to get back into Pro Bowl shape—or health, more accurately.
Health was the downfall of the Steelers in 2019, not just with Roethlisberger, but also Conner, and Smith-Schuster, and even McDonald. Maurkice Pouncey ended up missing time, though in part due to suspension. Even the backup quarterback, Mason Rudolph, went through the ringer twice.
Roethlisberger is making slow and methodical but steady progress as he works his way back from elbow surgery. He understands with the spring offseason workouts indefinitely postponed, there is no rush to push himself beyond what he needs to, but he fully expects to be ready to go, when the time comes—whenever that might be.