Pigskin’s 2020 NFL Watch List
As I stated previously, the STEELERS are also one of my teams to watch for the 2020 NFL season.
Their biggest question mark is clearly the healthy (?) return of BIG BEN at the QB slot. He missed most of 2019 after requiring elbow surgery on his right arm. Yes, that’s his throwing arm. He was last seen in late June actually throwing a football. Camps are open and he now has basically a month to readjust his wing to NFL game speed strength. If he’s able to return to his old form, look for this team to slug it out for the AFC North title with the Ravens this year.
So why am I so bullish on this team? They have a solid overall roster, and perhaps more importantly, they have star power players to drive them over and above most of their opponents. Their Running Game suffered greatly with mediocre to poor QB play last season. Their leading rusher, JAMES CONNER, gained less than 500 yards last season, at 4.0 ypc. And both of those numbers were the best from all their RB’s. However, expect better things from their solid group of RB’s if they have a passing game that works. I also expect Rookie RB ANTHONY McFARLAND to provide them with a more explosive option in their group. Without BIG BEN, and missing 4 games to injury, JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER was a shadow of his former self, with only 42 catches and 3 TD’s. The good news is that Rookie DIONTAE JOHNSON led the team with 59 catches, while also averaging over 12 yards per punt return. He reminds me of another ex-Steelers WR from the MAC named BROWN. Rookie CHASE CLAYPOOL should be a major contributor with a rare combo of size (6’4/238) and speed (4.42/40), not to mention leaping ability. Mark him down as a huge addition in the Red Zone Offense. The production from the TE group should rise a bit as well, with the addition to VFA ERIC EBRON. Beating the team to cutting him was vet OG RAMON FOSTER, who retired. But fear not, VFA STEFEN WISNIEWSKI was signed to fill that vacancy while Rookie KEVIN DOTSON develops into a starting role. They should be fine up front, especially with a balanced attack to function in.
Defense has always been a mainstay for a successful Steelers’ season. And thanks to some adroit maneuvering, the Defense may have moved from solid status to stellar. They now have the playmakers necessary to force opponents into multiple turnovers. DEVIN BUSH looks to be the cover-the-field replacement for RYAN SHAZIER at ILB, after a very solid Rookie season. Name me a more dynamic pair of OB’s in the league than BUD DUPREE and T.J. WATT, both sack-masters. The secondary now has the elite play-maker they have been missing since TROY POLAMALU retired, after trading for MINKAH FITZPATRICK last Fall. They are now solid at every secondary spot, and CB JOE HADEN is the only one beyond his 20’s, at age 31. The return of a healthy STEFON TUITT to rejoin CAM HEYWARD as bookend DE’s, gives them their best DL combo since the prime of SMITH/KEISEL. They lost their Nose Tackle JAVON HARGRAVE to Free Agency, but a rotation of ALUALU, McCULLERS, and perhaps Rookie CARLOS DAVIS, will keep the Nose position fresh into the 4th Quarter.
Their only major personnel loss may have been the exit of VFA Special Teams ace TYLER MATAKEVICH. However, the return of players like JORDAN DANGERFIELD, TUZAR SKIPPER, TREY EDMUNDS, and others, should certainly keep their coverage units from falling apart on them. Rookie SS ANTOINE BROOKS may be a real bonus for their Special Teams units.
BIG BEN is truly the key to all of this. I look at the roster and see more talent overall than anyone else in their division. However, the Ravens have a guy named JACKSON who is truly special. The Steelers must increase their scoring and time of possession on Offense this season. Last year’s backup QB group, in MASON RUDOLPH & DEVLIN HODGES, was not the stuff that NFL starting QB’s are made of, overall. ROETHLISBERGER returns to perhaps the best and deepest group of teammates that he has ever had to work with.