Mike Tomlin, despite the heat and humidity, wore a black long sleeve shirt underneath a red polo shirt during a recent training camp practice. On the back of the polo shirt read the words “Cleaning Ambassador,” as Tomlin was wearing the shirt to salute the cleaning crew at Heinz Field, the site of Pittsburgh’s 2020 training camp.

The message, as Tomlin wrote via Twitter, was that the Steelers need everyone to do their part if Pittsburgh is going to live up to its winning standard this season.

“I mean it when I say it takes everyone within our organization to have a successful day,” Tomlin wrote, “and therefore a successful season.”

Tomlin’s 2020 team embodies his message, as the Steelers have the depth to complement their Pro Bowl players. It can be said that this Steelers team, Tomlin’s 14th since succeeding Hall of Fame coach Bill Cowher, has the most depth since Pittsburgh’s 2017 team that won 13 games before suffering an upset playoff loss at the hands of the Jaguars. Health withstanding, Pittsburgh’s roster is good enough, on paper, to end its two-year playoff drought. And, if enough things go their way, the Steelers could successfully make their way through the AFC playoffs for the first time in 10 years. 

With the regular season just around the corner, we decided to make three bold predictions for the 2020 Steelers.

1. Ben Roethlisberger earns his first All-Pro selection

Predicting Roethlisberger as the Comeback Player of the Year isn’t a bold prediction, as Big Ben is among the preseason favorites to win that award after missing most of the 2019 season with an elbow injury. Predicting that Big Ben will finally be able to add All-Pro to his name, a year after his first major injury, can be considered a bold — albeit a very possible — prediction. 

Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery, which was performed last September, not only reconstructed his injured right shoulder. It also alleviated pain that Big Ben says existed in his arm for the last couple of seasons. Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards in 2018 while leading an offense that broke a 39-year-old franchise record for touchdowns. Imagine what Roethlisberger can do with a healthy throwing arm.

To be fair, Roethlisberger’s success that season was partly due to the presence of Antonio Brown, who that season caught over 100 passes for a sixth consecutive season. While Brown is no longer in Pittsburgh, the Steelers currently have a deeper receiving corps than they did two years ago. In fact, in can be argued that Pittsburgh’s skill positions are its deepest in over a decade.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s 2018 MVP, is now complemented by fellow receivers Diontae Johnson, James Washington and rookie Chase Claypool. Johnson, a third-round pick in the 2019 draft, led the Steelers in touchdown receptions as a rookie. Johnson (who came to camp in significantly better shape than he did last summer) is expected to put up big numbers with Roethlisberger back under center. A 2018 second-round pick, Washington was the team’s leader in receiving yards last season. The 2017 Biletnikoff award winner is expected to continue making big plays downfield, something he occasionally did during his first two seasons. 

Claypool, the team’s first pick in this year’s draft, has already turned heads in camp. Just ask Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, who praised Claypool after a recent practice. The presence of Claypool should allow Smith-Schuster to return to the slot, where he put up big numbers during his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. Claypool, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds, was undoubtedly selected partly to satisfy Roethlisberger’s desire to have a big, athletic receiver at his disposal. 

Roethlisberger also loves throwing to his tight ends. That was apparent early in his career, when Big Ben threw early and often to Heath Miller, the best tight end in franchise history. Four year ago, the Steelers appeared to strike gold with the offseason acquisition of free agent Ladarius Green, who was brought in to give Pittsburgh a presence over the middle following Miller’s retirement that offseason. While Roethlisberger had success throwing to his new teammate, Green’s injuries ultimately cut his time in Pittsburgh short. In 2017, the Steelers had better luck with the acquisition of Vance McDonald, who in 2018 set career highs with 50 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns.

McDonald will now be paired with Eric Ebron, the team’s biggest free agent signing this offseason. Ebron is two years removed from earning Pro Bowl honors after catching a career high 13 touchdowns for the Colts. He has already established chemistry with Roethlisberger, as Big Ben had Ebron stay at his home shortly after the Steelers signed him.

Roethlisberger also has a strong backfield in running backs James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland Jr. A Pro Bowler in 2018, Conner has proven to be one of the NFL’s better backs when healthy. Snell, following a promising rookie season, has turned heads during camp with his improved speed after getting into significantly better shape this offseason. Samuels, a fifth-round pick in the 2018 draft, finished second on the Steelers in receptions in 2019. McFarland, a 5-foot-8, 193-pound speedster, averaged 6.7 yards per carry in two seasons at Maryland. Helping create holes for Pittsburgh’s running backs is new fullback Derek Watt, who paved holes for Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler during his time with the Chargers.

While they continue to go through a transition, Pittsburgh’s offensive line remains among the best units in football, led by perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, five-time Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro and two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Matt Feiler, who has done a solid job at right tackle over the past two seasons, is currently looking to win the starting job at left guard. Promising linemen Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor are vying to become the team’s new starting right tackle. Rookie Kevin Dotson and veteran Stefen Wisniewski, a starter on two Super Bowl winning offensive lines, will also play significant roles in 2020.

While Pittsburgh has put Big Ben in position to have success, the 38-year-old veteran has also put himself in position to have a career year. He recently told reports that his weight is the lowest it has been in over a decade, as Roethlisberger remains motivated to match Terry Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl wins as Pittsburgh’s quarterback. 

 “I still have a lot to give this team,” Roethlisberger said earlier this month. “I still have a lot to give the fans. And I still want to win Lombardis, and I say that with a plural on the end.”


Diontae Johnson

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Johnson should be a significant piece of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2020.


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2. T.J. Watt wins Defensive Player of the Year

It was a close call between Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who also should be in the conversation for DPOY this fall. But given the fact that teams will likely try to play away from Fitzpatrick’s in order to neutralize his effectiveness (which was mostly the case during the later part of the ’19 season), Watt, an outside linebacker, ultimately got the nod to become the team’s first DPOY since Troy Polamalu a decade earlier.

It’s hard to fathom now that the Steelers faced outside skepticism after spending the 30th overall pick in the 2017 draft on Watt, who came to Wisconsin as a tight end before switching over to defense midway through his college career. It’s safe to say that Watt has since erased any doubts about his ability. In three seasons, Watt has recorded 34.5 sacks, 36 tackles for loss and 15 forced fumbles. In 2019, Watt earned All-Pro honors for the first time after recording 14.5 sacks, a league-high eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

Watt, like Roethlisberger, is surrounded by talented players. Along with fellow Pro Bowlers Haden (five interceptions in 2019) and Fitzpatrick (five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns last season) and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (nine sacks in ’19) Pittsburgh’s defense also includes 2019 free agent acquisition Steven Nelson, one of the most underrated cornerbacks in football. The Steelers’ defense also includes veterans Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and safety Terrell Edmunds, a 2018 first-round pick who quickly gelled with Fitzpatrick, who joined the Steelers two games into the ’19 season.

Along with Williams, fellow linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree allowed Watt to wreak more havoc on offenses last season, something that should continue in 2020. A rookie last season, Bush led the Steelers with 109 tackles while also recording two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick, enjoyed his best season to date in 2019, totaling 11.5 sacks to go with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The quartet of Williams, Bush, Dupree and Watt have the potential to be the NFL’s premier linebacker unit in 2020.

“We don’t care who is making the plays as long as we are all making them together,” Watt told the media on Tuesday, per Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. Watt also said something that should be music to defensive coordinator’s Keith Butler’s ears.

“I want to be a game wrecker.”


T.J. Watt

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Watt’s 14.5 sacks in 2019 is the third-highest single season total in Steelers history.


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3. Steelers reach Super Bowl LV

Let’s start by stating that the Steelers have the second-easiest strength of schedule in the NFL. The only team that has an easier schedule is the Ravens, Pittsburgh’s longtime AFC North foe. And while the Ravens may win the division again in 2020, Baltimore – specifically quarterback Lamar Jackson — has yet to prove that they can parlay its regular season success into a postseason run. The Steelers’ defense also had success containing Jackson during their lone matchup against the league’s MVP last season, sacking him five times while also forcing him into throwing three interceptions.

The expectation that the AFC North will be a more competitive division may actually be a positive for the Steelers, who went 3-3 inside the division in 2019. While the Steelers should be tested by the Browns and Bengals, the emergence of both Ohio teams should also lead to a much more competitive race for the division title. Unlike 2019, when the Ravens ran away with the division title, don’t expect the same result in 2020, as 11 or 12 wins will likely determine who wins the division. The intensified competition should also make Pittsburgh more battle tested if they are able to secure a playoff berth. 

Like most AFC teams, Pittsburgh’s biggest roadblock in recent years has been the Patriots. And while New England still has Bill Belichick, the Patriots no longer have Tom Brady, who boasted a 3-0 playoff record against the Steelers. New England also lost several big pieces to their team in free agency, and even more players due to the COVID-19 opt out. The Titans, who made a surprising run to the AFC Championship Game last season, didn’t beat out Pittsburgh for the final wild card spot until Week 17. While Tennessee should be a tough out again in 2020, they, like the Patriots, are beatable. 

The biggest team standing in Pittsburgh’s way is the Chiefs, who this past February ended their 50-year championship drought by defeating the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. And while Patrick Mahomes and his teammates should be the decided favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LV, recent history has not been kind to the defending champions, as no team has repeated as champion since the 2003-04 Patriots. In fact, the Patriots and Seahawks are the only teams to appear in the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons since the start of the new millennium. As talented as the Chiefs are, history is not on their side.

In Week 2 of the 2018 season, Big Ben went toe-to-toe with Mahomes during their first meeting against one another. The two quarterbacks combined to throw for 778 yards and nine touchdowns, as the Chiefs hung on for a 42-37 win following a 21-0 first quarter lead. While the two teams have gone through several personnel changes since then, many of Pittsburgh’s starters from that team are still in-tact. If the Steelers’ vastly improved defense can stop Mahomes and company more often, Pittsburgh’s offense should be able to hold its own against Kansas City’s defense if the two teams should meet in the postseason. Whether or not the Steelers can have more success running the ball, particularly late in the season, may determine whether or not Pittsburgh makes a deep playoff run. 

Quite a few things will have to go Pittsburgh’s way in order for this prediction to become a reality. Roethlisberger will have to be as good as advertised after missing an entire season. Pittsburgh’s offensive line will have to hold back Father Time one more year. Conner and Smith-Schuster have to be the players that they were in 2018, when they both earned Pro Bowl honors. Pittsburgh’s complementary players will have to carry their weight. The Steelers defense will need to continue to play at a high level. Pittsburgh’s special teams will need another strong season from kicker Chris Boswell, who returned to Pro Bowl form in 2019. Above all, the Steelers need to avoid the injuries that plagued them in 2019. 

That being said, the Steelers, after two turbulent seasons, have the roster to compete for a championship. But, as Tomlin recently said, it will take everyone doing their part if the Steelers are going to realize their potential. 

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