Art Rooney Sr., the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, once said that building a championship team is like making Irish Stew. “You must blend the ingredients properly,” Rooney wrote in Lou Sahadi’s book, “Super Steelers.”

“I have no idea how to make Irish Stew, but in sports you must have a blend of good coaching, good players, and good luck.” 

The Chief may have let more qualified cooks make him his Irish Stew, but Rooney knew better than anyone the challenge of building a championship roster. Rooney, after all, watched the Steelers toil in mediocrity for nearly four full decades before his team finally won its first playoff game. But after all that losing, Rooney’s team rewarded his patience by reeling off a run of success that remains unparalleled in the Super Bowl era. Four times in a six-year span, his team was crowned the Super Bowl champion. Twice, his team won back-to-back Super Bowls. The ’79 Steelers, the last of those championship teams, remain the last team to win the Super Bowl with a roster solely comprised of homegrown talent. 

While football has changed in the years following the Steelers’ 1970s heyday, building a championship roster continues to depend on having good coaching, players, and a little bit of luck. The 2020 Steelers, on paper, appear to have the right blend of coaching and players to win Super Bowl LV. Bill Cowher, who will receive his gold jacket next summer, often said that teams create their own good fortune. While the ball didn’t bounce their way enough in 2019 (particularly at the end of the season), the return of Ben Roethlisberger, along with several other key additions, should lead to Pittsburgh creating its own good fortune this season. 

With the start of the regular season upon us, here are the three main reasons why the Steelers will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 7. 

1. The quarterback situation 

This time a year ago, the Steelers had a 16-year veteran at quarterback who, unbeknownst to anyone outside the organization at the time, was dealing with lingering issues with his throwing arm. Those issues came to the forefront after he suffered a severe elbow injury two weeks into the season. The Steelers were then forced to play the following 14 games of the season with two quarterbacks who had never taken a regular season snap prior to the 2019 season. While they often won in spite of their quarterback play, backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges did enough to help the Steelers go 8-5 before Pittsburgh ultimately ran out of gas and healthy bodies. 

This season, the Steelers will not have to hide their quarterback. Conversely, Pittsburgh should be getting an even better version of Big Ben following last September’s surgery. Roethlisberger recently said that his arm feels better than it has in several years. He added that he is lighter than he has been in over a decade after undergoing a rigorous training regiment. 

While Big Ben should be a better version of himself in 2020, the same can also be said of Rudolph, who started off the 2019 season on a good note before suffering a concussion during Pittsburgh’s Week 6 loss to Baltimore. Rudolph was never quite himself after that, and an offseason of recovery and preparation should make him a considerably better player as he enters his third season. Playing behind Rudolph is Josh Dobbs, the Steelers’ No. 2 quarterback during the 2018 season. Dobbs, who replaced Hodges on the depth chart (Hodges is currently on Pittsburgh’s practice squad), is a highly intelligent player who will make life easier for Roethlisberger when it comes to his weekly preparation. 

Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert has also put his quarterbacks in position to have more success in 2020 with the selections of rookies Chase Claypool, Anthony McFarland Jr. and Kevin Dotson. A standout receiver at Notre Dame, the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Claypool gives Roethlisberger his coveted big, athletic receiver that can help stretch the defense. McFarland, a speedy running back out of Maryland, will start the season ahead of Jaylen Samuels on the depth chart. McFarland is right behind second-year running back Benny Snell, whose role is expected to increase this season after he arrived in camp lighter and faster than he did as a rookie. Dotson, the first player selected in this year’s draft who was not invited to this year’s combine, showed enough promise during training camp to earn a spot on Pittsburgh’s 53-man roster. He is part of a semi-retooled offensive line that also includes Stefen Wisniewski, a starter on two of the last three Super Bowl champions. 

Colbert also gave Big Ben a new tight end to throw to in Eric Ebron, who is just two years removed from catching 13 touchdowns passes from now retired quarterback Andrew Luck. Roethlisberger will also look to gain a rapport with second-year receiver Diontae Johnson, who paced Pittsburgh in touchdown receptions during his rookie season. James Washington, who led the Steelers in receiving in 2019, will look to continue to build on his chemistry with Roethlisberger, while JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s 2018 MVP, is hungry to show that last year’s struggles were merely a fluke. The same can be said of starting running back James Conner, who, like Smith-Schuster, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. 

Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks will continue to be protected by arguably the best offensive line in football, a line that is anchored by eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, and five-time Pro Bowl right guard, David DeCastro. While there will be a new face in the starting lineup this season (Zach Banner will start at right tackle, with Matt Feiler moving over to left guard), Pittsburgh’s offensive line should still be able to provide solid protection for Big Ben. 

2. The defense

After having a dominant defense during the first half of his career, Roethlisberger spent the mid 2010s without that luxury. While Pittsburgh’s “Killer B” offense lit up the scoreboard, its defense (specifically the pass defense) was not up to par with the offense. The result was some extremely exciting seasons that ultimately came up short of expectation. 

Pittsburgh’s gradual defensive improvement, which began in 2015, made a significant jump in 2017 with the signing of Joe Haden, who gave the Steelers’ secondary a much-needed No. 1 cornerback. The ’17 season also brought the arrival of T.J. Watt, whose presence has helped the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks over the past three seasons. Pittsburgh’s defense, one of the league’s best 12 games into the ’17 season, took a significant step backwards after losing Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier’s loss was not only a major reason why the Steelers were upset by the Jaguars in the ’17 playoffs, it was a big reason why Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2018 after blowing several fourth quarter leads. 

The Steelers finally addressed the loss of Shazier in 2019 with the selection of former Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. An immediate starter, Bush, who was named to PFWA’s All-Rookie Team and played a big role in the Steelers’ defense finishing in the top-five in sacks, points allowed, turnovers forced, passing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and averaged yards per carry allowed. Also spearheading Pittsburgh’s defensive success last season was Watt (14.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles), Haden (five interceptions, 17 passes defensed), linebacker Bud Dupree (11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles), cornerback Steven Nelson, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (nine sacks) and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who earned All-Pro honors after joining the Steelers two weeks into the season.

Pittsburgh further bolstered its offense with the offseason additions of former Raven Chris Wormley (who will help replace the Javon Hargrave) and veteran safety Sean Davis, a Steelers 2016 second-round pick who was re-signed by the team after Davis was waived by Washington over the weekend. The Steelers also acquired two promising rookies in outside linebacker Alex Highsmith and defensive lineman Carlos Davis. Pittsburgh’s returning stars, along with its new additions, should make the Steelers’ defense one of, if not the, best defense in football in 2020. 


T.J. Watt

PIT •

OLB •

90

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


View Profile

3. The Wizard of Boz 

Having a clutch kicker can be the difference between a team being a Super Bowl contender or missing the playoffs altogether. That was the case for the Steelers a few seasons ago. In 2017, Chris Boswell’s clutch kicking helped Pittsburgh win the AFC North with a 13-3 record. In the following season, Boswell endured a rocky year that included several critical missed kicks that contributed to Pittsburgh missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013. 

Boswell, after fighting off competition during training camp, returned to form in 2019, making a career-high 93.5% of his field goal attempts and each of his 28 point-after attempts. If Boswell continues to be that effective in 2020, the Steelers will likely win more than their share of close games. 

Along with Boswell, the Steelers’ special teams has a top-tier player in Johnson, whose 85-yard punt return for a score against the Cardinals served as the NFL’s longest punt return in 2019. Pittsburgh also recently signed veteran putting Dustin Colquitt, a two-time Pro Bowler during his successful 15-year run with the Chiefs. 

While their offense and defense should be capable of pulling out a few games on their own, the same can also be said of the Steelers’ special teams heading into the ’20 season. 

4. Elite coaching 

NFL teams are seldom successful without a great coaching staff. That’s the current situation in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have put together a staff that has proven to be among the best in football. At the top of the staff is Mike Tomlin, who has put together an impressive string of success during his 13 years in Pittsburgh. Tomlin, the youngest coach in history to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, has never had a losing record as the Steelers’ coach. While the 2018 season was not one for the mantle, Tomlin’s 2019 season was a testament to his ability to keep his players in the right frame of mind despite the unrelenting wave of obstacles. 

“The standard is the standard” is among Tomlin’s favorite sayings, and it’s that mindset — not allowing his team to accept a standard lower than striving to win championships — that has largely contributed to his and his team’s consistency through the years. 

Pittsburgh’s coaching staff also includes offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and defensive coordinator Keith Butler, two coaches who first worked with Tomlin at Arkansas State in the late ’90s. While John Mitchell (assistant head coach), James Daniels (tight ends coach), Danny Smith (special teams coordinator) and Jerry Olsavsky (inside linebackers coach) have proven to he highly effective coaches during their lengthy tenures in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have added some new blood to their coaching staff over the last few years with the additions of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, receivers coach Ike Hilliard, running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, defensive backs coach Tom Bradley, and senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin. 

While each coach has put their own significant footprints on the roster, Austin, who won a Super Bowl ring as the Ravens’ secondary coach in 2012, has made a considerably large impact since joining the Steelers’ staff in 2019. One of Austin’s current tasks is trying to get the most out of strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the team’s 2018 first-round pick. 

“He’s a good football player, we just gotta get him a little bit more ball-production,” Austin said of Edmunds, via the team’s official website. “Catching the ball, getting around the ball, stripping the ball, fumble recoveries, all those things we’ll just continue to practice them.

“I’m sure they’ll come because the kid works hard, he’s around the ball, he’s always available, he’s out there every snap. The biggest thing we have to do is just continue to work on it and when he gets near the ball to make sure he has that production that we need. That’s really the only thing that was lacking out of his game last year.”

5. No Brady 

Sure, the Patriots should still be considered a formidable foe in 2020, even with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski continuing their careers in Tampa Bay. But the fact that Brady — who is 3-0 against the Steelers in the playoffs — is no longer in the AFC is similar to how NBA Eastern Conference teams felt when Michael Jordan retired for the first time in the early ’90s. With Brady gone, the AFC feels more wide open, even with the Chiefs coming off of their first Super Bowl win in 50 years. 

While the Chiefs and Ravens are formidable foes, neither team should be considered significantly better than the Steelers, who managed to go .500 last season despite not having their franchise quarterback. In fact, Pittsburgh nearly defeated Baltimore during their first meeting last season, forcing league MVP Lamar Jackson into three interceptions while sacking him five times. And while some of the faces on both teams have changed, the Steelers went toe-to-toe with the Chiefs’ offense in 2018, with the two teams combining to score 79 points in a classic quarterback duel. 

Brady’s departure means that Roethlisberger is now the AFC’s most experienced quarterback, and is the only one with multiple Super Bowl victories. Big Ben’s return, along with the other talent that is on the Steelers’ roster, is good enough to beat any team in the AFC, and it might be just good enough to bring home the seventh Lombardi Trophy. 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here