If the Steelers' offense is to match the play and acclaim of their burgeoning defense, though, it is quite likely receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner must come back to the level and production they showed prior to last campaign also.
In 2018, Conner and Smith-Schuster each earned Pro Bowl bids and put up stellar numbers.
In 2019, Conner and Smith-Schuster averaged 85.5 fewer combined scrimmage yards per game than they did the prior season, per NFL Research.
Though Roethlisberger missed 14 games and the Steelers did their best to make it work with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, conventional wisdom suggests heftier contributions from Pittsburgh's top back and/or No. 1 receiver might well have paid dividends for a team that had a chance to make the playoffs in Week 17.
Injuries sidelined and likely slowed Conner as he missed six games. Still, his decline was stupendous when he was on the field. He averaged nearly six fewer touches per contest and an eye-popping 41.6 scrimmage yards less per game (28.2 rushing yards less per game) – according to NFL Research.
While Le'Veon Bell held out all of the 2018 season, 2019 was truly the first in which Conner was the No. 1 back on the roster, just as it was the first year in which Smith-Schuster took the reins as the No. 1 receiver following the departure of Antonio Brown.
Like Conner, there were injury hurdles for Smith-Schuster. Still in 12 2019 games, Smith-Schuster averaged a pedestrian 46 yards per game and tallied 42 receptions, 552 yards and three touchdowns. The third-year pro was the Steelers' No. 1 receiver only in title as he was fourth on Pittsburgh in catches, third in receiving yards and tied for second with four teammates in TD catches. His numbers were all career lows and while he was in the top six in receptions (111, tied for sixth) and receiving yards (1,426, fifth) in 2018, he was tied for 95th and 77th, respectively, in those statistics in 2019, per NFL Research.
For an 8-8 team that lost five games by seven points or less, what would have been with better campaigns from Conner and Smith-Schuster is a pondering left for yesterday.
As for tomorrow, whether 2020 will be a bounce-back season for Smith-Schuster and Conner might well be a quandary as important for Steelers success as the return of Roethlisberger.