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State of the Franchise: With Big Ben back, Steelers stacked

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Steelers organization, fans of the Steelers around the world and those who believe that while Pittsburgh certainly is a city of champions, its greatest champion might just be the recently retired Kurt Angle:

The Steelers teams of the 1970s were legendary for their Steel Curtain defense. It was a tough and gritty unit that matched the persona of the city itself. A stout defense has long been the backbone for a franchise that has been one of the league's winningest. And a new version of the Steel Curtain is the reason the team has a lot of optimism heading into 2020. The Steelers were beset by injuries last year. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played six quarters before an elbow injury ended his season. RB1 James Conner and WR1 JuJu Smith-Schuster battled injuries, as well. But while many thought it was going to be a lost season for Pittsburgh, the Steel Curtain did not bend. Instead, it stood tall to meet the challenge. The Steelers finished with an 8-8 record and somehow were still in the playoff mix until the very end. There is good reason to believe the defense is going to carry the Steelers higher this year.

How the Steelers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Beating the Chargers on the road in Week 6. Facing an unruly crowd of (checks notes) mostly Steelers fans. Fine. It was a Sunday night game, and Steelers Nation was representing in Carson, California. Pittsburgh went out there and won with undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges at quarterback in a game that wasn't really that close, despite a furious rally from Philip Rivers.
  • Improving to 8-5 in Week 14. It looked like you were going to make the playoffs after a big win in Arizona. Our guy Diontae Johnson scored a pair of touchdowns in the victory.

The lows:

  • Losing in overtime to the Ravens in Week 5. That was devastating. The Steelers took a three-point lead on Chris Bowell's field goal with 2:37 left. But that damn Justin Tucker tied it with 10 seconds left and eventually nailed the winner in overtime. Had the Steelers won that game, they would have gone into their bye week at 3-3 after beating the Chargers.
  • Losing the final three games of the season. The Steelers scored just 10 points in each of those contests and watched their playoff hopes slip away.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Tomlin. It's easy to be critical of a coach who has had a lot of success but hasn't won the big one in a while. He had the Steelers in the Super Bowl in two of his first four seasons and won one title. But fans start to get a little bit antsy. Especially in Pittsburgh, where the Stairway to Seven talk has been ongoing since 2009. I even compared him to Sheamus last year, a guy who was once part of the main event scene but now is just kind of there. That said, the perception (at least mine) might be changing. And if it's not, it should be.

We know that winning eight games last season while starting guys like Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges under center was impressive. It's like when my guy Joke won the Madden Bowl championship with Tress Way at quarterback. (And really, maybe Tomlin should have tried Joke's run-only approach last year. No, seriously. Hodges had 38 pass attempts against the Bills in the Steelers' Week 15 loss, and Pittsburgh lost by just seven points.)

But there's more to my appreciation for Tomlin than that. When the Antonio Brown drama unfolded across the league last year, you kind of gained a new respect for Tomlin. You've never had a losing season and you were able to manage Brown for nine seasons? The latter feat might be more impressive than anything else he has ever done on a football field.

If I ever disrespected Tomlin in any way, please forgive me. Coach forever, sir. You've earned it.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers sans Roethlisberger last year were a lot like The Office without Steve Carell: a once-proud franchise had to flounder along. It was almost more sad than anything else. Not that the actors -- or players, in this instance -- weren't trying their hardest or were unable to produce some great moments. But it wasn't good, overall. The Steelers finished five games with 10 or fewer points, their most such games in a season since 1989. They had 11 games with 275 or fewer total yards, their most since 1941.

Can we expect the Steelers to rebound just because Roethlisberger is coming back? He's 38 years old and has battled his share of injuries. But in his last full season (2018), he threw for a league-best 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns. Of course, he also led the league in interceptions that season (16). And keep in mind that in the three years prior to last season, he missed just three games total. Is it fair to think Roethlisberger returns to throw for 5K again? Probably not. But to suggest that he's not a capable quarterback just wouldn't be accurate.

I know there are those who mocked his appearance on the sideline last season, suggesting he may have added a few pounds during his rehab and looked like Yukon Cornelius. But let's be perfectly truthful here: Roethlisberger has never had a body like he was Brad Pitt's character in Snatch. He's always played with a little girth, and that is what has made him so hard to handle over the years. If Roethlisberger can return and just be an average quarterback, the Steelers will be back in the mix for one of the top spots in the AFC.

Projected 2020 MVP: T.J. Watt, edge rusher. T.J. and James Harrison (2008) are the only Steelers players since 1982 with at least 14 sacks and seven or more forced fumbles in a single season. Watt was my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. Also, I would like to point this out: Not to rub it in, Cowboys fans, but your team took Taco Charlton, who has nine career sacks and is no longer in Dallas, two picks before T.J. went to Pittsburgh in the 2017 NFL Draft. Some of the other edge rushers in the draft include Myles Garrett, Derek Barnett, Charles Harris, Takkarist McKinley and Charlton. T.J. has more sacks than all of them combined! Just kidding. Wanted to make sure you were paying attention. But Watt has 34.5 sacks since entering the league, with Garrett second among that group (30.5).

2020 breakout star: Devin Bush, linebacker. He led the Steelers in tackles in 2019. But while he had six takeaways in his first six games, Bush but didn't have another one the rest of the way. So he was good, but he wasn't, like, oh my gosh, I'm watching another great Steelers linebacker-level good. It's like when everyone told you that you had to start watching Parks and Recreation, and then you had to suffer through a first season that was fine before it really started to crush it in the second season. That's where Bush is right now. With Mark Barron, who ate into Bush's playing time last season, having been released, defensive coordinator Keith Butler can really unleash the second-year man.

Newish face to know: Stephon Tuitt, defensive end. I know Tuitt is entering Year 7, but he didn't really come on strong until the last few seasons, which means he's still a newish face to many. We spent a lot of energy talking about Roethlisberger's return from injury, but let's not sleep on Tuitt, who was a monster through the first six games of last season before he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. Dude was playing at an All-Pro level. If he's able to replicate that this season, this defense will be scary good.

And don't forget: Bud Dupree signed his franchise tender. The former first-round pick had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season after recording 20 total in the first four years of his career. He and Watt formed a pretty formidable tandem. And I would have to say acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick also helped stabilized this defense, too. Remember when everyone was trying to bash the Steelers for potentially taking themselves out of the running for Tua Tagovailoa when they traded a first-rounder for Fitzpatrick? Good times.

The 2020 road map

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Steelers are one of those franchises with fans that are always going to have at least some expectation that the team will compete for a Super Bowl. I mean, again, the whole Stairway to Seven thing is still there. Maybe last year was a humbling experience for the fans, who will now be happy just getting back to the playoffs. Then again, maybe it wasn't.

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 vs. Broncos. I'm on record saying the Broncos and Steelers could both be division winners this season. This is going to be an early test for both teams. Don't write off the loser in this game, though.
  • Week 4 at Titans. The Titans snuck into the playoffs last season, in part because the Steelers fell apart at the quarterback position. I'm not sure Pittsburgh feels like this is a revenge game, but it's pretty big.
  • Week 5 vs. Eagles. Always exciting when your in-state rival comes to town.

Will the Steelers be able to ...

Return JuJu Smith-Schuster to form? It seems super lazy to just say that Big Ben's injury was pretty much why JuJu regressed, managing just 42 catches for 552 yards and three scores in 12 games in 2019 after racking up 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven scores in '18. And guess what? I'm feeling lazy today. Of course, while Antonio Brown tried to insinuate it was his absence that really caused JuJu's drop in production, it really was because of the horrible quarterback play of Big Ben replacements Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. PFF noted that JuJu saw 50.8 percent accurate ball placement last season, down significantly from what he saw with Roethlisberger over the course of the previous two seasons. Another factor working in JuJu's favor? This receivers room should join be really good, following in the Steelers tradition of fielding exceptional pass catchers. Diontae Johnson (one of our picks last year) broke out last season, with 92 catches for 680 yards as a rookie, and he's poised for another huge year. And second-round pick Chase Claypool was a solid selection. You can put JuJu in the slot, have Claypool and Johnson out wide, and suddenly, this offense looks rather potent again.

Get Eric Ebron to shine? One of the most interesting signings of the free agency period was Ebron heading to Pittsburgh. The tight end position is so important to the Steelers' offense, but they haven't had consistency there in awhile. (Even as I crow about calling Diontae Johnson's breakout, I must acknowledge that my similarly optimistic forecast for tight end Vance McDonald last year did not work out as well.) That's not to say that Ebron is consistent -- like, not at all. But dude had 13 touchdown receptions in 2018. Even taking into account the regression we all knew was coming in 2019 (which, yes, was pretty bad, with Ebron posting his worst stats since his rookie year and appearing in just 11 games), a solid 50-catch, eight-plus-score campaign from Ebron seems attainable, and it's what the Steelers should aim for.

Get the offensive line to level-up? If they're going to make this thing with Roethlisberger work, they're going to need to be strong up front. Loved the signing of Stefen Wisniewski, who figures to be a huge addition to this offensive line, which was ranked a pretty-good ninth by PFF at the end of last season but could also be even better now. An improved offensive line will also help the running situation. We mentioned ahead of last season that it would be unreasonable to expect James Conner to have another monster year after his 2018 breakout, and we would continue to hold expectations in check after Conner put up 464 yards and four scores in 10 games. In fact, I'm curious to see if Benny Snell Jr. will soak up more snaps in Year 2 after nearly matching Conner's production last season. In Week 17 last year, Snell rushed for 91 yards and a touch against the Ravens. And you might believe Baltimore was mailing that one in. Which, fair enough.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The defense was really pretty great last year. And you're probably thinking to yourself that, well nobody is really overlooking that. You were just calling them the Steel Curtain. And you're right. People do mention that. Much in the same way that people say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a great movie. I appreciate your lip service and you saying the right thing. But I don't believe that you really understand why it was so great. The Steelers' defensive ranking of fifth was incredible when you consider how bad their offense was (30th overall). Despite getting no help and being asked to constantly stay on the field, this defense really crushed. If you stick with the metaphor of the 2019 Steelers as being The Office without Steve Carell, last year's defense was like James Spader's Robert California: an underrated gem in a season that wasn't as bad as you thought it was.

... people are overthinking: How easy their schedule appears to be. Look, as a content creator, schedule release is one of my favorite holidays. And when you look at the Steelers, they have the easiest schedule in the final eight games. But that's according to the numbers from last season. Schedule parsing can be fun, but the NFL landscape already looks dramatically different than it did at the end of 2019 and will certainly continue to change as 2020 plays out. I would rather focus on the strength of the Steelers' roster, given that what looks like a softer schedule now could easily become more challenging when games actually start being played.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Steelers MUST:

Get a full season from Roethlisberger. We have seen what this team looks like without him. And it's not great. He needs to get it back together.


Get back to the playoffs. Which, even with the playoff field expanding, is going to be a little bit tougher this season. And the AFC North should be better, with Kevin Stefanski bringing stability to Cleveland and No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow bringing hope to Cincinnati.

In closing

I have extremely high expectations for the Steelers this season. Their roster looks like it could be the best in the AFC; it's not outlandish for me to think they could be the No. 1 seed headed into the playoffs. I know there are some doubters because of Roethlisberger's advanced age. (And, OK, while that language makes it sound like he's in his 70s, he is older -- if you look at the guys drafted with him in 2004, Eli Manning is retired, Philip Rivers was shown the door by the Chargers, Matt Schaub is ... still playing? I don't know, maybe.) But this looks like one of the best rosters he's been with in quite some time. The Steelers should really set their sights on seven. And that's not just the number on Roethlisberger's jersey.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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