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2020 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Last updated: Sat, Sep 5

Offensive Philosophy

For years, Mike Tomlin's Steelers were famous for how concentrated their production was: running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown dominated the team's carries, targets, and yards and the rest of the team fought for scraps. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster crashed the party in 2018 before Bell and Brown left the team for good, leaving open the possibility that Roethlisberger / Conner / Smith-Schuster was the team's new set of "triplets" to run the offense through. The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft' astray; Roethlisberger was lost for the year in the Steelers' 2nd game while Conner and Smith-Schuster combined to miss ten games. The result was that one of the concentrated offenses became one of the most distributed. Five backs received at least 20 carries but none of them topped 120. Three receivers (Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and rookie Diontae Johnson) averaged between 42 and 49 yards per game receiving. No player scored more than 7 touchdowns. Roethlisberger is on track to return this season, and he's shown no compunction against funneling the ball to a favored receiver or two over the years, but all three of last year's top receivers have shown they deserve to be involved. Conner doesn't have the track record of heavy usage that his predecessor, Bell, demonstrated, so the Steelers are likely to rotate in a backup more often to keep him fresh and healthy. Roethlisberger's return seem unlikely to quickly return Pittsburgh to its hyper-concentrated offensive ways of recent years.


Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges

Starting QB: How much game does Ben Roethlisberger have left? This is the biggest question mark for him, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Fantasy GMs who may take a chance on the veteran. Roethlisberger only made it through two games in 2019 before an elbow injury knocked him out for the remainder of the season. In his one full game starting (Week 1 versus the Patriots), Roethlisberger didn't throw a touchdown. He was hurt the next week against the Seahawks and he failed to throw a touchdown in that abbreviated contest either. Roethlisberger is fully healthy entering 2020, one which could be the final season of his career. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gave an update on Roethlisberger's rehab and it was all positive. 'As we sit here today, we are extremely confident in his readiness,' Tomlin said. 'We are enjoying the process that he's going through right now. Obviously, it's not without its angst. The guy is coming off a season-ending injury and surgery. But we like where we are. He's throwing on a rehab schedule, and it's going well, and we fully anticipate him being ready to go for that opener.' The Steelers have upgraded the talent around Roethlisberger this offseason. Before we get to the upgrades, Fantasy GMs need to know that top wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster should be back at full strength as well. A knee injury kept him out of four games last year and poor quarterback play after Roethlisberger was hurt led to a down season for the young and talented receiver. Having Smith-Schuster back with Roethlisberger should really boost the passing game. We saw James Washington emerge last year and that progression of his talent should continue as he enters year three of his career. He was the main deep target for the Steelers in 2019, averaging a healthy 16.9 yards per catch. He should be able to continue building chemistry with Roethlisberger this season. Diontae Johnson flashed some talent as a rookie in 2019. The third-round pick out of Toledo last year has speed and can be considered an ascending talent for the Steelers offense. Add in rookie Chase Claypool, a second-round pick out of Notre Dame, and you can see a nice collection of talent around the veteran quarterback. Oh yeah, the team added move tight end Eric Ebron in free agency so there's yet another way Roethlisberger can attack a team...if he's healthy. That injury history...and Roethlisberger's age...have Fantasy GMs shying away from him in recent drafts. As of this writing, Roethlisberger has a current ADP of QB22 (13.06) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Backup QB: The Steelers were forced to turn to Mason Rudolph last year after Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season with an elbow injury he suffered in Week 2. Rudolph ended up appearing in 10 games last year, starting eight of them, and posted pedestrian numbers overall. He didn't have a single 300-yard game and threw only 13 touchdowns coupled with nine interceptions. The Steelers have Rudolph returning this year as the primary backup to Roethlisberger but he did not look like any sort of heir apparent or QB of the future for the team in 2019. Rudolph season ended due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. He has already resumed throwing and should be good for the start of training camp. Rudolph should get plenty of action in the preseason as the Steelers should limit Roethlisberger during the exhibition season. Devlin Hodges has a lot of heart and moxie as a quarterback. That made him somewhat of a fan favorite in 2019 as the Samford scrambler was thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries and ineffectiveness from the other quarterbacks on the roster. Hodges has a try-hard attitude and did throw for 1,063 yards in 2019. He only threw five touchdown passes coupled with eight interceptions. This year, Hodges returns to compete as the third-string quarterback for the Steelers.

Running Backs

Starter: James Conner
Backup(s): Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland [R]]
Fullback(s): Derek Watt

Starting RB: A third-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, James Conner has flashed ability as the team's starter over the last two years. He has yet to play a full 16-game schedule during his pro career and injuries might be taking their toll on his game. Entering the final year of his contract with the Steelers, Conner's future with the team is up in the air. Conner saw his numbers go down in 2018 after setting career-high totals in 2018. He only played in 10 games and had just 464 yards rushing. Conner did catch 34 passes for 251 yards and scored seven touchdowns overall, but he finished the 2019 season as the no.33 fantasy running back in standard-scoring leagues. This is a disappointment after his 2018 season that saw him finish as a top-10 fantasy running back in such formats. Last year, the Steelers were without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for most of the season. Perhaps getting Roethlisberger back this season will help open up rushing lanes for Conner and the ground attack. The Steelers have spent at least one pick on a running back over the last three years. There is clearly going to be pressure on Conner for the top spot on the depth chart from guys like Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell or rookie Anthony McFarland. Conner should win the job, and his three-down skill set makes him a low-end RB2 for Fantasy GMs in 2020. Even if he's the starter again, a back like Samuels or McFarland could take him off the field in obvious passing situations.

Backup RBs: A fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL draft, Benny Snell is a player to watch in dynasty formats. However, he also has interesting re-draft prospects based on what happens to James Conner this season. Last year, with Conner banged up, Snell started two games for the Steelers and looked good down the stretch. He finished his rookie season with a 18 carry, 91-yard performance (with one touchdown) against the Ravens. Snell is now looking to carry that momentum over to this season. Snell is a compact runner who is tough to bring down with a head of steam. He does a good job of driving his legs upon contact and knows how to 'get skinny' when running between the tackles. This season could be the final season for Conner in a Steelers uniform, so Snell could take over in this backfield in 2021. However, there are indications this team is going to use less of Conner in an effort to keep him fresh. That would likely give Snell some more playing time and touches. He most certainly will push for a larger role in training camp. Jaylen Samuels is one of the most versatile players in all of football. He's a jack-of-all-trades as a running back and can be used as a slot receiver or gadget quarterback if called upon. The Steelers don't seem to have a clue how to use Samuels properly and he seems to be miscast at times in that offense. His 2.7 yards per carry in 2019 is not indicative of the kind of runner he can be if used properly. The Steelers did feature him as a receiver at least, targeting Samuels 57 times in 2019 and he came down with 47 grabs for 305 yards and one touchdown. With the return of Ben Roethlisberger we'll see if the Steelers figure out how to best use Samuels and expand his role in the passing game. The Steelers picked up Anthony McFarland in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL draft out of Maryland. He's a smaller back (198 pounds) who doesn't run like a smaller back. McFarland reminds some in the scouting community of Phillip Lindsay (Broncos) because of his ability and willingness to run inside and take on contact. He's got some speed and big-play ability when he gets into the open field and will compete for a spot on the depth chart behind starter James Conner and primary backup Benny Snell. McFarland is not much of a receiver out of the backfield and will have to improve that part of his game if he wants a larger role on offense.

Fullback: There's not much to say about Derek Watt from a fantasy perspective. His job as a fullback is to be a lead blocker and shorten some necks of linebackers who meet him in the hole. He's the younger brother of Steelers OLB T.J. Watt and is a fine special teams player. The Steelers signed Watt, formerly of the Chargers, to a three-year, $9.75 million contract.

Wide Receivers

Starters: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson
Backups: James Washington, Chase Claypool [R]

Starting WRs: Just like most of the Steelers offense, JuJu Smith-Schuster did not have a good 2019 season. Smith-Schuster was supposed to keep ascending the fantasy football ranks after his breakout season in 2018 but that didn't happen. Instead, Smith-Schuster only played in 12 games and saw his numbers fall by almost two-thirds in most major categories. In 2018, Smith-Schuster finished the season as the no.9 fantasy receiver in standard-scoring leagues. In 2019, he saw his numbers fall so much that he was the no.63 fantasy receiver in such leagues. It didn't help that he didn't have Ben Roethlisberger for most of the regular season, and it also didn't help that he was not healthy himself. A troublesome knee injury bothered him so he wasn't much of a force for the Steelers even when he was on the field. So what can Smith-Schuster do for a bounce-back season? First, he needs to stay healthy. That automatically is going to make him produce more on the season. Second, Smith-Schuster is going to benefit from the return of Roethlisberger and he needs to maintain the chemistry the two built earlier in his career. Third, Smith-Schuster needs to do a better job of beating difficult coverage. He was the no.1 receiver for the Steelers for the 2019 season and wasn't able to take that next step with tougher coverage. When Smith-Schuster was a no.2 receiver then he produced at a higher level. Finally, he needs to keep doing what he's best at. Smith-Schuster ranked third in the NFL, and second among wide receivers, in 2019 with his average of 5.9 yards after contact per reception. The Steelers offense should look much better in 2020 so long as Roethlisberger can stay healthy. That means the numbers for Smith-Schuster should be better in what some feel could be his last season in Pittsburgh. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, Smith-Schuster could have some extra motivation if he feels like (or wants to) he's going to hit the open market. Keep all this in mind when considering where Smith-Schuster is currently going in fantasy drafts. He could outperform his current ADP which puts him in the low-end WR2 range in PPR leagues. The Steelers have an exciting young player in second-year pro Diontae Johnson. Even through poor quarterback play, and general bad play from the offense overall, Johnson was able to produce in 2019. Johnson led all rookies with 59 receptions this season, finishing with 680 receiving yards and five scores. Coming out of Toledo in 2019, Johnson showed his trademark speed on the field early and often. There are plenty of people in the scouting community who feel Johnson plays like a young Emmanuel Sanders, who began his career with the Steelers back in 2010. Johnson has speed but he also has late hands on deep routes. That means he doesn't tip off that the pass is incoming and that helps him leave defenders in the dust. In addition to his speed, Johnson has moves after the catch and is strong enough to break tackles consistently. He was tied for second in the league last year with nine broken tackles by a wide receiver. As a young player, Johnson should only get better this season -- especially with the return of Ben Roethlisberger. Johnson was able to produce with guys like Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges throwing him the rock and should be even better with Roethlisberger handling the pill. Johnson has a current ADP that puts him in WR4-ish range for Fantasy GMs in PPR leagues. With a boost in the offense due to a legit quarterback returning and mere improvement in his craft, Johnson could outperform that position.

Backup WRs: James Washington had a breakout season in 2019, starting 10 games and finishing the season with 44 grabs for 735 yards and three touchdowns. He is a boundary receiver for the Steelers who can get down the field on the outside and tracks the ball well in the air. The Steelers offense struggled with poor quarterback play in 2019 but it didn't slow down Washington too much, especially since he was catching passes for most of the season from his college quarterback Mason Rudolph. This year, like the rest of the Steelers offense, Washington will benefit from the return of Ben Roethlisberger. Having a healthy JuJu Smith-Schuster could cut into Washington's playing time, but we still appreciate him in dynasty formats. This could be Smith-Schuster's last season with the Steelers and that means Washington could be stepping into a starting role in 2021. The ability is there, Washington (and Fantasy GMs) just need to be patient waiting for an opportunity. Is he a tight end or is he a wide receiver? It doesn't matter as rookie Chase Claypool is a playmaker who could have a better pro career than he did in college with the Fighting Irish. A second-round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL draft, Claypool is one of the most physically imposing wide receivers in his draft class. His size immediately makes him a red-zone threat as evidenced by his 13 receiving touchdowns in 2019. He's got a large wingspan and can play 'above the rim' near pay dirt. Claypool is tough for defenders to get around and he makes a living at adjusting to poorly thrown catches. That skill should make him a favorite of his quarterback when under duress. Claypool might get some work in the slot this season for the Steelers in addition to what he can do on the outside. While he's not a sudden player, his size makes him a mismatch for most any defender tasked with covering him. He has incredible upside as a pro if he fully develops. Ryan Switzer is your standard small-bodied slot receiver. He has a small catch radius and that makes him a difficult target. However, Switzer has the quickness to break ankles as a receiver or a return man on special teams. Deon Cain has intriguing upside in crazy deep dynasty formats. A sixth-round pick of the Colts in the 2018 NFL draft, the Steelers added Cain to the active roster last November. His size/speed combination was fun to watch in college at Clemson. We'll see if he ever translates that potential into production at the pro level.

Tight Ends

Starters: Eric Ebron
Backups: Vance McDonald, Zach Gentry

Eric Ebron had a down season in 2019. After his breakout season in 2018 (66 catches, 750 yards, 13 touchdowns), Ebron only played in 11 games and didn't come close to those numbers. Last year with the Colts, Ebron struggled to stay on the field and didn't do much when he was in the game. Outside of a Week 7 game against the Houston Texans (four catches, 70 yards, one touchdown), Ebron was never really a fantasy factor on a weekly basis. The Steelers are obviously hopeful that Ebron can bounce back to his Pro Bowl form of 2018. The Steelers offense needs all the help it can get. Ebron is one of six tight ends with at least 20 red zone touchdowns over the last five seasons, and he joins a Pittsburgh offense that ranked last in red zone scoring in 2019. Getting him jump-started near pay dirt would help the offense tremendously. Ebron staying healthy is the key. In early April, Ebron admitted that he was not yet fully recovered from offseason ankle surgery and could not play if the season began back then. This is a 'virtual offseason' but if practices were happening right now there is a good bet that Ebron would not be able to participate. We'll see if he can get ramped up as the team will likely ease him into action during training camp. We'll also see how he meshes with his new quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The veteran QB will be looking for a security-blanket target like Ebron and he should become a favorite. Ebron is also splitting time with Vance McDonald and that negatively impacts his fantasy value. Fantasy GMs believe that Ebron is worth taking a chance on as a TE2 with upside late in drafts. Vance McDonald got replaced at the top of the depth chart when the Steelers signed Eric Ebron in free agency. Back in mid-March, the Steelers re-worked McDonald's contract, converting his $5.5 million base salary to a signing bonus. They did that to free up some cap space and also so that McDonald's spot on the roster was sewn up. Last year, McDonald was brutal for the Steelers. He averaged just five yards per target and scored just three times in what was a forgettable year. In more of a reserve role behind Ebron, McDonald should be able to stay healthy...something that's been a bit of a problem for him as a pro. We'll see what his role means this year for his fantasy value, but there are plenty of other options out there for Fantasy GMs looking for upside at the backup TE position in 2020.

Place Kicker

Chris Boswell: Boswell was a bright spot for the Steelers in 2019. He came out of a tailspin that threatened his spot with the team in 2018 to post his best year as a pro. Boswell made 29 of 31 field goal attempts, including 9 of 10 from 40-49 yards, and he converted all 28 of his extra point attempts. He restructured his contract to help the team open up some cap room for 2020 and should be considered well-entrenched in his job. Boswell is going well outside of the top 12 kickers in drafts and should be a reliable target in the last round with the Steelers offense likely to improve with the return of Ben Roethlisberger

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Kerrith Whyte, Ryan Switzer

The Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Ryan Switzer from the Oakland Raiders in part because of his value as a return specialist, but Switzer has seemingly fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. Diontae Johnson and Kerrith Whyte led the team last year in punt and kickoff returns, respectively, and could do so again this year. Switzer remains on the roster, available in case either falter or are injured.

Punt Returners: Diontae Johnson, Ryan Switzer

The Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Ryan Switzer from the Oakland Raiders in part because of his value as a return specialist, but Switzer has seemingly fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. Diontae Johnson and Kerrith Whyte led the team last year in punt and kickoff returns, respectively, and could do so again this year. Switzer remains on the roster, available in case either falter or are injured.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Kevin Dotson [R], C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David Decastro, RT Matt Feiler
Key Backups: OL Chukwuma Okorafor, G/C Stefen Wisniewski, OT Zach Banner

Center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David Decastro continue to lead this group, as both made the Pro Bowl running this team's zone hybrid scheme. There will be one new starter at left guard where either Kevin Dotson (fourth-round pick from Louisiana) or Stefen Wisniewski will step in for Ramon Foster, who retired. The rookie Dotson is expected to win the job, as he has become an instant fan favorite.

Team Defense

What a difference a trade makes. The Steelers season appeared to be lost when Ben Roethlisberger went down, but the front office responded by trading a first round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick and it instantly turned them into one of the best, if not the best defense in the league. They led the league with 54 sacks and 38 takeaways, while also posting three defensive scores. The Steelers finished 5th in points and yards allowed, but those ranks could get even better with the return of Roethlisberger and the accompanying improvement in the offense and time of possession. The team lost stud defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in free agency, but will get Stephon Tuitt back to make up somewhat for the loss. They are going off of the board as a top three fantasy defense and it's not a foolish move to take them there.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Daniel McCullers, DE Cameron Heyward, DE Stephon Tuitt
Backups: DE/NT Chris Wormley DE Tyson Alualu, DE Isaiah Buggs

Starting DL: The defensive line has been the foundation of a perennially strong Steelers defense for much of the last decade. For the third consecutive year, Pittsburgh led the league in sacks while finishing among the top-ten versus pass and top-fifteen against the run. In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers have a pair of prototypical 3-4 ends who can both control the line of scrimmage to keep the linebackers clean and get after the passer. Heyward totaled 25 sacks over his first six years before exploding for a team-high and career-best of 12 in 2017. He followed with 17 more over the last two seasons, Tuitt has been banged up at times over the last four years, missings multiple games over that span, including more than half of last year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle. He should be healthy entering 2020. The Steelers had one defection along the front line when Javon Hargrave signed with the Eagles. His ability to anchor the run game and contribute to the pass rush will be missed, but the team has a dependable replacement in Daniel McCullers. McCullers has never been more than a spot starter but has been with the team since 2014. He is not likely to get as much pressure on the quarterback but overall, the defense should not miss a beat.

Backup DL: Pittsburgh does not rotate linemen, so their backups generally see little action. The one exception being Tyson Alualu who is the first man off the bench at all three line positions. He is not much of a pass rush threat but beyond that, the team loses little when Alualu is in the game. The Steelers added former Ravens lineman Chris Wormley to help compensate for the loss of Hargrave. Wormley provides a little more pass rush than either McCullers or Alualu, so he may see a bit more action than the team's fifth lineman has in recent years.


Starters: ILB Vince Williams, ILB Devin Bush, OLB T.J. Watt, OLB Bud Dupree
Backups: ILB Ulysses Gilbert, ILB Christian Kuntz, OLB Alex Highsmith [R], OLB Ola Adeniyi

Starting LBs: The Steelers have so much success getting to the passer because everyone contributes. They got 15 sacks from the defensive line in 2019 but it is the edge rushers that are key to making everything work. T.J. Watt has been everything the organization expected and more. Since putting up seven sacks as a rookie in 2017, what has totaled 28.5 over the last two seasons, adding 14 forced fumbles and 4 recoveries as well. The 25-year-old is just entering his prime and will be a force in the league for years to come. It has taken Bud Dupree a while to become what the organization expected, but he has arrived. The former first-round pick started slowly, with four sacks in each of his first two seasons. That was followed by five and a half in each of the next two campaigns. Going into last season the team had been largely disappointed in their return on investment, but the light seemed to come on for Dupree. It may be more than just coincidence that it was a contract year, but whatever the cause. Dupree turned it on in 2019. His 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and recovering 2 were enough to land a juicy new contract and continue his career with Pittsburgh. It took the team a while to recover from the loss of Ryan Shazier but they appear to have found their next great inside linebacker in Devin Bush. The coaching staff elected to use somewhat of a three-man rotation at inside backer last year, resulting in Bush not playing full time in some games. Even sitting out some plays each game, Bush had a considerable impact on the field and proved himself worthy of a top-10 draft pick. There is nothing Bush does not do well and he is a playmaker. As a rookie, he was responsible for seven turnovers, a sack, and a score. With Mark Barron gone there should be no more timeshare, so Bush could have an even bigger impact. Barron's departure opens the door for Vince Williams to regain the starting job and possibly a three-down role. Williams is a physical enforcer against the run but was exposed as a liability in coverage when placed in the lead role. With Bush taking on the coverage duties, Williams will be free to blitz in passing situations. This is something he has excelled at in the past. In fact, he was second on the team with eight sacks in 2017.

Backup LBs: The Steelers have a history of stocking mid to late-round developmental guys at linebacker, then having them eventually become starters. Vince Williams was one of those guys in fact. The pipeline is looking a bit dry at this point, however. Ulysses Gilbert is the top backup on the inside. Last year's sixth-round pick contributed on special teams as a rookie but did not see a single defensive snap. Rookie third-round pick Alex Highsmith projects to replace Anthony Chickillo as the third man at the outside linebacker position. He will compete with second-year, and former undrafted free agent, Ola Adeniyi for that honor. Adeniyi is actually the most experienced of Pittsburgh's backup linebackers, having seen action on 64 snaps last season.

Defensive Backs

Starters: FS Minkah Fitzpatrick, SS Terrell Edmunds, CB Joe Haden, CB Steven Nelson, CB Mike Hilton
Backups: S Jordan Dangerfield, S Antoine Brooks Jr. [R], CB Cameron Sutton, CB Justin Layne, CB Breon Borders

Starting DBs: The Steelers boasted the third most stingy pass defense in 2019. Their lead leading 54 sacks had a lot to do with it, but the secondary certainly held up their end of the deal as well, with their 20 interceptions second to only the Patriots. The trade for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick early last season was a great move for the team. In him, the team finally has the playmaker they had been searching for since Troy Polamalu retired. Fitzpatrick accounted for eight turnovers and a pair of scores in 14 games with the Steelers last year, and he is only 24 years old. Terrell Edmunds may not have provided the box score impact of Fitzpatrick, but his contribution was no less important to the success of the unit. At 6' 2" and 220 pounds, Edmunds is like having an extra linebacker on the field with excellent cover skills. He is an intimidating force over the middle in the passing game and a sure, physical tackler in run support. Like Fitzpatrick, Edmunds is young and entering his third season as a pro. This is arguably the best duo in the league at the position and they are set to impact the game together for the next several years. Corner Joe Haden is the elder statesman of the group at age 31 but is coming off what may well have been the best season of his career. His five interceptions were the most since his rookie campaign in 2010 and his 17 passes defended led the team. Haden is one of the league's top-shelf corners and the cornerstone of the Steelers pass defense. Steven Nelson did a fine job as the number two corner in his first season with the team. His numbers were not flashy but his on-field contribution was rock solid, as was that of slot corner Mike Hilton. The Steelers zone blitz scheme puts a lot of pressure on the corners who often play man coverage. This group was up to the challenge in 2019 and is set to pick up right where they left off.

Backup DBs: The Steelers have both youth and experience behind the starters in the secondary. Fourth-year man Cameron Sutton has seen a little time as a starter and served as the dime corner last season. Justin Layne was the team's third-round selection in 2019. He did not see much action as a rookie but has the potential to earn a bigger role in the near future. Jordan Dangerfield will enter camp as the third man at safety but will compete with rookie Antoine Brooks Jr. for that job. No one here is likely to push for a starting spot this season, but there is some talent to groom.