2020 NFL Preview: Everyone seems a little too confident in Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger's return

Frank Schwab

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on August 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

All it took was a creatively edited, 38-second video of Ben Roethlisberger throwing passes to teammates — with jump cuts to avoid showing the actual throws — for everyone in Pittsburgh to be at ease.

Roethlisberger said he wouldn’t cut his beard until he threw NFL-level passes, and he cut his beard, so it was trusted that all was well.

And maybe all is well. Maybe we’ll see the same Roethlisberger we have seen for the Pittsburgh Steelers for years. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much worry out of Pittsburgh about that.

It seems there should be some skepticism. There hasn’t been a lot of detail regarding Roethlisberger’s injury and surgery, other than the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying he had three flexor tendons reattached in his right elbow. For someone who throws a football for a living, that sounds serious. And Roethlisberger just turned 38, an age in which quarterbacks with perfectly healthy elbow tendons start to fade.

The Steelers didn’t have much choice but to have faith. Roethlisberger made too much on the salary cap to invest more in a high-profile veteran. The Steelers didn’t have a first-round pick, having traded it last season for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. They need Roethlisberger to be back to normal.

“I have no doubts I’m going to be able to come back and play well — none,” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’m throwing without pain for the first time in years. That’s a nice feeling. I know I’m not getting any younger, but I feel younger because I don’t have any pain.” 

Just keep in mind, often the worst source of information about an athlete’s injury is the athlete himself. They’re all highly driven and rarely admit when injuries have sapped their ability. So we’ll see.

Not many quarterback situations around the NFL are more important. We found out last season that Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges are below average. Mike Tomlin did a wonderful job keeping the Steelers in playoff contention despite an offense that posted a 76.1 passer rating, 31st in the NFL. If Roethlisberger is the same quarterback who led the NFL with 5,129 yards in 2018, the Steelers could be back in the playoffs. If not, they might again have to overcome one of the NFL’s worst offenses.

The rest of the roster looks good. There’s depth at running back and receiver. The offensive line isn’t what it was a few years ago, but it’s probably safe to say it is among the 10 best in the NFL. The defense was outstanding last season, led by T.J. Watt. Watt finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. And Tomlin, often the target of scorn from Steelers fans when things don’t go perfectly, had one of his best seasons to get Pittsburgh to 8-8 after their future Hall of Fame quarterback suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2.

Had Roethlisberger stayed healthy, it’s not outrageous to think the Steelers could have won 11 or 12 games. The defense was that good and we’ve seen what the offense can do when Roethlisberger is healthy. There doesn’t seem to be much question we’ll see Big Ben on the field this season, it’s just no guarantee he’ll be the same. But it’s not like there’s any turning back now.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed all but two games last season. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed all but two games last season. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The most notable move was losing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who the Philadelphia Eagles felt was worth $39 million over three years. The biggest free agent addition was tight end Eric Ebron, and he has been inconsistent at best in his career. Most of the Steelers’ salary-cap space was tied up in giving linebacker Bud Dupree the franchise tag. There was no first-round draft pick due to the trade last season for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool was the team’s only top-100 pick and he’s probably the No. 4 receiver on the depth chart. It was an uneventful offseason other than Hargrave leaving for a big payday.

GRADE: C-

We’ve talked plenty about Ben Roethlisberger. His backup situation is scary. The team took Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round of the 2017 draft and Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 draft, and like most mid-round selections on quarterbacks they look like wasted picks. Dobbs is gone and Rudolph was bad last season. His Pro Football Focus passing grade was 31st among 32 quarterbacks with at least 250 dropbacks. He’s still young but he would have to improve a lot to be a viable NFL starter. It’s not like Rudolph didn’t have enough talent around him last season. He was not accurate enough, especially on passes downfield. If Roethlisberger has to miss time again, it is not good news for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like a future star after an 11-catch, 1,426-yard season in 2018. Then last season, he fell to 552 yards. A knee injury and a concussion limited him to 12 games. An early season foot injury likely affected his play. Poor quarterback play didn’t help. It was still concerning that without Antonio Brown drawing attention, Smith-Schuster didn’t play like a No. 1 receiver. Smith-Schuster is on the final year of his rookie deal and it’s not a slam dunk anymore that he’ll get a huge extension. It’s possible Smith-Schuster, who is just 23, fully rebounds with better health and Ben Roethlisberger back. If not, it doesn’t seem likely the Steelers will pay him as a No. 1 receiver.

The Steelers’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 9. If you believe Ben Roethlisberger returns to his 2018 level, that seems like an easy bet on the over. The Steelers went 8-8 with horrendous quarterback play last year, it seems hard to believe they’d be a .500 team again with a healthy Roethlisberger. I just can’t buy in yet. I have a lot of questions about a 38-year-old quarterback after major elbow surgery, with no real idea how well he’s throwing this summer. We could see very early that Big Ben is back and throwing fastballs again, but I’m willing to miss out on the opportunity to take over 9 wins. I need to see it first.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Fantasy owners have to decide if they want to give the Steelers offense a mulligan for last year — the group obviously sputtered without Ben Roethlisberger. But we also have to think about how to frame James Conner’s disappointing year. Conner battled a shoulder injury — and later a quad problem — and the offensive line was also disappointing. And the entire offense, of course, was sunk without Big Ben. 

“Pittsburgh is one of the rare teams in the current NFL that still wants to use a bell cow running back. And for all of Conner’s missteps last year, he was still the RB17 on a per-game basis [PPR scoring]. You can land him outside the Top 20 running backs in most drafts, and he still has as much upside as he did in 2018, when he graded out as the RB7. There’s an interesting opportunity here.”

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Among the Steelers’ 11 regular starters on defense in 2019, they had seven first-round picks. There was also a second-round pick and two third-round selections. The investments the Steelers have made on that side of the ball paid off, as Pittsburgh was strong on defense in all areas. It had three All-Pros on defense: edge rusher T.J. Watt, end Cam Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. This was Pittsburgh’s best defense since the early 2010s, and unfortunately it came during a year when the offense imploded without Ben Roethlisberger.

Who could have predicted the Antonio Brown trade would have been this good?

By October last year — maybe much earlier than that — it was clear the Steelers were brilliant to trade away Brown. He is a world-class athlete, but we all know the off-field issues. He was a problem at the end with the Steelers, a huge problem for the Raiders and the New England Patriots had to bail after one game. Meanwhile, the Steelers got another receiver steal with the pick acquired in the Brown trade. Receiver Diontae Johnson was a Brown clone coming out of college, and while he’s very unlikely to reach Brown’s level, he was good as a rookie. He had 59 catches for 680 yards and five touchdowns, and could explode with better quarterback play. He also led the NFL at 12.4 yards per punt return. Put very simply, the Raiders wish they had Johnson instead of trading for Brown. In a landslide.

This is easy. If we just put 2018 Ben Roethlisberger on the 2020 Steelers, it’s possible Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl contender. The defense is probably among the five best in the NFL. There are very good skill-position players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Diontae Johnson and James Washington. Mike Tomlin has a resume that is closer to putting him in the Hall of Fame than you realize. The ceiling is very high.

There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Ben Roethlisberger is going to play. The big question is, has he lost velocity? The crash can come fast. Look at Peyton Manning between 2014 and 2015. NFL defenses operate at the highest level, and losing just a bit can make a huge difference. The Steelers were close to being a much worse team than 8-8 in 2019 — six of their wins came by seven points or less — and if Roethlisberger looks 38 and the breaks don’t go their way, it could be a rough year.

An AFC North race between the Baltimore Ravens and a Steelers team with a vintage Ben Roethlisberger would be fantastic (not to mention the possibility of the Cleveland Browns taking that step forward). I’m not ruling it out. It’s just hard to assume Roethlisberger doesn’t lose anything. A short Twitter video in which we never see Roethlisberger’s actual passes doesn’t convince me everything is great. Maybe he’s just fine, and in that case the Steelers might be 10 or more spots too low. Until we see Roethlisberger in live action, we won’t know.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Football Team
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers
21. 
Houston Texans
20. 
Arizona Cardinals
19. 
Minnesota Vikings
18. 
Chicago Bears
17. 
Los Angeles Rams
16. 
Cleveland Browns
15. 
Pittsburgh Steelers
14.
Denver Broncos
13.
Indianapolis Colts
12.
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10. 
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6. 
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4. 
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints
2.
Kansas City Chiefs
1.
Baltimore Ravens

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