Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:
- Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
- Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?
Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.
- Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
- Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.
Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.
- That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.
Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.
But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.
But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”
- This is true.
And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.
That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.
- This is precisely the point.
A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.
Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.
Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It
It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:
- Hit some draft-day home runs and swung on some ugly strike outs
- Knocked on heaven’s door
- Been battered by uncanny injury luck
- Suffered devastating disappointments
- Watched several superstar players self-destruct
Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.
The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.
But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.