The Pittsburgh Steelers could be the NFL’s cover boys for the uncertain 2020 season.
Pittsburgh was given a wide range of potential outcomes all summer, albeit most of the questions surrounding the team centered on concerns tied to Ben Roethlisberger.
How much can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback, even one on a Hall of Fame trajectory? Roethlisberger missed most of the 2019 season and had elbow surgery. Forget the No. 7 on his black and gold jersey; Big Ben might as well have a question mark on his back.
So Pittsburgh’s Monday night opener at the Giants was viewed as a big reveal, the first step towards solving the Steelers puzzle. And while Pittsburgh didn’t play a perfect game by any means, the team certainly earned a passing grade in a solid 26-16 victory over New York.
The ripple effect of Big Ben’s return
Start with Roethlisberger, who was efficient and useful for the balance of three hours (21-for-32, 229 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions). He was especially sharp running the hurry-up offense in the second quarter, and he seemed comfortable with all four of his excellent wide receivers.
Is it possible to have too much talent at wideout? No NFL team drafts receivers as well as the Steelers do, and Roethlisberger is going to have a blast working with this group. JuJu Smith-Schuster (6-69-2) snagged all of his targets and made two end-zone visits — a welcome liftoff after his messy 2019 — while Diontae Johnson (6-57-0) absorbed a team-high 10 targets. These guys should be every-week fantasy staples all season.
James Washington turned in a 13-yard touchdown catch — an effort play where he dump-trucked a defender at the goal line — but his volume could be an issue. Rookie Chase Claypool was effective with his three opportunities (47 total yards) and could be too big to ignore. I’m not saying Claypool is going to be a fantasy option (he only ran seven routes in the opener), but perhaps his role will expand and get in the way of Washington’s projectable volume. Maybe the Pittsburgh usage tree is wider than we originally expected. Tight end Eric Ebron was talked up most of the summer, but he was an afterthought on Monday (1-18-0, two targets).
James Conner goes down again
The Steelers backfield could be a little crowded, too. Mike Tomlin generally likes to roll with an undisputed bell cow, and James Conner had that designation entering Monday. But Conner did nothing with six carries (just nine yards), and eventually was removed from the game, battling a sore ankle. While Conner watched, second-year tailback Benny Snell shined, bobbing and weaving to 113 yards on 19 carries. Snell came to camp in better shape this summer and seemed more confident and assertive on the field.
Snell will be a tricky free-agent call this week, as Conner’s status isn’t clear yet. Would Tomlin and Company be willing to consider a backfield-by-committee? Could Snell win this job outright? And can we count on Conner to be healthy long-term, given his extensive injury history? There are mostly questions in this backfield, no solid answers yet, but Conner’s fantasy value took an obvious hit on opening night. One key downside to Snell; he’s ignored as a receiving back, trailing Conner and Jaylen Samuels in that area.
No one is putting Pittsburgh in the playoffs yet, and given how dominant Baltimore looked in a dismantling of Cleveland, the Steelers aren’t even AFC North favorites. But a healthy Roethlisberger makes Pittsburgh dangerous, and the Steelers defense could be a Top 3 unit all year. Saquon Barkley had no running room Monday (15 carries, just six yards), and the Steelers hounded Daniel Jones into two interceptions and three sacks.
Certainly no one pines for the days of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. For one night at least, it sure was fun having most of the Pittsburgh band back together.
Fantasy TL;DR: Roethlisberger isn’t in the QB1 circle yet, but he’s one of the highest-upside QB2s. Smith-Schuster has an excellent chance to at least make back his ADP cost, and while Johnson was pricy all summer, he’s locked into a heavy role. Washington and Claypool are depth options at the moment, in part because of the presence of the other guy. Ebron needs a show-me game before he’s in the circle of trust. The backfield should have a steady contributor, but Snell looms as a likely threat to Conner (in addition to the ongoing concerns with Conner’s health).
The Pittsburgh defense? Loaded. You’ll be using them more often than not.