Sunday was full of wonderful NFL action that football fans have needed since March when the pandemic began to overtake our lives. It provided us with a real sense of hope. All four major sports are now back, which has brought a real sense of normalcy into everyone’s lives.
Pittsburgh fans, however, had to wait an extra day just to finally see their beloved Steelers back on the field.
But it’s here now, folks.
At 7:10 p.m., the 87th season of Pittsburgh Steelers football kicks off. Cautious optimism and sky-high expectations follow this team into their opening matchup against the New York Football Giants.
Ben Roethlisberger will throw his first meaningful pass since he grabbed his elbow and started the question - is Ben done for good? James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster are both in contract years, looking to avenge injury-riddled and underperformance in 2019. Diontae Johnson and James Washington look to break out and prove they belong at the top of the depth chart if Smith-Schuster finds himself in a different uniform next season. Eric Ebron wants to be healthy and heavily relied upon by his franchise quarterback after signing with Pittsburgh in the offseason. Even the offensive line as a whole has a lot to prove following a down year in 2019.
Just reading through all of that gets me excited. The potential this team has is off the charts. And that’s only the offense.
Consider the fact that the Steelers have eight former first-round draft picks starting on defense. Arguably all of them have been a large contributing factor in some form over the past few seasons. The pedigree is there. T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden, Tyson Alualu, and Devin Bush are all former first-round draft selections that are starters on the defense. The Steelers actually drafted six of them, the exceptions being Haden and Alualu.
And the three non-first rounders in Stephon Tuitt, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson are no slouches, either.
The pieces are on the table. Mike Tomlin, the long time head coach, has been very successful in Pittsburgh. He’s got one Super Bowl and took the team to another. The era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady primarily dominated the large part of Tomlin’s tenure here. Now, Brady’s gone. The Patrick Mahomes juggernaut still remains, but the Steelers have had the Chiefs number in the past.
The real reason I write all of this to get your hopes up is simple: enjoy all the potential and positives. 2020 could be the end of the Steelers’ window.
Roethlisberger is not getting any younger. Coming off elbow surgery, nobody can definitively say what the quarterback will do. There isn’t even a guarantee the elbow is 100% fixed. Indications from training camp say so, but the intensity and hits ramp up when actual season games are played.
While his body was given an entire year off of taking hits, he is also another year older. If the Steelers offensive line isn’t quite what it once was, his health and career could quickly be in trouble.
Once sure that he’d play into his 40’s, Roethlisberger rightfully backpedaled on that statement this offseason, saying that he’s going to take a more year-by-year approach going forward. Once he decides to hang it up, the window has closed.
The Steelers don’t seem interested in finding a franchise quarterback while Roethlisberger is around. Unless they tank a season - and they won’t - they likely aren’t going to find their next decade-plus long quarterback.
Outside of Big Ben, the Steelers have a litany of players in need of contracts. The main drawback of having so much talent on the team is that once it comes time to actually have to pay them, things become tight salary cap wise.
Smith-Schuster and Conner both have contracts that expire this offseason. Dupree is playing on a franchise tag and then likely will find greener pastures next season. Watt and Fitzpatrick will both receive the fifth-year option that first-rounders get on their rookie contracts. After that, it’s anyone’s guess if the Steelers can afford to pay them.
So, if things go sour this season, 2020 really might be it for a little bit for the Steelers. They’re run well enough that they likely will never be a bottom-five team in the league. However, they may have to linger in mediocrity for a bit until they find their next franchise quarterback.
I’m not completely advocating that 2020 will be the end of the Steelers as we know them. However, it’s worth noting the pitfalls that lie ahead.
So, Steelers fans, enjoy what 2020 entails. This is one of the best rosters the Steelers have had in about a decade. It’ll be a tough mountain to climb, but anything can happen in the NFL.
And there’s almost certainly a chance the Pittsburgh Steelers place among perennial Super Bowl contenders ends in 2020.