While last season was a down year for the Steelers on multiple fronts, two areas really stood out. The team went from scoring touchdowns on 73.5% of their red zone trips in 2018 to just 35% in 2019. For anyone curious, 73.5% in 2018 was the best in the NFL, while 35% in 2019 was the worst by a significant margin.
The other area the team struggled in was special teams (specifically their kick return team), which has been a troubling trend for the last few seasons. Based on moves made in free agency and the draft, it’s clear that the front office wants to address and improve in both areas.
Assuming the Steelers red zone offense improves in 2020, the return of Ben Roethlisberger will likely be the biggest reason. The struggles last year were directly attributed to poor quarterback play. Though it’s hard to project Roethlisberger’s performance for 2020 since he’s coming off an elbow injury, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll be better than Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were last year. But just in case Big Ben needs some extra help, the front office got him two new toys to play with.
The offseason signing of Eric Ebron has the potential to kickstart the red zone offense. Though he wasn’t healthy for much of last season, he had a phenomenal 2018 season.
In that year, he scored 13 touchdowns on his way to earning a Pro Bowl nod. He’s the kind of athletic, non-traditional Steelers tight end that can add a new wrinkle to the offense. If he can stay healthy and get rid of some of the drops he dealt with last year, Ebron will likely be a favorite target of Roethlisberger when the team gets close to the goal line.
Chase Claypool is the other addition to the team that should help massively in the red zone. The Steelers' second-round draft pick stands 6’4” and plays with the kind of physicality that is perfect for a red zone target. In college, Claypool did great work on jump balls; he tracks and high points the ball extremely well.
Roethlisberger has already voiced his approval of this draft pick. Some film might suggest that Claypool will struggle with the physical press coverage of NFL corners, something he’ll surely see when the team is in goal-to-go situations. But his physicality and leaping ability helped him overcome some of those problems when it came to red zone situations.
Don’t be surprised if Chase Claypool gets a lot of opportunities when the team gets into the red zone.
Special teams play was pretty poor last year, there’s no two ways around it. Matters were made even worse when the team’s best special teams player, Tyler Matakevich, left for Buffalo in the offseason. His departure was matched with the signing of fullback Derek Watt, who was tied for Matakevich for the lead in special teams tackles last year.
Watt plays with an insanely high motor and will make a huge impact on punts and kickoffs. It hurt losing Matekevich, but the addition of Watt made that pill a little easier to swallow.
Elsewhere, the team added likely special teams help in the draft, too. Claypool did great work on Notre Dame’s punt team. His speed and physicality make him an ideal special teams player. Fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland wasn’t a kick returner in college, but don’t be surprised if he at least gets a shot at that role on the Steelers. He’s a quick, slippery ball carrier with home run play potential that could make him great for the role.
Alex Highsmith has the athleticism to contribute on special teams, a role he has already stated that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would like to see him excel in. Sixth-round selection Antoine Brooks Jr. is expected to come in and contribute on all four phases of special teams, too. He’s a hard-hitting tone-setter. The perfect guy to run down the field and play smash-mouth football on the opening kickoff, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
Many of these offseason moves had a clear reason behind them, red zone and special teams. You won’t win a lot of games if you finish dead last in the league in red zone efficiency. Claypool and Ebron help with that.
You also won’t win a lot of games when you almost always start with terrible field position following a kickoff, or your punt team struggles to flip the field. A lot of these additions help in that area, too. All things considered, the Steelers should see improvement in the red zone and on special teams in the 2020 season.