(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
The 2020 NFL season was extremely promising in the city of Pittsburgh ... until it wasn't. From the time the Steelers picked up their 11th win to the moment where they trailed 28-0 in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, nearly nothing went as planned. Injuries, scheduling issues, and downright poor performances plagued what could have been a special year in western PA. Even the team's most reliable position groups underperformed down the stretch, ultimately leading to the catastrophic bookmark to a season that was in a nosedive. Below is the grade given to each position group for the season. Keep in mind, this accounts for the entire body of work, not just the disappointing stretch run. Let's get started.
Ben Roethlisberger started the year hot and put all questions about the health of his arm to rest immediately. He was the catalyst of a team that rattled off 11 straight wins in convincing fashion and proved he was still able to compete with the league's best teams. Wins at Baltimore and Tennessee were highlighted by touchdown passes from Roethlisberger that propelled his team. However, down the stretch, things had changed. Defenses had started to pick up on the offenses "Dink and dunk" approach and Big Ben's stats tanked in the latter half of the regular season. Standout Washington DE Chase Young said it best when he pointed out that Baltimore "Exposed some things" in regards to Pittsburgh's offensive approach. This was on full display when Roethlisberger threw 4 interceptions against Cleveland in the Wild Card round, leading to the demise of the 2020 season in Pittsburgh. What would have been an "A" or a high "B" quickly fell to the "C" range in what is the most impactful position in football. The front office now has many questions to answer this off-season, including Roethlisberger's impending cap hit.
Running back: D
Perhaps the most underwhelming position group in 2020 were the running backs. James Conner got off to a hot start but quickly cooled off. Benny Snell Jr. showed flashes but was too inconsistent. And Anthony McFarland Jr. and Jaylen Samuel's struggled to stay in the rotation on a consistent basis. In what was the 32nd ranked rushing attack, the backs in Pittsburgh struggled to provide any sort of spark to complement their pass attack. In the 1-5 stretch to end the year, the ground game was nonexistent. However, as we know, the lack of success in the run game never fully falls on the RBs. And with that ...
Offensive Line: D+
The offensive line struggled all year and it is best evidenced by the last ranked rush offense in the league. Veterans Al Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, and David Decastro struggled to open run lanes and continuously got blown off the line of scrimmage from the hands of opposing defensive lines. Just as well, injuries to Zach Banner and Matt Feiler further hindered depth across the line. In terms of pass protection, the line did a good job of keeping Roethlisberger upright. This is in part due to the fact that Big Ben was getting rid of the ball at record rates all season, but they still held their own in this department. It was evident though that the aging veterans could not keep up with some of the stronger front sevens in the league, playing a part in the early postseason departure. One bright spot of this unit was rookie guard Kevin Dotson. The 4th round pick provided stability in both the run game and pass protection, but inexplicably did not get the start against the Browns in the playoffs.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B
While their offensive counterparts struggled all year, the pass catchers in Pittsburgh had a solid campaign. Highlighted by rookie Chase Claypool, 2nd-year wideout Diontae Johnson, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers proved they have enough firepower amongst their playmakers. In addition, TE Eric Ebron played an active role in the offense, providing an athletic, big body that we haven't seen in a Steeler uniform for some time. All was not perfect for this group, however. Drops plagued names such as Diontae Johnson and Eric Efron throughout the middle of the schedule. In critical moments, HC Mike Tomlin could not always rely on his playmaker to secure the ball at a rate that is necessary to win in January. This will most definitely be a point of emphasis in the off-season but was far from the reason the Steelers got bounced early.
Defensive Line: B+
Key players such as Cam Heyward and Stephen Tuitt stabilized a great unit for the 2020 season. Heyward, alongside Tyson Alualu, did a good job at preventing teams to effectively run the ball against the Steelers. As for Tuitt, his 11 sacks were good enough for 2nd most on the team. The defensive line was able to suffocate opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks frequently, playing a large role in the teams' success. The only knock on this group was their inability to consistently dominate games. A little too often they were neutralized by their competition, most notably against the Browns. While there are certainly areas to address and reflect on, the Steelers defensive line put in work in 2020.
Anytime you have a DPOY candidate in a given position group, that grade will rise to a high level. T.J Watt's league-leading 15 sacks have put him in more than just the conversation, but may just be the front runner for the award. Watt's dominance changed nearly every game of the 2020 season as he led a solid group of linebackers. If not for injuries to key LBs such as Bud Dupree and Devin Bush, this group would be the league's best. Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith proved doubters wrong when they filled in for the injured stars but simply were not able to replicate the impact and experience that the two provided consistently. The Steelers enter the 2021 off-season with many questions regarding this position group, especially with Dupree going into free agency. There is no doubt everyone in the Pittsburgh front office would love to run it back with a fully healthy unit next year, but the lack of cap space presents a major roadblock in terms of making this a reality.
Finally, we get to the Steelers CBs and safeties. The 2020 version of the Steelers secondary regressed from 2019, but not at an alarming rate. As one could have expected, the turnover numbers decreased. Just as well, the CB duo of Joe Haden and Steven Nelson was not quite as "lockdown" as it was a year ago. Along with the lack of dominance, poor tackling and inconsistent play hindered the grade of this unit. S Terrell Edmunds showed flashes, but he also struggled at times throughout the 2020 campaign. Impending CBs Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton both played at a high level this year, forcing more questions for the front office this off-season. Although the unit wasn't perfect, they still have All-Pro S Minkah Fitzpatrick anchoring the defense and young talent distributed across the secondary.