PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — There’s one dominant team in the AFC North, and it isn’t the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Baltimore Ravens, behind Lamar Jackson, ran away with the division last season. And they’re poised to do it again. The Steelers crawled to an 8-8 finish, despite remaining in the wild card conversation into December. Their future is less certain.
The Steelers’ fortunes in 2020 depend heavily on aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben missed most of the 2019 season after an elbow injury in the second game eventually required surgery. His recovery is progressing, and he is expected to be available for the start of the season. Roethlisberger claims he could have participated in spring practices had they not been cancelled due to COVID-10 concerns. He’s also in better physical condition than he has been in recent years.
All that is encouraging given the quarterback play of the team’s backups. Devlin “Duck” Hodges and Mason Rudolph split starting duties for the 14 games Big Ben was unavailable. Neither was all that effective. Hodges averaged 132.5 yards passing per game, throwing five touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Rudolph threw for 176.5 yards per game and 13 touchdowns versus nine interceptions.
SportsLine senior analyst Larry Hartstein concurs, stressing “the backup quarterback really did not impress last year. This team converted 35% of the time in the red zone, easily the worst in the league. They did try to address it in the draft. They got the big red zone target (Chase) Claypool out of Notre Dame.”
Another target inside the 20 will help. But Claypool, big and fast though he is, won’t be enough to catapult them into AFC North contention. (The Ravens are seen as a strong candidate to exceed their 11.5 projected wins.) Roethlisberger, despite strong production over his long career, carries with him some uncertainty. “Their [projected win] total [is] right there at nine wins,” Hartstein points out. “It all comes down to Big Ben. He’s 38. He’s coming off of elbow surgery. Is he going to be able to play a full season at close to 100%?”
The Steelers defense, among the best in the NFL, is much more of a sure thing. It carried the team last season and may have to do a lot of the heavy lifting this season to keep them in the wild card hunt. Even that might not be enough. “…Everything has to go right for them to get to 10 [wins],” Hartstein believes. “And I think just a few things have to go wrong for them to be at eight or seven.”
Another .500 season could drop the Steelers to third in the division, if the Cleveland Browns see the improvement this season that everyone expected last season. At least the schedule will cooperate. The Steelers have the second easiest strength of schedule in the NFL.