Do the Pittsburgh Steelers still deserve benefit of the doubt?

Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images) /

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers still elite as Ben Roethlisberger returns to the field?

Do the Pittsburgh Steelers still deserve the benefit of the doubt? Is this still a premier franchise in the NFL in 2020?

On the one hand, Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016. It hasn’t made a Super Bowl in a decade. On the other, the team has been .500 or better for 16 consecutive seasons. Outside of New England, that is an unparalleled level of contention. The Steelers may not win a ton of titles (in recent history) but they are always competitive.

At the top of that uneasy feeling that Pittsburgh may be on the downslide is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. However, that too is likely unfair criticism. A missed season due to injury notwithstanding, even he fits the bill as incredibly steady and productive, a la the Steelers at large. Is Pittsburgh still elite? What will become of them in 2020?

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Dan Salem and Todd Salem debate the Pittsburgh Steelers in today’s NFL Sports Debate.

Todd Salem on the Pittsburgh Steelers

According to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value stat, Roethlisberger provided great value for 15 consecutive seasons before missing nearly all of last season. Take this for what it’s worth but he’s essentially dead even with Aaron Rodgers in terms of career value. That’s not to say that he’s ever been better than Rodgers (who has accumulated that same level of value in far fewer games) but he’s been steadily good for his entire career up until 2019.

Though his 2004 draft quarterback counterparts leave the league or find new homes after disappointing finishes, what’s to say that this return from injury couldn’t bring the same Big Ben we’ve seen for going on two decades?

What Roethlisberger and the rest of the team need is a revamped set of skill players on offense. Their top pick in the NFL Draft was Chase Claypool in the second round as they attempt to reenergize the unit. But a lot more still hangs in the balance.

What type of seasons will we get from JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner? Are they actually elite producers? Will James Washington develop into a bonafide playmaker? There is some great depth here at each spot, as well as quality at the tight end position, but the top end production likely comes down to these three guys. Perhaps everything will be as simple as replacing Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges with Roethlisberger.

On defense, Pittsburgh remained flat-out elite in 2019. It finished top three across the board according to Football Outsiders: third against the pass, against the run and overall. The big names on offense got the limelight for years but this is what we think of when considering the Steelers’ benefit of the doubt. It is why I still give it to them after a few disappointing seasons in a row.

They may not be on Baltimore’s or Kansas City’s level just yet. But with Roethlisberger returning, no one in that second tier of the AFC is superior to Pittsburgh.

Dan Salem on the Pittsburgh Steelers

I hate it when we agree but the Pittsburgh Steelers will once again be very good in 2020. There is no reason to think they will fail to achieve a .500 record or better, as they have for 16 straight seasons. The Steelers were only a game or two out of the playoffs last year and now the field has expanded, so how many wins is Big Ben worth?

Two or three added victories because Roethlisberger is on the field sounds totally reasonable. That makes the Pittsburgh Steelers a playoff team this season. Defense wins championships and that’s why Pittsburgh has stayed so strong all of these years but a great quarterback pushes you over the top. Rudolph and Hodges are not the present or future in Pittsburgh. It’s Big Ben or bust and, thankfully, he’s healthy in 2020.

We agree that the Steelers are contenders in 2020 with Roethlisberger at quarterback but what is Pittsburgh going to do in 2021 and beyond?

Big Ben has one to three good years left at the most. It has been a real possibility that he would retire after each of the last two seasons. Rudolph was supposed to be the heir apparent, learning from the bench and growing within the organization. I suppose that can still happen but his poor performance last year leaves everyone wondering if he’ll ever be good enough to lead the Steelers.

Rudolph is not the answer for Pittsburgh. He can develop into a reliable backup, but I saw nothing to indicate he has what it takes to be a full-time starter for a premier franchise like the Steelers. Perhaps it was an example of too soon, bad timing, and tough luck. If he learns behind Roethlisberger in 2020, he can become the player they need him to be. Consider me dubious, meaning the Steelers must trade for a starter or draft one after this season.

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Pittsburgh is lucky to have a star veteran leading their team in 2020. Without an offseason to prepare, teams with consistency at quarterback in the same offensive system have a huge leg-up on the competition. Unless the Browns miraculously take that leap everyone thought they should, it will be the Steelers chasing Baltimore in the AFC North all season.