In order to analyze what the 2020 Steelers have in store, we need to toss out 2019. 14.5 games quarterbacked by subpar backups Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges are not indicative of what this offense has to offer. Despite troubling offensive coaching, the Steelers offense has long been one of fantasy fortune in the Ben Roethlisberger era. In 2017 and 2018, Roethlisberger was top five in pass attempts, passing yards, and touchdowns. Building on that goodness, we have reason to believe there might be an improvement in play calling this year. Sharp Football’s 2020 Football Preview goes in-depth on how bad Pittsburgh’s play calling has been in the late Mike Tomlin era. Their infrequent uses of both play-action and pre-snap motion is indefensible, especially with how effectively the two tactics have boosted offensive production for the Steelers when they do use it. However, the offseason hiring of quarterbacks coach Mike Canada might change all of that. It’s an open secret that Ben Roethlisberger is the real Steelers’ offensive coordinator. Getting Canada, a proponent of the aforementioned tactics and general creativity, in Roethlisberger’s ear may pay dividends. The cherries on top for the offense as a whole are Sharp Football’s Strength of Schedule metrics, which indicate that the defenses Pittsburgh will face this year should give no more resistance to the Steelers’ offense than that of a light breeze. Drafting offensive pieces like James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Diontae Johnson is a winning strategy in 2020.
- 7th softest overall schedule
- The softest in terms of the opponent’s overall defensive efficiency
- The softest blend of pass defenses
- 2nd softest in terms of the opponent’s defensive pass efficiency
- The softest blend of rush defenses
- 2nd softest in terms of the opponent’s defensive rush efficiency
- 5th softest in terms of the opponent’s overall offensive efficiency
- 4th softest in terms of the opponent’s offensive pass efficiency
- 2nd toughest in terms of the opponent’s offensive rush efficiency
In 2017 and 2018, QB Ben Roethlisberger finished as the QB10 and QB3, respectively. Although his WR duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster was not fully intact in 2017, it was in 2018 and in that 2018 season, Brown and JuJu were 3rd and 4th in the league in targets. The duo also both finished as top eight WR scorers in .5PPR scoring. Luckily for Roethlisberger, he re-enters the league fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery with another dynamic WR duo in place: second-year X-receiver Diontae Johnson along with 2018 Pro Bowl slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The addition of redzone-touchdown-machine in tight end Eric Ebron, coupled with deep threats James Washington and Chase Claypool gives Roethlisberger as high of a fantasy ceiling as he’s ever had in his prolific career. His .5PPR 9.08, QB14 ADP is a fair price to pay for Roethlisberger, however, there is immense value at QB later in drafts.
RB James Conner was the RB9 in .5PPR scoring, through eight weeks of 2019. His season was derailed by a litany of injuries — an issue that’s plagued the cancer survivor during his short NFL career. We got another glimpse of Conner’s fantasy ceiling in 2018, when he played in 13 games and finished as .5PPR’s RB6. Entering the 2020 season, Conner appears to be in good health and has the backing of HC Mike Tomlin as their clearcut bellcow back. Given the sublime slate of defenses the team is set to face, per Sharp Football’s Strength of Schedule metrics, the dual threat RB should rock box scores for as long as he can stay healthy. Fantasy drafters appear extremely concerned with Conner durability, drafting the potential top 12 back with the 7th pick in the 4th Round of .5PPR drafts as the RB20. Drafting a player with Round 1 scoring potential in the fourth round is an intense value. Drafters need to select him aggressively at his current ADP.
Backup Benny Snell has earned No. 2 RB duties. Were Conner to miss time, Snell would immediately assume 18+ touch workloads. But, as a rookie in 2019, Snell showed little in the way of receiving game skills. With receiving back Jaylen Samuels reportedly on the roster bubble, it’s possible that rookie back Anthony McFarland Jr. could walk into an 8-10 touch pass catching role alongside Snell if disaster were to strike and Conner missed time.
Wide receiver production at a young age is extremely indicative of talent at the position. Waxing defensive players while one’s body is still developing is a noteworthy feat. JuJu Smith-Schuster sits amongst elite company, totaling the 3rd-most receiving yards of all time before the age of 23, bested only by Randy Moss and Josh Gordon. Nipping at his heels are current stars; Mike Evans, Amari Cooper, DeAndre Hopkins, DJ Moore, Allen Robinson, and Keenan Allen. Although JuJu’s struggles lining up on the perimeter of the formation are apparent, his dominance as a slot receiver cannot be ignored. With the 2019 breakout of then-rookie receiver Diontae Johnson as the team’s X-receiver, JuJu can safely run a majority of his routes in the slot. With a rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and the league’s weakest slate of pass defenses tee’d up for 2020, expect JuJu to smash his 3.06, WR11 ADP in .5PPR leagues.
Meanwhile, second-year man Diontae Johnson looks similarly primed to return value on his .5PPR 8.10, WR40 ADP after finishing 2019 as the team leader in targets, receptions, and touchdowns — good for a WR41 finish. The drafting public somehow thinks that the return of Johnson’s Hall of Fame quarterback and a smorgasbord of pathetic pass defenses only elevates Johnson by one spot in .5PPR scoring. This is a terrible mistake and Fake Teams readers need to capitalize on it. Thanks to Separation Over Expected (SOE), a new statistic developed by Josh Hermsmeyer at FiveThirtyEight, we can see just how exceptional Johnson’s route running really is. SOE is an attempt to quantify how good a receiver is at creating separation between himself and the nearest defender. Running the SOE numbers for all receivers, on short passes, between 2017 and 2019, Diontae Johnson’s 2019 rookie season graded out as the 4th best during that time span. Assuming at least some improvement, from Year 1 to Year 2, in Johnson’s game coupled with the serious bump in passing accuracy that Roethlisberger’s return brings, it’s easy to see how the second-year pro should be a difference maker in the Pittsburgh offense. Draft Johnson aggressively at his ADP and expect a weekly low-end WR2/flex option.
In 2019, then-second-year receiver James Washington operated as the team’s primary downfield weapon. The Steelers’ front office is perhaps the single best wide receiver-drafting team though and saw fit to draft the towering freaky athlete out of Notre Dame, Chase Claypool, in the second round. Washington and Claypool have since been duking it out in camp over rights to the starting Z-receiver spot. By all accounts both have performed well but at this point it appears as though Washington will hold onto the job. Given the offensive situation that they’re in, the Z-receiver role will hold fantasy value in the frequently exploitable matchups on deck this year. Both players are typically going undrafted. Take them with your last pick or add them off of the waiver wire as needed.
Ryan Switzer could hold fantasy value as a backup slot receiver were JuJu Smith-Schuster to miss time.
After two floppy seasons of Vance McDonald non-production, the team went out and signed 2018-touchdown-gobbler Eric Ebron. Ebron’s receiving and route running talent are well above average at the position and his redzone prowess is evident in the box score — when he’s used. Reports indicate he quickly sewed up the TE1 job in Pittsburgh and can be drafted as a fine option at the position in fantasy. This team figures to live in opponent’s red zones where Ebron will make his presence felt. McDonald would only take on fantasy relevance were Ebron to miss time.
Unfortunately for us, the 6-foot-9, 274 pound, incredibly named tight end, Christian ScotlandWilliamson is not fantasy relevant either.
Chris Boswell is a great fantasy option at kicker. We like good kickers in great offense who are playing bad defenses. The easier it is for the team to make it down the field, the more often they’ll be in kicking range.
The Steelers’ D/ST features one of the strongest defensive rosters in the NFL. Adding to that, they face a number of exploitable offenses that they’ll be able to feast upon.