Every team has turnover from one season to the next and the Steelers are no exception.
The team will feel radically different thanks to the return of Ben Roethlisberger, but the roster is mostly intact. Gone are some backups and veterans, a few underperforming defensive backs, and a couple of special teams aces, but that’s it.
This year, the Steelers have had a pretty active offseason, bringing in tight end Eric Ebron, offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski and defensive tackle Chris Wormley along with multiple former XFL players and the team’s 2020 NFL Draft haul, albeit one that’s smaller than usual thanks to their lack of a first-round pick. The team also recently added 10 undrafted free agents. With the Steelers track record on the matter, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of them make a splash down the line.
On offense, the Steelers will return over 96% of their on-field production from 2019 and will be bolstered by the signing of Ebron.
It’s just going to feel like the Steelers added to their quarterback room in 2019 with the return of Roethlisberger from injury. The team opted not to draft a successor for Roethlisberger and will go with Rudolph as the de facto No. 2 to start next season.
The Steelers drafted McFarland with their first of two fourth-round selections. He will join a crowded Steelers backfield lead by Conner and Snell, neither of which produced much last year. Conner lead all backs with 715 total yards and seven touchdowns but dealt with injuries most of the year. Expect to see more of a rotation with Conner, Snell and McFarland likely receiving the bulk of the carries. The only loss is Tony Brooks-James, who had 7 yards in 2019.
The Steelers replaced Rosie Nix with the third Watt brother, Derek Watt.
Donte Moncrief is long gone, so really the Steelers are only losing Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton, who combined for 91 yards in 2019. The Steelers have added former XFL-er Saeed Blacknall and 2nd round pick Chase Claypool to young receiver room that has lots of talent, if not experience.
The disappointing Nick Vannet and Xavier Grimble are both gone, but the Steelers prize offseason acquisition, Eric Ebron, should more than make up for their losses. Behind Ebron and McDonald, however, it’s a very thin group. Kevin Rader and Christian Scotland-Williamson are probably practice squad members and Zach Gentry is still extremely raw. It will be interesting to see if the former fifth-round pick shows much progression.
With Foster’s retirement the team loses some experience, but that is likely negated by two-time Super Bowl winner Stefen Wisniewski. The Steelers let backup B.J. Finney walk, but he only played 33% of the team’s snaps in 2019. The Steelers received lots of praise for their fourth-round pick of Kevin Dotson from Louisiana and some view him as a potential long-term starter in the league.
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson Graded Best Pass-Blocker in NFL
Pittsburgh Steelers guard Kevin Dotson has been thrust into action early and often in his first season with injuries to key starters across the offensive line, but the rookie has more than answered the call.
Pro Football Focus has graded Dotson as the NFL’s best pass-blocking interior offensive lineman this season at 88.9.
.@PFF_Steve with us: "Just by our play by play grading, Kevin Dotson has the Steelers' highest pass blocking grade, only giving up 1 pressure on 99 pass blocking attempts. That's fantastic. He's outplayed expectations."— The Fan Morning Show (@FanMorningShow) October 20, 2020
Dotson has two starts this season, and has seen significant action in relief of starting guard David DeCastro who has missed three games with injury.
The rookie is not the only Steelers offensive linemen to have success in 2020, as the whole unit has done an excellent job of protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through five games. Pittsburgh has allowed just eight sacks thus far, which is the tied for the third-fewest in the league.
The Steelers selected Dotson with the 135th overall pick in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft. Dotson was a four-year letterwinner for the Louisiana Rajin’ Cajuns and named First-Team All-American in 2019.
Tomlin: Derrick Henry ‘Like Bud Dupree Running the Football … Except Faster’
Derrick Henry can make a would-be tackler look awful foolish. Just ask Buffalo Bills cornerback Josh Norman, who Henry stiff-armed into oblivion last Tuesday night.
Derrick Henry HOLY stiff arm😤😤😤
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 14, 2020
He can also make an entire team of would-be tacklers look foolish, as he did to the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon, with the entire squad unable to catch the Titans’ 238-pound back as he raced away down the field.
DERRICK HENRY ABSURD 94-YARD TD 🤯
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 18, 2020
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’s good reason to be fearful of the things that Henry can do on the football field.
“There are people that are intimidated by him,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “There are tangible things to be intimidated by. This is like Bud Dupree running the football. This guy gets into your secondary. It’s like trying to tackle a guy like Bud, except he is faster, obviously, than Bud.
“You can see DBs having issues with that. Hopefully, we minimize the amount of time our guys are in those circumstances, and hopefully, when our guys are in those circumstances, they do what they have to do.”
Of course, the Steelers have done pretty well when it comes to shutting down top opposing running backs.
New York Giants star Saquon Barkley had just six yards on 15 carries in Week 1. Last week, Kareem Hunt totaled just 40 yards on 13 carries.
Saunders: How Will Steelers Replace Devin Bush? They Won’t.
How will the Steelers replace Devin Bush?
That was the question on the minds of many the moment Bush left Sunday’s Steelers win over Cleveland, even before it was revealed that the injury to the Steelers up and coming linebacker is serious enough to keep him out for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Now, it’s become a critical question, and as contenders around the AFC have faltered, perhaps the only major one standing in the way of the Steelers becoming a prime contender to play for a Super Bowl title this winter.
The problem is that it’s not a question there’s a satisfactory answer to. Just think about what it took to get Bush in the first place, who in his own way is also an injury replacement.
When Ryan Shazier suffered his season- and career-ending spinal injury in Cincinnati in 2017, the Steelers were left with a gaping hole in their defense that was exploited by Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars of all people as the team with a loaded offense whimpered to a first-round playoff exit.
Sean Spence started the last five games of the season for the Steelers at inside linebacker alongside Vince Williams. Those were the last five games of his NFL career.
In second-year backup Robert Spillane, the Steelers have a player of at least that ilk. Though the Steelers have confidence, his ability will be seen over the next few games. There are other options, as well, in the form of 2019 sixth-round pick Ulysees Gilbert III and converted safety Marcus Allen.
There are players that are free agents or that may be acquired from another team for minimal return that may represent an upgrade to that group, but none of those players are going to replace Bush.
After the loss to the Jaguars, took the Steelers over another year of wading through other options before they were finally able to replace Shazier. In 2018, free agent signing Jon Bostic made 14 starts at inside linebacker, L.J. Fort started two and Tyler Matakevich started one.
The Steelers fell from the No. 7 scoring defense in the league in 2017 to No. 16 with the 2018 unit. The only other starters that changed on the defense were Mike Mitchell and Artie Burns for Terrell Edmunds and Coty Sensabaugh in the secondary, and Sensabaugh did so by beating out Burns while he remained on the roster. The biggest change was the man playing next to Williams at inside linebacker.
Going into the 2019 season, the Steelers knew they needed to do something more. They signed Mark Barron as a free agent, but considered him another stop-gap at best, though perhaps better than the previous options. But a better free agent that would fit into the Steelers’ salary cap crunch could not be found.
Even when focused on the 2019 NFL Draft, there was such a dearth of inside linebacker prospects that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert felt compelled to trade up to get Bush instead of waiting for a player at their spot.
To replace Shazier, it took going through nearly a half-dozen other options and trading up in the draft to get a player that could finally do at least most of the things he was able to do on the field in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense. Thankfully, it does not appear at this point that Bush’s injury will extend beyond the 2020 season, but replacing him for the remainder of this year will be nearly impossible.
The Steelers were able to pull off something similar to that feat in 2019, trading a first-round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick after safety Sean Davis was injured. It was the first time the Steelers had traded their first-round pick since the 1960s. It’s unlikely they’ll find the combination of a talented player and a motivated seller once again, and even if they do, will Colbert want to trade his first-round pick again? The team has little else it could spare to offer a team to try to get them to part with a top talent.
Instead, it appears that a combination of Spillane, Gilbert and Allen, plus whoever else the team can scrounge up, will have to do when it comes to replacing Bush, and even though they’re unlikely to do a representative job of it, that seems about the best the Steelers can hope for.
With the additions of Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson and the emergence of Bud Dupree as one of the league’s premier pass rushers, this Steelers’ defense might be better suited to deal with the loss of an important cog at inside linebacker. But the way the NFL as a whole, and particularly the top teams in the AFC in Baltimore and Kansas City, likes to put pressure on a defense, it’s likely that the loss of Bush will be felt for quite some time.