Why the Steelers Could Be This Year’s Sleeper Contender
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images. Pictured: Ben Roethlisberger.
Last year was about as close as it gets to a season from hell for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And hell came under the names of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell en absentia.
This is what happened last year, and why everything will change in 2020.
Pittsburgh’s Year From Hell
The Steelers entered the year as division favorites but were embarrassed by a familiar opponent on Opening Night, losing 33-3 in New England. Then Ben Roethlisberger injured his elbow in Week 2 and was out for the season, the Steelers fell to 0-3, and the season was effectively over.
Rudolph and Hodges failed to produce even below average QB play, and the bottom dropped out on Pittsburgh’s offense. After five straight seasons in the top-10 of Football Outsiders DVOA offensive metric, Pittsburgh fell all the way to No. 32: dead last. The defense fared much better, and the Steelers fought all the way back to within a game of the playoffs, but came up short in Week 17.
Pittsburgh’s 8-8 finish tied for their worst season since 2003, the year before they drafted Roethlisberger. Here are the Steelers’ win totals since then: 15, 11, 8, 10, 12, 9, 12, 12, 8, 8, 11, 10, 11, 13, 9, 8.
Even in a disappointing year, their worst in 16 seasons, Pittsburgh still nearly snuck into the playoffs. The Steelers have made the playoffs in 10 of Big Ben’s 16 seasons, and under the new 14-team playoff format, they’d have made it an additional four times. An 87.5% playoff success rate? Seems good.
But Pittsburgh will do more than just make the playoffs in 2020. The Steelers might just win the whole thing.
Roethlisberger didn’t score a single touchdown last season, but he was great in 2018. He led the league in passing attempts (675), completions (452), and yards (5,129). All three were career highs, and so were his 34 TDs thrown.
Roethlisberger admitted to playing through elbow pain for over a decade but had a whole year to get healthy, and now says he has no pain in the elbow. It’s hard to be much fresher than playing 1.5 games since 2018.
Big Ben won’t be throwing to Brown or Bell, but he has plenty of weapons. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 111 catches for 1,426 yards in Roethlisberger’s last season, while James Conner had 1,470 combined yards and 13 touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Diontae Johnson was a sleeper who ran routes better than anyone in the draft, drawing comparisons to Brown. Now he has the chance to replace him.
Pittsburgh still has an outstanding offensive line, and the return of a healthy Big Ben should change everything. Remember, this was a top-10 offense in Roethlisberger’s last five healthy seasons. They ranked top-4 in yardage in all but one of those seasons. If Roethlisberger is out there, Pittsburgh will score.
The NFL’s Best Defense?
Even in the year from hell, Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain reigned supreme. The Steelers had a top-10 defense 16 times this century. They’ve ranked top-6 in defensive DVOA three seasons running, and imagine how hard it is to play great D when your offense puts you in a hole all season long.
Pittsburgh’s defense is so consistently great you probably don’t even need the sales pitch. The midseason acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick transformed the secondary, Cameron Heyward has dominated the line for a decade, and T.J. Watt is a Defensive Player of the Year contender.
The Steelers had Football Outsiders’ No. 1 pass rush in 2019 and ranked first in weighted defensive DVOA at season’s end. They’re good against the run and great defending under routes by running backs and tight ends.
Pittsburgh’s defense is good at everything. It may be the best in the league.
The Model of Consistency
What happens if you combine a likely top-10 offense with one of the best defenses in the league?
You end up with 10 to 12 wins and a chance at the Super Bowl, just like practically every other Big Ben season. Roethlisberger has won the division in seven of 16 seasons and played in five conference championships.
Everyone expects continuity to play a huge factor in a weird pandemic season, and the Steelers are the paragon of continuity. Mike Tomlin has been Pittsburgh’s coach since 2007, and the team’s had three coaches total since 1969. Kevin Colbert is the team’s only GM ever and has been with the team all century. Both coordinators return, and Big Ben’s been the starter since 2004.
No one needs to tell you what the Steelers are. They’ve been the same thing for a decade and a half. Last year’s Steelers saw Football Outsiders’ fourth-largest offensive decline since 1986. That screams positive regression, and so does this team. And if you’re regressing from a season from hell that still left you at 8-8, the sky is be the limit.
Baltimore is a mighty division foe, but the Steelers will face Denver and Buffalo while the Ravens get New England and Kansas City. Baltimore was the best regular season team in 2019, but they’re an obvious candidate to regress. Pittsburgh has the right defense to defend the Ravens, too.
The Steelers can take this division, and unless Roethlisberger has another significant injury, they’ll almost certainly make the playoffs. And with that elite defense and plenty of offense, they’ll have a real shot to win it all when they get there.
If you’re convinced, you’ve got a lot of options to bet the Steelers. Here are a few:
Over 8.5 Wins
My favorite over/under on the board this season. This team won eight games in its year from hell without a real QB! They’ve won at least eight in 16 straight years. This line is fading from boards quickly, but you can still play over 9.0 and even over 10.5 wins at +238 on DraftKings. Find the number you like.
Pittsburgh to win the AFC North
This is an especially strong bet if you’re also fading Baltimore for regression. I’d put Pittsburgh and Baltimore at relatively even odds to win the division, but the Ravens are -225 right now at DraftKings, while the Steelers are +375. If you don’t trust Pittsburgh to win the division, you can bet them at -137 just to make the playoffs instead.
Bet on Ben Roethlisberger
If you’re betting on Pittsburgh, you’re effectively betting on a big, healthy season from Big Ben. You can bet Roethlisberger to win MVP at +4000 or even +5000 at some books. The MVP has gone to a quarterback in 17 of the last 20 seasons, and those QBs averaged 13.2 wins and the 1.24-seed in the playoffs that year.
If you’re the quarterback of a top NFL team, you’re an MVP favorite. If you think Pittsburgh could contend for a top-2 seed, Big Ben will be in the MVP race. You can bet him at +350 to win Comeback Player of the Year if you’re worried he might not have MVP numbers, but that’s not nearly as juicy.
You can also bet on Roethlisberger to lead the league in passing yards at +2000, even though he led the league in 2018 and has led the NFL in passing yards per game in three of his last five healthy seasons.
Bet the Steelers to Win Big
If Pittsburgh really has a top-10 offense and a top-3 defense, they should be one of the five best teams in the NFL. Instead, they have the sixth-best odds just to win the AFC at +1100. They have the 12th-best odds to win the Super Bowl at +2500, insultingly tied with Buffalo and Philadelphia.
The Steelers might be this year’s sleeper Super Bowl contender. If Big Ben is healthy and the defense is as good as advertised, they might be even a favorite before long.