Sure, some teams get hit with a rash of injuries, but what the
Steeler offense dealt with last season was bordering on silly.
After Roethlisberger went down in Week 2 with a season ending
elbow injury, Pittsburgh lost their No.1 running back (Conner)
and No.1 receiver (Smith-Schuster) for a total of 10 additional
games and could simply not find any rhythm or consistency in the
games they did play in. Combined with the injuries and inexperienced
back-ups taking over for Big Ben, Pittsburgh plummeted from 4th
in total offense in 2018 to 30th in 2019.
As we sit here mired in the tumultuous summer of 2020, there are
a slew of unanswered questions revolving around the Steeler offense,
and they start with the 38-year-old QB starting his 17th season
in Black and Gold. His last full season was one for the ages,
as he finished as the No.2 overall fantasy quarterback, with career
highs in attempts, yardage, and touchdowns. Although guys like
Brady and Brees make it seem 38 is young for quarterbacks now,
Roethlisberger has much more wear and tear than the other guys
around his age. The bevy of lower body injuries heís had over
the years make him a statue in the pocket, and none of those other
old fellas is coming back from a serious throwing arm injury.
Heck, the jury is still out on how effective he can be without
Antonio Brown, and the one full game he played last season was
an abysmal 33-3 loss to New England.
With 16 years of numbers to analyze we know that more times than
not Roethlisberger has been a QB1. The abundance of playmakers
around him was always enough to ensure his numbers stayed consistent,
but things have swung wildly in the other direction in just one
calendar year. With health a bigger question mark than ever and
a supporting cast still going through growing pains, can the vet
return to piece it all together? Iím very skeptical. At his age,
even fully recovered, there has to be a loss in velocity off his
fastball, and it remains to be seen just how much formal work
he will get with his teammates before the start of the season.
Can Conner return to 2018 form? Can Ju-Ju ascend and play up to
the No.1 receiver gig? Can some of the young guys develop into
reliable playmakers? Most of this hinges on the return of Roethlisberger.
There is a boatload of fantasy value in this offense IF Big Ben
is healthy enough to see it through. The spectra of injury, age
and ineffectiveness is just too much for me to buy in as a QB1,
but I would take a flier on Roethlisberger as my back-up in the
All the things that came together to help make 2018 a career
year for Conner disappeared in 2019. The loss of Roethlisberger,
and injuries of his own, resulted in a precipitous drop in not
only his statistical totals, but his efficiency as well. In his
2nd season as a starter Connor barely reached 4.0 yards-per-carry,
and went for more than 50 rushing yards only twice.
With 9 missed games over the last two seasons, injury questions
are going to linger. Can he handle the rigors of being a No.1
back for 16 games? To this point the answer is no. But while the
fantasy world may have their doubts, the Steelers donít seem to
share that sentiment. Although they have added a running back
in every draft over the last few seasons, their only meaningful
addition to the backfield in 2020 was change-of-pace, 5th round
pick Anthony McFarland Jr. from Maryland.
The Steelers seem determined to roll with a mix of Conner, Samuels,
Snell and their new rookie. Therein lies the key to Connerís value.
Pittsburgh knows that Conner is the best runner on this team,
but his inability to stay healthy means they will be forced to
go with a committee approach. More ground and pound than pop and
sizzle, Conner needs a high volume of touches to approach RB1
value, and unfortunately I canít see that happening. His 8-83-1
and 7-78-1 receiving lines from last season show me heís still
a capable three-down player, but with a crowded corps of specialists
behind him limiting the cap on the percentage of his touches,
Conner is a low-end RB2 going forward. If Roethlisberger can glue
the offense back together and make the passing game a real threat
again, Conner will return fantastic value.
Snell, the 4th round pick from Kentucky had a decent rookie season
for the Steelers in 2019. His 108 rushing attempts finished second
on the team just behind James Conner, but a 3.9 yards-per-carry
average and zero impact in the passing game (3 receptions on 4
targets) puts serious doubt on his fantasy upside. Sure he showed
flashes of solid running ability on tape, and his poor numbers
are largely due to stacked boxes and a disjointed offense, but
the addition of rookie McFarland Jr., and the return to health
of Conner, means Snell is a back-up one-dimensional north-south
runner, not exactly a ringing fantasy endorsement. This backfield
is a sloppy mess behind Conner, with each guy seeming to serve
a specialized role. With Conner healthy this is likely to be a
three-back committee much of the time, and Snellís lack
of passing game work and big play ability make him a poor direct
handcuff should something happen to the starter. Iím already
hesitant to take a dip into this backfield in the first place,
so end of the draft roster filler seems to be Snellís best
chance right now.
Iím lumping these guys together as I think itís likely
only one of them ends up playing enough meaningful snaps for the
Steelers this season to be fantasy relevant. I know the Pittsburgh
offense struggled mightily last year, but what Samuels did on
the ground in 2019 was brutal. His 2.7 yards-per-carry average
was amongst the worst in the league and he was merely a low-upside
checkdown target in the passing game. He was all but phased out
of the offense entirely down the stretch of the season, and the
selection of McFarland Jr. means even his grip on playing time
is tenuous at best. The rookie from Maryland brings some flash
(4.44 40-yard dash) to what has generally been a workman-like
backfield. His blend of size, speed, and acceleration should provide
Pittsburgh with a dynamic playmaker from a position that has been
sorely lacking one. As a raw rookie who didnít catch the
ball much even in college, he needs to develop that part of the
game to earn shares of the passing game touches. Heís pretty
low on the depth chart at this point, but I think McFarland has
the tools to be a difference maker on this offense if he can come
in and refine his game. Heíll be someone to watch as a waiver
add as the season moves on.
Possibly the biggest fantasy disappointment of the 2019 season,
injuries and shoddy quarterback play conspired against JuJu in
his first season as the Steelers No.1 receiver. Widely drafted
as and counted on as a mid-tier WR1, Smith-Schuster had a decent
start to the year despite the loss of Roethlisberger in Week 2.
Over the first half of the season, 5 of his 7 games saw him reach
at least 75 yards, while finding the endzone three times. While
not exactly stats befitting a WR1, it wasnít a total disaster.
At least not till the 2nd half of the season. In an injury plagued
back end, Smith-Schuster was nearly non-existent, unable to even
surpass five points in any game. His 12 receptions for 109 scoreless
yards over five games was truly a low point in his young career.
With all the negative circumstances of last season itís impossible
to judge whether he is capable of taking over the WR1 hole left
with the departure of Antonio Brown. Like most offensive players
on the Steelers, Smith-Schusterís fantasy value comes down to
the health of Roethlisberger. If Big Ben can stay under center
and return to form, Smith-Schuster is going to see enough volume
to get back into the WR1 conversation. With the addition of rookie
JuJu might be move back into the slot more frequently, as where
much of his 2018 success came from routes on the inside. This
entire offense is seeing depressed fantasy value so you wonít
have to reach for anyone, but remember, this team put on a show
as recently as 2018, and itís not going to be hard to surpass
the disaster than 2019 was. The risk seems to be already built
into his current low WR2 draft slot, but if he and Rothelisberger
can reestablish their connection quickly, he should easily return
some serious value.
If JuJu was a major disappointment, then the rookie 3rd rounder
from Toledo was a major surprise. Johnson ended up leading the
Steelers in receptions and touchdowns , while being a consistent
playmaker for the team. He had at least 50 receiving yards in
half of his games, and more impressive was his four-game stretch
to end the season. During Weeks 14-17, Johnson averaged 6 receptions
for nearly 65 yards per game, while sprinkling in two touchdowns.
Those 23 receptions were his most during any four-game stretch
of his first season, and showed that when given the opportunity,
Johnson can deliver as a go-to receiver. With the healthy return
of Roethlisberger to take advantage of all levels of the field
(something Rudolph and Hodges couldnít do) and Smith-Schuster
to absorb defensive attention, Johnson is a great bet to build
off his debut season as an upside WR3 pick.
Washington was clearly under ďbust watchĒ after an abysmal rookie
year in 2018, but rebounded nicely last season, leading the Steelers
in receiving yardage (735) despite limiting quarterback play.
The return of Roethlisberger will obviously help, but the receiver
room got more crowded with the addition of rookie Chase Claypool.
Washington is the deep threat in this offense, evidenced by his
nearly 17 yards-per-reception average last season, and thatís
exactly the role mega-athletic Claypool looks to play in 2020.
Washington really canít afford a dip in target share if he is
going to remain on the fantasy radar, but that looks surely to
happen. With Eric Ebron added at tight end, JuJu healthy, and
the emergence of Diontae Johnson, I just donít see enough volume
coming Washingtonís way. Because heís at least worked with Roethlisberger
before he should start the season as a starter out wide, but Claypool
has the physical talents to demand targets. Even in a best case
scenario, I donít think the 3rd or 4th receiver on this team is
going to warrant fantasy attention.
An easy regression candidate after a monster 13 touchdown 2018
season, injuries, the retirement of Andrew Luck, and a reduction
in targets combined to sink Ebron last year. Largely underwhelming
during his career, Ebron simply hasnít been a difference
making player since being a top-10 selection by Detroit in 2014.
If he can prove to be recovered from off-season ankle surgery,
he definitely has a chance to be fantasy relevant in this offense.
Big Ben has a long history of utilizing his tight ends, especially
in the red zone, and that is where Ebron can use his frame to
be most effective. 10 of his 13 touchdowns in 2018 came inside
the 20, and with enough guys to spread the field, look for the
Steelers to deploy Ebron on short and intermediate routes. Given
a two-year 12-million dollar deal, Pittsburgh clearly expects
Ebron to be a big contributor to the offense despite the presence
of Vance McDonald. Heís not a great player, but heís
still very young, could fall into 50 receptions, and has a 5-8
touchdown ceiling. Being taken toward the end of early drafts,
I do think Ebron ends up eventually being a touchdown dependent
streaming option worth taking a shot on.