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Team Previews

Steelers Fantasy Preview

by Nick Mensio
Updated On: July 27, 2020, 12:48 am ET

2019 Stats (Rank)

Total Offense: 4,428 (30th)

Offensive Touchdowns: 25 (32nd)

Offensive Plays: 937 (31st)

Pass Attempts + Sacks: 542 (27th)

Rush Attempts: 395 (20th)

Unaccounted for Targets: 63 (28th)

Unaccounted for Carries: 9 (26th)

 

Coaching Staff

The third-longest tenured coach in the NFL, Mike Tomlin is headed into his 14th season with the Steelers and is coming off truly one of his better performances, all things considered. Pittsburgh traded the NFL’s best receiver in Antonio Brown, lost Le’Veon Bell in free agency, and then watched Ben Roethlisberger go down in Week 2 with a season-ending elbow injury. Dead in the water with no legitimate backup quarterback, Tomlin willed this team to an 8-8 record and had the Steelers in contention for a playoff spot all the way up until Week 17. Pittsburgh fielded an elite defense, but as seen above, the offense simply couldn’t do anything to help out. Tomlin is 133-74-1 with an 8-7 playoff record, including two AFC titles and one Super Bowl ring. Having missed the playoffs the last two years makes it Tomlin’s longest postseason drought since he took over in 2007. Tomlin doesn’t call plays on either side of the ball, but he’s one of the best head coaches and team-ralliers in the sport. Getting Big Ben back will do wonders for this team, especially if the defense plays as well as it did in 2019. Longtime QBs coach Randy Fichtner is entering his third season as offensive coordinator. Fichtner shouldn’t shoulder any of the blame for last season’s poor performance; Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges simply aren’t good enough for the NFL. Keith Butler heads into his sixth season as DC after replacing Dick LeBeau. Butler took a lot of heat prior to last season, but that obviously quieted after a strong year.

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Passing Game

QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges
WR: James Washington, Chase Claypool
WR: Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain
WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer
TE: Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald

 

Big Ben appeared in just two games before blowing out his elbow and missing the remainder of the 2019 season. Roethlisberger posted a video of himself throwing passes to teammates in mid-May and declared himself ready to roll off the elbow injury. He’ll be full go for Week 1. JuJu Smith-Schuster is entering a contract year and coming off an injury-riddled lackluster season with borderline-NFLers Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges throwing him the ball. The Steelers drafted monstrous WR Chase Claypool in the second round and signed Eric Ebron in free agency to help with the red-zone offense. Big Ben has to be the odds-on favorite for Comeback Player of the Year honors. The offensive line remains one of the league’s better ones, and JuJu, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Claypool are dripping with upside out wide while Ebron has already shown he can be a force in the scoring area. Roethlisberger still has gas left in the tank at 38 years old; his elbow just needs to hold up. If so, he could rebound in a big way.

Universally valued as a top-five fantasy receiver ahead of his first season without Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster’s third-year breakout never came to fruition due largely in part to Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury in Week 2. JuJu then battled multiple injuries of his own across 12 appearances, totaling career-lows in targets (70), catches (42), yards (552), and touchdowns (3) from the failed combination of Hodges and Rudolph. Barring a catastrophic event between training camp and Pittsburgh’s season opener, arguably nothing will have changed regarding Smith-Schuster’s role on offense from Week 1 of last year to this season. Pittsburgh added Claypool in the second round back in April, but his committee role on the boundary is no threat to JuJu’s from the slot. Smith-Schuster remains one of just 10 wideouts since 1920 to record 2,300 receiving yards in his first two years in the league, ensuring he’s more than just a flash in the pan who proceeded to fall flat in 2019 without his quarterback. Assuming Roethlisberger returns to full health this year, fantasy players could conceivably steal Smith-Schuster as a WR2 on their roster even though he’s only one year removed from being drafted just inside the first round and doesn’t turn 24 until November. Smith-Schuster is also in a contract year and playing for millions of dollars in 2021. Team beat writers out of Pittsburgh much of the offseason had the Steelers letting JuJu walk as a free agent after 2020.

Pittsburgh’s third-round pick last year, Johnson opened the year behind Donte Moncrief in three-wide sets before replacing him in Week 3, going on to lead the team in catches (59) and receiving scores (5) from backup quarterbacks Rudolph and Hodges. Johnson's 10.6 fantasy points per game out-produced Smith-Schuster's (10.3) and James Washington's (6.8) in the 11 starts the trio made together. Johnson’s role on the outside is threatened by No. 49 overall pick Claypool, but Washington is the likelier candidate to be the odd man out in Week 1 due to the up-and-down nature of his play. The Steelers also signed red-zone threat Ebron to siphon valuable targets inside the 10-yard line. What Johnson produced despite underwhelming play under center as a rookie can’t be overstated. In a year Smith-Schuster and everyone else on offense faltered, the 23-year-old made a name for himself as one of the league’s most promising young wideouts. GM Kevin Colbert appeared to hit on another receiver. Johnson undoubtedly has the talent to finish 2020 with the most fantasy points among Pittsburgh’s wideouts if Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy, though the smart money is still on JuJu holding that honor.

A preseason All-Pro, Washington averaged a team-high 84.4 air yards per game and 15.8 yards average depth of target in his sophomore emergence as Pittsburgh’s capable downfield threat. But Rudolph and Hodges’ accuracy issues resulted in Washington totaling 44-735-3 receiving across 15 games. Second-round rookie Claypool not only brings an elite athletic profile and quicker twitch to the table than Washington, but OC Randy Fichtner has already confirmed Claypool will play primarily out wide in his rookie year. It’s not guaranteed that Washington will fade behind Smith-Schuster, Johnson, and Claypool, but any spiked weeks will likely have to occur on limited opportunity. That’s something left for best-ball formats, though the upgrade at quarterback with Big Ben back healthy and Claypool’s limited offseason reps due to COVID-19 certainly can affect Washington in a positive way.

Claypool (6'4"/238) hauled in 16 catches 20-plus yards downfield in his breakout senior season at Notre Dame but was pigeonholed as a tight end by many teams at the next level due to his massive frame. OC Fichtner squashed that sentiment quickly, confirming Claypool would play wideout with some slot sprinkled in for the Steelers. The 21-year-old logged just 106 snaps (a three-year low) from the middle of the field in his final season with the Fighting Irish but could still be shifted there in the red zone to leverage his size. In the meantime, his 4.42 speed and 40.5-inch vertical give him a leg up on Washington as a downfield boundary threat. The Steelers’ wideout usage needs to be monitored early, as Claypool could blow up if given a legitimate chance. Smith-Schuster is scheduled to hit free agency in 2021.

Following an outlier 13-touchdown year in 2018, Ebron only played 11 games last season for the Colts after undergoing ankle surgery, something he allegedly went rogue on against Indy’s recommendation. Ebron was the TE19 in half-PPR points per game with Jacoby Brissett throwing him the ball while splitting snaps and targets with Jack Doyle. Ebron’s stock coming into the 2019 season plummeted following Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement. Ebron inked a two-year, $12 million contract with the Steelers this offseason. The entire offense hinges on Roethlisberger’s health following last year’s elbow surgery. Ebron is unlikely to be a consistent fantasy producer as a low-target seam stretcher, but he should score more than the three touchdowns he had a season ago while replacing Vance McDonald as the No. 1 tight end. Ebron is a low-end TE2 with a basement-level floor.

 

Running Game

RB: James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland
OL (L-R): Ali Villanueva, Stefen Wisniewski, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler

 

With Roethlisberger lost for the season in Week 2, James Conner could have emerged as the engine of the Steelers’ offense. Instead, he highlighted his own durability concerns, dealing with an early knee injury before a shoulder ailment lingered for months, essentially blowing up the second half of his season. Conner reached 60 yards rushing just once in 10 games, posting 145 against the Dolphins’ historically bad run defense. Conner made similarly little impact as a pass catcher, exceeding four catches twice. Playing for a new contract headed into his age-25 campaign, Conner remains the Steelers’ unquestioned No. 1 back, though boom-or-bust prospect Anthony McFarland was added in the fourth round. Benny Snell and H-back Jaylen Samuels also remain on the roster. If Conner can stay healthy, a 70-80% playing time clip is reachable, but he’s just missed too much time to injuries at times as an NFLer. Still, Conner offers plenty of upside as an RB2 in an offense that should rebound in a huge way.

McFarland (5'8”/208) lacks a highlight reel after injuries limited him to roughly 500 touches between high school and college. McFarland’s twitched up 4.44 forty-sprint helped him set Maryland’s freshman rushing record (1,022 yards and 8.2 YPC), but he returned to Earth the following year as he shared backfield duties with Javon Leake. McFarland still recorded more carries (114 to 103) and catches (17 to 8) than Leake despite playing one fewer game. McFarland's four fumbles (one every 65.8 offensive touches) and four drops on 33 targets in two ACC seasons are also red flags. Compared to Dalvin Cook by The Athletic's Dane Brugler, McFarland profiles as a change-of-pace home run hitter for the Steelers. With Conner headed into the final year of his rookie deal, McFarland is jockeying for change-of-pace duties with Samuels and Benny Snell. A zero-floor re-draft flier, McFarland is more compelling in dynasty.

Samuels failed to make an impact in the Steelers’ post-Le’Veon Bell backfield. He accrued 13 of his 47 total receptions in one game, while he averaged a disgusting 2.7 yards on his 66 carries. A pass-catcher first, it must be noted that Samuels was dealing with historically-awful quarterback play from Rudolph and Hodges. There will probably be a place for Samuels in this offense, but it will be as niche as it gets. Even if Conner again goes down again with injury, McFarland and Benny Snell would crowd Samuels out on early downs.

 

Win Total

After going 8-8 with Rudolph and Hodges last season, the Steelers’ win total is set at 9.5 or 9 in most spots. At FanDuel Sportsbook, Pittsburgh has -110 odds on both the over and under for nine wins. Sharp Football’s Warren Sharp also rates the Steelers’ schedule as the seventh-easiest in 2020. Their season essentially hinges on Ben Roethlisberger staying healthy. If he can, double-digit wins are well within reach for this team. Outside of the AFC North, Pittsburgh has some easy-ish dates at NYG, vs. DEN, at JAX, and vs. WSH. I expect the Steelers to challenge the Ravens for the division title. This team is stacked with top-end talent on both sides of the ball after losing only NT Javon Hargrave from last season’s defense. He was replaced by former Ravens DT Chris Wormley, who was acquired via trade.

Nick Mensio

Nick Mensio has been covering the NFL for Rotoworld since 2012. He can be found on Twitter at @NickMensio.