By: Bill Washinski
When the most successful team since the 1970 merger that resulted in the modern NFL has their 1st 8-0 start, it’s something more than to take notice of. The chances of winning the Super Bowl are at their best in multiple years due to the make-up of this very unified team, but how do the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers stack up against the more recent teams that featured the same QB but some differentiation with strategy and scheme under different coaches?
Overall Offensive Comparisons:
The 2005 Steelers weren’t an explosive team passing wise, but despite not being deep at WR and lacked playmakers in comparison, they were efficient and effective and were more than the sum of their parts. They were a top 10 scoring offense behind the strength of the running game, a great offensive line and brilliant coaching with OC Ken Whisenhunt & Head Coach Bill Cowher.
In 2008; Bruce Arians put new meaning to the word “offensive” in offensive coordinator. Despite having numerous playmakers on offense – Steelers had the 20th ranked scoring offense in the league and 22nd ranked offense in yards. Nonetheless they played the toughest schedule in the NFL and toughest of any Super Bowl winning team, so it was no Baltimore 2000 cupcake. They had the talent and it showed up when they needed it most.
The 2020 Steelers can look at a glance and say – whoa: 25th ranked offense? OC Randy Fichtner has come under scrutiny — but they aren’t struggling to score, averaging 30 points a game (keep in mind they’ve gone victory formation in the red zone 3 times this year.) But they also have the most 3 and outs of any team, so the talent is there and when it comes together they are making plays not walking away with FGs .
Ben Roethlisberger – plain and simple, when was he the best? Quite frankly, Ben’s best years were not the years the Steelers reached the Super Bowl. He’s set almost every team passing record, led the league in yards (2x), winged 500-yard games 3x (nobody else more than 2) and perhaps there was nothing more impressive back to back 6 TD performances. But looking at 2005, 2008 and 2020 Ben – you have him at 3 different stages. 2005 Ben gets the bad wrap from that Super Bowl performance vs. the Seattle Seahawks. He was beyond outstanding during those playoffs when everyone geared up to stop the run and well, aside from Hines Ward the Steelers receiving threats weren’t that spectacular. The whole narrative on that game would have changed if he did something he could do with his eyes shut now; instead of throwing a dart INT at the 4-yard line, Big Ben just lofts it in the end zone to a wide open Cedric Wilson for a TD and the game would have blown open at 21-3. In 2008, Big Ben redeemed himself with that legendary TD pass, but he didn’t play the entire game at that level as he seemingly was on the cusp of being truly elite – something that I guarantee still haunts him after rallying to come back vs. the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45 but coming short.
Verdict: When I look at the Ben Roethlisberger I’d want for one more run, I would take 2020 Big Ben. He’s in command of the offense, mature and wants that 3rd ring something fierce. There’s something he still has to prove to himself and the doubters. 2008 Big Ben would be the 2nd option due to experience.
2005 featured the breakout year of “Fast” Willie Parker bringing explosion to an offense that needed it after the loss of Plaxico Burress to FA. But it was the combo with Jerome Bettis that created the Steelers offensive formula, as they combined for 1,587 yards and 13 TDs each playing their roles of primary and short yardage/closer.
The 2008 Steelers running game was the weakest of all the Super Bowl teams – including XXX and XLV. After 3 consecutive 1,200-yard+ seasons, Parker had only 791 yards. Parker was on the verge of winning the 2007 rushing title until he broke his leg, and it became clear he lost a step. Where he once was 11/10 in speed, he was more 9/10 and drop was huge considering Parker’s style of running was direct. However, they never adapted nor tried to – and Arians can thank a Hall of Fame QB/WR combo along with a legendary D so he could have a “biscuit”.
So far in 2020, the Steelers running game has been “uneven” to put it bluntly. James Conner shows times of control and brilliance, then vanishes. He’s made great catches and botched drops. Conner has the talent and heart to be the man, but he really needs to step it up during the 2nd half of the season – to be honest; it’s going to go a long ways to determining his future and the teams future plans at RB.
Verdict: The 2005 Combo of Parker/Bettis is easily the best running game. 2020 Conner is better than Parker post broken leg, but not before. They key is how good can he get – if he can attain a 2010 Mendenhall-level ceiling, that will be enough, and I think he can.
Hines Ward is a legend and will eventually be in Canton – and he WAS the Steelers WR core in 2005. He was aided by the arrival of Heath Miller, who became the best TE in team history the moment he took the field his first game. Antwaan Randle-El was a great slot WR and they ran a lot of gadget plays with him that moved the chains, but the drop off after Plaxico Burress left was large. Between the combo of an injury to Big Ben and resulting difficulty finding to a rhythm – Ward dropped from a 4-year average of 95 catches and 1,125 yards to 69 for 975 yards. But he made them count – 11 regular season TDs plus a great post-season of 15 catches for 260 yards, 3 TDs and the Super Bowl MVP.
2008: Santonio Holmes was acquired when the Steelers did a rare trade up in the 1st round and he took his game to the next level to compliment Ward. Holmes scored in every playoff game – a punt return, a broken play vs. Baltimore and game winning toe-tap to close out Super Bowl 43. What’s more – he elevated his game when it was needed most, after Hines was playing on one leg. The 2008 receiving unit on the top level was great (Holmes, Ward, Miller) but they lacked depth and the RBs weren’t a threat in the passing game.
The 2020 Steelers WRs might be the best group in the NFL Ju-Ju Smith Schuster has been reminding many of Ward – tough, team oriented and a leader towards a young talented group that doesn’t call itself “young money”. Schuster is obviously Ben’s go-to target based on experience, history and timing, something that is proceeding with the younger guys slowly. In the meantime the addition of Eric Ebron at TE has been huge, giving Ben a vet who knows how to be a safety valve. If there were any questions about this group, they vanished with the emergence of Chase Claypool — who was immediately pegged as a “steal” in the draft. Diontae Johnson is a bona-fide big play threat in the open field. This group is so good, James Washington has been relegated to a minor role.
Verdict: With the veteran Big Ben, the 2020 core is the most dangerous. However, 2008 featured the best tandem starting duo in Ward/Holmes with Miller at TE – they were so good even Arians couldn’t mess it up. 2005, outside of Ward, the WR core was the weakest – but they maximized every bit of what they had.
2005 had the 7-time All Pro Alan Faneca anchoring a unit that was operating at their best. Jeff Hartings is the “forgotten center” of Steelers tradition, but was a special talent to. The 5 men that made up this line was the strength of the 2005 Steelers – they won up front and in the trenches. How good were they? When the legacy of longest run in Super Bowl history is more focused on pulling guard that crushed the block that created the hole over the RB who ran it, that says it all.
In 2008 the offensive line went from the strength to the weakness. That’s putting it kindly. They were good people; they tried their best – but gone were the anchors of 2005, Willie Colon was a guard and center Justin Hartwig was undersized. Perhaps this was part of the reason that with 19 plays and goal to go in Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers scored only 2 TDs.
2020 has seen a lot of shake up on the Steelers offensive line. They are anchored by Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro – a pair of multiple time All Pros who have been so consistently elite that the 5 consecutive Pro Bowl honors is seemingly automatic. Alejandro Villanueva has been tremendous at LT as a 2x Pro Bowler. The unit has been forced into changes due to injury and inserting young guys before they expected, resulting in the group still being in a state of flux, but when you have 2 potential Hall of Fame anchors and a Pro Bowl LT, it’s just a matter of adjusting from minor storming to high-level performing.
Verdict: 2005 Offensive Line is by far the best and its not close, but the 2020 has some great players on it so don’t count them out of being dominant by the end of the year. Along with Conner, they will dictate how far the offense can carry them. 2008, well, as Big Ben said, you did get the last laugh that year.