Steelers Offense Full of Bounce Back Candidates

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By: Sean McGeown

After last season, fans and analysts everywhere have been buzzing about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, and rightfully so. They came up big last year finishing fifth in yards allowed per game and first in turnovers and sacks. While fans most definitely should be excited, they should be getting excited about the other side of the ball as well.

Over the last decade, The Steelers have almost always boasted a potent offensive attack. Excluding 2019 in which the Steelers offense was anemic and mediocre on their best days, franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had an arsenal of weapons at his disposal. First there was the “Young Money Crew” in the early part of the decade, which included Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Mike Wallace.

Wallace and Brown of the “Young Money” receiver group

Then came the “Killer B’s” which included Roethlisberger, Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Martavis Bryant, not to mention stalwart tight end Heath Miller playing with both units until his retirement in 2015. Between these two units, Roethlisberger has never had a lack of weapons, and the Steelers shifted from a perrineal defensive team, to an offensive powerhouse.

The “Killer B’s”

Now, after the offensive disaster that was the 2019 season, there seems to be a mixed reaction for what to expect from the Steelers offense in 2020 with many people having doubts about whether Roethlisberger will return from his season ending injury in 2019, and about the pieces he has to work with. Fox Sports analyst Nick Wright recently went on air explaining he doesn’t expect a lot out of Roethlisberger, mainly due to his age, comparing him to the other three quarterbacks drafted with him in 2004 (Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers), and where they are at at the same age. Manning just retired, and Rivers, while not done, definitely had a big drop in production from 2018 to 2019. He then went on to say:

“..and on top of it, I don’t love the weapons he [Roethlisberger] has on offense, I think it’s the least talent Ben Roethlisberger has had around him on that side of the football his whole time with the team.”

The rest of the segment can be seen here:

I have to say, although I respect his opinion, I disagree. As a matter of fact, I believe this group could be something special, for a lot of different reasons. One that really stands out to me; the Steelers have three offensive skill players that all struggled with injuries last year that aren’t named Ben Roethlisberger, and all are a year removed from Pro Bowl campaigns in 2018. I’m talking of course about wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner, and newly acquired tight-end, Eric Ebron.

Let’s start with the two that were with the team in 2018. Smith-Schuster was fresh off a rookie campaign that earned him the title of most prolific rookie receiver in franchise history, with  58 catches for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns. Going into 2018, the question was: can he get better? The answer spoke for itself rather quickly, and Smith-Schuster’s numbers not only got better, but his chemistry and rapport with Roethlisberger did as well. Ending the year with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and 7 touchdowns, Smith-Schuster took a leap and landed himself in the Pro Bowl at just 22 years old.

Conner was coming off a rookie campaign were he played a second fiddle to Bell in 2017, but looked promising in the touches he did get, but unfortunately ended with surgery after an injury suffered in a game most fans of the black and gold don’t like to talk about, in week 15 against the New England Patriots. Coming into 2018, no one knew if Bell was gonna show up to camp or even play games in 2018, being in the midst of a contract dispute with Pittsburgh.

There was Conner, ready and waiting, and rose to the occasion when Bell didn’t show up week after week, til it was clear Conner was the guy and Bell was done with Pittsburgh. By season’s end, in 13 games, Conner had amassed 973 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, as well as 55 catches for 497 yards and a touchdown. This was good enough to punch his ticket to Orlando along with his draft mate Smith-Schuster in the Pro Bowl.

Over in Indiana, Ebron was looking forward to a fresh start with the Indianapolis Colts. He began to build a rapport with quarterback Andrew Luck, and exploded on the scene, helping fuel a run to the playoffs and a trip into the divisional round for Indianapolis. He ended the year with 66 receptions for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns (2nd in the NFL). Ebron later joined his future teammates in Orlando to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl.

Now teammates, all three are looking to put a year where injuries and changing parts at the quarterback positions directly impacted their production. Ben went down after 6 quarters, and on top of dealing with alternating between Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges , Conner and Smith-Schuster dealt with injuries of their own. Smith-Schuster only appeared in 12 games, one in which he didn’t finish when he initially got injured against the Cleveland Browns, finishing the year with 42 catches for 552 yards and 3 scores. Conner got hurt at the end of a week 8 win at home against the Miami Dolphins and was never quite the same after that, and appeared in only 10 games, two of which he left the game early (against Cleveland and the New York Jets) and amassed 464 yards and 4 touchdowns, and 34 receptions for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns. Ebron had his own quarterback issues, with Luck retiring during the preseason, he was catching passes from Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer, who are respectable, but nowhere near the caliber of Luck. He was plagued by an ankle injury that put him on IR after appearing in 11 games, catching 31 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Do you see a common denominator here?

All three are now looking healthy, and working harder than ever, to show that 2019 was a fluke, and all three are looking to make an impact. Smith-Schuster and Conner have been seen together working out, and both look to be in phenomenal shape:

On top of this, both were seen working out with Roethlisberger in his now viral “He’s Back” video.

Ebron has been seen training as well, and has confirmed his rehab is going according to schedule, and seems excited and ready to play a huge role in Pittsburgh’s offense this year:

Throw a healthy Roetlhlisberger in the mix, and all three are primed for a big rebound year, looking to show that the production hasn’t gone anywhere. They will look to earn themselves Pro Bowl honors again, be the leaders of their skill groups (that have plenty of intriguing talent in their own right), and make their mark as one of the best skill groups in franchise history, all while looking to help lead Pittsburgh to their seventh Lombardi Trophy.

With all that said, do you believe these three have what it takes to have big bounce back years? Do you believe Pittsburgh’s current skill positions are as talented as years passed? Let us know in the comment section below!


One Comment

  1. James

    May 29, 2020 at 9:06 pm

    I could definitely see a big bounce back year. You gotta figure even 80% of Big Ben is better QB play than we got last year and with everyone fully healthy the sky’s the limit!

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