Healthy Ben Roethlisberger Makes Steelers a Legit AFC Contender

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 21, 2020

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

When Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 of the 2019 season, the team's chances of a deep playoff run went up in smoke. By the first week of October, Pittsburgh was 1-4 and reeling.

However, the Steelers somehow managed to hang around the fringes of playoff contention for much of the season despite poor quarterback play in his absence. That bodes well for their chances of returning to contention in 2020 if Big Ben stays healthy.

After that start, Pittsburgh rode its formidable defense to four straight wins to get over .500. From Oct. 13 to Dec. 8, the Steelers won seven of eight before dropping three straight to close out the season at 8-8. It was a reminder that they have considerable talent on both sides of the ball—especially on defense.

The Baltimore Ravens will be the favorites in the AFC North, but with Big Ben back in the fold, the Steelers aren't far behind.

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 25: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers walks off the field during a timeout in the second half against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 25, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

Roethlisberger gathered with some of his teammates (including top wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster) last week for a throwing session at a Pittsburgh high school. Steelers wideout Ryan Switzer told Mark Kaboly of The Athletic that the 38-year-old looked to be in midseason form:

"Man, he let it rip. There was no restraint, no hesitancy, he was just out there. He has been throwing like that for a while and, in my opinion at least, getting out there on that field for the first time and throwing full-speed routes was refreshing. The control factor was taken out of it. He was out there and he was throwing. Did some off-schedule stuff. No restraints. He threw everything — across his body. Everything."

Switzer, who has been catching passes from Roethlisberger in these impromptu workouts since February, said Big Ben has made significant strides in the last few months:

"I don't know how many balls he threw, but he threw a lot to James (Conner) out of the backfield, me, JuJu. It's leaps and bounds different from when we first started. He's been working hard, and it's been cool to be a part of that process and just to see him put his mind to coming back, just to see that tenacity has been neat to be a part of."

Roethlisberger had developed quite the mountain-man look after stating: "I'm not going to shave or cut my hair until I can throw a football again. Throw it to one of my teammates, a legit NFL pass."

After this recent workout, he posted video of footballs flying—and trimmers in action.

BigBen7.com @_BigBen7

Feels good to be back out there with my guys! @TeamJuJu @JamesConner_ @Switz https://t.co/hAlOwr7Ias

The sight of Roethlisberger zipping 50-yard passes has to delight the Steelers and their fans. The sight of a clean-shaven Big Ben likely delighted his wife.

Both are bad news for the rest of the AFC.

Roethlisberger isn't getting any younger. He turned 38 in March and is heading into his 17th NFL season. But it isn't as though he had shown significant signs of decline in recent years. In 2018, he led the league with 5,129 passing yards and threw a career-high 34 touchdowns.

Star wideout Antonio Brown is long gone, but the Steelers still have plenty of passing-game weapons. Although Smith-Schuster struggled in his first season as Pittsburgh's top receiver in 2019, that may be in part because he was catching ducks from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

In his last full season with Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. He hauled in six balls for 78 yards in last year's season opener before Big Ben went down with his elbow injury.

Youngster James Washington took a big step forward in his second season, averaging 16.7 yards per reception. Rookie Chase Claypool is joining the Steelers after hauling in 66 passes for 1,037 yards and 13 scores last year at Notre Dame.

Pittsburgh might not have an elite running back, but James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. offer Roethlisberger a deep and diverse array of options in the backfield. The Steelers also boast an offensive line that ranked a respectable 12th in pass protection last season, per Football Outsiders.

Pittsburgh has the ingredients in place for Roethlisberger to direct a potent offense in 2020. Two years ago, the Steelers were fourth in the NFL in total offense and sixth in scoring.

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers comes off the field in the first quarter during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/G
Justin Berl/Getty Images

If the Steelers approach that level of offensive production in 2020 and combine it with last year's defense, they'll be heading for the playoffs.

Whether it's Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line, Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt and Devin Bush at linebacker or safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and corners Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, the Steelers are loaded with defensive talent at every level. Last year, they ranked fifth in total defense, third in pass defense (allowing only 194.6 yards per game) and fifth in scoring defense.

The Steelers led the league in both sacks (54) and takeaways (38). Football Outsiders ranked them third in Defensive DVOA (defense-value adjusted over average) last year, trailing only the New England Patriots and NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.

Between Pittsburgh's disappointing 2019 campaign and last year's explosion from Lamar Jackson and the 14-2 Ravens, the Steelers are largely an afterthought at the moment. But the people who make a living handicapping such things aren't sleeping on them. Per Caesars Palace, only the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs have better odds of representing the AFC in Tampa at Super Bowl LV.

The oddsmakers see a Steelers team that has sported a top-six defense each of the past two years and either led the league or tied for the lead in sacks in both seasons. They see a team that rolled out a top-five offense the last time it had its future Hall of Fame quarterback on the field.

With Roethlisberger looking increasingly likely to be under center in Week 1, the oddsmakers see a talented, balanced team that's capable of not only making the playoffs for the first time since 2017, but making a deep postseason run.

If Big Ben is back in 2020, then so are the Steelers.