Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) at Dallas Cowboys (2-5)

Last week, I picked the Cowboys as a low confidence pick as 11-point underdogs. My reasoning was that teams that fail to cover in their first 7 games tend to be solid bets going forward (62% all-time) because books know they can over-inflate their lines, as evidenced by the Cowboys being 11-point underdogs in Philadelphia against a middling at best Eagles team, but I also didn’t want to risk any money on a quarterback in Ben DiNucci who had never played before and might not be good enough to even be a backup in this league, which is why I limited it to a low confidence pick.

Sure enough, the game went as I expected, with the Eagles actually trailing 9-7 late in the third quarter and at one point leading by just 15-9 midway through the fourth quarter with the Cowboys driving, before DiNucci gave up a strip sack fumble that was recovered for a long return touchdown to not just secure the win for the Eagles, but to also push them to a front door cover. The Cowboys were probably the right side in that game because things like return touchdowns tend to be fluky on a week-to-week basis (not to mention that the touchdown easily could have been called back on replay), but I was also right to not bet any money on it, given the untrustworthiness of the Cowboys’ remaining healthy quarterbacks.

This game seems about the same to me, with the Cowboys being 14.5-point home underdogs against the Steelers. The Steelers haven’t lost all season, but they also have just one win by more than 10 points, including competitive games against lesser teams like the Giants, Broncos, and Eagles, so the Cowboys being competitive enough to keep this within two scores is certainly a possibility, especially if the Steelers look past the Cowboys, which they’ve had a tendency to do against lower ranked non-divisional opponents on the road in the Mike Tomlin era. Since Tomlin took over in 2007, the Steelers are just 5-15 ATS as non-divisional road favorites of 4.5 or more and have lost 8 of those 20 games straight up. 

However, even though the Cowboys seem like the right side, I have no desire to place any money on it because I have no faith in whoever will start at quarterback this week, whether it be Cooper Rush or Garrett Gilbert this week, with Ben DiNucci getting the hook after one dismal game. Like last week’s game against the Eagles, this is a low confidence pick on the Cowboys. If they can avoid getting killed in the turnover battle and don’t give up any return touchdowns, I would expect this to be a little closer than most people think, but the Cowboys can’t be trusted to do that right now.

Pittsburgh Steelers 30 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas +14.5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) at Baltimore Ravens (5-1)

The Steelers are the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team, but they are still underdogs of 3.5 points in this game in Baltimore, 4 points at some points. That may sound unusual and it is, as this is the just 4th instance of an undefeated team being underdogs of this many points this late in the season over the past 30 seasons, but that doesn’t mean the Steelers are necessarily a smart bet, as the previous 5 teams to be underdog of this many points despite being undefeated in week 7 or later are just 1-3-1 ATS. That alone is not a reason to take the Ravens either, but it shows that there’s usually a good justification for an undefeated team being underdogs of this many points.

In this case, it’s perfectly understandable, as the Ravens are at home with at last some fan support and they are the defending AFC #1 seed, coming off of a 14-2 season, and their only loss this season came in Kansas City against the Chiefs, who are the defending AFC Champions. The Ravens played much worse in that game than the 34-20 final score suggests though, getting 11 points of value from special teams (return touchdown and a missed extra point and makeable field goal), not scoring on offense until the 4th quarter, and losing the first down rate battle by 9.54%. 

That Kansas City game significantly brings the Ravens down on the season in first down rate differential, as does their first down rate battle loss (-4.31%) to the Eagles in a mere 2-point win in the Ravens’ last game prior to their bye. A year after ranking far and away the best team in the league in first down rate differential (+6.34%), the Ravens rank just 17th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential in 2020 at +0.30%. The Steelers haven’t been much better though, despite not losing, ranking 13th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.45%. Despite facing one of the easiest schedules in the league, the Steelers have won just one game by more than 10 points and that came against a Browns team that was starting an injured Baker Mayfield. 

Both teams have lived up to expectations on defense, with the Steelers ranking 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at +4.72% and the Ravens ranking 7th at +3.21%, but they’ve been very disappointing on offense, ranking 29th at -3.28% and 27th at -2.91% respectively. Both teams should be better offensively going forward, but ultimately the Ravens should have a much higher ceiling on offense. The Steelers may have a slight edge on defense, but the Ravens are strong on that side of the ball too and are overall the better team. My calculated line is Baltimore -4, so we’re not getting much line value with the Ravens, but I do like that they’re coming off of a bye, as John Harbaugh at 20-8 ATS with extra time to plan. That’s not enough for the Ravens to be worth betting, but they should be the better pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 25 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3.5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) at Tennessee Titans (5-0)

Both of these teams are undefeated at 5-0, but both teams have been less than stellar for stretches this season. The Steelers faced one of the easiest schedules in the league in their first 4 games of the season and managed just a +1.39%% first down rate differential, before stepping their play up in a big way last week, winning the first down rate battle by 11.41% in a 38-7 blowout win over a Browns team who was the toughest team the Steelers had faced to date. 

The Titans, meanwhile, have faced a slightly tougher schedule, but four of their five wins have been decided by one score or less, with the exception being a 42-16 blowout victory over the Bills that stands out as being a significantly better performance by the Titans than their other four games, much in the same way the Steelers’ win last week against the Browns was significantly better than their first four results.

This matchup was originally supposed to take place in week 4, but was pushed forward to week 7 because of the Titans’ COVID outbreak. The extra time has benefited both teams, as it’s allowed them to get healthier, but the Titans get the bigger boost, as top cornerback Adoree Jackson and top wide receiver AJ Brown have both missed time with injury, among others, while several other key players have missed time with positive COVID tests. All of those key players are expected to play this week, with the possible exception of Jackson, who has yet to play this season. The Titans are missing left tackle Taylor Lewan now, but he hasn’t played that well so far this season and the Titans have a first round rookie in Isaiah Wilson behind him on the depth chart. The Steelers get stud right guard David DeCastro back healthy after he missed 3 of the first 5 games, but they’ll be without top off ball linebacker Devin Bush and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who will miss their first games of the season this week.

These two teams are pretty even overall, but I give the Titans the edge right now because of their injury situation. Despite that, this line favors the Titans by just 1 point at home, suggesting the Steelers are the slightly better team. This line has moved from favoring Pittsburgh by a couple points earlier this week, but that’s pretty insignificant line movement and the Titans should still have a good chance of covering in a game they basically just need to win to cover. I would need Jackson to play for the Titans to be worth betting, but they’re definitely under consideration and they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes either way.

Tennessee Titans 23 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -1

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (4-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0)

The Steelers are undefeated, but I haven’t been that impressed by them. They rank just 13th in first down rate differential at +1.39% and all of their games have been competitive, even though they’ve played probably the easiest schedule in the league, with their opponents combining for a record of just 3-15-1. The Steelers are better on paper than they’ve looked so far this season, but their schedule gets much tougher this week, with the Cleveland Browns coming to town, fresh off an impressive win over the Colts that pushed their record to 4-1.

The Colts were without a key player in linebacker Darius Leonard last week and the Browns will be without a key player in right guard Wyatt Teller this week, but the Steelers will also be without a talented right guard in David DeCastro, whose absence will be bigger for a couple reasons. For one, DeCastro is a more proven player, with Teller playing at a high level to start this season, but almost entirely having no track record of being a high level player before this season. On top of that, the Browns have a more proven backup for Teller than the Browns have for DeCastro, with veteran Chris Hubbard set to step in, and the Steelers are already in trouble on the right side of their offensive line with week 1 starting right tackle Zack Banner also out.

This line, favoring the Steelers by 3.5 at home, suggests the Steelers are about 1.5 points better than the Browns, but I actually have the Browns slightly higher than the Steelers right now. The Browns have a good chance to pull the straight up upset and, even if they don’t, 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or less, so there’s a good chance the Browns cover anyway. The most likely results of this game are either team winning by a field goal, both results that would cover this spread. I wouldn’t make this a big play, but the Browns are worth a bet this week in what should be a close game either way.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Cleveland Browns 23

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0)

The Eagles got their first win of the season last week in San Francisco, but they were facing a very banged up 49ers team and got lucky that they won the turnover battle by 2 on a pair of terrible interceptions by 49ers backup quarterback Nick Mullens that swung what ended up being just a 5-point Eagles win. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis anyway (the Eagles were -7 in the first 3 weeks of the season) and the Eagles lost the first down rate battle in that game by 6.10%, giving them a 29th ranked -5.19% first down rate differential on the season, despite the fact that they haven’t faced a particularly tough schedule.

This game in Pittsburgh is arguably the toughest game of the Eagles’ season so far. The Steelers are 3-0 and, though they haven’t been quite as good as their record, with their wins all being close and a 15th ranked first down rate differential on the season (+0.87%), their defense has still been one of the best in the league, ranking 5th with a 34.43% first down rate allowed, while their 26th ranked offense (35.29%) should be better going forward, especially with top offensive lineman David DeCastro healthy after missing the first two games of the season. 

Despite that, the Eagles are only touchdown underdogs in this game. I have this line calculated at Pittsburgh -10, as the Eagles are one of the worst teams in the league and are 8.5 points behind the Steelers in my roster rankings, so we’re getting good line value with the Steelers. The Eagles are also in a tough spot as they have an even tougher game on deck at home against the Ravens. Big upcoming home games like that tend to serve as a distraction, as teams are 37-60 ATS since 2016 before being home underdogs of 6 or more. It’s even tougher for teams when it is back-to-back tough games, as teams are 51-73 ATS since 2016 as underdogs of 6 or more before being underdogs of 6 or more again the following week. I don’t love the Steelers, but they’re worth a bet at -7 and I’d consider a larger bet at 6.5. It’s going to be tough for the Eagles to keep this one close.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Philadelphia Eagles 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -7

Confidence: Medium

Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (0-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0)

The Texans are off to an 0-2 start, which is not a surprise, as their season began in pretty much the most difficult way imaginable, with games against the Chiefs and Ravens. The bigger concern is that the Texans weren’t particularly competitive in either game, losing by a combined 31 points and having a first down rate differential of -5.79% across the two games, 5th worst in the NFL through 2 weeks. Also concerning is that their schedule doesn’t immediately get easier, with a trip to Pittsburgh on deck.

The Steelers haven’t really been tested yet in their 2-0 start, but I had them as a top-10 team coming into the season and they’re getting healthier, with stud right guard David DeCastro set to return, which will give them a big boost upfront. I have them 6th in my roster rankings right now, about 4.5 points above the Texans. Adding two points for reduced homefield advantage, I have this line calculated at Pittsburgh -6.5, so we’re getting some line value with them as only 4-point favorites.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend betting the Steelers, because the Texans are in a good spot. Not only are the Texans in desperate need of a win at 0-2, while the Steelers are 2-0, the Steelers also have a much tougher game on deck with the also 2-0 Titans in Tennessee, while the Texans will be hosting the also 0-2 Vikings in Houston. Underdogs are 78-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions should be true here. I’m taking the Steelers for pick ‘em purposes, but I’m not confident.

Pittsburgh Steelers 28 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -4

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (0-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0)

Just a week into the season, the Broncos are arguably the most injury-affected team in the league. Already missing edge defender Von Miller for the season with injury before the season started, the Broncos will also be without middle linebacker Mark Barron, cornerback AJ Bouye, running back Philip Lindsay, and possible top receiver Courtland Sutton due to injury. The Steelers have injury problems of their own on the right side of their offensive line, with right guard David DeCastro and his backup Stefen Wisniewski both out, as well as right tackle Zach Banner, but they don’t have injuries affecting multiple units and team functions like the Broncos do. 

The Broncos only lost their opener by 2 at home to the Titans, but that would have been 12 if the Titans could have made makeable kicks and quarterback Drew Lock, whose development is the single biggest factor in this team’s chances this year, struggled against a banged up Titans defense, finishing 30th out of 32 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in week one. There was a time earlier this off-season when I thought they could compete for a playoff spot, but they rank just 27th in my roster rankings right now. Given that, we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Steelers as 8-point favorites. I have this line calculated at 9.5, which is not enough line value for them to be worth betting, but that may change if Sutton doesn’t play and they’re the pick for pick ‘em purposes regardless.

Update: Sutton will play, but this line has fallen all the way to 6.5, crossing the key number of 7. The Steelers should be able to win by at least a touchdown against a Broncos team that is missing other key players and that still doesn’t appear to have a serviceable starter under center.

Pittsburgh Steelers 22 Denver Broncos 13

Pick against the spread: PIttsburgh -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0) at New York Giants (0-0)

I have these two teams about 7 points apart in my roster rankings, so this line is accurate, favoring the Steelers by 6 points on the road in New York against a Giants team that won’t have any fans. However, this is the kind of game the Steelers have not fared well in under Mike Tomlin. Since Tomlin took over as the head coach in 2007, the Steelers are just 4-15 ATS as non-divisional road favorites of 4.5 points or more.

I’m not sure that’s totally relevant this week though, for a couple reasons. The obvious one is the lack of fans, but also, because this is week 1, the Steelers are probably less likely to sleepwalk through a game against an underwhelming non-divisional opponent  (none of the previous instances that the Steelers have been significant non-divisional road favorites came in week 1). I’m still taking the Giants for pick ‘em purposes, but there isn’t nearly enough here for me to take them with any sort of confidence.

Pittsburgh Steelers 21 New York Giants 16

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +6

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 NFL Season Preview


The Steelers had one of the best offenses in the league in 2018, finishing 6th in first down rate at 40.55%, and, even though most expected them to take a hit from losing Antonio Brown, they were still considered an above average offense by most people going into 2019. Instead, their offense plummeted to 31st in first down rate at 30.92%. After being basically shut out in New England week 1 against a Patriots defense that went on to be the best in the league by a wide margin, the Steelers lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in their week 2 game against the Seahawks and had to start backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges the rest of the way. 

There were other injuries on this offense that held them back and I’ll get into those later, but Rudolph and Hodges were by far the biggest reason for their anemic offense, as they were bad even by backup standards. They completed a combined 62.3% of their passes for an average of 6.38 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and ranked 37th and 39th respectively out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Hodges was an undrafted rookie, so his struggles weren’t surprising, but Rudolph was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and was seen as possibly a long-term successor to Roethlisberger, so it’s highly disappointing that he played badly enough to be benched for an undrafted rookie and that he didn’t play better upon regaining the job.

Despite the Steelers’ big offensive dropoff, they were still pretty competitive, actually in the playoff race until late in the season and finishing at 8-8, although they weren’t quite as good as their record suggests, as they finished 21st in first down rate differential at -1.51% and had a -14 point differential despite a +8 turnover margin. The reason they were competitive was that their defense made a big jump forward. After finishing the 2018 season 14th in first down rate allowed at 36.17%, the Steelers finished 2nd in 2019 at 32.43%. If the Steelers can return to form on offense and maintain their high level of play on defense, it’s not hard to see how they could be Super Bowl contenders this season.

There are some problems with that optimistic projection though, on both sides of the ball. I’ll get into their defense later, but on offense one big concern is simply that Roethlisberger, even though he’ll return in 2020, is now going into his age 38 season coming off of a major injury to his throwing arm. Roethlisberger has completed 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.82 YPA, 363 touchdowns, and 191 interceptions in 16 seasons in the league (216 starts) and he has finished in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in 8 seasons, but he’s a big question mark going into 2020 and he already seemed to be declining a little in 2018 when he finished 16th among quarterbacks on PFF. Rudolph and Hodges remain as the only backup options (though they could still sign a veteran like Cam Newton), so the Steelers are banking on Roethlisberger returning to form, which is far from a sure thing.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Roethlisberger also doesn’t have the same supporting cast as he did in 2018. Antonio Brown’s absence is the big one, but there are some other players on this offense whose stock isn’t as high as a year ago. One of those players is Brown’s former running game JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off of an injury plagued 2019. A year after posting a 111/1426/7 slash line, Smith-Schuster went for just 42/552/3 in 2019. 

A second round pick in 2017, Smith-Schuster averaged 2.11 yards per route run in his first 2 seasons in the league and seemingly broke out in 2018, but there were questions about whether or could produce without Brown drawing double teams opposite him and, fair or not, those questions remain, as, for reasons unrelated to Brown, he didn’t get a real shot to prove himself in 2019. Smith-Schuster was limited to 573 snaps in 12 games by leg injuries that also sapped his effectiveness and he had to play with among the worst quarterbacks in the league. The double teams that came his way as a result of Brown being gone didn’t help matters, but they probably were not the primary reason why he didn’t produce.

If he and Roethlisberger can stay healthy, Smith-Schuster should get a fair shot as the #1 guy in 2020, as the double teams likely aren’t going anywhere, with young wide receivers Dionte Johnson and James Washington still the top guys behind him on the depth chart. Given that they lack another proven pass catcher, the Steelers will need a big year from Smith-Schuster. He is only going into his age 24 season and has all the financial incentive in the world to produce in a contract year, but he comes with some uncertainty.

Johnson and Washington do come with some upside, as they were drafted in the 3rd round in 2019 and the 2nd round in 2018 respectively, as does this year’s 2nd year rounder, Chase Claypool out of Notre Dame. Claypool may be too raw to contribute significantly as a rookie, even though his versatility to also potentially play tight end is intriguing, but Johnson and Washington will be depended on for big roles at wide receiver. Both Washington and Johnson earned middling grades last season, but they led the team with a 44/735/3 slash line on 80 targets and a 59/680/5 slash line on 92 targets respectively, with Smith-Schuster banged up for most of the season, and they had 1.76 yards per route run and 1.61 yards per route run respectively, pretty solid considering the lack of talent around them on offense. 

For Washington, it was a significant improvement on a horrendous rookie year (0.57 yards per route run) and a good sign for the former 2nd round pick’s long-term prospects and for Johnson it was an impressive rookie year that he could easily build on in his second season. If Smith-Schuster is healthy he’ll get a larger target share this season, but this should be a much better offense overall, with Roethlisberger under center and Smith-Schuster drawing away coverage, and one or both of Johnson and Washington could take a step forward themselves as well, so they could definitely exceed last year’s receiving totals even if they don’t get the same target share.

The Steelers should also get more out of their tight ends, after completing just 53 passes to tight ends all last season. Vance McDonald led the position with a just 38/273/3 slash line, but he had a 50/610/4 slash line in 2018 with Roethlisberger in the lineup, so he has some bounce back potential, though it’s worth noting he’s going into his age 30 season and hasn’t topped 391 yards receiving in any of his other 6 seasons in the league besides 2018. Still, he should be more productive than last season and he’s a strong blocker as well. The Steelers also added tight end Eric Ebron in free agency, who will also contribute as a pass catching tight end. He comes over from the Colts on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal, so the Steelers are likely to use a lot of two-tight end sets. 

Ebron was selected 10th overall in 2014 and has shown flashes of why, but they’ve been inconsistent. His career best year came in 2018 when he had a 66/750/13 slash line, but he did that on 110 targets, catching just 60.0% of his targets for 6.82 yards per target, despite playing with Andrew Luck. In 2019, in a weaker offense with Jack Doyle healthy and snapping snaps with him, Ebron was limited to just a 31/375/3 slash line in 11 games. For his career, he has just a 55/616/5 slash line per 16 games. Still only going into his age 27 season, he could still have theoretical upside, but most likely he won’t be a game changer as a receiver and he also doesn’t block well either. The Steelers are young at wide receiver and could struggle for consistency as a result, but they have a high ceiling at the position and they have a solid tight end duo as well, so this has the potential to be a strong receiving corps.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Another player whose stock was higher a year ago is running back James Conner. At this time last year, he was coming off of what looked like a breakout year in his 2nd season in the league and his first season as a starter, as he rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.53 YPC), while adding a 55/497/1 slash line through the air. In 2019, injuries limited him to 328 snaps in 10 games and he rushed for just 464 yards and 4 touchdowns on 116 carries (4.00 YPC) with a 34/251/3 slash line through the air. Despite his relative struggles, Conner was missed when not in the lineup as, in his absence, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels were their top backs and they combined for 3.45 YPC on 174 carries on the season, a big part of the reason why the Steelers ranked 30th in the NFL with a team 3.66 YPC average.

Not only did injuries sap Conner’s abilities even when he was on the field, he was also held back by the offense around him, as were all of Pittsburgh’s running backs. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Conner still has a career 4.36 YPC average and is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential, but it’s worth noting he’s never made it through a full 16 game season. When healthy, he’s an every down back with the upside to be among the best in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee. Given that and the fact that Conner is heading into the final year of his rookie contract, the Steelers added to their running back depth this off-season, adding Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. He’ll compete with Snell and Samuels for snaps behind Conner.

Snell and Samuels are also recent draft picks, with Snell going in the 4th round in 2019 and Samuels going in the 5th round in 2018. Snell’s rookie year YPC of 3.94 on 108 carries is nothing to write home about, but part of it was just that he didn’t break a big run, as he actually did a pretty solid job keeping offense on track all things considered, as his 49% carry success rate was 24th out of 45 qualifying running backs. For comparison, Conner ranked 35th at 45%. The Steelers are highly unlikely to have the same 689/345 pass attempt/carry split they had in Roethlisberger’s last season in 2018, with Roethlisberger coming off of injury and a dependable defense supporting them, so Snell could earn himself a somewhat significant role as a change of pace back behind Conner and he’d of course be in line for an even bigger role if Conner was to get hurt.

Samuels, on the other hand, was limited to a pathetic 2.65 YPC average last season on 66 carries and, though he did have a 4.57 YPC average on 56 carries as a rookie, he’s still unlikely to ever develop into a significant contributor as a runner. Where he can be a contributor is as a versatile player in the passing game, not just out of the backfield, but also as a tight end or wide receiver as well, positions he’s played in the past. He had 47 catches last season after 26 as a rookie and, even if Conner is healthier this season, Samuel should remain active on passing downs. This is a young group with a lot of upside, but also downside.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Steelers were also disappointing on the offensive line last season, at least compared to their normal dominant selves, as they got below average play from the left guard and the center spot. Center Maurkice Pouncey has been better in the past, including 4 finishes in a row in the top-14 among centers on Pro Football Focus in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to finishing 34th out of 35 qualifying centers in 2019, but he’s going into his age 31 season now, so his best days could be behind him. He has some bounce back potential, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he kept struggling. 

At left guard, long-time veteran (145 starts in 11 seasons, all in Pittsburgh) Ramon Foster retired this off-season after turning 34 in January. Foster was underwhelming in his final season as a starter, so he won’t be terribly difficult to replace, and the Steelers have a couple different options. The simplest one would just be to plug in veteran free agent addition Stefen Wisniewski for the short-term. The ultimate journeyman, Wisniewski is now going into his 10th season in the league with his 5th team. 

Wisniewski is an experienced starter (103 starts) with experience at both guard and center and he was consistently an above average starter in his prime (77 starts in 5 seasons from 2011-2015), but he’s been limited to more reserve work over the past 4 seasons (26 starts) and is now going into his age 31. Still, Wisniewski has shown well as a spot starter as well, especially down the stretch for the Super Bowl winning Chiefs last season, and there are definitely worse players to have to start at guard this season. He could at least be an adequate replacement for Foster.

The Steelers’ other option is to move right tackle Matt Feiler to left guard. Feiler has broken out as an above average starting right tackle over the past 2 seasons, finishing 35th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 (10 starts) and 17th last season (16 starts), so it would be risky to try to change his position and hope he plays at the same level in a less familiar spot, but the Steelers have good offensive tackle depth and may feel that moving Feiler inside allows them to get their 5 best offensive linemen on the field at the same time. 

If Feiler were to move inside, right tackle duties would either be left to Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner. Okorafor has played just 229 mediocre snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he went in the 3rd round in 2018 and is still only going into his age 23 season, so he has plenty of upside. Banner, meanwhile, went in the 4th round in 2017 with the Colts, but spent his first 2 seasons in the league barely playing while bouncing from the Colts to the Browns to the Panthers to, eventually, the Steelers. With the Steelers, he flashed on 216 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career, but was primarily used as a situational 6th offensive lineman/blocking tight end and saw just 27 pass block snaps all season. He would be a huge projection to a larger role, even if he did show a lot of potential as a run blocker last season.

Along with Feiler, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and right guard David DeCastro are coming off of strong seasons, so, outside of left guard and center, this was still a strong offensive line last season. Both Villanueva and DeCastro have been starting in their current spot for several years, with Villanueva making 74 starts since 2015 and DeCastro making 111 starts since 2012. Both have played consistently well, with Villanueva finishing in the top-21 among offensive tackles on PFF in 4 straight seasons and DeCastro finishing in the top-17 among guards on PFF in 7 straight seasons. Age is becoming a concern for both of them, with Villanueva going into his age 32 season and DeCastro going into his age 30 season. Villanueva’s age is a bigger concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, nor has DeCastro. Even if they decline this season, they should remain at least solid starters. This group isn’t as dominant as it has traditionally been, but this is still a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

If the Steelers’ offense can at least be capable this season and their defense plays like it did last season when it finished 2nd only to the Patriots with a 32.43% first down rate allowed, the Steelers have a great chance to make it back to the post-season. There is reason to believe their defense won’t be quite as good in 2020, however, primarily due to the sheer number of players who had career best years on this side of the ball. The likelihood that happens again is low, so some regression is to be expected just from that. The Steelers were closer to the 15th ranked Saints on defense last year than they were to the 1st ranked Patriots, so even a little bit of regression on this side of the ball could have a big impact.

The two most obvious players who had career best years were starting edge defenders TJ Watt and Bud Dupree. Watt, a first round pick in 2017, made a big leap from his 2nd to his 3rd year, finishing 51st and 26th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018 respectively before jumping to #1 overall in 2019, when he was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 14.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate. 

Dupree, meanwhile, went in the first round in 2015 and suddenly broke out in his contract year in 2019, after 4 underwhelming years to start his career (9.4% pressure rate). Dupree had 11.5 sacks and while his peripheral pass rush numbers weren’t as good (9 hits, 9.4% pressure rate), he still finished 24th among edge defenders on PFF. Both players could regress in 2020, particularly Dupree, who is a complete one-year wonder, which is why he’s likely to spend the season on the franchise tag (15.828 million) and not get a long-term extension this off-season. Watt should still be one of the better players in the league at his position, but he could have a long productive career and still only ever match last year’s level of production a couple times, so he’s not a guarantee to be as good.

It’s also possible Watt or Dupree could miss time with injury, after both played in 16 games in 2019, which would expose the Steelers’ lack of depth at the position. Watt and Dupree played 86.3% and 90.4% of the snaps respectively last season because of their lack of depth and the Steelers are likely hoping they can do the same again this season. Even Anthony Chickillo, their top reserve with 146 snaps played last season, is no longer with the team, leaving raw 3rd round rookie Alex Highsmith and 2018 undrafted rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (71 career snaps) as their likely top reserves. Everything went well at the position in 2019, but injuries and/or regression are certainly possible in 2020, which would expose their lack of depth.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

On the interior, the Steelers get a talented player back from injury in Stephon Tuitt, who plays defensive end in base packages and stays on the field as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. Tuitt was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked interior defender in 2017, their 24th ranked interior defender in 2018, and then was ranked 6th at his position through 6 games when he went down for the season with a torn pectoral last year, but his absence didn’t actually affect this defense that much. Reserve Tyson Alualu (432 snaps) replaced Tuitt on early downs and, while he didn’t add much pass rush (7.4% pressure rate), he actually had a better run stopping grade on the season than Tuitt did, so he was arguably an upgrade in that aspect, finishing 12th on PFF among interior defenders on run stopping grade.

Meanwhile, nose tackle Javon Hargrave took over as more or less an every down player and finished the season as PFF’s 9th ranked interior defender, excelling against the run, but also adding 4 sacks and a 13.1% pressure rate. Hargrave signed with the Eagles this off-season, so, while Tuitt’s return helps in a vacuum, it’s offset by the loss of Hargrave. Alualu is also unlikely to repeat arguably the most effective season of his 10-year career, now going into his age 33 season. On top of that, Tuitt is far from a lock to stay healthy, not having played in all 16 games since his rookie year back in 2014.

Cameron Heyward played all 16 games on the other side and had a dominant year as an every down player, finishing 2nd among interior defenders, only behind Aaron Donald. He’s unlikely to be quite as good in 2020, however. Heyward has been a high level player for years, finishing in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF in each of his last 5 healthy seasons, but prior to last season he had never finished higher than 7th at his position and that was his only other finish in the top-10. Now going into his age 31 season, Heyward should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons, but it’s likely his 2019 season will stand out as clearly the best year of his career when all is said and done. Any regression from him hurts their chances of remaining an elite unit in 2020.

The Steelers did replenish depth somewhat this off-season by trading for Chris Wormley, formerly of division rival Baltimore. Wormley was a 3rd round pick in 2017, but has been middling at best on 1,027 career snaps. Already going into his age 27 season, Wormley is unlikely to make a big impact and he’d be playing slightly out of position if he had to play nose tackle, which is most likely to be his primary spot, with Heyward and Tuitt as the ends in base packages and Alualu still around as a reserve. This should still be a strong group if everyone is healthy, but they can afford an injury much less this season than last season because of the loss of Hargrave and both Heyward and Alualu are on the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to repeat their career best year from 2019.

Grade: A-


Linebacker was probably the Steelers’ worst group on defense last season and it doesn’t get better after losing starter Mark Barron in free agency. Barron was pretty underwhelming last season, but he played 750 snaps and they didn’t really replace him, which could force situational run stuffer Vince Williams into an every down role, with no good depth to speak of at the position. Williams played well against the run last season, as he has throughout his career, but he only played 397 snaps total and has never been good in coverage, which has limited him to a max of 785 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league. He’s unlikely to suddenly get better, now going into his age 31 season. The Steelers may try to mask their lack of linebacker depth by using a 3rd safety as a linebacker frequently in sub packages, but their depth at safety is suspect as well, so that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Fortunately, Devin Bush remains as an every down player at the other off ball linebacker spot in this 3-4 defense. Bush had some growing pains early on, but finished with an above average grade on Pro Football Focus regardless and was their 19th ranked off ball linebacker from week 4 on. Still only going into his age 22 season, Bush is still dripping with upside and could easily develop into one of the best off ball linebackers in the league over the next few seasons. He elevates a position group that has a significant depth problem.

Grade: B-


Top cornerback Steven Nelson is also coming off of the best year of his career. He has improved in all 4 seasons he’s been a starter (53 starts), but he finished 83rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2016, 74th in 2017, and 26th in 2018, so his 7th ranked finish in 2019 was a big jump. Still only going into his age 27 season, it’s possible Nelson has turned a corner and will remain an elite player and he should remain at least a solid starter even if he regresses, but he’s not a guarantee to repeat by far the best season of his career.

Along with the addition of Nelson on a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar deal last off-season, the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade after week 2 was among the biggest additions to this roster that led to their breakout season on defense last year. Like Nelson and many others, Fitzpatrick is coming off of a career best year, finishing 11th among safeties on PFF, but there is reason to believe he can keep it up.

Fitzpatrick was the 11th overall pick by the Dolphins in 2018 and had an underwhelming rookie year, while moving all over the formation, outside cornerback, slot cornerback, deep safety, box safety, which led to Fitzpatrick wanting out of Miami. He got his wish when the Steelers sent a 2020 first round pick (eventually 18th overall) to acquire him and immediately he broke out, playing primarily as an every down deep safety, which seems to be his best spot. Fitzpatrick is obviously still unproven, but he’s still very young, going into his age 24 season, and looks like he’s going to be one of the top safeties in the league for years to come.

Fellow starting safety Terrell Edmunds also went in the first round in 2018, taken directly by the Steelers at #28 overall. Edmunds hasn’t been as good as Fitzpatrick and doesn’t have as high of a ceiling, but he’s been a capable starter across 31 starts and has the upside to be a lot more going forward. He won’t necessarily have a breakout year this year, but he could and I would expect him to at least take a step forward after back-to-back middling seasons to begin his career.

At cornerback, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton remain as the #2 and #3 cornerbacks behind Nelson. Both earned above average grades last season, Haden ranking 34th among cornerbacks on PFF and Hilton ranking 51st. Haden is an experienced starter with 123 starts in 10 seasons in the league and he has earned an above average grade in 8 of those 10 seasons, with one of the exceptions being an injury wrecked season in 2015. His age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, but even if he declines a little, he should remain a solid starter at least another year or two.

With Nelson and Haden on the outside, Nelson specializes in the slot, where he has played 86.7% of his 1,121 coverage snaps over the past 3 seasons. He has ranked in the top-20 among cornerbacks in slot coverage snaps played in all 3 seasons and he has allowed just 1.13 yards per route run on those coverage snaps, but he’s not just a coverage cornerback, as he played the run well as well and adds value as a blitzer off the edge, with 6.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 16.5% pressure rate on 200 career blitzes. Hilton went undrafted back in 2016, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in which he’s played and has developed into one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league.

Hilton’s size limitations at 5-9 184 mean he’ll almost never play outside, but the Steelers fortunately do have good outside depth in Cameron Sutton, who is a good 4th cornerback. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Sutton hasn’t played much in his career yet (621 snaps, 2 starts) and he was pretty bad in his first 2 seasons, but he flashed on a career high 268 snaps last season and still may have a lot of upside, only going into his age 25 season. He’s probably overqualified as a 4th cornerback. Their depth isn’t as good at safety, where Kameron Kelly, who was horrendous on the first 133 snaps of his career in 2019, is likely going to be the 3rd safety, but this is still a strong secondary overall, led by Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who should have strong seasons even if they don’t match last year’s career bests.

Grade: A-


In 2018, the Steelers ranked 6th in first down rate at 40.55% with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. In 2019, the Steelers ranked 2nd in first down rate allowed at 32.43%. Now that Ben Roethlisberger is coming back, many expect they can have a top offense and defense and compete for the Super Bowl. I don’t think that’s quite true. On offense, Roethlisberger is going into his age 38 season, coming off of a major injury, without a competent backup, and his supporting cast isn’t the same as it was two years ago. On defense, the Steelers’ top-6 defensive players last season (TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Javon Hargrave, Steven Nelson, and Bud Dupree) all either had the best year of their career last season or, in Hargrave’s case, they are no longer on the team. 

They still have plenty of talent on that side of the ball and they get Stephon Tuitt back from injury to replace Hargrave, but a lot went close to perfect on defense last season and they may regress back closer to the middle of the pack in 2020. This should still be a competitive team that has a good shot to get one of the three wild cards spots in the AFC in this new expanded playoff format, but they’re clearly behind the Ravens in the division and I wouldn’t consider them true Super Bowl contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Steelers are still in good shape going into the season and look like a borderline contender. Their chances of winning the division increased when the Ravens cut Earl Thomas, but I still have Pittsburgh behind Baltimore in the AFC North.

Projection: 11-5 (2nd in AFC North)

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) at Baltimore Ravens (13-2)

The Ravens’ season got off to an unspectacular start, as they were just 2-2 through 4 games, including a blowout week 4 loss against the Browns, but they have won 11 straight games since then and have the #1 seed in the AFC already locked up before week 17, allowing them to rest key players in a game that is meaningless for them. For the Steelers, this game is the opposite, as they are one of three teams still alive for the 2nd wild card spot in the AFC. Losing this game won’t eliminate the Steelers, as they can still make the post-season if the Titans and Raiders lose and the Colts win, and winning this game won’t guarantee them a post-season spot, as the Titans would hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers if both teams win, but the Steelers’ path to the post-season is certainly easier with a win. 

The common logic seems to be that because the Steelers need this game and the Ravens don’t that the Steelers will be able to prevail and, as a result, they are favored by 2 points on the road in Baltimore. It’s difficult to come up with a calculated line for a game in which one side will be playing several unproven backups, but I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5. For this line to be accurate at Pittsburgh -2, the Ravens would have to rank around 27th or 28th in my roster rankings and even at far less than 100% I don’t think they are that bad. They can’t rest everyone and this is a deep roster with great schemes on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers obviously have the edge on defense, as they have one of the top stop units in the NFL, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.64%, but Baltimore’s offense is still better than the Steelers offense even with backups in the lineup. As good as the Steelers defense is, their offense is equally bad, maybe even more so. They rank 30th in the NFL in first down rate at 31.42% and are starting overmatched undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges at quarterback. 

Baltimore backup quarterback Robert Griffin is far more experienced and proven at the NFL level, even if he is just a backup caliber talent. I’m not expecting Griffin to suddenly become the quarterback he was when he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, but I’m excited to see how he performs in extended action in a scheme that actually fits his abilities and what we’ve seen from him in limited action and the pre-season has been promising. I don’t want to bet on the Ravens because of the uncertainty over how some of their backups will perform, but they should be the right side in this one.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +2

Confidence: Low