(KDKA)- It seems almost impossible, but the NFL season kicks off in just two weeks when the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs meet on Thursday, September 10. It will be a season far different from what we’ve been used to, with games to be played in empty or partially filled stadiums due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every team has had to adjust, and Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers are no different.
For the first time in over 50 years, the Steelers didn’t hold training camp at Saint Vincent College, instead moving to their home stadium, Heinz Field. Despite the move, much of training camp has remained the same, with practices, walk-throughs and meeting sessions going on as scheduled. The biggest difference, and perhaps the most detrimental, KDKA sports anchor Rich Walsh points out, is the lack of preseason games.
“It’s definitely an unusual offseason for sure, especially with no preseason games. But they’re trying to do walk-throughs and scrimmages,” said Walsh in an interview with CBS Local’s Katie Johnston. “But I don’t think that can replicate a preseason game, especially for the guys that are on the bubble trying to make the team.”
The guys on the bubble may still have an opportunity to play, even if they don’t make the team out of the gate. The league is providing leeway for the possibility of COVID-19 infections, with expanded practice squads and active rosters. For the Steelers, the biggest focal point isn’t the back end of the roster, but rather the top end, with the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Big Ben missed all but two games last season after injuring his elbow and undergoing surgery. Roethlisberger has said that doctors told him his only hope of continuing to play was to have surgery, and he now appears to be back to full strength. But, at 38 years old, what are the realistic expectations for his performance this season? Walsh says that from his conversations with Roethlisberger, those expectations should be pretty high.
“He thinks that his arm is just as healthy as it was two, three years ago, maybe even more healthy, because he doesn’t have that wear and tear and that pain he would get, that nagging pain. So I think he thinks he’s good to go,” said Walsh. “I’ll tell you one thing about Ben right now, he’s motivated to have a really good season. I haven’t seen this guy motivated quite like he is this offseason.”
A motivated Big Ben will, at the very least, be an improvement over the quarterback performances the team got last year from the duo of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. The Steelers ranked 31st in passing yards (3,113 yards), 28th in passing touchdowns (18), recorded the fifth-most interceptions in the league (19) and ranked 27th in scoring (18.1 PPG).
That lack of a passing offense, combined with an injury-plagued year for James Conner and an uncharacteristically down year from the offensive line, made for a poor rushing attack as well. Not only is Roethlisberger healthy, but so is Conner, and the line got reinforced with the addition of Stefen Wisniewski. The offense should be able to provide more this season, which will only help a defense that was one of the league’s best last season.
The back end of the unit got a boost with the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick through a trade with the Dolphins last season. Now, a full season of Fitzpatrick, with contract years for T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, could make for another top-10 unit. In addition to Watt and Dupree, defensive end Casey Heyward is looking for his next contract. Walsh says Heyward has “made it known that he wants to be here. So that’s another guy that is motivated in a contract year.”
While motivation is high, there is a tall mountain to climb within the division. The rival Baltimore Ravens finished last season 14-2, with quarterback Lamar Jackson emerging as a star, winning league MVP. The Ravens bring essentially their entire team back and added to their defensive depth with a pair of veterans in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe.
Last year’s media darlings, the Cleveland Browns, didn’t make a push last year, but they appear to have improved further this offseason. Where do the Steelers stand? Walsh says that the season, no surprise, rests on the shoulders, or should we say elbow, of Ben Roethlisberger.
“It’s all about the quarterback. There is a motivated, healthy Ben Roethlisberger. I can see the Steelers in the mix. There’s no question about it. I think this season depends on No. 7, in my mind,” said Walsh. “They’re going to have a good defense. But if Seven is the guy from 2017 and 2018, then the Steelers are going to be in pretty good shape.”