Don’t sleep on the Pittsburgh Steelers as Super Bowl contenders in 2020

Beware the sleeping giant.

The 2019 season was a rare lost year for the Pittsburgh Steelers – a middling 8-8 record seeing them miss out on the playoffs for the second year in a row.

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While the New England Patriots are often, and quite rightly, held up as a model of consistency – particularly over the last two decades – in a league that is meant to ensure competitive parity, the Steelers have been a shining example as far back as the 1970s.

Not only do their six Super Bowl rings match New England’s, but last season represented only the 18th time the team have failed to reach the postseason since the 1971 season – a success rate of 63 per cent.

To put that into context, Pittsburgh’s opponents on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns – live on Sky Sports NFL from 6pm – have failed to reach the playoffs 35 times over that same span and, in fact, they nearly match the Steelers’ total tally with 17 early exits in the last 17 seasons!

Yet, the Steelers were so quickly cast aside last year for the shiny new play things of Odell Beckham Jr, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and the like over in Cleveland last year, with the Browns tipped by many for a Super Bowl run, let alone a first playoff victory since 1995.

The Browns, as they tend to, ultimately flattered to deceive, faltering to a 6-10 record and it was instead the Baltimore Ravens and their MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson that swept all in front of them in the AFC North.

The same was expected to be the narrative in 2020 but, while the Ravens (4-1) and Browns (4-1) are both respected rivals, it is the Steelers who are the early front-runners in the North, unbeaten at 4-0 – staggeringly, given their history of success, for the first time in 41 years.

So why are people sleeping on the Steelers?

In truth, the answer is they are not. Many experts liked this team from the start of the season, some even tipping Super Bowl success, pointing to the absence of their future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to injury last year as the reason behind their 2019 stumbles.

Frankly, with Mason Rudolph and Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges under center, it is a miracle Pittsburgh managed to even limp their way to 8-8 mediocrity.

A major factor in that overachievement is down to the man at the helm, held coach Mike Tomlin, one of the most highly-respected coaches in the league and a man who has yet to have a losing record on his CV in his 13 years in charge of the team.

Adding to the optimism in 2020 is the return of Roethlisberger, crucial to making this offence tick. Many had wondered and worried how the 38-year-old veteran would look on his comeback from an elbow injury in which he has said he tore three of the five flexor tendons in his right elbow “off the bone”.

The early signs are good. Really good. ‘Big Ben’ posted career numbers in 2018 before being struck down last season, passing for 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns, but with 1,016 and 10 TDs through the Steelers’ first four games of 2020, he is already on course to challenge those numbers.

Roethlisberger said ahead of the season’s start he was sure to be “shaking like a leaf” on his return to the field, quite the admission for a two-time winning Super Bowl quarterback, but there have been no such signs of nerves or jitters.

Perhaps the reason for that is the array of offensive talent he has around him to throw the ball to, with standout rookie receiver Chase Claypool – scorer of four touchdowns in last week’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles – the latest off the Pittsburgh playmaker factory line.

This is a squad that has had some of the league’s best pass through town in recent years, and many wondered in fact how the Steelers would cope minus their ‘Killer Bs’ attack of Ben, (Le’Veon) Bell and (Antonio) Brown when that was broken up after the 2018 season.

The Steelers have yet to return to the postseason, but that is not due to the absence of either Bell – who is moving on to Kansas City after already flaming out in New York – and Brown, who is currently out of the league after allegations of sexual and personal misconduct were levelled against him last year.

The production in Pittsburgh has not dipped, however, as James Conner has proven an immensely capable running back, JuJu Smith-Schuster was already challenging to be the ‘top dog’ even when Brown was still in town and now there is Claypool too to add into the mix.

Sky Sports NFL expert Jeff Reinebold likes what he sees: “His [Roethlisberger’s] elbow is stronger and healthier than it has been in a while. And the thing I like about him is, it looks like he has got into much better shape in the offseason.

“And in this young Claypool kid, the Canadian kid out of Notre Dame, he has found himself another tremendous weapon.

“It wasn’t that many years ago that they let go of Le’Veon Bell, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and everybody said, ‘Steelers, what are you doing?’.

“Well, they have replenished with great players – and better guys, better team-mates. The Steelers, certainly the way I look at them, are definitely a playoff threat.”

And we have not even got to the Steelers’ defence yet. One which boasts seven first-round draft picks (the most in the NFL) on that side of the ball; the likes of Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden and Cameron Heyward.

The addition of safety Fitzpatrick, via a trade from the Miami Dolphins midway through last season, appears to have been the missing piece of the puzzle, with Pittsburgh’s defence serving as one of the NFL’s best ever since, while Watt is a one-man QB wrecking crew, just like his older brother down in Houston. He already has 4.5 sacks on the season, after 14.5 last year and 13 the year before.

The Steelers currently rank No 4 in the league in passing defence (allowing 237.5 yards per game) but it is their run defence which is well and truly the standout (a paltry 64 YPG given up), and this weekend it is the Browns and their league-leading rush attack that comes to town (a massive 235.5 YPG) making for a mouth-watering match-up.

Something has to give. And the Steelers are not planning on it being them.

Cleveland have not won in Pittsburgh since as far back as the 2003 season! And while their 4-1 squad have a great chance of ending that streak on Sunday, you will not catch the Steelers sleeping on them.

This sleeping giant is well and truly awake.

Week Six gets underway on Sky Sports NFL with a triple header on Sunday, starting with an AFC North rivalry with the Cleveland Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers – build up begins at 5pm, with kick-off at 6pm.

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