Jerome Bettis has high hopes for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020.
“I think the expectation moving into next year is playoffs,” the Steelers Hall of Fame running back said. “One hundred percent.”
Pittsburgh needed just one win over its final three games to clinch a wild-card berth in 2019, but lost to the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, and a Baltimore Ravens team that already secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Steelers finished the campaign 8-8 despite franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined for 14 games after undergoing elbow surgery in September. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (42 receptions, 552 yards, 3 TDs) was limited to 12 games because of foot and knee injuries. Knee and shoulder injuries restricted running back James Conner to 464 yards and four touchdowns on 116 rushes in 10 games.
Yet while the Steelers pieced together an offense behind backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges, it was Pittsburgh’s defense that turned back the clock and was the team’s focal point.
The Steelers were fifth in the NFL with 18.9 points allowed per game and 304.1 yards per game. Led by T.J. Watt’s league-high eight forced fumbles and Bud Dupree’s four, Pittsburgh led the league with 33 fumbles caused. Pittsburgh’s 54.0 sacks were best in the NFL—Watt had a team-high 14.5 while Dupree added a career-high 11.5. The Steelers had a league-leading 38 takeaways, including the second-most interceptions with 20—Joe Haden had a team-high five—and harassed opposing quarterbacks the most with 180 QB pressures.
“The Steelers’ defense was a playoff-caliber defense,” said Bettis, who retired after winning Super Bowl XL with the organization. “They were one of the best in the NFL. You have to think when Ben comes back they will have a little bit of continuity on offense and the defense is already good enough to get them into the playoffs—they were one game out of the playoffs last year—so that tells you this defense is that good.
“If you have any kind of offense that’s stable, then they’re in the playoffs.”
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the team doesn’t have much leeway when it comes to the salary cap to make too many moves this offseason. The team has $5.57 million in cap space according to OverTheCap.com after terminating the contracts of linebackers Mark Barron and Anthony Chickillo and wide receiver Johnny Holton on March 16.
Pittsburgh also placed the franchise tag on Dupree, an outside linebacker, ahead of NFL Free Agency officially opening 4 p.m. ET today.
The Steelers can also look toward the 2020 NFL Draft to bolster both sides of the ball in the hopes of qualifying for the league’s expanded playoffs, which is up to 14 teams as part of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Pittsburgh traded its first-round pick to acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins in September. The team has six selections in the upcoming draft to be held without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic from April 23-25 in Las Vegas.
Pittsburgh’s 2020 draft picks are: No. 49 (second round), No. 102 (third round), No. 124 (fourth round), No. 135 (fourth round), No. 198 (sixth round) and No. 232 (seventh round).
“I think playoffs are the goal to strive for and I believe that will happen; it’s not far-fetched to believe they can’t win two or three more games than this year,” Bettis said. “I think it’s a promising year for the Steelers going into the 2020 campaign. I’m excited to see what they can do.”