On Sunday, the Steelers became the first Pittsburgh team to start 4-0 since the 1979. The '79 team, which won Pittsburgh's fourth Super Bowl in six years, was led by a high-scoring offense that featured the talents of quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who was in the middle of the best two-year stretch of his career. And while they were slightly overshadowed by their offense, Pittsburgh's aging but still dominant defense was also a big reason why the Steelers ended the 1970s as champions.
The 2020 team has a similar dynamic. While Pittsburgh's defense, following a dominant 2019 season, has understandably been receiving the majority of the attention, it's time to start recognizing the capabilities of Pittsburgh's offense, especially after what we saw during the team's most recent win, a 31-29 victory over the visiting Eagles. Ben Roethlisberger, who looks better than ever a year removed from elbow surgery, threw three touchdowns to rookie receiver Chase Claypool, who also ran for a score while becoming the first Steeler since 1968 to score four touchdowns in a game.
Claypool was also part of a Steelers rushing attack that churned out 136 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. Pittsburgh went 11 of 15 on third down and three of three in the red zone, as the Steelers scored over 30 points for the first time since 2018. Pittsburgh's offense did not miss a beat despite losing Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro and receiver Diontae Johnson to injuries in the first half.
Given the budding success of its offense, we decided take a chronological look back at Pittsburgh's best offenses with Roethlisberger under center, and where this year's unit has the potential to rank when it's all said and done.
Roethlisberger lost talented receiver Plaxico Burress in free agency, but he gained a new tight end in first round pick Heath Miller. Big Ben developed an immediate rapport with Miller, who retired a decade later as the best tight end in franchise history. Roethlisberger, who was in his second season as Pittsburgh's starting quarterback, also utilized the talents of receivers Hines Ward (the franchise's career leader in catches, yards and touchdowns), Antwaan Randle El and Cedric Wilson. Pittsburgh's offensive line was anchored by Alan Faneca, a finalist for Hall of Fame each of the past four years.
While he was nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, running back Jerome Bettis embraced his role as the team's closer. Bettis also jumpstarted the Steelers' season after rushing for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the Bears, the first of eight consecutive victories for the Steelers. Pittsburgh's starting running back that season, speedster Willie Parker, rushed for 1,202 yards during the regular season. His 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL, along with Ward's MVP performance, helped the Steelers capture their first championship in 26 years.
Though he lost Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes during the offseason, Roethlisberger did gain two new weapons in rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Sanders and Brown played alongside Ward, Randle El and second-year receiver Mike Wallace, who caught a team-high 60 passes for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns. Pittsburgh's offensive line, led by rookie Maurkice Pouncey, paved the way for running back Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Two touchdowns by Miller, along with Brown's 58-yard catch late in the game, propelled Pittsburgh to a come-from-behind win over the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs. Mendenhall's 121 rushing yards a week later helped the Steelers edge the Jets to secure Pittsburgh's third AFC title in six years. Pittsburgh's offense could not overcome a slow start in Super Bowl XLV, however, as the Steelers fell to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, 31-25.
This season was the true beginning of Pittsburgh's "Killer B" era. While Roethlisberger tied Drew Brees for the NFL's passing title, the team's MVP that season was Le'Veon Bell, who amassed 2,215 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns during his second season. Bell also caught 83 passes that season (a single-season record for a Steelers running back) as Pittsburgh returned to the playoffs for the first time in three years. Bell and Big Ben were complemented by Brown, who that season caught 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Miller finished second on the team with 761 receiving yards, while rookie Martavis Bryant caught eight touchdowns while averaging 21.1 yards per catch.
While the Steelers had arguably the best quarterback/running back/receiver trio in the NFL, their lack of offensive depth reared its ugly head in the playoffs. With Bell out with a hyperextended knee, Pittsburgh rushed for just 68 yards on 19 carries while relying too much on Roethlisberger, who threw two interceptions while being sacked five times in a wild card loss to the rival Ravens.
Despite not having Roethlisberger for four consecutive games (and parts of eight games), Pittsburgh still finished fourth in the NFL in scoring. Roethlisberger, who led the NFL in average passing yards per game, had a field day getting the ball to Brown, who that season set career highs with 136 receptions for 1,834 yards. The duo was unstoppable in Week 15, with Brown catching 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores in Pittsburgh's come-from-behind victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos.
DeAngelo Williams, who inked a two-year deal with the Steelers during the offseason, enjoyed a career rebirth in 2015. With Bell (who served a two-game suspension before suffering a torn MCL in Week 8) missing the majority of the season, Williams rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns while also catching 40 passes for 367 yards. Pittsburgh's offense also included Bryant, whose balletic touchdown reception helped the Steelers defeat the Bengals in the AFC wild card round.
The '15 Steelers were done in by injuries. Williams missed the postseason with a knee injury, while Brown missed Pittsburgh's divisional round playoff game after sustaining a concussion. While Bryant caught nine passes for 154 yards against Denver's top-ranked defense, a critical fourth quarter fumble by backup running back Fitzgerald Toussaint played a signifiant role in Pittsburghs' 23-16 loss.
Similar to 2014, the strength of Pittsburgh's offense was Bell, who returned to full strength after missing most of the previous season. Despite playing in just 12 games (he started the season with a four-game suspension), Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 75 passes for 616 yards and two scores while helping the Steelers go 11-5 after a 4-5 start. In Week 14, his 236-yard, three touchdown performance in Buffalo set the franchise single game regular season mark. In the playoffs, Bell rushed for franchise playoff single game records 167 and 170 yards in victories over Miami and Kansas City. Brown scored two touchdowns against the Dolphins before making several critical catches in Pittsburgh's win over the Chiefs.
Also similar to 2014, the Steelers' lack of depth at the skill positions came back to haunt them in the playoffs. While he was an extremely effective backup the previous season, a nagging injury hindered Williams' effectiveness when he was asked to replace an injured Bell in the AFC Championship Game. And while receivers Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton had their moments, the Steelers never found an adequate replacement for Bryant, who was suspended for the entire season. Pittsburgh also endured a season-ending injury to tight end (and offseason free agent acquisition) Ladarius Green in Week 16.
Without Green, Bell and a reliable No. 2 receiver, the Steelers' offense wilted in New England, as Pittsburgh scored just 17 points in a 19-point loss.
This offense seemingly had everything. Bell, despite sitting out training camp, earned All-Pro honors for a second time after amassing 1,944 all-purpose yards. Brown, who that offseason became the NFL's highest paid receiver, was in the running to be the first receiver to be named league MVP before an injury sidelined him for the season's final two games. Brown was complemented by Bryant and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught seven touchdowns that included a 97-yard score in Pittsburgh's Week 8 win over the Lions. The Steelers' offense also boasted three Pro Bowl linemen in Pouncey, DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva, a former military veteran who replaced former starter Kelvin Beachum in the starting lineup six games into the 2015 season.
Pittsburgh's offense met its match in the playoffs, however, as several early turnovers by Roethlisberger (who threw five interceptions against the Jaguars in Week 5) helped Jacksonville jump out to a 28-7 lead. While the Steelers' offense eventually found their footing, it was too little too late, as Jacksonville held on for a 45-42 win. The Steelers, 13-3 during the regular season, lost despite getting five touchdown passes from Roethlisberger and 545 yards from their offense.
Despite losing Bell (who held out the entire season), the Steelers' 53 touchdowns that season broke a 39-year-old franchise record. Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards, while Brown and Smith-Schuster's 2,723 combined receiving yards is the most by a Steelers receiving duo. Pittsburgh's passing attack was complemented by James Conner, who totaled 1,470 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns. The Steelers' tight end duo of Jesse James and Vance McDonald combined to catch 80 passes for 1,033 yards and six touchdowns.
Turnovers and injuries were the two main things that plagued this group. The Steelers lost two late-season games with Conner on the shelf with an injury, while Roethlisberger's league high 16 interceptions was a signifiant factor in the Steelers failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Where can the 2020 unit end up on this list?
The Steelers' current offense is capable of being the best unit Big Ben has had in his 17 seasons in Pittsburgh. Unlike in recent seasons, the Steelers have formidable depth at receiver, tight end and at running back. Along with Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh's offense features Claypool and fellow receivers Johnson and James Washington, who caught several key passes in Pittsburgh's win over Philadelphia. Another player who needs mentioned is receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, a former sixth-round pick who beat out Ryan Switzer for a spot on Pittsburgh's roster. McCloud, whose 58-yard run on Sunday set up the Steelers' first of two second half touchdowns, is expected to have a bigger role in the offense as the season progresses.
Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh's biggest free agent signing this offseason, has caught 10 passes over the past two games that includes his touchdown catch in Pittsburgh's Week 3 win over Houston. And while he hasn't been too involved in the passing game, McDonald (who has proven to be a solid receiver when his number is called) has more than made up for it with his stellar blocking through four games. McDonald's blocking has further strengthened a Pittsburgh rushing attack that is currently eighth in the league in rushing. And while Conner is still the Steelers' No. 1 back, Pittsburgh is utilizing its other running backs more this season than it has in recent seasons. Benny Snell already has 36 carries after toting the rock just 108 times as a rookie, while rookie Anthony McFarland, after not receiving a carry during Pittsburgh's first two games, has rushed for 48 yards on nine carries during the Steelers' two most recent wins. The Steelers have yet to utilize third year running back Jaylen Samuels, who is arguably the team's best receiver out of the backfield.
While DeCastro was certainly missed in the running game on Sunday, the Steelers' offensive line received another stellar performance from rookie Kevin Dotson, who received a game ball after making his first career start back in Week 2. Pittsburgh's offensive line, a unit that continues to feature Pouncey, DeCastro and Villanueva, will get even stronger when veteran guard Stefen Wisniewski is able to come off of injured reserve.
it goes without saying that Roethlisberger continues to be the straw that stirs the drink as it relates to Pittsburgh's offense. And while questions surrounded his possible effectiveness a year after elbow surgery, Roethlisberger has silenced those questions with his play. Through four games, Roethlisberger is completed 69.9% of his passes (which is 5.5 points above his career percentage) with 10 touchdowns and just one interception. Roethlisberger, whose level of fitness always seems to be a question in Pittsburgh, looks like he is back to his rookie weight of 240 pounds. Big Ben is enjoying the new wrinkles new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada has integrated into the offense, as the Steelers' offense now includes vastly more jet sweeps and pre-snap motion. Roethlisberger also continues to get more in sync with Randy Fichtner, who is in his third season as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator.
There are valid questions as it relates to the Steelers' offense. Pittsburgh's offensive line, with three starters now over the age of 30, will have to continue to hold up as well as it has despite losing Wisniewski and former starter Zach Banner. Conner's durability remains a question mark, while Pittsburgh's young receiving corps, as good as they've been during the early stages of the season, will have to be able to come up with big plays during pivotal moments late in the season. Roethlisberger, the third-most sacked quarterback in league history, will also have to continue to hold up as well as he has during the season's first quarter.
While those questions will undoubtedly be answered over time, one thing we already know is that Pittsburgh's offense has the potential to be Big Ben's best. If the Steelers' offense realizes their potential, that could ultimately lead to championship No. 3 for Roethlisberger, which would put him in the category of Tom Brady, Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman as the only starting quarterbacks with three Super Bowl wins.