Three Steelers poised for breakout seasons in 2020, including one big offseason addition

While injuries kept the 2019 Steelers from reaching the playoffs, the team’s top-end talent enabled Pittsburgh to remain in playoff contention until the final week of the regular season. In all, six Steelers were named to the 2020 Pro Bowl, a number that is especially impressive given the fact that James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ben Roethlisberger — Pro Bowlers the previous season — missed significant time with injuries and were not part of last year’s Pro Bowl squad. 

Pittsburgh’s 2019 Pro Bowlers — center Maurkice Pouncey, offensive guard David DeCastro, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, cornerback Joe Haden, outside linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — are all expected to have similar success in 2020 while competing for Pro Bowl selections for the 2021 all-star game. There are several other Steelers who fans should also expect big seasons from in 2020. Here’s a look at three players who appear to be poised for breakout seasons. 

Eric Ebron 

We may as well start with the team’s biggest offseason acquisition so far. Despite salary cap restrictions, the Steelers were able to move enough money around by the start of the new league year to sign former Lions/Colts tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million deal, a bargain considering Ebron’s credentials and when looking at how much the Browns spent to acquire former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper. 

While he endured an unceremonious ending with the Colts, Ebron appears eager to re-start his career in Pittsburgh while playing with Roethlisberger, who is looking to return to form after missing most of last season with an elbow injury. A former first-round pick, Ebron put up solid numbers while playing with Matthew Stafford in Detroit, averaging 47 catches per season with the Lions that included 11 touchdown receptions. His breakout season took place in 2018, his first in Indianapolis and only season with Andrew Luck. That season, Ebron enjoyed career highs in catches (66) yards (750) and touchdowns (13) while earning his first career Pro Bowl selection. 

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Ebron was especially dangerous in the red zone, where the Steelers struggled mightily in in 2019, finishing 32nd in the league in red zone efficiency after ranking first in that department in 2018. With the addition of Ebron and return of Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh’s red zone offense should be one of the league’s best in 2020. 

While his success throwing to his receivers (and former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell) is more documented, Roethlisberger has had successful partnerships with tight ends. He enjoyed immediate success with Heath Miller, the team’s first round pick in 2005, as the two linked up for six touchdowns during the ’05 regular season (and other touchdown during Pittsburgh’s postseason run) en route to a win in Super Bowl XL. The duo continued to put up impressive numbers over the next decade, with Miller — a two-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion and the team’s 2012 MVP — retiring as the franchise’s second all-time leader in receptions, third all-time in receiving yards and fourth all-time in touchdown receptions (he was later passed by Antonio Brown in each category). 

Big Ben also enjoyed success, albeit short lived, with Ladarius Green — the team’s last big tight end free agent acquisition — during the 2016 season. Roethlisberger has also gained a rapport with Vance McDonald, who replaced Green in the lineup in 2017. And while McDonald should still see his fair share of targets this season (especially early in the season if the NFL is unable to start training camp on time), expect Ebron to receive the majority of targets from Pittsburgh’s tight end position in 2020. 

Diontae Johnson 

Smith-Schuster was nearly picked for this spot after enduring a disappointing 2019 season. But Smith-Schuster (a Pro Bowler and team MVP in 2018) is already expected to have a bounce-back season in 2020 with Roethlisberger returning to the lineup. Smith-Schuster, who enjoyed a prolific partnership with Brown during their two seasons together, should enjoy similar success with Johnson, who showed tremendous potential during his rookie season. 

The team’s third round pick out of Toledo, Johnson led the Steelers in catches (59) and touchdown receptions (five) last season while finishing second to James Washington in receiving yards (580). Along with his offensive success, Johnson made a significant mark on special teams, earning All-Pro honors after leading the NFL with an average of 12.4 yards per punt return. 

Johnson’s breakout game last season took place during Pittsburgh’s Week 14 win over Arizona, when he caught six of eight targets for 60 yards and a touchdown along with an 85-yard punt return (the NFL’s longest punt return last season) while leading the Steelers to a 23-17 victory. Johnson followed up that performance with a season-high eight receptions for 81 yards and a score against the Jets two weeks later. Johnson, despite inconsistent play from Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks, put up impressive numbers during the final month of his rookie season, catching 23 of 31 targets for 257 yards and two touchdowns over that span. He also averaged nearly 19 yards per punt return over that span that included his big return against the Cardinals. 

Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster’s presence alone should lead to more opportunities for Johnson to have even more success in 2020. But when you throw Ebron into the mix, along with the continued maturation of Washington, Pittsburgh fans (and fantasy football owners looking for a sleeper at the receiver position) should expect a breakout year from Johnson, who should be on his way to joining the Steelers’ long list of prolific receivers. 

Devin Bush 

Bush, the Steelers’ first round pick last season, already had a “breakout” season of sorts, when he led the Steelers in tackles (109) while also recording four fumble recoveries (returning one for a score in Pittsburgh’s Week 6 win over the Chargers), a forced fumble and a pair of interceptions that included an incredible pick of league MVP Lamar Jackson in Week 5. Bush’s success led to his inclusion on the NFL’s All-Rookie Team

But after forcing six turnovers during Pittsburgh’s first six games, Bush, who alluded to hitting the “rookie wall,” forced just one turnover during the final 10 games. And despite his impressive rookie stat line, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler knows that Bush, who is still just 21, has yet to fully tap into his full potential, something that should come with more experience. 

“He’s still got a lot to learn,” Butler said near the end of last season, via Joe Rutter of the Tribune-Review. “He’s still missing some things he’ll learn to see the more and more he plays. I always think linebackers, inside or outside, learn from their mistakes and if they don’t repeat them, they’ll start to get better.

“When they get better, you usually reap the benefits from them when they are in their second, third or fourth year in the league.”

Earlier this offseason, Bush said that he began to feel more comfortable three-fourths of the way into his rookie season, adding that he was “more aware of what I was doing … more comfortable.” Bush also detailed what head coach Mike Tomlin told him with regard to his expectation heading into Year 2. 

“He wants to see me keep growing as a player, the player they drafted me to be, and then some,” Bush told’s Missi Matthews. “Help them win football games and ultimately, win a Super Bowl.” 

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