Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Team Previewby Jack Gaffney July 22, 2021 0 comments
For what feels like the umpteenth season in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to live up to their potential in 2020. A super shaky 11-0 start was followed up by a 1-4 finish to close out the regular season. Then, their year ended with giving up nearly 50 points up at home to the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs. Not even mentioning the laundry list of drama that seemingly looms behind every Steelers season.
This year, the Baltimore Ravens still look to be a formidable power in the AFC. The Browns, meanwhile, who were a fumble/touchback away from the Conference Championship, had one of the best offseasons in the league. So, in short, Steelers are going to have their hands full in 2021.
Make sure to check out all of our other 2021 NFL Team Previews.
There were changes made to the coaching staff. Randy Fichtner out, Matt Canada in as offensive coordinator. All five starting offensive linemen from Week 1 last season are now gone. Bud Dupree is the main subtraction from the defense, now in Tennessee. James Conner after a brutal 2020 is now in Arizona, with corner Mike Hilton also being another departure.
Additionally, Alabama running back Najee Harris and Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth lead the team’s draft class. JuJu Smith-Schuster is back on a year deal despite real interest from Baltimore. Former five-time Pro-Bowler Trai Turner is the major addition to the new Steelers offensive front. Finally, save for the Dupree and Hilton departures, Pittsburgh brings back close to the same defense they had in 2020.
This offensive unit will almost certainly live and die by the Ben Roethlisberger sword. Despite a 33 touchdown, 3,380-yard season, there were times in 2020 where he did not even look serviceable. It will not help him this year either that his offensive front is a complete flip from last year. Also, that he is another year older as well. Even with the uncertainty/unknown with the offensive line, rookie back Harris will almost certainly not put Pittsburgh dead last in the league in rushing this year. He was an absolute workhorse at Alabama and should see significant action in Pittsburgh.
The pass-catching unit should also be solid once again. Smith-Schuster looks to play himself into a nice payday after failing to do so last year. Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson in addition to him, create a solid top three on the receiving depth chart. That not factoring in Eric Ebron or Freiermuth either, who should be solid contributors as well. But it will all come back to Roethlisberger and the offensive line on how far this unit can go.
This defensive unit in Pittsburgh has been one of the best in the NFL for the last number of years. With the team mainly keeping the band together, that should continue into the 2021 season. Last year they ranked top three as a unit in the following categories. Points against, yards against, yards per play, sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for loss, among others. Barring catastrophe, this level of play from 2020 should carry over.
Predicting the 53 Man Roster
Think you will see a handful of teams this year carry three quarterbacks, Steelers included. Roethlisberger for sure is the field general pending any sort of preseason setback. Behind him, however, is where it gets interesting. With Rudolph, Haskins, and Joshua Dobbs duking it out for two spots. Would imagine that Dobbs is the odd man out of this group with Haskins making the final roster along with Rudolph.
First string full back included, there were times where Pittsburgh carried five backs in 2020. That won’t be the case this year. Last year this unit was dead last in the league in rushing yards and brings in Harris to essentially slot in for the outgoing Conner. Snell and McFarland combined for 144 carries last year and could be around the same this year. Kalen Ballage is the interesting practice squad option, while Watt once again should be the starting fullback.
The anticipation should be that Pittsburgh goes with the exact same group from 2020 in the receiving room. The top three receivers are all coming off similar seasons last year. Washington presents as a solid fourth option. While McCloud gives the Steelers value as a receiver and returner. If there are any additional members to this group, keep an eye on Cody White or Rico Bussey Jr.
TE (3) – Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry
Ebron gets himself a new partner in the form of Freiermuth. The pride of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Ebron will more than likely be joined by Gentry. Who last year missed the team’s final half dozen games with a knee issue. The only question is if Freiermuth becomes the star of the show in the tight end room this season.
As previously stated, all five starters from Week 1 last season are now no longer in Pittsburgh. This unit now projects in the bottom five in the entire league, just a couple of seasons off being top five. Starting on the outside will likely be Okorafor and Banner. On the inside from left to right projects as Dotson, Green, and Turner. With backups/swingmen looking like Hassenauer, Jones, and Haeg. They could even give a roster spot to B.J. Finney if they think they need an extra inside guy.
This is arguably the most well-rounded part of this Steelers roster. A nice blend of youth and veteran presence. The new face here is Loudermilk out of Wisconsin. A 6’6″ behemoth with one of the best last names in the league to boot. Heyward and Tuitt have been anchors on this front seven for years now and that should not change in 2021. Not many concerns here with this group.
Watt and Highsmith seem set to return to man the edges for this Pittsburgh defensive front. The rookie Roche, who had 17.5 sacks in his last two college seasons, presents as a solid backup option as well. Outside of that, it gets a little murky. Ingram was just picked up by the team on a year deal Monday and should be a contributor. Also, he was the outside help that this room needed. Bundage at Oklahoma State had seven sacks his final year, joining Roche as the rookies here.
The eight-year veteran Vince Willams would have for certain been on this list. However, he officially retired from the league on Wednesday. In his career, Williams had 20.5 sacks along with five fumble recoveries and two picks. A decent-sized loss for the Steelers’ defense as a whole.
Bush and Spillane both got knocked out of 2020 with injuries but are good to go this year. Johnson was the team’s fourth-round selection out of Texas A&M and should see an expanded role now. Allen gives this linebacker room some coverage help, as he was a converted safety. Gilbert III in this scenario now makes the roster with the Williams retirement set in stone.
Outside of Haden and Sutton, this corner room does not inspire a lot of confidence based on prior seasons. Layne, the former third-round pick in 2019, has not done much to inspire in his short career. Now he possibly could start opposite of Haden.
There is a major lack of experience even behind him. While there is a legitimate concern, there is also an opportunity for those who want to take advantage. Pierre is a good example from last year. Getting some defensive playing time through special teams’ work. Like the edge depth, going to the free-agent pool to add would not be a bad choice either.
Fitzpatrick once again is the absolute class of the Pittsburgh secondary. With him again is the inconsistent Edmunds, who did not have his fifth-year option picked up. The name however to watch for in the depth department is Norwood from Oklahoma. He is an absolute swiss army knife who played all over the place in college. His versatility should make him a roster lock, even as a seventh-rounder.
The name to watch out for in the special teams game is punter Pressley Harvin III. The Steelers selected him in the seventh round of this year’s draft to give Berry some competition. If he does not make the final roster, he is almost a lock for the practice squad. Outside of that the trio of Boswell, Berry, and Canaday is back once again.
One Player to Add
Narrowing down the trouble spots on this roster leads to needing upgrades at either corner or offensive line. Also potentially now at inside linebacker. Looking at who is still available, there is not anything enticing enough on the offensive lineman front. Even with the starting unit looking suspect, Russell Okung at 33 years old does not feel like the best move here.
On the corner front, old friend Steven Nelson is available, as is Richard Sherman. While he was in the news recently for his incident with his father-in-law, this felt very out of character for him. Sherman for the right price could be a great addition to Pittsburgh’s corner room. If inside linebacker is the area the Steelers want to improve in, they have some solid options. Avery Williamson who was with the team last year would be a logical fit. However, look out for Kwon Alexander if a deal between him and the Saints cannot be reached. He met with the team on Tuesday.
2021 Outlook & Odds
The Steelers win total is set at 8.5 and a lot of this season will ride on the play of Big Ben. Quite frankly it is brutally obvious that he is not the player he once was. It certainly does not help that Baltimore and Cleveland both got better. Pittsburgh may not have the luxury to just coast on their high-end talent with the number of holes they have this year. This defense will only be able to stall so many drives.
Not even mentioning their vintage ability to play down to their competition against mediocre teams. Years of neglecting to prepare for a new offensive line core looks like it will come back to bite Pittsburgh in a big way too. Also ending the season with a four-game stretch of Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Baltimore is beyond brutal.
Season Prediction: 6-11 and Miss the Playoffs
Follow Jack Gaffney on Twitter @JackGaffneyPTST
Main Image Credit:
Embed from Getty Images