Great Success or Total Disaster? A Look at the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.
No team dropped off faster than the Pittsburgh Steelers to close the 2020 season. The team lost five of the final six regular-season games. And were also handed an early wild card weekend exit, after starting the season with an 11-0 record.
With the struggles in the rearview for now, has Pittsburgh been set up for success? Or are they heading towards disaster? Here is a look at the Steelers ahead of the 2021 campaign.
The second the clock hit zero in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Wild Card weekend, rumors about Ben Roethlisberger’s future began to swirl. However, in early March, it was reported that the two-time Super Bowl champion would be returning to the steel city for another season.
The Steelers have very little behind the 17-year veteran. 25-year-old Mason Rudolph, former first-round pick, Dwayne Haskins, and Joshua Dobbs fill out the quarterback room. Which may be a problem.
If Roethlisberger can stay healthy, Pittsburgh is set with a quarterback who has played at an elite level for over a decade and a half. On the flip side, if Big Ben is unable to play, the Steelers will have to deal with a backup in Rudolph or Haskins who will be mediocre at best.
The Steelers rush offense was dead last in the NFL last season, gaining only 84.4 yards per game, and 3.6 yards per attempt. With James Conner — who led the team with 721 rush yards — leaving to join the Arizona Cardinals, the team entered the draft with a running back room in dire need of improvement.
And with that, the Steelers selected Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick and is penciled in as the number one option at running back.
Harris rushed for over 3,800 yards and 46 touchdowns during his four seasons at Alabama. His ability to make defenders miss, along with the ability to make plays in the passing game adds a whole new dimension to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. But Harris won’t be able to do it himself. Benny Snell along with the other rushers must step up. The concern is, will they?
The offensive line may be the deciding factor in the upcoming season. In 2020, the line did a great job of protecting Big Ben in the passing game. Allowing pressure on 17.0% of his dropbacks, putting them near the top of the league in that category.
While the pass protection was great, the line struggled in the run game. As noted above, Pittsburgh had the worst rush offense last season. Much of that is thanks to the offensive line’s inability to make blocks. Something that must be better if they want to run the ball effectively this year.
With the retirement of 9 time Pro Bowler, Maurkice Pouncey, and the loss of starting tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers are facing plenty of change. Don’t be surprised if the offensive line struggles to connect as a unit, especially early in the season.
There is no lack of talent in the receiving room of this team. Players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud give endless options on an offense that relied on passing the ball all of last year.
One issue that needs to be fixed in the receiving group is the number of dropped passes. The Steelers had 31 total drops in 2020, second-worst in the NFL behind only the Dallas Cowboys. The total number of drops includes 13 from Diontae Johnson and 7 from tight end Eric Ebron.
With the assumption that the offense will see an improvement in the rushing game, a lot of pressure will be taken off Big Ben, as well as the wide receivers and tight ends to make impact plays. But will they show up when they’re needed most? It’s tough to tell.
With 3.3 sacks per game, 18 total interceptions, and the third-best points allowed, the defense was a huge reason for the team’s 11-0 start to the season, and for the team’s success overall.
Returning a secondary consisting of two-time All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick, along with Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden, and Cameron Sutton, the Steelers are prepared to shut down the top receivers in the game. Throw in the duo of T.J Watt, and Stephon Tuitt, who combined for 26.0 total sacks in 2020, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are slated to be a problem for any opposing offense.
The fate of the 2021 season depends on three key variables. The first being the offensive line. With a fair bit of change upfront, it’s easy to imagine them struggling as a unit early on. The second most important factor is the running game. Roethlisberger is at a point in his career where you can’t ask him to drop back 600 times, adding a strong rush attack would help relieve pressure and add another element for opposing defenses to worry about. And lastly, the health of Ben Roethlisberger. If the starting quarterback gets injured, there is not a solid option behind him. No Big Ben equals real big problems.
The Steelers have a tough road ahead of them. With the league’s most difficult strength of schedule — sitting at an opponent win percentage of .574 — along with playing in a difficult division and question marks regarding numerous position groups , Pittsburgh could very well be on a path to total disaster.