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Why the Pittsburgh Steelers are poised to disappoint in 2021

Matt Johnson

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a perennial contender for the NFL Playoffs almost every year since Ben Roethlisberger took over at quarterback in 2004. With another season approaching, things don’t look promising for this storied NFL franchise.

Pittsburgh looked like a Super Bowl contender early in December, rolling out to an 11-0 record with a dominant defense and a ball-control offense. But everything fell apart in the final six weeks with a 48-37 loss in the playoffs to the Cleveland Browns ending the Steelers’ season with a 1-5 stretch.

A tight salary-cap situation forced the Steelers to make cuts on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, Roethlisberger returned on a restructured contract and Pittsburgh will be running it back in 2021. 

Facing a 17-game season with an aging roster and a rapidly improving AFC North, there are several reasons to be concerned for the Steelers’ hopes this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers offense could be ruined by offensive line

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) looks back at a loose ball as he’s sacked by Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson (58) and fumbles in the second quarter of the NFL 15 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. The Bengals led 17-0 at halftime.Pittsburgh Steelers At Cincinnati Bengals

There was an element of deception with the offensive line in 2020. Allowing the lowest sack rate (1.9%) reads like a tremendous positive. However, it was the direct result of the changes the Steelers were forced to make offensively. Roethlisberger averaged 2.17 seconds in the pocket before throwing the ball, by far the lowest mark in the NFL.

While it allowed Pittsburgh to find some success with a quick passing game, the problems manifested in other ways. Roethlisberger’s declining arm strength, a lack of rhythm throwing deep and protection breaking down resulted in the third-lowest completion rate (30.3%) and the fourth-lowest passer rating (78.3) on deep shots, per Pro Football Focus.

Opponents adjusted their defenses and the results were quite evident when comparing the numbers from the 11-0 start vs. the final five weeks.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers passing stats (Week 1-12): 247.5 pass yards/game, 25/6 TD/INT ratio, 6.5 ypa, 67.5% completion rate and 97.9 passer rating
  • Pittsburgh Steelers passing stats (Week 13-17): 256.2 yards/game, 10/5 TD INT ratio, 6.0 ypa, 60.6% completion rate and 82.4 passer rating

Keep in mind, the issues also greatly influenced the rushing attack. James Conner wasn’t good in 2020, but he ran behind a unit that ranked 31st by PFF for run blocking. Alarmingly, Pittsburgh averaged just 3.6 yards per rush attempt.

Fans are fully aware of how the unit performed in 2020 but hold to the belief that just making changes is good enough. It’s true that Alejandro Villanueva (60.9 run-blocking grade) took a massive step back and David DeCastro was a liability as a run blocker. But just because you replace a player doesn’t instantly make them an upgrade.

Chukwuma Okorafor showed flashes at right tackle in 2020, but there was plenty of ugly stretches as a run blocker. While left guard Kevin Dotson (one pressure allowed in 358 snaps) should keep Big Ben clean, he could also be a liability as a run blocker.

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There are significant questions at center. Meanwhile, right guard Trai Turner received an awful 29.8 run-blocking grade in 2020. At right tackle, Pittsburgh should be overjoyed if Zach Banner is adequate. Lastly, another huge issue, there are four new starts on the offensive line and cohesion is pivotal to a unit’s success.

Influence on offense that lacks explosiveness.

Pittsburgh should have drafted an offensive tackle with its first-round pick. Instead, it selected Najee Harris. While Harris is a physical runner and can be the Steelers’ workhorse back, he isn’t an explosive player. Among the top backs in the 2021 NFL Draft, Harris (4.1%) ranked far behind Michael Carter (8.2%), Travis Etienne (8%), Javonte Williams (6.8% and Trey Sermon (6.8%) in 20-plus yard runs.

A franchise is betting everything on each of its young offensive linemen immediately thriving and hitting their peak, all while injury-prone players stay healthy. The odds of all that happening in a 17-game season are slim.

As a result, paired with the lack of explosiveness in the rushing and passing attacks, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense will likely struggle in 2021. Roethlisberger will struggle to make distance throws in his age-39 season, big plays will be seldom for Harris and even average defenses will contain Pittsburgh.

Secondary may cripple best defensive line in the NFL

Pittsburgh Steelers
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh’s defense carried this team in 2020 by causing havoc for opponents on a weekly basis. Despite season-ending injuries to Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, this unit was absurd during the team’s 11-game win streak.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defense stats (Week 1-12): 71.5 passer rating allowed, 16 interceptions, 37.5% third-down conversion rate and 41 sacks

Bush returns for the 2021 season and while Dupree is gone edge rusher Alex Highsmith is a potential breakout candidate. Even if he isn’t consistent, T.J. Watt will contend for Defensive Player of the Year, Cameron Heyward will play at an elite level and Stephon Tuitt is a force.

The defensive line alone, not even accounting for Bush and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, gives the Steelers a top-10 defense in 2021. But there is a legitimate reason to worry about the secondary.

We saw what happened against the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs. Baker Mayfield racked up 263 passing yards and three touchdowns, posting a 115.2 passer rating. There were already signs of trouble at cornerback. There are now even more questions after Mike Hilton left in free agency and Steven Nelson was released.

Opponents are going to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks. Entering his age-32 season, Joe Haden is declining and 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne is headed for a lot of snaps. Even if Cameron Sutton makes the leap many expect him to, there are vulnerabilities to exploit.

Taking a step back from a top-5 to a top-10 defense is acceptable, but it reduces the margin for error on the other side of the ball. Combine the NFL’s toughest schedule with a troubling offense and an exploitable secondary and the playoffs become a long shot.