In 2018, the Steelers fell just short of the post-season at 9-7, despite having one of the better offenses in the league, finishing the season 6th in first down rate. In 2019, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season with an elbow injury in week 2 and backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were horrible in his absence, which, along with other issues on offense around the quarterback, led to the Steelers bottoming out on offense, falling to 31st in first down rate. However, they still managed an 8-8 finish because their defense took a big step forward in Roethlisberger’s absence, finishing the 2019 season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed.
With Roethlisberger returning in 2020 along with most of their defense, many expected the Steelers would be able to put it all together on both sides of the ball and indeed they did start the season 11-0, but that was one of the most misleading records of all-time. Just three of those 11 wins came by more than 10 points and two of them, wins over the Jaguars and Bengals, came against among the worst teams in the league. Overall, they had arguably the easiest schedule in the league to begin the season, including one score victories over the Jeff Driskel led Broncos, the COVID depleted Ravens, the Garrett Gilbert led Cowboys, and the eventual 4-12 Texans.
In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Steelers ranked 5th at +2.60% through their 11-0 start, good, but not nearly as good as their record would have suggested. On top of that, while the Steelers continued playing at a high level on defense, ranking 1st in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.65%, their offense did not do its part, ranking 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.06%, despite their record. An aging Ben Roethlisberger did not play nearly as well as he had prior in his career, while his supporting cast no longer had top receiver Antonio Brown and overall was not as impressive as in 2018.
That was especially concerning because offensive performance tends to be much more consistent week-to-week and year-to-year than defensive performance, so, even though the Steelers were 11-0, they seemed very likely to regress going forward and see their season end short. Their collapse exceeded even my expectations, however, as they went on to lose four of their final five games, including an embarrassing upset loss to the last place Bengals as two touchdown favorites, and eventually they lost at home in the first round of the post-season to the underdog Cleveland Browns.
Despite that collapse, their season-long numbers in first down don’t look drastically different than they did six games prior when they were 11-0. They finished 28th in first down rate over expected at -2.83%, 2nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.30%, and 11th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.46%. Going into 2021, I expect the Steelers to continue regressing. While their offense seems unlikely to be drastically better than it was last season, their defense is starting to go the way of every dominant defense before them who has found it impossible to keep all their talent under the cap long-term, losing a trio of above average starters this off-season in Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Bud Dupree, which will almost definitely lead to them regressing somewhat on that side of the ball.
Even with those three players and others from recent years no longer with the team, the Steelers are still right up against the cap. However, at the same time, because of where they are in the life cycle of most of their contracts, they have the 4th lowest active cap spending in the league (even with Roethlisberger having a cap hit of 25.91 million) and, in terms of combined average annual value of the players on their roster, the Steelers have the least expensive roster in the league, which will show in the lack of talent the Steelers have at several positions.
At one point this off-season, it seemed like a legitimate possibility that the Steelers would release Ben Roethlisberger entirely for cap reasons, as his cap hit was at one point 41.25 million, but Roethlisberger signed a restructured one-year deal that pays him 14 million for 2021, which could easily be his final season of his career, now in his age 39 season. His cap hit is still the 7th highest in the league among quarterbacks because of years of accumulating dead cap and he figures not to play anywhere near that well, but he wasn’t the primary problem on this offense last season (more on that later) and the Steelers weren’t in position to find an upgrade on him either through free agency or the draft this off-season, so bringing him back at a reduced rate makes sense. The dead cap also would have been owed either way, so, while it hurts the Steelers’ ability to add and keep talent elsewhere, it was irrelevant to the Steelers’ decision to bring him back.
Even though he wasn’t the primary problem on this offense, Roethlisberger didn’t help matters, completing 65.6% of his passes for just 6.25 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions (with another 10 interceptions dropped by defenders) and ranking 25th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, a pretty steep drop off for a quarterback who has finished in the top-12 in 12 of 17 seasons in the league and who is almost definitely bound for the Hall of Fame. That’s still an upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, who ranked 37th and 39th respectively among 39 eligible in 2019 on PFF, and it’s possible Roethlisberger could turn the clock back a little bit this season, but it’s equally likely he continues declining and is one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Either way, he is likely to need a lot of help for this team to be a legitimate contender and the rest of the roster seems to fall short.
As I mentioned, Roethlisberger was not the primary problem on this offense last season. That would be their running game and, to a lesser extent, their offensive line, two things largely intertwined. Overall, the Steelers finished dead last in the NFL with 3.62 YPC and 1,351 rushing yards on the season and by the end of the season the Steelers had largely given up on their running game, leading to them finishing with just the season with just the 5th fewest carries of any team in the league with 373. Starting running back James Conner averaged 4.27 YPC, but he was banged up often and backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland averaged just 3.32 YPC on 111 carries and 3.42 YPC on 33 carries respectively. Conner also signed with the Cardinals as a free agent this off-season, making their running back need even more dire.
The Steelers addressed the position on draft day, using their first round pick, #24 overall on Alabama’s Najee Harris and, while he is certainly an upgrade, it’s a questionable use for a first round pick for a team with other needs, given how easy it is to find capable running backs later in the draft. Also, for as talented as Harris is, he could still easily be stifled by poor offensive line play and a lack of a downfield passing game to consistently force guys away from the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers also didn’t add any other running backs this off-season, meaning this is completely Harris’ backfield. Benny Snell and his career 3.63 YPC average are tentatively expected to be the #2 back and spell Harris for a few touches per game, with McFarland, a 2020 4th round pick who may still have some upside, being the only competition for Snell’s #2 back role. One problem is the Steelers don’t really have a passing down back, as Harris is not known for his receiving ability and Snell and McFarland have totaled just 13 catches and 6 catches respectively in their careers.
The Steelers do have tight end turned fullback/running back Jaylen Samuels, who has a very underwhelming career 3.50 YPC and had just 18 touches in 14 games last season, but who also has some experience as a passing down back, totaling a 47/305/1 slash line as a passing down specialist for the Steelers in 2019, and who is a relatively reliable set of hands out of the backfield, given his history at the tight end spot. He’s still an underwhelming pass catching option in a backfield that lacks depth, but the addition of Harris in the first round, even if it may not have been their best choice at the time, makes this group a lot better because he has the upside to become one of the best runners in the league over the next few seasons.
It’s really been a steep dropoff for the Steelers on the offensive line in recent years and it continued into this off-season, when they lost a trio of starters from an already underwhelming 2020 unit, making matters even worse upfront for this offense. For years, the Steelers had been able to count on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Ramon Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert and, even when Gilbert started missing significant time with injuries, the Steelers found a good replacement for him in Matt Feiler and eventually let the injury prone Gilbert go.
It was predictable that their offensive line would decline as those players got up in age, but how fast things have fallen apart upfront is pretty incredible. It started last off-season, when Foster retired, prompting the Steelers to move Feiler inside to guard and start Zach Banner at right tackle. Banner didn’t make it through his first game before suffering a season ending injury and Feiler struggled to adapt to his new position early in the season and then later in the season suffered an injury of his own hurt that caused the Steelers to turn to rookie 4th round rookie Kevin Dotson at left guard, who played well enough that he kept the job for the rest of the season.
Feiler left this off-season, which was not really a surprise, but he was followed out the door by Villanueva, who, after 7 seasons in Pittsburgh, signed for more money with divisional rival Baltimore this off-season, and Pouncey, who opted to retire ahead of his age 32 season, after spending his entire 11-year career with the Steelers. On top of that, the Steelers didn’t have the financial flexibility this off-season to spend big in pursuit of replacements.
Right guard David DeCastro is still around, but he heads into his age 31 season as the only starter remaining from the consistently dominant units the Steelers had just a couple years ago and he’s coming off a down year by his standards, finishing 42nd among guards on PFF, down from 7 straight seasons in the top-16 at his position. He could bounce back somewhat in 2021, but that’s not a guarantee and his best days are likely behind him. He and Kevin Dotson, who flashed on 358 snaps as a rookie, but still is a projection to a season long starting role, are the only starters locked in on this offensive line going into 2021. Guard is the relative strength of an offensive line that has unsettled competitions involving underwhelming options at both tackle spots and at center.
At offensive tackle, the Steelers brought back Zach Banner as a free agent and are hoping he can be what they were expecting him to be last year before he got hurt. That’s far from a guarantee though, as Banner was a projection even before last year’s injury, having played just 243 prior snaps in his career, primarily as an extra offensive linemen, before missing most of last season. Banner is a former 4th round pick who has flashed on limited action in his career, but the Steelers are putting a lot of faith in an unproven player coming off of a major injury.
Chukwuma Okorafor took over at right tackle for Banner when he got hurt and ended up making 15 starts, but he struggled, finishing 77th among 89 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. Like Banner, Okorafor was also a relatively high pick, being selected in the 3rd round in 2018, but he also played very little early in his career, playing just 229 snaps total in 2018-2019 prior to last season and, unlike Banner, he has yet to even flash potential, earning below average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league. He’s still young enough that it’s possible that could change, still only going into his age 24 season, but that’s far from a guarantee. A better athlete than the massive 6-8 360 pound Banner, Okorafor is the most natural fit at left tackle, but he could easily prove to be totally overmatched on the blindside.
The Steelers are probably hoping to be able to start Okorafor and Banner, but they did add veteran competition for the inexperienced young players, signing Joe Haeg in free agency. A 5th round pick in 2016, Haeg actually started 29 games in his first two seasons in the league and wasn’t bad, earning middling grades from PFF in both seasons, but he’s been a reserve on some teams with great offensive lines in the Colts and Buccaneers over the past three seasons and has made just 9 starts over those 3 seasons.
Haeg is a versatile player who has made 10 of his career 38 starts at guard, but right tackle is his clearest path to playing time and he could continue being a capable starter if he ends up in the starting lineup at one point or another. There is probably more reason to be confident in him than either of their currently projected starting tackles. The Steelers also used a 4th round pick on Dan Moore, but it’s unclear how much, if any, he will contribute as a rookie.
At center, the Steelers have a three way battle to replace the retired Pouncey. JC Hassenauser was their backup center last season, but the 2018 undrafted free agent was underwhelming in the first action of his career across 303 snaps. The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on Illinois’ Kendrick Green and also brought back former backup center BJ Finney, who spent last season in Seattle, where he proved to be a bust on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal, never playing an offensive snap and getting released just one off-season later, so Hassenauser probably isn’t even a lock to make the final roster.
Finney is going into his age 30 season and only has 13 career starts, but he has shown some promise in limited action when counted on in the past. Green is probably their highest upside option, but all three options are underwhelming and, like both tackle positions, center figures to be a position of weakness for the Steelers in 2021. Their guard play saves them somewhat, but this still looks like one of the worst offensive lines in the league, as they are noticeably thinner and less experienced than last year’s already underwhelming group.
One big move for the Steelers this off-season was keeping wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who seemed as good as gone at the start of the off-season, as it seemed likely that Smith-Schuster would receive a big contract elsewhere that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to match. However, Smith-Schuster met a cold market like many in this reduced cap year and ended up returning to the Steelers on a team friendly 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that gives him another crack at free agency again next off-season, likely in better circumstances.
Smith-Schuster looked like one of the best young wide receivers in the league, as the 2017 2nd round pick posted a massive 111/1426/7 slash line in just his second season in the league in 2018, but without Antonio Brown drawing double teams opposite him, Smith-Schuster has yet to develop into the #1 wide receiver they were expecting he’d become, averaging 1.37 yards per route run and a 79/790/7 slash line per 16 games in two seasons since Brown was let go. Rather than being a clear #1 wide receiver, Smith-Schuster has been one of three wide receivers the Steelers spread the ball to about evenly, also including Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, with 4th receiver James Washington also seeing a few targets per game.
That depth at wide receiver is the result of the Steelers using a 3rd round pick or higher on a wide receiver in each of their past four drafts, starting with Smith-Schuster in 2017 and continuing with each of the Steelers’ top-4 wide receivers. That depth seemed like all the more reason Smith-Schuster would not be back, which would have led to more targets for other Steeler wide receivers, but with Smith-Schuster back, not much changes in this group.
Smith-Schuster is still only going into his age 25 season, so he could still develop into more of a #1 option long-term, but he also finished 3rd on this team in receiving yards with a 97/831/9 slash line in 2020 and could easily finish third again in 2021 as the Steelers’ other wide receivers also have upside. Probably the highest upside member of this group is 2020 2nd round pick Chase Claypool, who finished with a 62/873/9 slash line as a rookie despite taking a few weeks to get regular playing time.
Claypool’s 1.90 yards per route run average not only led the team, but ranked 25th in the NFL and, overall, he finished the season as PFF’s 38th ranked wide receiver overall. Perhaps the most exciting part of all of this is Claypool was regarded as pretty raw coming out of Notre Dame and has the physical upside to be one of the better wide receivers in the league someday. I’m not saying he will become that in year two and development is not always linear, but Claypool seems likely to surpass last year’s receiving totals just on the basis of more playing time in his second season and he has the upside for a lot more.
Diontae Johnson led this group in receiving with a 88/923/7 slash line, after the 2019 3rd round pick had a 59/680/5 slash line in lesser playing time as a rookie. Johnson doesn’t have the upside of Claypool or perhaps even of Smith-Schuster, but his 1.70 yards per route run average in two seasons in the league is above average, he’s earned just above average season long grades from PFF as well, and, still only in his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward in his third season in the league in 2021.
James Washington was their 4th receiver last year, but he still played 486 snaps and had a 30/392/5 slash line on 56 targets. He saw his playing time decrease down the stretch as Chase Claypool emerged, but he should still have a role in this offense in 2021. The 2018 2nd round pick also showed he can take on a larger role if needed, like he did in 2019, when he finished with a 44/735/3 slash line and 1.76 yards per route run, despite having arguably the worst quarterback play in the league with Roethlisberger out, and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he has further untapped upside. The Steelers legitimately go four deep at wide receiver and have a couple players with #1 receiver potential in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. A solid young group from a year ago could easily take a step forward in their second season together.
The one thing that is different in this receiving corps is the Steelers released veteran tight end Vance McDonald, who struggled last season on 483 snaps, finishing 57th among 58 eligible tight ends on PFF, and replaced him with second round pick Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth enters the league very raw, but he comes with a upside and won’t be relied on for a significant role as a rookie, likely beginning his career in McDonald’s old role as the #2 tight end behind starter Eric Ebron.
Ebron is best known for the 13 touchdowns he had in 2018 with Andrew Luck, as part of a 66/750/13 slash line, but that stands out as an obvious fluke for a player who 19 receiving touchdowns in his other 6 seasons in the league combined and, even that season included, Ebron has averaged just 1.40 yards per route run and 6.91 yards per target throughout his career. He’s a great athlete for the tight end position, but he has never been a good blocker, nor has he ever had reliable hands, dropping 10% or more of his targets in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, undoubtedly contributing to his underwhelming receiving averages for his career.
Ebron is also coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, finishing 54th among 58 eligible tight ends on PFF, struggling against as a blocker and managing just 1.18 yards per route run and 6.13 yards per target. Ebron is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’s not guaranteed to be better than he was last season and, even if he is, he’s still likely to be around the same caliber of player as he has been throughout his 7-year career, which is underwhelming. Fortunately, the Steelers’ passing game primarily is focused on their wide receivers, which are a strong group, though their overall youth and inexperience could prove to be an issue again.
They say defense wins championships and, while that may or may not be true, defensive led teams tend to have much less staying power as top level teams than offensive led teams. Offensive statistics tend to be much more consistent and predictive on a year-to-year basis than defensive statistics, so teams that play at a high level on defense are significantly less likely to repeat that the following season than teams that play at a high level on offense.
The reason for this is financial. Teams can have a good offense with strong quarterback play and an adequate supporting cast, which tends to be relatively less inexpensive than keeping together the 7-9 above average defensive starters you need to consistently year in and year out play at a high level on defense. The Steelers finished 4th in first down rate allowed in 2019 and 2nd in 2020, but they are starting to lose talented players for financial reasons like many top level defenses before them, losing a trio of above average defensive starters in edge defender Bud Dupree and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton this off-season and not really replacing them. This is still a talented group, but they could slip a few spots in the defensive rankings as a result of their off-season losses, which would further expose a limited offense.
Dupree will be replaced internally by 2020 3rd round Alex Highsmith. Dupree was a solid, but unspectacular starter, while Highsmith flashed potential on 440 snaps as a rookie, so he could prove to be an adequate replacement, but he’s still a projection to a larger role and him moving into the starting lineup depletes their depth. To replenish depth, the Steelers used a 6th round pick on Quincy Roche and signed veteran journeyman Cassius Marsh, who has never earned an above average grade from PFF or played more than 550 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league and who struggled mightily across 197 snaps with three different teams last season. Needless to say, depth is a concern, especially given that the Steelers will be relying on an unproven starter in Alex Highsmith.
Fortunately, the Steelers still have TJ Watt, who leads this group and is one of the best players in the league at his position. A first round pick in 2017, Watt was an above average starter in his first two years in the league and has taken it to another level over the past two seasons, ranking 2nd and 1st among edge defenders in 2019 and 2020 respectively and totaling 29.5 sacks, 49 hits, and a 15.6% pressure rate, coinciding with the Steelers’ rise to among the top few defenses in the league.
It’s the most impressive two-year stretch by any defender other than Aaron Donald over the past two seasons and, only in his age 27 season, there’s plenty of reason to expect Watt to remain among the game’s best for at least the next couple seasons. It seems like only a matter of time before he gets a Defensive Player of the Year award, after finishing in the top-3 in back-to-back seasons. Even if this defense declines this season, Watt’s presence should ensure they are still one of the better units in the league. He significantly elevates a position group that otherwise has question marks.
Along with Watt, the strength of this defense is the interior defender position. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Hayward have been arguably the best 3-4 defensive end duo in the league over the past few years, but there was some concern with this group going into last season, having lost nose tackle Javon Hargrave on a big contract to the Eagles. Instead, the Steelers plugged in veteran Tyson Alualu, who excelled, and they got good play from reserve Chris Wormley, who was acquired from the Ravens in a trade last off-season. All four of those key players return to a group that looks likely to be among the league’s best again in 2021.
One concern is age, as both Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu are getting up there, heading into their age 32 season and age 34 season respectively. A first round pick by the Steelers in 2011, Heyward has yet to start to decline, continuing a streak of six straight healthy seasons in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF (excluding an injury plagued 2016 campaign), but that doesn’t mean he won’t begin to decline this season. Even at less than his best, Hayward should at the very least remain an above average starter, but it could be noticeable for an elite defense if one of their elite players does not play up to his usual standards.
Alualu is the bigger concern as not only is he older, but he’s also coming off of a career best season, finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked interior defender against the run. Alualu has always been a capable run stuffer, but it would be a surprise to see him repeat the best season of his career again at age 34. Alualu doesn’t play a huge role on this defense, seeing 448 snaps last season, but if he isn’t elite against the run again this season, that also could have a noticeable effect on this defense.
Stephon Tuitt is the safest bet of this group, still in his prime in his age 28 season, on a streak of four straight seasons in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF. Equally good against the run and as a pass rusher, Tuitt has totaled 23 sacks, 43 hits, and a 11.4% pressure rate in 47 games the aforementioned four-year stretch. I would expect more of the same from him in 2021, though one thing that could also remain the same is the fact that he hasn’t made it through a full season without missing time since his rookie year back in 2014. If he were to miss significant time, this would obviously be a big blow to this defense as he’s otherwise their safest bet on the interior.
Chris Wormley plays by far the least of the aforementioned group, but he is good insurance in case any of the Steelers’ top-3 miss significant time, something they didn’t do last season, leading to Wormley’s snap total of just 148. The 2017 4th round pick showed a lot of promise on those snaps though and also had solid seasons in larger roles in 2018 and 2019 with the Ravens, playing 446 snaps and 401 snaps respectively. This is as deep and talented of an interior defender group as any team in the league has, even with some concerns around aging players.
The Steelers didn’t have many injuries last season, totaling the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, but they did lose every down linebacker Devin Bush for the season in week 6. A first round pick in 2019, Bush struggled early in his rookie year, but had the kind of second half of the season that suggested he had a good chance to ultimately make good on his sky high upside. The injury complicates matters and Bush’s play left something to be desired in 2020 when he was on the field, but a third year breakout season for a player only in his age 23 season is definitely possible, although obviously not a given.
One benefit of Bush’s injury was it allowed unknown 2018 undrafted free agent Robert Spillane to see some action, playing 379 snaps, after seeing just 4 defensive snaps in his career prior. Spillane flashed a lot of potential in 2020, especially in coverage, ranking 13th among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on PFF. Spillane’s play against the run was not nearly as good and he’s still very inexperienced overall, but the Steelers retained veteran run specialist Vince Williams this off-season, so Spillane will only have to be a sub package coverage specialist.
Williams was overstretched last season with a snap total of 672 on the year, with Bush’s injury forcing him to stay on the field in obvious passing situations more than the Steelers would have liked, but he’s been a consistently solid run stuffer in his career and, even going into his age 32 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him have another couple solid seasons left in the tank as a platoon player. This group doesn’t jump off the page, but that would obviously change if Bush can have a breakout year, with Williams and Spillane splitting time opposite him. That’s far from a guarantee, but it gives this linebacking corps more upside than comparably ranked teams.
Cornerback is the position where the Steelers lost the most this off-season, as Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton both earned above average grades from PFF on 908 snaps and 464 snaps respectively and the Steelers didn’t replace either of them, opting to rely on internal solutions in Cameron Sutton, who was re-signed this off-season on a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal, and Justin Layne. Both are former 3rd round picks, 2017 and 2019 respectively, who have upside, but both are projections to a larger role.
Sutton probably has the most upside of the two, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons, but that came across just 268 snaps in 2019 and 552 snaps in 2020, after struggling across 353 snaps in his first two seasons in the league. He has the upside to be an above average starter and his versatility to play both outside and on the slot makes him likely to see an every down role, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him struggle in the first extended action of his career. Layne, meanwhile, is an even bigger projection, as he’s played just 122 nondescript snaps in two seasons in the league. Making matters worse, he was involved in an off-the-field issue this off-season and could face potential discipline.
Even if Sutton and Layne can step up in larger roles, depth is still a major concern for a position group that didn’t add any notable replacements this off-season. Former Jets cornerback Arthur Maulet was signed in free agency and will likely be their primary reserve cornerback. Undrafted in 2017, Maulet was not bad across 349 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2019, but he fell to 112th among 131 eligible cornerbacks across 405 snaps in 2020 and would be a very underwhelming starting option if forced into action.
James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent who showed some potential as a rookie, but played just 30 snaps total, is also in the mix for a reserve role in a thin group. Even if first round pick Najee Harris becomes a good starting running back, the Steelers could easily regret not taking cornerback Greg Newsome instead, letting him get selected by the division rival Browns. It’s much easier for teams to find competent running backs than it is to find good depth at cornerback, which the Steelers severely lack.
The Steelers’ lack of cornerback depth is even more concerning because their only returning starter and de facto #1 cornerback Joe Haden has been very injury prone throughout his career, making it through a full season without missing time just twice in 11 seasons in the league and just once since his rookie year, which is unlikely to change as Haden gets up there in age, now heading into his age 32 season. There is also some concern that Haden declines significantly in 2021, given his age. He’s been at least a solid starter throughout his career (137 career starts), but his 46th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020 was the 3rd lowest finish of his career and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him fall further down this season, as his best days are almost definitely behind him.
At safety, the Steelers have a pair of 2018 first round picks, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. Fitzpatrick was originally drafted 11th overall by the Dolphins, but the Steelers flipped their 2020 first round pick to Miami for Fitzpatrick at the beginning of the 2019 season to start opposite Edmunds long-term. The move paid off immediately. Fitzpatrick earned middling grades from PFF throughout his brief tenure in Miami, in part because the Dolphins failed to utilize him properly, but the Steelers plugged him in as a full-time safety and he instantly broke out, finishing the 2019 season 11th among safeties on PFF and then following that with a 7th ranked finish in 2020. Still only in his age 25 season, Fitzpatrick is already one of the better safeties in the league and it’s possible we still haven’t seen his best yet.
Edmunds, meanwhile, was the Steelers’ pick, 28th overall, and, while he hasn’t been the high level player Fitzpatrick has been, he’s still been a solid starter across 43 starts in 47 career games. His 21st ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2020 was a career best, which he’s not guaranteed to repeat, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so he may have further untapped potential. Even if he remains about the same level of player as he has been recently, the Steelers are in great shape at the safety position aside from depth concerns. The Steelers will likely need that to help mask their shaky cornerback situation.
The Steelers finished 14th in special teams DVOA last season and their best aspect was place kicking. Long-time kicker Chris Boswell went 34/38 on extra points and 19/20 on field goals and, when he missed time with injury, Matthew Wright was arguably better in his place, making all 7 extra points and all 4 field goals he attempted. Boswell is the only kicker on their roster right now, so he will almost definitely keep the starting job for the sixth straight season.
Boswell finished above average on PFF in 5 of his first 6 seasons in the league, while hitting 94.4% of his extra points and 88.0% of his field goals and I would expect more of the same from him in his seventh season in 2021. Boswell wasn’t quite as good on kickoffs, but he has been overall a solid kickoff specialist in his career and the Steelers still finished slightly above average in kickoff DVOA. That should also continue in 2021.
The Steelers didn’t get as good of play from their punting unit and the two veteran punters they went through last season, Jordan Berry and Dustin Colquitt, were both underwhelming. Colquitt is no longer with the team, but the Steelers used a 7th round pick on punter Pressley Harvin, who has a very good chance to take the job from Berry. Berry hasn’t been bad in 6 seasons as the Steelers punter, but he is coming off the worst season of his career and Harvin’s 44.8 yards per punt average at the collegiate level is better than Berry’s career mark of 44.4 and the 48.0 yards per punt average Pressley had as a senior in 2020 could easily be a sign of more to come. He and Boswell could both have above average seasons in 2021.
The Steelers got pretty good play out of their return units, with rookie Ray-Ray McLeod leading their kickoff return unit with 28 returns for 23.1 yards per attempt and their punt return unit with 29 returns for 10.3 yards per attempt, en route to a 5th ranked finish among returners on PFF. McCloud figures to remain in that role, without any clear competition for each spots, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be better in year two. Even if he isn’t, he should remain at least a solid punt and kick returner.
There is reason to be concerned about the Steelers’ supporting special teamers and, if they struggle as a group relative to last season, that will have a noticeable effect on the rest of their special teams. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (279 snaps), Alex Highsmith (261 snaps), Jordan Dangerfield (288 snaps), and Sean Davis (209 snaps) were their four best special teamers last season and only Highsmith remains on this roster in 2021 and he could see less time on special teams this season if he plays a bigger role on defense. Justin Layne, who was above average across 253 snaps in 2020, could also see a bigger defensive role and a smaller special teams role.
The Steelers did add some reinforcements. Jordan Dangerfield has generally been a solid, but unspectacular special teamer on an average of 281 snaps per season over the past four seasons. Miles Killebrew, meanwhile, is a much higher upside option who has excelled across 322 snaps per season in five seasons on special teams in his career, including a 15th ranked finish among special teamers on PFF across 353 snaps in 2020. The Steelers might have still lost more than they gained in free agency, but they probably won’t fall off significantly.
James Pierre (220 snaps), Derek Watt (207 snaps), Benny Snell (193 snaps), Henry Mondeaux (179 snaps), and Marcus Allen (193 snaps) were solid special teamers last season and will likely continue seeing a significant snap count. Watt is an experienced special teamer who has even been better in the past, finishing 18th and 5th among special teamers on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively. The rest of the aforementioned players are coming off of their best season of their respective careers though, so they might not continue playing at the level they did in 2020. This isn’t a bad group, even if they might not be quite as good as they were a season ago.
The Steelers rode an easy schedule and a great defense to a bunch of close wins en route to a 11-0 start last season, but their offense was exposed as the season went on and the schedule got tougher, leading to the Steelers dropping 5 of their last 6 games, including their first round playoff loss to the Browns. The Steelers added running back Najee Harris in the first round of the draft this off-season, but their offensive line is noticeably worse from even last year’s underwhelming group, starting unproven players at every spot except right guard, and Ben Roethlisberger could be nearing the end of his line, so I would expect this group to continue to struggle.
Meanwhile, a defense that has been among the league’s best in each of the past couple seasons is starting to leak talent and lose depth, which could easily lead to them falling a few spots in the rankings, further exposing a weak offense. The Steelers have the least money committed to their roster of any team in the league in terms of average annual salary and, while part of that is the result of some talented young players on rookie deals, overall that lack of financial investment shows in several key spots on this group, including the offensive line and secondary.
That’s not necessarily the Steelers’ fault as it’s the result of several years of trying to win now with an aging roster and quarterback, which has led to consistent playoff appearances, but it’s likely to result in the Steelers struggling to make the post-season in 2021, especially when you add the fact that their schedule looks likely to be significantly more difficult this season. I will have a final prediction for the Steelers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21: The Steelers get a little bit of a boost from their special teams, which is more predictive than I thought, and they added veteran Melvin Ingram to give them more depth at the edge defender spot, but they also lost middle linebacker Vince Williams to retirement and downgraded their offensive line further by swapping David DeCastro for Trai Turner at right guard. This all basically amounts to a wash for a Steelers team that is likely to finish below .500 in 2021.
9/4/21 Update: Ben Roethlisberger fared well in his limited pre-season action, but it’s hard to translate that to what will likely be 600+ throws over 17 games. The Steelers’ offensive line is still a major concern as well and their defense, which would have already had a tough team repeating last season’s performance, will be without talented defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt for at least the first three games of the season, after placing him on injured reserve. Even at an over/under of 8.5 wins, the Steelers are a little overvalued.
Prediction: 6-11 3rd in AFC North