Preseason - 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers Outlook
Pittsburgh Steelers Outlook
The Steelers have been one of the best franchises in the NFL since 2001 while having elite success since 1972. Over the last 20 seasons, Pittsburgh has a 208-110-2 record with 13 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins. Last year, they started the year with 11 straight wins, but limped home with only one win over their final five contests. Their season ended in the wild card game (37-48) to the Browns.
Mike Tomlin returns for his 15th season as head coach. He has a 145-78-1 record with nine playoff berths and one Super Bowl title. Tomlin has an 8-8 record in the postseason, but 3-6 over his last six appearances. He has the third-best winning percentage (.656) behind Bill Belichick (.664) and Sean McVay (.663) of all active coaches.
His road to the playoff lives or dies with the quarterback position. Pittsburgh needs to squeeze another year out of Ben Roethlisberger to make a deep playoff run.
The Steelers promoted Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. He has a long history of holding the same job in college, but 2021 will be his second season of coaching in the pros. Canada used a quick passing game last season to limit the damage in sacks. Pittsburgh's inability to consistently make big plays caught up to them late in the season.
The Steelers ended 2020 with the 24th ranking in offensive yards, which was the lowest placement for Ben Roethlisberger in his 16 seasons leading the offense. Pittsburgh finished 12th in points scored (416), a mere 127 points more than 2019 (289) when Roethlisberger missed most of the year.
Keith Butler will run the defense for the seventh straight season after working as their linebackers' coach for 12 years. Pittsburgh ranked in the top six in the league in yards allowed (3rd in 2020) over the past four years. They allowed 321 points (3rd) last season.
Their offensive line lost T Alejandro Villanueva and G Matt Feiler.
Over the past five seasons with the Steelers, Villanueva played well in each year in pass blocking. The quick-release by Ben Roethlisberger also helped his success in minimizing the damage in sacks. His game regressed over past seasons in run blocking.
Feiler made 13 starts in 2020 with a similar opportunity the previous year. His run blocking regressed each in the year, but Pittsburgh never found a viable lead running back to fill in the void of Le'Veon Bell after he left town. His value in pass protection showed some growth over the past two seasons.
RB James Conner signed with the Cardinals. Injuries led to 12 missed games from 2018 to 2020. When healthy, he runs well with value in the passing game. His yards per catch (6.1 in 2020) faded in back-to-back seasons.
Pittsburgh's defense lost CB Mike Hilton and DE Bud Dupree.
Hilton did most of his work in slot coverage, where he limits receivers to short yards per catch and minimal damage in touchdowns allowed. His play against the run regressed over the past two seasons due to some missed tackles.
Dupree missed five games last season due to a torn ACL in his left knee. He delivered 19.5 sacks over his previous 27 games while being a liability in most seasons in run support. He continues to miss too many tackles.
The Steelers brought power back to their running game after drafting RB Najee Harris with the 24th selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. There is a lot to like with the potential upside with Harris. He runs with power plus shows enough wiggle to make defenders miss in space. His feel for the passing game looks to be a win for any team while expecting him to upgrade the scoring on the ground in the red zone. Harris worked hard for his yards, which is what he'll face at the next level.
Pittsburgh added TE Pat Freiermuth in the second round. His short-area quickness or overall speed won't be an edge, but Freiermuth is a hand catcher who plays with strength and power to finish off his receptions for first downs and touchdowns. He reads defenders well with the vision to see open space. Freiermuth will be a play-action scoring threat with the ability to work the middle of a defense in the end zone. Penn State gave him chances on the move behind the line of scrimmage and jump balls at the goal line.
The Steelers focused on the offensive line with their next two picks – G Kendrick Green (3.24) and T Dan Moore (4.23).
Green has a natural fit for a fast-hitting run game thanks to his quickness off the snaps. His vision needs improvement in pass protection, and his strength isn't where it needs to be to handle power players. Green can play center or guard, but his range is limited.
Moore brings a good foundation in his blocking technique while showing more patience than fire in his game. His hands aren't where they need to be, and Moore lacks the fire to deliver knockout blows in the run game. His experience comes against top defenders, which will help his learning curve with the Steelers.
It was all about the defense with Pittsburgh's four selections from the fourth to the seventh round – LB Buddy Johnson, DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, DE Quincy Roche, and CB Tre Norwood.
Johnson works hard in run support with room to grow in his game, which will come with more experience. He attacks the line with a fighter mentality that sometimes hurts his play-making ability. Johnson isn't ready to handle top receivers in the passing game. His aggressive style should shine in early downs for the Steelers.
Loudermilk won't win in the pass rush with his speed or quickness,but there is potential for him to develop into a serviceable option. His vision grades well while showing a hammer with his body and hands when attacking the line of scrimmage.
Roche should work as a passing down attacker for Pittsburgh. He made plenty of plays at the line of scrimmage in college while showing the ability to slip blocks and finish his rushes. His challenge will come against power, and Roche lacks the recovery speed to make up for any delay in his attack.
Norwood wants to jump routes and make plays in coverage, but his mistakes outweigh his wins. He lacks the feel and vision to handle top wideouts, especially over the long field. His recovery speed leaves him in the dust when spying in the backfield or biting on a double move. The Steelers should transition him to safety, where his foundation skill set works better, moving toward the line of scrimmage. Norwood tends to be a liability in tackling.
With their final addition in the seventh round, Pittsburgh tried to upgrade their kicking game with P Pressley Harvin. His strong leg and quick tempo should land him the starting job in his first season.
The Steelers ranked last in rushing yards (1,351 – 32nd), which was their fourth straight season of regression. They gained only 3.6 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns. Pittsburgh has three runs over 40 yards over the past four years while gaining over 20 yards on 10 carries in 2020.
Their offensive line allowed only a league-low 14 sacks. The Steelers climbed 16th in passing yards (4,129) with a significant jump in touchdowns (35) while tossing 11 interceptions.
LT Chukwuma Okorafor
The Steelers gave Okorafor 16 starts in his 17 games last year at right tackle. His play doesn't translate well in either run or pass blocking so far in his career. They drafted him in the third round in 2018. His top competition for playing time at left tackle looks to be incoming rookie Dan Moore.
LG Kevin Dotson
Dotson knows the game well with the foundation to have value in a quick-hitting power run game. His lower body needs more strength to help finish and maintain blocks in the trenches. Dotson will have limited range outside his blocking window.
He battled a knee and shoulder injury in his rookie season in 2020, leading to four starts between the two guard positions. In his limited snaps, he didn't allow a sack with minimal pressure. Dotson came in below league average in run blocking.
C Kendrick Green
The lack of depth at the center position gives Green the inside track to start after getting drafted in the third round in 2021. His best value will come in a quick tempo running game. His development in pass protection will determine his opportunity.
RG David DeCastro
Castro tends to be one of the top players at his position in both run and passing blocking. The Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2012. After posting three elite seasons from 2015 to 2017, Castro struggled over the last three years as a run blocker. He continues to be an edge in pass protection.
RT Zach Banner
Banner earned the Week 1 start in 2020, but his season ended with a torn ACL. He's been in the league for three seasons after getting drafted in the fourth round in 2017. His playing time has been minimal in his career. He looks like a placeholder with a chance to start this season. Banner has a lot to prove while having more risk than reward.
This offensive line looks to be a mess with only one proven player. There is no way Ben Roethlisberger repeats his low sack total from last season. The run game may improve, but that may be more of a result of a better running back carrying the ball. I view this line as one of the weaker ones in the NFL.
Pittsburgh passed the ball 63.8 percent of the time in 2020 with a league-high in completions (428) and attempts (656). Despite their passing ways, they gained only 6.3 yards per pass attempt, which was the fourth-lowest output in the league. The Steelers averaged only 23.3 rushes per game.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, PIT - Quality Backup
There is no doubt that Roethlisberger will complete a high number of his passes and find a way to produce passing touchdowns. He has depth and talent at wide receiver, plus Pittsburgh added an intriguing option at tight end. I'm concerned with his passing window, and Pittsburgh could tighten up in some games in the second half when playing from the lead.
In 2020, Roethlisberger had nine games with more than 40 pass attempts and nine games with over 25 completions. His better play came at home (299 passing yards and 2.4 touchdowns per game). On the year, he made only four plays that gained 40 yards or more. Roethlisberger was the 14th highest scoring quarterback (317.00 fantasy points) in four-point touchdown leagues.Fantasy Outlook: His trio of lead wide receivers command targets and his combination of tight ends will add scoring value in the red zone. Roethlisberger projects a QB2 while drawing the 22nd ranking in the early 12-team draft season in the high-stakes market. His floor should be 250 passing yards per game with a floor of 30 passing touchdowns. Pass protection and health are the keys to a higher output. Roethlisberger works as a second quarterback in fantasy leagues while being a stronger start at home.
QB Mason Rudolph, PIT - Dynasty Only
Over his last three seasons at Oklahoma State, Rudolph passed for 12,765 yards with 86 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He scored 16 rushing touchdowns over his final two seasons despite gaining only 96 yards rushing on 144 carries.
In his second NFL season over 10 games, Rudolph finished with 1,765 passing yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He produced eight touchdowns over his first four full starts while gaining over 250 yards in just one game. In Week 17 in 2020, the Steelers gave Rudolph the start (315/2), with the team already locked into their seed in the postseason.
Other Options: Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, Joshua Dobbs
RB Najee Harris, PIT - Stud (low risk)
The Steelers' running backs combined for 1,701 yards with 12 touchdowns and 60 catches. Their backs gained only 3.9 per carry and 6.3 yards per catch. Pittsburgh was one of only two teams not throw a touchdown pass to a running back while ranking at the bottom of the league in receiving production (60/376/0).
Harris comes with a big back mold (6'1" and 230 lbs.) with an excellent foundation in speed (4.45 forty). Over his final two seasons at Alabama, Harris gained 3,419 combined yards on 530 touches with 50 touchdowns and 70 catches. Last year, he finished 1,891 combined yards with 30 touchdowns and 32 catches while gaining 5.8 yards per rush and 9.9 yards per catch.
Fantasy Outlook: A fantasy owner should think Le'Veon Bell as far as yards and catches. Harris will be a much better scoring threat. Pittsburgh is in rebuild mode with their offensive line, so the running lane will be much tighter. His ADP (30) ranks him 19th in late May in 12-team PPR leagues. The Steelers have a history of ride their lead back on a high percentage of plays, which bodes well for Harris. My starting point in his projection will be 300 combined touches for 1,450 yards with 10-plus touchdowns and 40 catches.
RB Benny Snell, PIT - Low Potential
Over the past two seasons, Pittsburgh gave Snell some chances to shine on early downs. Unfortunately, he gained only 219 rushes with minimal value in the passing game (13/84). His season started with 19 carries for 113 yards while delivering only one game of value (107 combined yards with one touchdown and three catches).
Over three seasons at Kentucky, Snell gained 4,089 combined yards with 48 touchdowns and 29 catches while receiving 766 touches. He runs with patience and vision while lacking the wheels to make big plays.
Fantasy Outlook: Snell downgrades to the top early-down handcuff to Harris this season. His lack of value in the passing game makes him a challenging player to roster in PPR leagues.
RB Anthony McFarland, PIT - Low Potential
Pittsburgh went with the fun player (McFarland) with their first pick in round four in 2020. His speed (4.44 40-yard dash) and quickness separate him from the field while possessing a Chris Johnson style of running in the open space. His only gear is full throttle, which is electric if given room to clear the line of scrimmage. He looks to have some fight in his game, with moves to make defenders miss.
Fantasy Outlook: Durability and winning in tight quarters are going to hurt his long-term value. The Steelers should use him as a change of pace option on early downs. McFarland needs to develop as a pass-catcher while lacking the size (5'8" and 208 lbs.) to be trusted initially in pass protection. Pittsburgh gave him 39 touches in his rookie season (167 combined yards and six catches).
Other Options: Kalen Ballage, Jaylen Samuel, Trey Edmunds
WR Diontae Johnson, PIT - Solid/Safe Pick
The Steelers' wide receivers had the best opportunity in football in 2020. They led the NFL in targets (459) and touchdowns (30) while finishing second in catches (295). Pittsburgh gained 75 percent of their passing yards via their wideouts. The glaring weakness was the 10.50 yards gained per catch, which was more than two yards lower than the league average (12.58).
The growth by Johnson in his second season with Pittsburgh (88/923/7) paired with his 144 targets will create some momentum in fantasy drafts. He flashed big-play ability (four catches of 40 yards or more), despite gaining only 10.5 yards per catch. Johnson battled drops (15), which frustrated the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger.
When at his best, Johnson posted eight impactful games (8/92/1, 9/80/2, 6/116/1, 12/111, 8/71/1, 8/59/1, 8/74/1, and 11/117) while coming up short four times (0/0, 1/-2, 1/6, and 4/40). Pittsburgh gave him double-digit targets in 11 of his 16 games played.
Fantasy Outlook: Fantasy owners priced him as the 19th wide receiver in PPR leagues, which falls just above his final standing in 2020 in PPR leagues (223.00 fantasy points – 21st). His high volume catch opportunity creates intrigue with his ceiling if Johnson can clean up his drops. He's trending toward 100-plus catches with a run at 1,200 yards and double-digit scores.