|By Shawn Childs, Thursday, August 19, 2021|
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 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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
Injury Status: Injured Reserve
WR Diontae Johnson - 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.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster - Solid/Safe Pick
Over his first two seasons, Smith-Schuster had a stud WR1 feel highlighted by his success in 2018 (111/1,426/7) while receiving 166 targets. He struggled with an injury this following year (42/552/3), and Pittsburgh lost Ben Roethlisberger for most of the season.
The pluses were his catches (97), his high catch rate (75.8), and touchdowns (9) in 2020, but Smith-Schuster gained only 8.6 yards per catch. Pittsburgh listed him on the injury report in most weeks with multiple issues (toe, foot, and knee) despite playing every game. Over his final 12 games (including the playoffs), Smith-Schuster had a floor of six catches in 10 matchups while scoring seven touchdowns. His best two games (9/96/1 and 13/157/1) came in Week 16 and the postseason.
Fantasy Outlook: The wide receiver position in Pittsburgh has many mouths to feed, but Smith-Schuster remains the go-to guy over the short areas of the field. Hopefully, his injuries hindered his explosiveness in 2020, giving him a chance to regains his yards per catch (13.7) over his first three seasons. His ADP (74) ranks him as the third Steelers' wide receiver drafted and 29th option at wideout. I trust his 100-catch opportunity, and I expect a push back over 1,000 yards with value in touchdowns. He should be a worthy buy while looking like a steal if Smith-Schuster slides in drafts.
WR Chase Claypool - Solid/Safe Pick
Claypool emerged as the WR3 for the Steelers in Week 3 when he dominated the Eagles (7/116/4). He quickly moved into fantasy leagues starting lineup. Over his next 11 games, Claypool caught 44 of his 78 targets (56.4 percent) for 511 yards and five touchdowns. He scored fewer than 10.0 fantasy points in PPR from Week 13 to Week 16 (2/38, 3/15, 3/54, and 4/54) while gaining fewer than 60 yards in nine matchups. His season ended with strong showings (5/101/1 and 5/59/2). Claypool averaged 8.3 yards targets per game over his final 11 games.
In the second round in 2020, Pittsburgh invested in Claypool. I don't expect him to outwork any defenders over the short areas of the field due to questionable explosiveness out of complicated routes. His release will be an issue as well when facing physical defenders in press coverage. Claypool will present a problem on slants, crossing patterns, and down the seam where his straight-line speed is an edge if given a step or two advantage in coverage. Notre Dame used him on many fades as the goal line, but his footwork and ability to make plays will be slowed down if challenged earlier in his release or by adding a second defender to his side of the field.Fantasy Outlook: Claypool brings big-play and scoring ability, which lays the foundation for an impact player with growth in his route running, release, and catch rate (56.9 – seven drops). His ADP (70) paints him as an early WR3 in PPR leagues (217.00 – 23rd ranking in 2020). Claypool may be the wide receiver most affected by the Steelers having a weaker offensive line due to Ben Roethlisberger having a short passing window. His natural progression should be 70-plus catches with over 1,000 yards and plenty of help in scoring.
WR James Washington - Not Draft Worthy
After setting a career-high in catches (44), receiving yards (735), touchdowns (3), and targets (80) in his sophomore year, Washington was jumped on the depth chart by Chase Claypool early in the season. He finished with 30 catches for 392 yards and five touchdowns in 2020. Washington had three catches or fewer in 14 of his 17 games, with his best output coming in Week 6 (4/68/1) and Week 13 (2/80/1) at home.
Other Options: Ray-Ray McCloud, Cody White, Mathew Sexton
TE Eric Ebron - Bust (overvalued)
With Ben Roethlisberger back behind center, their tight end regains some of their lost value (71/657/5). The addition of Eric Ebron didn't work out as planned, leading to short yards per catch (9.3) and no edge in their catch rate (64.0).
Pittsburgh gave Ebron plenty of chances (91), but he seemed to fight tight coverage and drop some key passes. Ebron gained fewer than 50 yards or fewer in 12 games while showing dump-off value in five games (5/52/1, 7/54, 7/68, 5/47/1, and 7/62/1).
Fantasy Outlook: Despite a wide receiver led offense in Pittsburgh, Ebron finished 14th in tight end scoring (143.80 fantasy points). The Steelers added a talented tight end in this year's draft, which puts a damper on his opportunity. Ebron comes off the board as the 21st tight end in the early draft season.
TE Pat Freiermuth - Deep-league Only
Penn State featured Freiermuth as a top-scoring threat in the passing game over his first two seasons. He picked up 15 touchdowns over 25 games with 69 catches for 875 yards. Freiermuth gained an impressive 14.2 yards per catch as a freshman, but he turned more into a possession option in 2019 (11.8 yards per catch). Freiermuth burst out of the gate with 23 catches for 310 yards and one touchdown over four games, but his season ended in mid-November with a right shoulder injury that required surgery.
Fantasy Outlook: Freiermuth will be found in the free-agent pool in most leagues. He has a closer feel, with a chance to surprise in some games in scoring. His game projects well, and I wouldn't dismiss Freiermuth having a breakthrough season.
Other Options: Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Dax Raymond
PK Chris Boswell - Deep-league Only
After finishing 7th in kicking scoring (10.56 FPPG) in 2017, Boswell slipped to 25th in 2018 (6.13 FPPG), 12th in 2019 (8.34 FPPG), and 26th in 2020 (6.58 FPPG – three missed games). In his career in the NFL, Chris made 88.0 percent of his field goals with success from 50 yards or more (9-for-12). Boswell made over 30 field goals once in his career (35-for-38 in 2017). Last year Pittsburgh scored only 50 touchdowns with 24 field attempts.Fantasy Outlook: Boswell won't draw the attention of fantasy owners in drafts, but his leg may surprise if the Steelers improve their scoring ways in 2021. Boswell is only a waiver-wire option until success can be seen on the field.
Pittsburgh - Stud (low risk)
Pittsburgh moved to 11th in the NFL vs. the run (1,783 yards) with 13 touchdowns and 11 runs over 20 yards while allowing 4.3 yards per rush. They ranked 3rd in passing yards allowed (3,110) for the second straight year with 22 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The Steelers' defense had 56 sacks, with quarterbacks gaining only 6.6 yards per pass attempt. Pittsburgh has three dynamic players at linebacker (Watt, Bush, and Fitzpatrick). Their secondary is trending toward a weaker area at cornerback while Heyward remains a top defensive lineman. This defense should get plenty of sacks while creating turnovers. They need someone to step up in the interior of the defensive line to stop the run while also having a couple of young players arrive at linebacker. The Steelers defense will be a top-two fantasy option in 2021.
DT Cameron Heyward
After posting a career-high in tackles (83) while maintaining his edge in sacks (9), Heyward struggled to make an impact in 2020 based on his stats (54 tackles and four sacks). He continues to play well against the run and creates pressure on the quarterback. Over his last 62 games, he has 33 sacks. Pittsburgh drafted him in the first round in 2011.
DE Stephen Tuitt
In 2019, Tuitt missed 10 games with a pectoral injury. Last year he found his rhythm in the pass rush leading to a career-high in sacks (11). His run defense came in well below his best seasons while continuing to have tackling issues. Overall, Tuitt is a top-tier defender.
DT Carlos Davis
The nose tackle job for Pittsburgh will be a training camp battle. Davis has the feel of a run clogger over a run stopper. His range is limited, with no chance of being a value to the pass rush. He doesn't win with his quickness, forcing him to beat his man with power and hands. Last year he saw minimal action. The Steelers should rotate in a second option on passing downs.
LB T.J. Watt
Watt has been a beast in the pass rush over the past three seasons (42.5 sacks in 47 games while picking up 176 tackles, three interceptions, 18 defended passes, 16 forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. His ceiling continues to rise along with his value against the run.
LB Devin Bush
In his rookie season, Bush picked up 109 tackles with one sack, two interceptions, four defended passes, and one touchdown. Last year, a torn ACL in his left knee led to him missing the final 11 games of the season. The Steelers expect him to be ready for the opening day.
His game is built on plus speed and quickness while being undersized (5'11" and 235 lbs.). Bush will be a plus player in pass coverage with an edge filling gaps vs. the run. His vision is favorable, but his first step is trailing. Even with strength, Bush will struggle to beat big bodies if he gets caught in traffic.
LB Buddy Johnson
Pittsburgh has a void at one of their middle linebacker positions with Bud Dupree leaving town. Johnson is the new kid on the block after getting drafted in the fourth round in 2021. His game plays well against the run, pointing to a rotational role in his rookie season.
LB Alex Highsmith
Highsmith has the look of a playmaking pass rusher. His wins come from quickness and a variety of moves. He doesn't have the strength to beat top blockers when engaged or hold them off in the run game. Highsmith should find his way on the field on passing downs while having the base talent to develop into a much better player. In his rookie season, he made 48 tackles with two sacks and one interception.
CB Joe Haden
Haden saw a regression in his yards allowed per catch while minimizing the damage in touchdowns given up. He doesn't play well supporting the run, and his overall play is no better than the league average. Haden had 52 tackles, two interceptions, and defended passes in 2020.
CB Cameron Sutton
In his four seasons with the Steelers, Sutton made seven starts. His run defense is a problem, and he won't be an edge in coverage if asked to start. Sutton has placeholder feel due to Pittsburgh losing Mike Hilton and Steve Nelson in the offseason.
S Minkah Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick made 79 tackles in his first full season with the Steelers. Over the last two years, he has nine interceptions, 20 defended passes, and three touchdowns. His run support now ranks highly for his position. The Dolphins drafted him 11th overall in 2018.
S Terrell Edmunds
Over his first three years in the NFL after getting drafted in the first round in 2018, Edmunds had 251 tackles with two sacks and three interceptions. He plays well in coverage, but Edmunds lost some value against the run last year.