Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. The same applies for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There's no escaping a hard-fought divisional matchup, especially in an ultra-competitive AFC North division that featured three of its four teams in the AFC playoffs last season.
As fate would have it, neither of the three playoff teams (Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns along with the Pittsburgh Steelers) were able to achieve their ultimate goal of bringing home a Lombardi trophy. Thus, an offseason of reworking their respective teams proved pivotal to prepare for another rigorous season.
The Cincinnati Bengals acquired star LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Quarterback Joe Burrow will look to rebound from a torn ACL that was suffered early in his rookie campaign, and should he show any promise displayed in the few snaps he took, Cincinnati will certainly improve from their 4-11-1 record last year.
After defeating Pittsburgh in the wild card round for their first playoff victory since 1994, the Browns believe they only improved their defensive prestige by adding edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney and safety John Johnson. Cleveland has the talent to make a run, but what will be done to reach the next step?
That's a question weighing heavily on the minds of the Ravens as well, a team that has looked like legitimate Super Bowl-vying teams for the last two years. Baltimore seemed to have lost a handful of talented players such as Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue while also reworking their offensive line. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson will have another opportunity ahead of him to prove he belongs in the elite quarterback conversation this season, a feat that would silence the majority of his critics by leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance.
Of course, the Steelers have had their own storylines to deal with in the offseason. From retirements of key players, free agent departures and an aging quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, the national light that shines on the Steelers isn't exactly the brightest.
However, the national media has shown to be somewhat misinformed on what to expect out of Pittsburgh on a yearly basis. So, in an attempt to gauge the temperature for the Steelers heading into 2021, we spoke with Sports Illustrated's lead writers in the AFC North on their thoughts for the black and gold and how they match up in the division.
No matter the records, the two Ravens-Steelers matchups are almost always certain to produce fireworks. After being swept by Pittsburgh in 2020, Raven Country's Todd Karpovich (@ToddKarpovich) believes the Ravens will be looking to even the score next time around:
"The Ravens will be looking for a measure of revenge against the Steelers after being swept in the season series in 2020," said Karpovich.
"However, Baltimore was missing nine starters, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, in a 19-14 loss at Heinz Field. The Ravens and Steelers will be stout defensively, so both games could hinge on which team protects the ball better on offense. Baltimore and Pittsburgh play each other tough and this year will be no different as the teams will likely split the season series. Jackson is 2-2 with 381 yards passing, 3 three touchdowns, and five interceptions in five career games against the Steelers."
"The Bengals always seem to have problems with the Steelers, but were able to split with them last season. The matchup is going to come down to Cincinnati's offensive line against Pittsburgh's defensive line and pass rush. If the Bengals can keep Joe Burrow upright, there's no reason why they can't score points on anyone, including the Steelers," said Rapien.
"The trio of Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd should give their star quarterback plenty of options in the passing game. Add in a healthy Joe Mixon and Cincinnati should be able to compete with Pittsburgh."
Rapien also added his thoughts on Roethlisberger:
"The Steelers have the coaching advantage and Ben Roethlisberger might be underrated at this point with the way some in the national media are talking about the future Hall of Famer. Overall, I think Bengals-Steelers should be entertaining and competitive this season, which hasn't been the case in recent years."
"The Steelers ended the 2020 season at a crossroads. Accepting the inevitability of their demise after one last run for the title or fighting it as best they can, despite losing around six starters in the offseason and facing a first place schedule in 2021. The Steelers have opted to fight on, but the weaknesses they have, including notably offensive tackle and their secondary put them closer to fourth in the AFC North than first," said Smith.
Smith also wrote a piece detailing his thoughts on the Steelers' entire offseason of moves from an outside perspective, should you fancy a deeper dive.
So, what does the rest of the AFC North think of the Steelers?
With three different trains of thought, experiences and expectations, the Steelers appear to be a mixed bag of outcomes heading into 2021. It's abundantly clear, however, that the Steelers will have no easy path to repeating as AFC North champions thanks to an already competitive division ready to flex muscles of improvement come time for opening kickoff.
You May Also Like: