Mike Tomlin probably has the best assessment about his team as any media member or outside figure does this season.
"The only thing perfect about this team is our record."
Tomlin uttered those words after their win over the Dallas Cowboys, followed by an acknowledgment that they have "a lot of work to do." Following three straight losses and on the verge of an absolute meltdown, Tomlin's assessment is spot on.
Injuries have plagued this team in 2020. Some of them are proving to be insurmountable late in the campaign. Devin Bush was lost early on and forced Robert Spillane into duty. Spillane filled in admirably but is now dealing with his own longer-term injury that has left the Steelers razor-thin at inside linebacker.
Bud Dupree, an elite pass-rusher opposite of all-pro T.J. Watt, tore his ACL and likely ended his Steelers career in the process. While rookie Alex Highsmith has done rather well in his stead, the keyword there is "rookie." At some point, the inexperience will show, and it'll prove Dupree's absence to be one that hurts.
Mike Hilton and Joe Haden have both missed time at cornerback. James Conner has dealt with COVID and a few injuries that have seen him miss a good chunk of the second half of the season. All of these guys are starters on an 11-3 roster. Ideally, you'd rather not see them mount in such capacity.
But it isn't just injuries that have ravaged this team. The lack of depth behind the starters isn't of high quality. When you're paying your 38-year old quarterback a $40+ million cap hit, those are the ramifications you'll face.
Truthfully, even some starters on the roster haven't quite lived up to their billing. Take the offensive line, for example.
On Monday, Maurkice Pouncey and David Decastro just got named to the nonexistent Pro Bowl. They're both still playing solid ball, but neither is on the right side of 30. They won't be playing at a high level forever. Alejandro Villanueva has been a train wreck and got dominated on Monday night by Carl Lawson. They've rotated guys like Kevin Dotson, Matt Feiler, J.C Hassenauer, and Chukwuma Okorafor, just to name a few. This all after Zach Banner went down with a torn ACL of his own after winning the starting spot out of camp.
Much of the run game's struggles can be attributed to the offensive line. Once the best positional group on the team, the offensive line has quickly become one of its bigger problems in the past few seasons.
However, the guys running the ball might not be all that impressive, either.
James Conner deserves all the credit in the world. He's overcome adversity that no one deserves to even dream about overcoming. He's a great story. Unfortunately, it seems he is injured way too often to be reined upon as the bell cow back in Pittsburgh. As the saying goes, your greatest ability is your availability. For much of Conner's young career, he hasn't always been available.
The options beyond him are fairly uninspiring.
Benny Snell shows flashes of being good. You could argue he hasn't been given a real chance to put it all out there and show what he's capable of, so he still has that dreaded "potential" tag by his name. Maybe he turns out to be something. Anthony McFarland is also a young guy who's seen limited time in his rookie season. Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds seem to be mere placeholders.
The Steelers don't pay running backs. So it seems any improvement to the running back group will come through the NFL Draft. Conner is likely headed out the door this offseason leaving the group even thinner.
The pass-catching group has a lot of young talent. Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud all offer something different. Johnson seems to be the most talented. Claypool can be used as a deep threat. Smith-Schuster fights for extra yards and plays hard. Washington is great with combat catches. McCloud has been a formidable plug and play along with his return game prowess.
Pittsburgh always drafts receivers exceptionally well. They likely don't need to tinker with much here. Smith-Schuster will probably walk following the season, subtracting a good receiver from the room. But they can likely find a replacement for him.
Tight end seems to be a curious position.
Eric Ebron was a nice signing. He is a big, athletic guy who makes some tough plays. Ebron also has trouble catching the ball and always has upon arriving in Pittsburgh. Vance McDonald is getting paid $7 million a year to virtually be a blocking tight end. Zach Gentry was taken last season in the NFL Draft but typically never even gets a helmet on game day. That can't be promising for their thoughts on him.
So just offensively, the Steelers have multiple holes on their offensive line. Their run game probably needs a fairly large overhaul. Without question, they should probably move on from McDonald and find someone to push Ebron for playing time next season.
And this is all with the hope that Roethlisberger regains some of his form and sticks around in 2021 as the starting quarterback.
Defensively, the secondary is pretty good. But there will be some question marks this offseason.
Former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds is playing for his future roster spot. The Steelers will need to decide whether or not to activate his fifth-year option. He would still be under contract for next season but wouldn't be in 2022.
Both Haden and Steven Nelson are getting paid pretty highly. While both are playing well enough, their higher salaries may cause the Steelers to cut one of them. They could attempt to resign them at a lower number. Cam Sutton also looks ready to step in at corner wherever needed. Let's not forget Mike Hilton's deal is up in the offseason too. His resigning looks fairly unlikely, opening up another hole in the secondary.
The front seven will remain fairly solid. Tyson Alualu is having a career year, but he will be 34-years old next season. Will the Steelers allocate part of their cap for him? That seems to be unlikely. They'll get Bush back, and Highsmith will likely continue to hold down the side opposite of Watt.
This season has exposed some holes in the Steelers' roster. Whether injuries or just poor play, Pittsburgh could stand to draft a myriad of positions in the first round, and they'd all be understandable choices. With cap problems already surfaced due to constant restructuring of contracts, keeping some of these key players will be tough. Adding to those holes isn't prudent business, but it might just be a casualty of the salary cap era.
Kevin Colbert and company will have their work cut out for them…assuming he doesn't retire and leave the organization himself.