I can’t remember a Pittsburgh Steelers preseason like this in quite some time.
Typically, fans go into the season lamenting the Steelers as Super Bowl contenders. This season, many pundits throughout the league feel the Steelers are on the way down. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. I truly won’t be surprised if they go 11-6, but I can’t say it would be a shock if they finished 6-11.
It is a weird feeling. Ben Roethlisberger helped rattle off 11 straight victories to open the season upon his return from elbow surgery. Then, the team lost five of its last six, including the embarrassing playoff loss to Cleveland that was essentially over after the first offensive snap. It was a total meltdown. There is no other way to put it.
Enter the offseason.
Rumors swirled that the Steelers were going to part ways with Roethlisberger unless he took a pay cut. The Steelers brought in Matt Canada to be the offensive coordinator. JuJu Smith-Schuster was essentially gone after he hit free agency. He couldn’t find a taker at a price to his liking and signed on for one more year with the team that drafted him. They spent their first-round pick on running back Najee Harris. Devin Bush went on a wild Twitter binge akin to Antonio Brown. Vince Williams abruptly retired.
Here we are, the first weekend of training camp, and the Steelers have dealt with some adversity already. Head coach Mike Tomlin will get them headed in the right direction. He always does.
The Steelers head into the 2021 season with an offensive line that has been completely overhauled. Maurkice Pouncey retired. David Decastro was cut last month. Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler signed with other teams in free agency.
Chukwuma Okorafor and Kevin Dotson return this season as part of the Steelers’ young players on an overhauled line. Zach Banner returns from an ACL injury suffered in the opening week of last season. The Steelers used a third-round draft choice on Kendrick Green and signed five-time pro bowler Trai Turner. Those five names comprise the offensive line with the most question marks in football.
The offense was predicated on quick, short passes throughout most of the 2020 season. That was by design. There is a possibility that the line is porous enough that they won’t have much of a choice.
And, of course, there is their 39-year old signal-caller under center in Roethlisberger. Are we going to get a revitalized version of Roethlisberger as we saw in the first eleven games last year? Or will we see a tired version of him that seemed to appear late in the year with undoubted fatigue following his major surgery?
There won’t be a shortage of weapons. They’ve got Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Eric Ebron, Pat Friermuth, Harris, and Smith-Schuster. If the offensive line holds and Roethlisberger stays healthy, this offense has a chance to be an elite unit. Those two questions could determine the course of the season.
That goes without even mentioning the changes on defense.
Steven Nelson is out. Cam Sutton is in.
Bud Dupree signed with the Tennessee Titans in the offseason, which seemingly handed the keys to Alex Highsmith to start opposite of T.J. Watt at linebacker. To improve their depth, the Steelers signed another former pro bowler in Melvin Ingram. I’d assume Highsmith gets the chance to start on the other side of Watt to open the year unless he performs very poorly in camp. Ingram will be a nice insurance policy and can spell Highsmith at times. It’ll only be Highsmith’s second NFL season, so expecting him to play 55-60 snaps a game might be a bit unrealistic.
The Steelers do still employ stars such as Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Watt. Other mainstays in the defense like Stephon Tuitt and Terrell Edmunds return as well. It isn’t like the defense lost all of its star power. The unit remains fairly talented, with a few new pieces that need to step up quickly.
Something not enough people discuss is how tough the schedule is for the Steelers this season. Factoring in the 2020 winning percentage, the Steelers play the hardest schedule in the league this season. They’ll face challenges like the Packers, Bills, Chargers, Chiefs and their AFC North divisional foes on the road. They’ll get the comfort of playing the Seahawks and Titans at home despite those opponents not being cupcakes, either. Every game they’ll play seemingly will be against a playoff team. They will see the Lions and Bears - there are no Tigers in the NFL, oh my! - but both teams have new quarterbacks with plenty of hope for this season.
With many uncertainties, it is fair to wonder exactly what the Steelers will be in 2021. Winning the AFC North is probably a bit far-fetched. Cleveland continues to get better. Lamar Jackson and Baltimore’s defense always makes the Ravens a threat to contend. Even as Joe Burrow returns from his catastrophic leg injury last season, the Bengals may soon be on the rise.
To be fair, even Cleveland found a way to dig themselves out of mediocrity.
Nonetheless, they absolutely could find a way to make the playoffs. The NFL will continue with the 14-team playoff as opposed to the original 12-team playoff that existed before last season. That gives every team just that much more of a chance to make it. With three wild card teams, the Steelers face an easier path to get there.
So clearly, the Steelers have their work cut out for them this year. Last season was their first playoff appearance since 2017. They haven’t won a singular playoff game since 2016. Things haven’t gone according to plan for them and their path won’t get any easier this season.
It isn’t Steelers football without uncomfortable heart attack moments over the course of what is now a 17-game season. 2021 shall provide no shortage of those moments.
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