Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Season Preview: Can this team contend in the AFC North?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot to prove going into the 2021 NFL season, with a more pessimistic outlook for their season preview than in recent memory. In an AFC North with the Ravens and Browns, it’s not likely they contend for a division title. We may even see the Bengals place higher in the division race. So, what’s wrong with the Steelers’ roster?

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 season preview

The Steelers’ schedule is absolutely grueling. They face the Browns and Ravens twice apiece and go on the road against the Packers, Bills, and Chiefs. Other games include a battle with the Seahawks and Titans at home and the Chargers in Los Angeles, which is practically a neutral site game.

Offseason additions and losses

The only big “addition” for the Steelers in the 2021 offseason was re-signing a player they weren’t expecting to. JuJu Smith-Schuster never saw a market materialize for him, so he decided to stay in Pittsburgh on a one-year deal worth $8 million. They also retained Tyson Alualu after he originally planned on joining the Jaguars.

The losses piled up for the Steelers during the offseason. Maurkice Pouncey retired, creating a massive need at center. Furthermore, Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler left in free agency, resulting in the depletion of the entire left side of the offensive line. Then, the team cut right guard David DeCastro before signing veteran guard Trai Turner in free agency. With Chukwuma Okorafor moving to the left side, that makes five different starting linemen heading into 2021. 

But that was just the beginning of their losses. Much like the offensive line, Pittsburgh’s secondary was once a strength but no longer resembles anything close. They moved on from Steven Nelson and lost Mike Hilton in free agency.

Luckily, Pittsburgh still has one of the best defensive lines in the NFL despite Bud Dupree walking. They also lost James Conner to the Arizona Cardinals. In short, it was a rough offseason for the Steelers.

2021 NFL Draft

Oh, what could have been. Najee Harris is a complete back. He possesses power, agility, blocking, and receiving ability. But he’s not Superman, and no back can be consistently successful without an offensive line. Therein lies the problem with the Steelers next season.

Pittsburgh passed on Teven Jenkins and Creed Humphrey (to be fair, far too many teams did) and was one pick away from Christian Darrisaw, who could have stepped in at left tackle right away with massive potential. Tight end Pat Freiermuth seemed like a luxury purchase made by a team struggling to pay their mortgage.

Kendrick Green finally ushered in a time where the pick made sense. He was good value where they picked him, and he fit a massive need. Dan Moore was also a nice upside pick at a position of need. The offensive tackle will be a developmental player that could contribute in the future.

The Steelers then focused on defense but didn’t address the secondary outside of a seventh-round flier in Tre Norwood. Overall, Pittsburgh drafted some excellent players that don’t really fit their current needs all that well.

Where do Pittsburgh players rank in PFN’s Top 100?

47) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Safety

Fitzpatrick came out of Alabama as a do-it-all safety who had excellent coverage skills and stellar ability against the run. Miami used him in a similar fashion, much to his chagrin. He played fine for the Dolphins but has flourished since Pittsburgh put him on the back end as a true free safety. He’s one of the best pure free safeties in the league.

37) Cameron Heyward, Defensive Tackle

Heyward is the definition of a Steelers player. He’s a down-and-dirty technician at the position, using great hands and a solid plan to attack interior linemen. As a tandem with his partner Stephon Tuitt, they’re a formidable duo. When schemed to, they work well off one another, and Heyward dissects blocks at a high level in one-on-one situations.

4) T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker

Watt ranked very high for the Pittsburgh Steelers in PFN’s Top 100 NFL Players, and for good reason. He is also a technician, much like his brother before him. Watt is particularly adept when able to eat space from a wide alignment. He can really set blockers up by tempering his feet and then attacking with multiple rush moves to win the arc.

Steelers 2021 prediction

The 2021 season preview for the Steelers appears pessimistic, but head coach Mike Tomlin has never coached a losing football team. In a 14-year career, that is absolutely remarkable consistency. Maybe that means the Steelers could finally be ready for a few down seasons. Still, the man managed to go 8-8 with Mason Rudolph and some guy nicknamed “Duck,” so anything is possible.

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has a lot of work to do in his first stint as an OC in the pros. He spent last season as the Steelers quarterback coach. The franchise isn’t a fan of outside hires, so Canada’s ascension made sense. Still, with so many young offensive-minded coaches at the NFL’s disposal, it’s interesting they didn’t go for a young gun.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has the same story as almost every Steelers coach. He’s spent about half his life there. Butler has been with the team since 2003 when he became the linebackers coach. In 2015, he was elevated to defensive coordinator when Dick LeBeau retired. Pittsburgh has long been known as an aggressive defense that blitzes a lot. Not much has changed since Butler started calling the plays.

Offense

Pittsburgh’s offense needs to improve in 2021 if this team is to make the playoffs. Last season, they ranked 22nd in efficiency in the NFL. With a defensive backfield that is a shell of its former self, the offense must step their game up to compete in the AFC North.

Defense

Pittsburgh’s defense was the most efficient passing defense in the NFL last year. However, they also benefitted from an easy schedule. They’ll have to bandaid the back end together and continue to find pressure with their pass rushers.

2021 Steelers record prediction

The second-most difficult schedule in the league in 2021 doesn’t inspire confidence for the Steelers’ season preview. Their roster has somewhat deteriorated, and when looking down the schedule of games, there aren’t many they have a quarterback advantage in. This is finally the season where Mike Tomlin finds himself a losing record as a head coach, as they win 7 or 8 games in 2021.

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