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Keep sleeping on the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers

PFF, meme pages, you name it: The Steelers only need more fuel to add to the fire

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

All offseason, the Steelers have served as the NFL community’s punching bag. From jabs about its unceremonious first-round exit to uppercuts about Ben Roethlisberger’s horrid play to end the 2020 season, Pittsburgh has seen a barrage of criticism, much of it warranted. No matter the fanbase—from Bears fans who haven’t seen a Super Bowl victory in over 35 years to even pitiful Lions fans—the Steelers’ schadenfreude has created essentially universal solace.

In fact, many of the attacks upon the six-time Super Bowl champions have extended into this upcoming NFL campaign. Gone are the days of revering Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin for creating one of the classiest and most revered franchises; instead, individuals in both casual and professional media settings are truly hopping aboard the anti-Pittsburgh bandwagon.

Whether it’s Pro Football Focus poking fun at Ben Roethlisberger’s apparent lack of arm strength or former Jets general manager and ESPN insider Mike Tannenbaum repeatedly shellacking the Steelers, it seems that a good portion of NFL pundits and followers feel the Steelers’ title window hasn’t just closed, but that it’s hermetically sealed.

At first, I pondered writing this as a no-holds-barred rant about why the Steelers deserve more respect. Ben Roethlisbergrer entering what could be his final year, a trio of amazing wideouts, the acquisition of Najee Harris, a top 10 defense—this team has me excited entering 2021.

But rather than implore readers to ceaselessly defend the team, I took a different slant: If people want to doubt the Steelers, sit back and watch (and maybe keep the receipts).

Unequivocally, the Steelers’ success in 2021 is tied to Roethlisberger. Prior to Pittsburgh’s Week 9 clash in Dallas, Big Ben had tallied 31 bad throws, per Pro Football Reference. However, that number climbed to 60 over the Steelers’ final eight games, a stark contrast that indicates that the six-time Pro Bowl QB did perform much worse.

Yes, Roethlisberger’s play declined as the season endured. He even admitted it in an OTA press conference, citing his elbow surgery during the 2019 season.

However, as the latter portions of the Steelers’ miserable Wild Card game indicated, Roethlisberger still has plenty left in the tank. After Roethlisberger had tossed his third interception and with the black and gold in a 28-0 hole in the first quarter, the two-time Super Bowl champ totaled 435 yards, 4 touchdowns and an interception to make the contest even somewhat competitive.

Other factors that should alleviate some of the pressure off of Roethlisberger’s shoulders? The emergence of a robust run game via Harris as well as revamped and revitalized play-calling with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada at the helm.

In spite of what you may see when scrolling through your Twitter timeline, Roethlisberger had a relatively solid 2020, and more positive plays should emerge at quarterback in 2021 considering he’ll have to carry less of the freight. After all, he acted as Pittsburgh’s quarterback and de facto OC a year ago.

Moreover, some feel that the Steelers’ defense is in the midst of a precipitous decline.

Pittsburgh did face challenging departures via OLB Bud Dupree (Titans), CB Mike Hilton (Bengals) and CB Steven Nelson (currently unsigned). At the same time, Mike Tomlin’s squad has players that are ready and able to step up and show out to fill such voids.

On the left side of the defensive line opposite star T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith looks to build off of an under-the-radar rookie year. And while corner depth does remain somewhat of an issue, Cameron Sutton seems poised to play on the outside as a full-fledged starter, and the Steelers have solid options in Sutton, James Pierre, Shakur Brown, Tre Norwood and more to play slot.

This year’s iteration of the Steelers returns 16 of 22 starters relative to a season ago, and many of those positions, like James Conner at RB and Matt Feiler at LG, will presumably perform even better in 2021.

Is a team that went 12-4 and is retaining much of its nucleus really destined to win a measly 5 games and contend for a top 5 pick?

One of the pivotal reasons why the Steelers notoriously collapsed last year seemed to be their hubris, a characteristic made especially prominent against the Bengals on Monday Night Football. The Steelers had become a household name as a contender, yet teams were itching to expose Tomlin & Co.

With the narratives permeating social media and maybe even NFL front offices prior to the Steelers’ trip to Buffalo on September 12th, the opposite may now be true. In fact, doubting the Steelers is likely to offer players like Roethlisberger a dose of reality and even generate additional drive for success on the heels of an already remorseful past few months.

If fans, analysts, and even opponents wish to throw haymakers and view the Steelers as a fluke team about to fall from grace, let them. Roethlisberger and Tomlin have no choice but to respond with a swift, potent, vindictive punch on the gridiron.

After all, Pittsburgh can’t fight back any worse than Internet sensation Bryce Hall.