I was watching my son play in his 8-9 year old summer basketball league last week (recap: lots of fouls and screaming parents, very few actual baskets) when a Dad I was speaking with asked how I thought the Steelers would do this season. I stared at him quizzically for a moment, then shrugged and gave him the most honest answer I could:
“I don’t know.”
His question truly stumped me. Granted, I hadn’t thought much about it. Between the film crunching I’ve done for BTSC, the draft profiles and the occasional nostalgia piece, I haven’t really considered the totality of the season at hand. In the moment, I couldn’t come up with a clear answer one way or another. In the days since, I’ve looked at the schedule, re-examined the roster, even read a little of what the so-called pundits are saying. I still don’t have a clue.
It’s a strange place to find myself. For as long as I’ve been a Steelers fan, I’ve almost always had a sense of how I suspected the season would turn out. I haven’t always been right, of course. But I’ve always had expectations.
When I was younger, I was certain the Steelers would win the Super Bowl every season. That’s what happens when you discover football and the team you adopt immediately rips off four titles in six years. Even during the mid-80s, as the Steelers limped through the final years of the Chuck Noll era, I pounded my chest in youthful exuberance and believed they would be great.
The Steelers of the 90s justified my optimism. They were in contention almost every season behind their Blitzburgh defense. Every summer I’d talk excitedly with my friends about the upcoming season. There was a caveat, however, and it was always the same: “They can win it all this year if the quarterback doesn’t screw things up.” Unfortunately, the quarterback usually did. Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart threw approximately 379 soul-crushing interceptions in playoff games between 1994-2001. Every January my mood turned as foul as the weather. Caveat emptor.
By 2002, my optimism had hardened into a more level-headed reality. Perhaps that’s what happens when you turn 30. Or when your team is quarterbacked by Stewart, Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch. Blitzburgh had faded and I realized the Steelers could not compete for a title until they found an elite signal-caller. Fortunately, the wait was brief. In 2004, that man arrived in the form of Ben Roethlisberger. I have entered every season since with the justifiable sense the Steelers were capable of a deep playoff run.
Until this season. This season, I have no idea. The variables are just so great. Could the Steelers contend for a title? Absolutely. Could they finish last in the AFC North? Yes, they could. Perhaps either is unlikely. The fact that both are possible, however, speaks to the broad course the 2021 season could travel.
Take the offense. It feels certain the Steelers will try run the ball better this season than they have the past two years. They have talked about running it better, drafted to run it better and changed the coaching staff to run it better.
Can we be certain, though, that this intention will improve the offense? In addition to their run-game struggles last season, Pittsburgh failed to throw down the field effectively. Roethlisberger became the king of the dink-and-dunk, averaging a pedestrian 6.4 yards per attempt, which was 29th among starting quarterbacks. Defenses eventually adjusted, crowding the box and sitting on the underneath routes he favored while daring the Steelers to throw vertically. Excluding two quarters against Indianapolis, Roethlisberger couldn’t do it. This severely limited the offense, leading to Pittsburgh’s late season collapse and early exit from the playoffs.
If Roethlisberger doesn’t show improvement in his downfield passing game, what’s to stop defenses from employing the same philosophy? This will allow them to both defend the run and the short pass while putting the onus on Roethlisberger to make defenses pay for their man and single-high coverage schemes. The intention to run the ball better is great. The reality, though, is that it’s hard to do when defenses are in a +1 box. While the Steelers may be more capable of running the football this season, it may not matter if they are once again limited in the passing game.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Roethlisberger will rediscover his deep ball. That second half against the Colts wasn’t a mirage. Roethlisberger can still sling it down the field. His problems in 2020 often emanated from poor line play and poor play designs. The latter may have been remedied when Matt Canada was handed the reins as offensive coordinator. Canada’s creative schemes may spice up a Pittsburgh passing game that was heavily reliant on Roethlisberger’s ability to shoulder the burden in 2020. More play-action, better ways to attack coverage and less predictable play-calling could open things up down the field. Better consistency from his receivers should help, too. And, hopefully, new line coach Adrian Klemm is revamping his unit in a way that will give Roethlisberger the confidence to hang onto the football longer in the pocket.
Which will we see, then? The limited Steelers offense from 2020 that invited defenses to play aggressively because they couldn’t push the ball down the field? Or a fresh attack that breathes new life into the unit as a whole? Both scenarios are possible. I have no idea which will emerge.
Defensively, there are similar uncertainties. The Steelers were a Top 5 unit in just about every meaningful metric last season. They’ve been an elite group for two years now and, in theory, retain a core that should make it three in a row.
That theory, however, hinges on some crucial components. There are new starters at outside linebacker, cornerback and slot corner. None of the players anticipated to assume those reps have ever been full-time starters in the NFL. Alex Highsmith, who will succeed Bud Dupree at OLB, did play over 75% of the snaps in the Steelers’ final six games last season. Highsmith showed promise and could be a comparable player to Dupree. A 17 game season is a different animal, however, and with no established players behind him, Highsmith will have to make a big jump and stay healthy to reward the Steelers’ faith in him.
Elsewhere, Cam Sutton will take over at corner for the departed Steven Nelson. Sutton has been up-and-down in his four-year career. He had his best season in 2020 but will be a target for opposing offenses right out of the gate. Sutton may move to slot corner when the Steelers use their sub packages, meaning another unproven player (James Pierre, Justin Layne) will take his spot outside. At inside linebacker, the Steelers have no adequate replacement for Devin Bush should Bush suffer another injury like the one that shelved him after just five games in 2020. At safety their depth is shallow beyond Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The defense could easily be a Top 5 unit once again. But an untimely injury or two and a new starter failing to rise to the occasion could cause them to slide, putting added pressure on the offense to rebound.
Then there’s the schedule. On paper, it’s tough. Early games at Buffalo and Green Bay. A home date with Seattle. There are some soft spots in the middle but the close is brutal. Ravens. At Vikings. Titans. At Chiefs. Browns. At Ravens. 10 wins feels daunting. Or maybe not. How can we project wins and losses when we don’t have a good feel for the Steelers? Until we have a better idea what this team might look like, and how it might perform, it feels impossible to project how it will fare against its opponents, quality or otherwise.
Schedules can look one way when they’re released in May and quite different when we see teams perform in September and October. Every team has questions it must answer. And every team is susceptible to a key injury that derails its season. That’s the nature of the beast in the NFL. As a Steelers’ fan, I’ve grown accustomed to consistency and expectation. That’s what makes this upcoming season so odd. Rarely have I had so little sense of how things might play out.
And yet, while I find this unsettling, I also find it exciting. The unsolved mysteries that will define Pittsburgh’s 2021 campaign will be fascinating to follow as the evidence is unveiled. What will Canada’s offense look like? How will Roethlisberger adapt to it? Will Najee Harris be the beast we anticipate? Will the offensive line find its alpha mentality? How will the new pieces on defense fare? There’s even a new punter to consider (provided he unseats the old punter). I haven’t been this unsure about a Steelers’ season in a long time. Nor have I been this eager to watch.
Just don’t ask me how it’s going to end. For me, uncertainty in the only certainty for the Steelers this season.