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Steelers fans shouldn’t throw in the Terrible Towel just yet

It may look bleak, but fans should still have hope going into the 2021 regular season.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After meandering through the last few months of the usual suspects of “expert” NFL opinion, from former NFL players to fantasy “celebrities,” from the plethora of websites on the NFL such as Rotoworld to all the three and four letter networks, it is apparent, for the most part, that the Pittsburgh Steelers may as well throw in the Terrible Towel and just start preparing for their top ten draft pick in next year’s draft. Name your choice of punditry, it seemingly doesn’t matter where you choose to get your intel, or if it’s from the “real” or fantasy genre, it is pretty much a given by many that the Steelers are in trouble.

Last place predictions abound; at best, third place. The funeral for Big Ben is being planned by some (ESPN’s Mike Tannenbaum), and celebrated by some (Colin Cowherd?). The wake for the whole organization is being prepared. The end of an era is upon the city of Pittsburgh with hard times ahead declared by some know-it-alls on the NFL Network. Yep, just burn those Terrible Towels and hide the kids, a pall has descended upon our beloved Black & Gold.

Cue the character Quint in Jaws dragging his screeching fingernails across the chalkboard — stop and take a deep breath. And, like in that summertime classic movie Jaws, the chum of the Pittsburgh Steelers is in the water this summer, and an “expert” feeding frenzy has ensued.

Add to all that noise the recent offseason article wrongly (in my opinion) subjugating the 1970’s Steelers’ dynasty to second place all time behind the Patriots, and you can get a bit irritable as a Steelers’ fan.

Last season certainly was an odd one for the team, beginning 11-0 and finishing 1-4. That ending then that terrible loss to Cleveland in the playoffs is surely what the negative crowd thinks the 2021 Steelers will be.

Of course, not impossible. You don’t want to put on your rose-colored glasses and ignore issues, but you also shouldn’t put on your dead rose-colored glasses and leap from the Westinghouse Bridge, either. Especially from reacting to a media that has a need for offseason filler on their platforms.

The death of the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly draws offseason attention. Now, I’m not exactly saying it’s all click-bait, but it certainly does work to that effect.

The 11-0 start was impressive. Notably, the defense was stifling to begin the season. From day one, they shut down the likes of Saquon Barkley like you’ve never seen.

Then, the dominos on defense began to fall, starting with the early loss of Devin Bush. His absence was devastating. With a healthy Bush, the Steelers finally had that rocket sideline to sideline speed and coverage ability that Ryan Shazier once provided. Without that needed speed, there was a noticeable decline. Overcoming the loss of one stud is one thing, but soon Bud Dupree had joined him.

That’s two All Pro level talents, turning a linebacker group that could have been considered the best in the league, to a team trying to “get by” with a rookie learning the ropes in Alex Highsmith, and journeyman talent like Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson. I really like Highsmith’s upside for the coming year, but even talents like Cameron Heyward and Troy Polamalu took time to live up to their abilities. He was learning on the job, which hopefully brings fruits this season.

Then replacement Spillane misses time, further weakening the team up the gut. And, let’s not forget that Vince Williams also misses time in the second half of the season.

Suddenly, the defense is no longer crushing opposing running games. It changed the dynamic of the defense. Nobody by the end of the season was hailing the Steelers as the league’s top unit. Not even close. It became leaky, especially up the middle to both the run and pass.

With a healthy, speedy Bush back and Highsmith with some seasoning, there is hope that that unit returns to a strength, of course led by TJ Watt. As long as the defensive backfield changes – replacing Steve Nelson and Mike Hilton for Cam Sutton, Justin Layne, and James Pierre – keep that unit solid behind a ferocious pass rush, I believe the Steelers can once again be considered a top unit like early last season.

Having the defense back up to snuff will go a long way to keeping the Steelers out of the cellar. This alone would spoil the dire predictions for the Steelers’ 2021 season. If the defense lives up to their abilities and remains relatively healthy, it can allow the Steelers offense to be more efficient. It can allow them to mix in the running game more to grind out games if the defense, of course, limits opposing scoring. It would put less pressure on the offensive unit, which is more the unit of issue for the offseason Steelers’ pallbearers.

Let’s start with first things first. The offensive scheme and offensive coaching.

While Matt Canada is still an unknown, Randy Fichtner is not. Simply changing the system and calling is a plus with the Steelers.

The offense is already improved from 2020!

It couldn’t have been worse or more predictable, as well as unimaginative. And I couldn’t care less if you want to blame Ben Roethlisberger for “running” the offense. If that is true, and I personally doubt the magnitude of that, then that is still Fichtner’s (and Tomlin’s) fault.

If Ben Roethlisberger was somehow running around like a dictator controlling the offense and Fichtner just stood there with a clipboard, then I blame the OC for allowing it.

Good riddance.

With Ben taking a pay cut and his play in question from even the hierarchy, I don’t believe that he will be the “real” OC this year like has been questionably accused in the past. Canada and his commitment to the run feel like a statement from the top that he will be in charge. The Steelers seemed ready to move on from Ben this offseason so I don’t see him pulling a power trip, or even having the ability to stage a coup at this point.

Many, including Bill Cowher, think he’s motivated by all the noise. And I love that. They can make fun of him eating a great diet and coming into camp in shape all they like. I believe it to be true from this apex competitive man. He won’t go down without a fight – it’s not in his nature.

Of course, all the training, prep, great attitude, and diet means nothing if the elbow is now dust. Granted, but I’m with film grinders like Chris Simms who studied his tape and feel that Ben was a different QB early in 2020 compared to late in 2020. He feels, like me, playing through injury, possibly occurring in the Dallas game, may have contributed to his late season swoon. Add in having, as well, zero running game and an ineffective and beat up offensive line, and it is kind of silly to lay it all at his feet and to declare him washed.

He’s not the Ben of 2015 vintage and will never be, but he is still a savvy capable signal caller if he can stay healthy in 2021. One need only look at his last game where he threw for 500 yards and four TDs after being put in a massive early hole just minutes into the game, admittedly partly due to his mistakes.

I’ve watched many washed QBs late in their careers, like Peyton Manning, John Elway, and Dan Marino. None threw for 500 yards, or close. They just weren’t physically capable of it anymore. Especially behind a weak offensive line with zero running game to support them, and in an offense run by a shoddy offensive coordinator. On the year, he had the third most pass attempts in the NFL (only 18 less throws than leader Matt Ryan) and had a pretty sweet 33-10 TD to interception ratio.

Again, not the mathematics and play of a washed QB. It’s too simple thinking to just declare that the case and ignore all other moving parts responsible for a successful offense. Yes, he’s not 2015 Ben anymore, but he’s not 2015 Peyton Manning, either.

Speaking of the offensive line, it’s the next area to delve.

First, let’s address the accusation the Steelers didn’t address the line in the draft. A common comment. It’s a lazy comment because the third and fourth round draft picks were offensive lineman.

What’s more, this was a deep draft for offensive lineman. NFL analyst Gregg Cosell recently commented he likes Dan Moore’s tape, and it was also commented that some would consider him a 2nd round pick in a normal year’s draft. Kendrick Green was taken in the third round and has been roundly critiqued as a nice pick. I’ve heard nothing bad about him.

But, since the Steelers didn’t take them until round 3 and 4, they are somehow discounted as being meaningful!

I’d argue the Steelers were wise to take a potentially dominant RB in Najee Harris and a top TE talent like Pat Freiermuth, while still getting good value on lineman the next two rounds because of its depth. One thing is for sure, there were no cornerstone RBs available in rounds 3 or 4, and certainly no TEs of Freiermuth’s capability available later, either. Drafting offensive linemen in the first two rounds would have left little running back talent available; an area the Steelers sorely needed to upgrade.

Benny “Snail” wasn’t cutting it. Especially when you need to aid an aging QB.

It remains to be seen because the draft is a crapshoot, but the Steelers parsing of the draft seems to have been done skillfully. If you can get two quality linemen later in the draft because of its depth, and still get two potential starters at other positions in the first two rounds – well played.

Furthermore, it is agreed by all that the Steelers line was below par last season. Then why are people complaining about there potentially being four new starters this year? Shouldn’t there be change? Is this not what you should try to do? Get better players? Try something new?

And, moreover, why do “experts” count the addition of these former Steelers to other teams as good for those teams? Aren’t they bad players, according to them? Weren’t they on a bad Steelers line? I read the expert comments and, suddenly, no one seems to call them below par anymore.

Why is Alejandro Villanueva a good add for the Ravens? And Matt Feiler a good addition for the Chargers? And, wasn’t David DeCastro an injured shell of himself last season? Isn’t it a good thing to replace a shell of DeCastro with a potentially better, younger option in Trai Turner?

Now, I hear rumors that DeCastro could be good for this team or that team. But wait, didn’t he suck, according to the pundits, with the Steelers?

Nobody is here to say the Steelers offensive line isn’t a question mark. Of course it is! It is critical to the offense’s success in 2021. This area, more than any other, is where you will need to put faith in the Steeler’s brain trust. I can’t tell you they will become a cohesive unit next year.

It needs to be proven.

But losing two washed lineman – Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro – can only be a good thing. Pouncey and DeCastro were no longer All Pros. Pouncey declined through age and DeCastro, we now know, tried unsuccessfully to play through a chronic foot injury. On paper, Kendrick Green at center is an upgrade, as is the new addition of Trai Turner.

Add in Zach Banner, whom the Steelers were high on last season, and an improving Chuks Okorafor and Kevin Dotson, as well as a new offensive line coach in Adrian Klemm, and hopefully this is a fresh, new “soup” of offensive line talent and scheme to improve on last season.

CBS’s Jason LaCanfora reported recently that there is optimism from the Steelers brass in their young guys.

Whether this soup turns into a hearty meal or a mess is up for debate. I get it – change for change sake means nothing. The change must improve the line, and this, again, is where you need to put some faith in the organization. I won’t pretend to have studied their tape and come to a conclusion, though I’m sure many here will. One thing is for sure: The organization hasn’t sat idly by, and is attempting to improve this perceived weakness. A weakness that started to show cracks as soon as the highly capable Mike Munchak left.

What a huge loss he was.

With the offensive skill positions as loaded as they may have ever been, the gelling of the new offensive line is key to making it work, as is an injury-free and stable Big Ben. For Roethlisberger to work out, the line has to work out. Their fates are intertwined, as is the rushing game. The hopeful improvement in line play will improve a Najee Harris led rushing attack, which will further aid Roethlisberger by bringing a pass/run balance that did not exist in 2020.

Couple that with a return to elite form from a healthy Steelers defense, and it is not hard to see that the Steelers can perform in 2021 more like their 2020 11-0 start as opposed to their 2020 1-4 finish.

Which then brings us to the last issue that confronts the 2021 Steelers – the schedule, ranked hardest in the league in 2021. Unlike the issues above, there is no tinkering that can be done to change it. It is what it is, and the Steelers will have to overcome it.

In many ways, it might be the team’s biggest challenge, though it’s always problematic looking over a schedule and putting W’s and L’s next to games. If it were that simple, we’d all be rich by taking Vegas’s “easy” money laying bets. The NFL is far from predictable and you never know how injuries and many other factors will change what a schedule looks like in July as opposed to in September and beyond.

But as for laying bets, the Steelers odds at winning the Super Bowl are intriguing. Currently a $100 dollar bet brings you $5000 in return. A pretty good return for a team studded with talent that started 11-0 last season. And, a lowly 8.5 over/under on wins doesn’t seem so unattainable in a seventeen-game season.

Nobody is saying to throw your money away on a bet, but the Steelers may just be a good gamble this season to vastly outperform expectations, sports media be damned.