As the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers begin the pad-popping portion of a training camp that will be conducted away from St. Vincent College for a second straight summer, they do so with a regular-season outlook that hasn’t been this bleak in almost a decade.
I realize “bleak” is a rather dramatic word to use when talking about what people are expecting out of Pittsburgh in 2021 but is it though? Let’s be honest, the low expectations for the Steelers 2021 campaign started to become apparent the second their 2020 season came to a crashing halt in a 48-37 home loss to the Browns in the wildcard round on January 10.
Would quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finally retire after 17 seasons? The wish for that to become a reality was more palpable than ever. How would the Steelers, a cap-compromised franchise that would almost certainly have to make major cuts just to be compliant—let alone do anything noteworthy in free agency—even be able to piece together a semi-competitive roster?
A team free of Roethlisberger would take some getting used to, sure, but at least the Steelers could free up some finances and finally begin their future, a future that would almost certainly start with a major rebuild.
Instead, Roethlisberger and the Steelers worked out a deal where he would take a pay cut and they could make some moves in free agency. They didn’t make moves that earned them high praise, of course. B.J. Finney? Not inspiring. The surprise re-signing of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? Believe it or not, polarizing. The sudden contract dispute between the team and cornerback Steven Nelson that ultimately led to Nelson’s release? Bizarre.
In the meantime, Mike Hilton departed, as did Matt Feiler and Bud Dupree. None of these were surprising exits, but they sure didn’t do much to raise those low expectations for 2021.
Throw in the retirements of center Maurkice Pouncey and tight end Vance McDonald, the failure to retain the services of defensive lineman Tyson Alualu—or so it seemed—along with the not-so-surprising release of inside linebacker Vince Williams, and the tide was quite low in Steeler Nation.
But as they often tend to do, things eventually settled down. Alualu actually had a change of heart and returned to the Steelers after verbally agreeing to a deal with his former team, the Jaguars. The Steelers ultimately had to cut veteran guard David DeCastro, but they quickly signed another veteran guard to take his place—Trai Turner.
Let’s not forget about the recent signing of outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, a player who will either provide great insurance or be a dangerous weapon, depending on who you talk to.
Oh, and how about a 2021 NFL Draft class that most fans are pretty darn optimistic about?
Yes, sir, a Steelers offseason is a lot like a whirlwind first week at a new job. It’s all so confusing at first, and you never know how you’re going to get through it, but everything eventually slows down and starts to come into focus.
But that’s just the fans, folks who are always secretly optimistic, even if they don’t often give off that vibe. As for the local and national football experts, I don’t think most have changed their tune about the Steelers and their low expectations for them in 2021.
What’s the point of bringing Roethlisberger back at the age of 39? Why draft a running back—Alabama’s Najee Harris—in the first round? Sure, the team parted ways with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner after three seasons, but this Matt Canada has no experience designing an offense at the professional level.
The offensive line appears to be in total-rebuild mode. The new offensive line coach certainly isn’t Mike Munchak. It’s some guy named Adrian Klemm. Sure, he talks a good game, but who cares about that? What are his credentials?
Alex Highsmith is going to replace Dupree at outside linebacker, but he’s obviously not going to be as good. People are excited about the fact that the team was able to retain the services of Cam Sutton, but is he going to replace Hilton in the slot or Nelson on the outside? Will he be as good as either of those guys? What about the depth at inside linebacker now that Vince Williams, who the team actually re-signed in April at a reduced cost, has suddenly retired at the onset of training camp?
And let’s not even get into what the experts think of head coach Mike Tomlin, who is preparing for his 15th season as the man in charge on the sidelines.
Oh, and the rest of the AFC North, a division the Steelers won with a 12-4 record in 2020, appears to be passing Pittsburgh by in terms of talent. The Ravens have been a few paces ahead for a while (according to the experts). The Browns sped by the Steelers on Art Rooney Ave. back in January. Heck, even the Bengals appear to have a young and talented team on the rise, one that includes a super-capable quarterback in Joe Burrow.
Vegas has the Steelers finishing with nine wins in 2021, a total that might actually seem generous to some.
But that’s all coming from the outside world. What are the Steelers' expectations for 2021? Surely, they wouldn’t have brought Roethlisberger back at age 39 just so he could have a farewell tour. As for that offensive line, one that factored heavily into the team finishing last in rushing yards a season ago? How could it be any worse? What if it’s actually better with some younger blood at most positions, including left tackle (Chukwuma Okorafor), left guard (Kevin Dotson), possibly center (rookie third-round pick Kendrick Green) and right tackle (Zach Banner)?
To the outside world, it was stupid to draft Harris in the first round, but what if he becomes a difference-maker on par with Le’Veon Bell in his prime? What if Canada actually designs a better game-plan than Fichtner? After all, that’s what he was hired to do.
To the outside world, Highsmith is a downgrade from Dupree. However, people are paid to find players to take the place of other players who simply can’t be retained in the salary cap era. If he were to do so, Highsmith wouldn’t be the first Steelers prospect to successfully replace a productive outside linebacker.
It’s actually happened a lot in the long and storied history of the organization.
Maybe the traditional way in which the Steelers are handling their current situation at outside linebacker—draft a guy, groom him for a year or two, and then throw him in there when the other guy leaves—is an example of the disconnect between how they see themselves and how the outside world views them.
I have no doubt in my mind that the Steelers think they can compete for a title in 2021.
As Tomlin has often said: the standard is indeed the standard.
I guess the biggest question the Steelers must answer as they prepare for the 2021 regular season is this: are they living in reality or their own bubble?
We’ll find out the answer to that question soon enough.