The Pittsburgh Steelers need to answer a lot of questions if they are to be successful in 2021. The fact of the matter is it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint what kind of team they will be this year until we know more about some key spots. With a team so shrouded in mystery, I present you the Top 10 biggest storylines the Steelers face.
Honorable Mention: Will they add any more players before Week 1?
This one is an honorable mention because it’s mostly a question I want answered. The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting around $13 million in salary cap space, and surely a team trying to make another run at a title would spend that money to improve the roster, right? I think it’s more of a question of ‘when’ and ‘who’ rather than ‘if’ and ‘will’ but getting to that point might be a painful wait. Championship teams don’t have a surplus of unused cash laying around.
10. Will a true number one receiver emerge?
In 2020 the Steelers receivers all ranked very similarly when it came to stats and output. That’s fine, but doesn't exactly give defensive coordinators migraines. Having a true number one receiver shifts the strength of the defense and frees up the other receivers in more favorable matchups. Physically, Chase Claypool is most likely the one who can be that guy, but don't count out Diontae Johnson who Ben Roethlisberger clearly targets early and often.
9. Will T.J. Watt be coronated as the NFL’s best defensive player?
It’s long overdue, but could this finally be the year where T.J. Watt is recognized as the defensive player of the year? He may say it’s not important to him, but the fact his big brother has three of those trophies definitely weighs on the youngest Watt. He most certainly needs to break James Harrison’s Steelers single season sack record (16 sacks) to do so, but considering T.J. was a sack per game player in 2020 he should be able to do that in a 17 game season.
Bonus: Will T.J. Watt sign his mega-deal before the 2021 season? There’s no way the Steelers let this guy go anywhere. Especially because the amount of salary space they will have in 2022. Getting this deal out of the way now would be one less thing for Kevin Colbert and company to worry about.
8. How many rookies will hold prominent roles?
This is a tricky one, on one hand the Steelers will do anything in their power from putting rookies in situations they’re not ready for. On the other hand you could say a large number of the Steelers draft picks are already better than the veterans they would normally be backing up. Najee Harris is already penned in as the starting tail back, Pat Freiermuth will play a ton as the number two tight end, and Kendrick Green will take over center duties quite possibly before Week 1. But after those players, who else could make a splash? Pressley Harvin III should be the starting punter, Quincy Roche should push to be the Steelers third edge rusher, and Buddy Johnson could earn some playing time beside Devin Bush. Could any other rookie make a significant impact?
7. Will the Steelers be able to run the ball?
This storyline blends in with a number of others appearing on this list. But let’s face it, the Steelers were the worst rushing team in football last year and that is unacceptable. The team went out and revamped the offensive line, changed the system, changed coaches, and spent a first round pick on a running back. You can say a lot of things about this offseason, but you can't say they didn't at least try to fix the rushing attack.
6. Will the drops problem persist?
Drops —mainly by Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron— killed the Steelers in plenty of games last season. Without them they likely bury the Ravens and continue their win streak against Washington and Cincinnati. But we can't change the past and can only worry about the future. Johnson has said he dedicated the offseason to fixing this issue, and if he did the Steelers will be a better team for it. If the issue persists, don’t be surprised if the Steelers are quicker to bench pass catchers in 2021.
5. Can the defense withstand some key losses?
Losing Bud Dupree, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton really sucks. The Steelers sure didn't get any better by losing this trio of defenders. But it is important to keep in mind the Steelers had Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton as immediate replacements for two of those players lost. They also signed Arthur Maulet and a handful of UDFA’s to replace Hilton in the slot. Will it be enough to keep this unit one of the tops in the game?
4. Will Matt Canada’s offense translate to the NFL?
It has been brought up a number of times the offseason, but Matt Canada has bounced around from team to team throughout his entire coaching career. Could it be the scheme, him as a person, or something else? We may never know, but what we do know is his system has worked in the college ranks in a number of places. We also know many NFL teams called on Canada to advise them on trends, but will this scheme truly hit in the NFL? The motions and shifts are a confusing concept to pick up but often puts you at numbers advantages. Can NFL defensive coordinators see right through the façade?
3. Can the Steelers win a playoff game?
Not since 2016 have the Steelers done anything in the playoffs. This includes two embarrassing first round exits in 2017 and 2020, as well as two seasons, 2018 and 2019, they should have never missed the playoffs. The name of the game is success in the postseason and winning championships, but the Steelers have failed to even begin a quest for a title. Winning in the playoffs needs to be the singular goal for this team.
2. Will Ben Roethlisberger fully buy into the new system?
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? We saw what happened in Green Bay last year when Aaron Rodgers bought into Matt Lafleur’s system. I’m not saying Roethlisberger will be the league MVP, but having your quarterback 100% onboard makes things a lot easier. Roethlisberger is going to have to throw the ball less and call less of his own plays to be successful in 2021. He also needs to be willing to both stand in the pocket and run play action. Sure, this could lead to Roethlisberger getting hit more, however his quick release in 2020 went from a positive to a negative, and needs to end now. Plays cannot develop if you're throwing the ball in less than a second and the defense’s job gets a whole lot easier.
1. Can a revamped OLine outplay expectation?
This is the big one. A lot of people are already writing this group off without actually having seen them play a game together. The interior three linemen either weren't Steelers last year or were relegated to the bench for being a rookie, despite also being the best offensive lineman on the team last year. Zach Banner will return to his right tackle spot where he mauled people in the past, and Chuks Okorafor will return to his more comfortable left tackle position where he has always had a stronger post and kick leg. Could this unit be bad? I suppose. But could this unit take a lot of people by surprise? I would say it’s more likely.
But what do you think? Which is the most important question surrounding the Steelers you most want answered? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.