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7 Steelers statistical milestones to watch in 2021

Among franchise records and individual accomplishments, mark your calendars and keep your eyes peeled for these numbers this upcoming season.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As individuals, we love round numbers. There’s just something so aesthetically pleasing about looking at several digits and instantly recognizing that the figure is easy to interpret. While we don’t see this often in prices—thanks, marketing tactics—it does happen in sports every once in a while, and we should stop to appreciate it.

Speaking of which, it’s also crucial to recognize when players set any sort of records, whether moving up career leaderboards or establishing a new franchise benchmark. It can be challenging to acknowledge a numerical highlight as your favorite team is coming off of an embittering losing streak, but scrutinizing the stat sheet truly opens your eyes to how cool yet crazy the NFL is.

With the Steelers set to open their 2021 campaign in just over two months, here are seven numbers-driven breakthroughs to follow as the season progresses, listed in order of most to least likely.

Ben Roethlisberger – Career Passing Yards

Entering 2021, Roethlisberger has tallied 60,348 passing yards, which slots him at 7th all time. In order for Big Ben to eschew Dolphins Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino, who currently sits in 6th, the Steelers quarterback would need just 1,014 passing yards. Further, if Pittsburgh’s all-time leading passer throws for 3,093 yards, he’ll pass recent retiree Philip Rivers and move into the top five.

Both of these numbers seem likely for Roethlisberger, even if he doesn’t start or play the entire season—more on that in just a bit.

In his career, #7 has averaged 259 yards per game. Using that metric, Roethlisberger should be able to eclipse Marino in Week 4, when the Steelers are in Green Bay; likewise, Big Ben could edge Rivers in Week 12 at Cincinnati, assuming he avoids yet another collapse in Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger – Career Games Played

As the Steelers’ offense revolves around Roethlisberger, so too do the first two points outlined in this article.

In his 17-year career, Roethlisberger has suited up for 233 regular season games, starting 231 of them. Looking further, the Miami of Ohio alum is just 17 appearances shy of notching 250 contests played.

How special is that contextually? you may ask. Well, if Roethlisberger does reach such a mark, he’d be only the 52nd player in NFL history to accrue 250 games played, putting him in the top .2%—yes, you read that correctly—of all NFL players in history.

Seeing playing time in 250 matchups is no easy feat—it requires both longevity and talent. An accomplishment like this would likely only boost Roethlisberger’s Hall-of-Fame ledger.

The good news for Roethlisberger is that if he remains the Steelers’ starter the entire season, he will reach the mark in the new 17-game slate. What makes this even more plausible is that Big Ben doesn’t even need to start every contest—for example, if he’s benched in Week 16, he would simply need to appear for one snap in Weeks 17 and 18 to play 250 times on an NFL field.

Najee Harris – Rushing Yards

It should come as little surprise that Harris is being mentioned in contention for rookie rushing yard records.

From the moment the Steelers wrote his name down on April 29, much fanfare has been directed towards Pittsburgh’s rookie rushing record, which is held by yet another Harris—Hall-of-Famer Franco. The Steelers’ current Harris would need only 1,056 rushing yards to shatter the mark held by his name predecessor, something which seems fairly pedestrian considering the Alabama product gained a whopping 1,466 yards on the ground a season ago.

The only trepidation I have regarding Harris is the Steelers’ offensive line, which projects to be subpar once again. Even then, Harris notching over 1,055 yards seems like a very safe bet.

More broadly, the #24 overall pick would need to muster a gaudy 1,809 rushing yards in order to break the rookie rushing mark set by Eric Dickerson in 1983. The Steelers are already ogling over Harris’ world-class talents, but the Immaculate Reception might have a higher chance of occurring than Harris setting a new bar that high.

Najee Harris – Total Touches

I’m touching (pun intended) upon Harris once again, as his rookie season is likely to be chock full of preposterous stat lines.

All Harris needs to do is amass 290 touches to break the Steelers rookie touches record, which was set by Le’Veon Bell. That appears to almost be a guarantee, as James Conner posted 270 touches in just 12 starts in 2018.

Yet what appears more challenging is breaking the Steelers touches record among all players in a single season, as Harris would have to possess the ball 427 times. For context, no NFL player has accomplished that since DeMarco Murray in 2014.

Even more arduous would be generating a new NFL rookie touches record, which the aforementioned Dickerson dictated with 441 totes.

Harris is certain to be at the center of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2021, and if the team really runs him into the ground, breaking the latter two records isn’t necessarily as impossible as it seems.

T.J. Watt – Sacks

After Watt became a Steeler in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Wisconsin alum has absolutely blossomed in the NFL to the tune of 49.5 sacks in his first four seasons.

Over the last three campaigns, Watt has totaled 42.5 sacks. In fact, he needs 17 sacks to have the second-most sacks in a four-year span in NFL lore. Ironically enough, his brother, J.J., wreaked havoc by stockpiling 69 sacks from 2012-2015.

Watt could also set a new mark for most sacks in four consecutive seasons if he can aggregate 18 sacks this season. Surpassing Reggie White’s 70 sacks in that span may finally be enough for Watt to earn his first Defensive Player of the Year Award (who are we kidding, it still wouldn’t be enough).

Chase Claypool – Total Touchdowns

Claypool’s rookie campaign was sensational—his 11 touchdowns tied Louis Lipps (1984) and Franco Harris (1972) for the most in a Steeler’s inaugural season.

If Claypool truly wants to etch his name in the history books, he’ll have to reach the end zone a ludicrous 16 times this season to reset Lipps’ mark for touchdowns by a Steeler in their first two years with the organization.

And if Claypool is going to go big, he might as well go home: if he adds four additional touchdowns to the 16 detailed earlier, he’d set a new NFL record for touchdowns in receiver’s first two seasons at 31.

Hey, if Claypool keeps playing the Philadelphia Eagles and Alex Singleton in coverage, maybe this isn’t too far out of reach.

Minkah Fitzpatrick – Interceptions

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick has been the paragon of a ball hawk. He’s notched nine interceptions, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns—it almost seems as if the ball gravitates towards him.

If Fitzpatrick can become even more of a football black hole this year, he could collect 12 interceptions, good enough to break Mel Blount’s franchise record of 11 picks in one year.

In that case, the fourth-year star safety would become the first Steeler to lead the NFL in interceptions since Blount in 1975. If we really want to get wacky, the two-time All-Pro would need a mere 15 interceptions to set a new single-season record.

With one more game under his belt this season, it’s not outrageous to think that Fitzpatrick could enact a new individual career high with six interceptions.

But unless Mike Tomlin runs a Cover-Minkah with only Fitzpatrick on the field—for the record, I’d love to see that—this just doesn’t seem overly practical.