Steelers Nation has just witnessed the end of an era. Everything about the 2021 NFL Wild Card game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs screamed mismatch. Many a faithful Steelers fan managed to convince ourselves that the underdog Steelers had a punchers chance against the two time reigning AFC champions, even with the huge talent disparage between the two rosters. That's what we do, we look for something to believe in, a reason to watch the game. Why even bother if there's no hope? But that's what's great about sports in general, you just never know when something magical might happen.
The fact that this undermanned Steelers squad was able to win 9 games and somehow sneak into the playoffs was rather miraculous in it's own right. The legend of Ben Roethlisberger only grew as he continued his career defining heroic tendencies. T.J. Watt solidified his position as the best defensive player in the NFL by finally making game changing plays in late game situations, when the stakes are the highest. It was the last hurdle he had yet to cross, but cross it he did with flying colors. Tied the NFL single season sack record of 22.5 and he did it in fewer games, but that is only part of his all around domination. Cameron Heyward continues to prove that he is the most underrated defender in the NFL, having the misfortune of playing defensive tackle at the same time as the generational talent known as Aaron Donald.
The 2021 NFL season didn't have a fairytale ending for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers that many of us had been hoping for, but there were magical moments and lasting memories made along the journey. Now the Steelers enter the most uncertain and tumultuous off season in at least two decades. The only thing for certain this off season is the knowledge that changes are coming, and they will be numerous.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Building blocks of the future
The roster that the Steelers currently have under contract for next season has talent, some of the elite variety, but nowhere near enough of it to be considered a contender. While it can be argued that was true with the 2021 Steelers roster, there can be no doubt that the Steelers necessary rebuild has begun, and in earnest.
The Steelers have the aforementioned two All Pro defenders in T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward to build their defense around. Alex Highsmith had an impressive sophomore campaign, especially as a run defender. He still needs improvement as a pass rusher, specifically in completing the action after generating the pressure, but showed the superior work ethic last off season he will need to duplicate this off season to take the next step in his development.
Minkah Fitzpatrick showed tremendous growth as both a free safety and as a professional this season. He showed the willingness to sacrifice his personal wellbeing and preferences to be whatever the Steelers defense needed him to be on that particular day. Regrettably, due to talent shortcomings brought on by injuries and free agency losses, he was tasked with being a type of FS/SS/ILB hybrid as the last level of defense. This limited his opportunities for splash plays and cost him a Pro Bowl appearance because the novice fanbase often lacks a true understanding of what they are viewing, but he earned nothing but respect in my opinion, and he did it all without once complaining about how it was impacting his brand or image.
These are the defensive players already under contract for the 2022 NFL season that the Steelers can consider building blocks for the near future. Other than these individuals, everyone else on the defensive depth chart is far from a certainty and many will possibly not return. The offensive side of the equation is even more uncertain.
The only obvious building blocks on offense are rookie standouts Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, and Dan Moore Jr. I would have considered Kevin Dotson a player capable of building the offensive line around going into the 2021, but his performance failed to meet expectations this season, and there still seems to be some sort of unresolved tension between Dotson and the coaching staff. This remains a troublesome situation, because the Steelers desperately need him to play to his considerable capabilities.
Diontae Johnson is the only receiver that the Steelers should feel comfortable with at the moment, and that status got shakier by the week late in the season. He enjoyed his first thousand yard season as easily the Steelers most reliable pass receiving target, but he caught another case of the old butter fingers when the pressure ramped up near season's end. His two drops and other miscues in the first half against the Chiefs were drive killers. That was definitely the opposite of clutch. If you decide to critique your own fanbase for being overly critical, you better be prepared to make them eat their words. He definitely came up short in that regard.
The Steelers can only hope for the best with basically everyone else on the current depth charts, as many won't return after being released or replaced.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Roster stability
This Steelers roster has more uncertainty than any that I can recall, at least for the past two decades. That is bound to happen when the face of the franchise QB retires after 18 years at the helm, but this situation goes much deeper than that. Out of the 22 offensive and defensive starters this season, less than half should be considered likely to retain their position next season. Don’t even get me started on the depth chart, where massive changes are needed and an infusion of talent is required.
The Steelers will have to break in a new starting QB to start the season for the first time in 18 years. That is both an exciting and frightening proposition, all rolled into one. Not having any idea what to expect, the unknown has a tendency to be like that. Roethlisberger has been so durable and dependable over his HOF caliber career, I have actually forgotten what that is going to feel like.
The Steelers offensive line, after having 4 new starters to begin 2021, could be facing the same amount of turnover this off season, although Dotson and Moore may be moved to the right side of the line eventually. This off season of player development and evaluation will be crucial, especially with this position group.
The next most vital position evaluation will take place at cornerback, where Cameron Sutton is basically the only player scheduled to return. Joe Haden had a disappointing 2021 season overall. He has obviously lost a step, and dealt with lingering injuries, a common occurrence with advanced age at the position. He also appeared to lose some of his enthusiasm for the game, after the Steelers turned down his request for an extension prior to the start of this season. I believe both issues affected his performance this campaign.
Ahkello Witherspoon was easily the Steelers best coverage corner by late in the season, but he hates to tackle and has a reputation as an incredibly streaky performer. He also happens to be a free agent, and a risky one at that, based on the concerns mentioned above. James Pierre was a pleasant surprise to start the year, but eventually earned a spot in the proverbial doghouse, never to return. I am sure there was more to that situation than meets the eye, so his contributions next season are far from certain.
The bottom line is this. The Steelers need to improve their speed and athleticism at the position bigtime. They also need to finally enter this century and completing change their soft zone coverage concepts, which are no longer effective against modern NFL offenses. The Steelers league best pass rush has hidden alot of ills over the past couple seasons, but the Steelers lack of speed and coverage abilities was fully exposed this season.
I have seen the Steelers projected available cap space going into this off season being described as a favorable situation, but it doesn't look quite as positive when the shear number of players needing to be re-signed or replaced is factored into the equation. Talent costs money, and the Steelers needs are far greater than the amount of cap space and draft capital they possess at the moment. This rebuild could take some time, something guys like Heyward and even Watt may not have a lot of. Shrewd personnel decisions must be made.
Stay tuned to BTSC as my colleagues and I discuss possible solutions and answers to the Steelers numerous issues during the off season.