By Jeremy Hritz
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2021 Steelers Overview
The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers season is nearly here, and in a little over a week, the team will take on the Buffalo Bills in hopes of beginning not only a playoff run, but one in which they can pursue a 7th Lombardi trophy. While many of the unsettled variables will have to solidify and stabilize in order for that to happen, the individual parts are there to generate the type of success they are pursuing, it’s just a matter of those parts all coming together in unison.
Following a 2020 season in which the Steelers started the year 11-0 before bonking against the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, there is a renewed emphasis on the running game, and it appears that the 18-year veteran signal caller, Ben Roethlisberger, has been rejuvenated, not just physically, but in his attitude and mindset as well. The murkiness is the offensive line that stands in front of Roethlisberger, as it is essentially brand-new, as the Steelers will have 4 new starters. This is still the greatest question that needs to be answered before we can truly understand just how far this team can go, as its success will dictate the effectiveness of the offense.
The standard is always high in Pittsburgh, and despite the dreadful performance in the 2020 postseason and the lack of clarity surrounding the OL, the expectation for the Steelers is the playoffs and to compete for a Super Bowl. In my season preview, I take a look at all parts of the team, make my predictions and projections for the schedule and player stats, identify those players who will emerge and standout, in addition to a few other fun takes on 2021. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and I’d love to hear how you see 2021 playing out for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Analysis of the 2021 Steelers Offense
The Steelers are steady at quarterback with Roethlisberger returning for another (hopefully) productive season. There were concerns near the end of last year of lost arm strength, resulting in a focus on the short passing game, in addition to questions about his knees and mobility, and whether or not he could effectively move to avoid pressure. While only training camp, reports from Pittsburgh beat writers and based on his performance against the Detroit Lions, Roethlisberger appears ready to go.
With a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada, Roethlisberger has a fresh perspective on the offense and will line up under center more often and utilize play action, something that has been absent from the offense for a long time. Behind Ben, Mason Rudolph will serve as the backup after winning the apparent competition for QB2 against Dwayne Haskins. Not sensational by any stretch, Rudolph can be a game manager and possibly lead the team to a few wins in Ben’s absence, but if he has to play for any extended period of time, this team is in trouble. Haskins will be the #3 in the QB room, and will get another opportunity next training camp to compete for a higher spot on the depth chart.
At the running back position, the team greatly upgraded the running back room with the drafting of Najee Harris out of Alabama. In the preseason, Harris demonstrated that he can be in every down back, displaying a nice blend of power and agility, and the skill to break off a long run. A perfect example of this came against the Lions in the preseason in which he turned a short pass into a 46-yard reception. This play also highlights Harris’s gifts as a receiver who will also enhance the passing game for the Steelers.
Harris’s abilities as a complete back are quite a contrast to what James Conner and the lifeless running game offered in 2020, in which nothing could be generated on the ground, leading to constant third and long situations the team was not able to overcome. This inadequacy led to the fixation on the short passing game which defenses eventually solved and forced the Steelers’ defense to carry the team, something that was unsustainable. The expectations for Harris are tremendous, but I believe he is more than up for the task, as he will be the next great running back in Pittsburgh. Even with an unproven offensive line, his ability to create will recharge the once depleted ground attack.
Behind Harris you have Anthony McFarland who is in his second year out of Maryland, who is still trying to figure out how he fits into the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. Unfortunately for McFarland, he will start the season on IR. There is hope that because McFarland played with Canada at Maryland, he will be able to utilize him effectively. McFarland’s preseason was a mixed bag, and though he did show his burst and speed on multiple occasions, his game lacks consistency, and he shows hesitancy to commit to a hole to run. After McFarland, Bennie Snell and Kalen Ballage are similar players, with power to grind out the short yardage
Snell rushed for 113 yards last season in the opener against the Giants, and has proven he can be effective. Ballage has experience, but not the familiarity and comfort with the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. Overall, the running back room is better because of the addition of Harris than it was in 2020, and with the growth and development of both Snell and McFarland, coupled with the addition of Ballage, the running game will improve.
I would also be remiss not to mention Derek Watt who is returning to the team and looks to have a productive 2021 season after being after being used sparingly in 2020. Whether or not he is utilized in the game plan in Canada‘s offense remains to be seen.
At wide receiver, the Steelers are loaded.
They are stacked top to bottom with standouts: Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington. Rounding out the room is Ray Ray McCloud who is their weakest receiver but provides some splash in the return game each of the receivers offers a unique skill set. McCloud could be on his way out after the signing of Steven Sims to the practice squad. You can check out my profile of Sims and his explosiveness by clicking here.
Juju serves as the possession receiver, while Johnson has the ability to stop and start on a dime and make defenders miss. Claypool is the big-bodied receiver who can outleap and out-physical defensive backs for the combat catch. Washington brings somewhat of a deep threat, though he lacks home run speed. When you put all those talents together, it is a strong unit that can attack the defense in many ways. The biggest concern here is the lack of elite speed and a legitimate deep threat, and though Washington can and has shown in the past that he can stretch defenses, I am concerned whether or not teams will be able be able to easily defend the Steelers passing game. If defenses \know the offense cannot attack vertically, they will can focus their efforts on thwarting the running game and short-to-medium passing attack. Developing the vertical threat must be a focus this season.
Tight end is a position that has improved because of the draft. Eric Ebron returns for his second year with the team and has shown he can be a dynamic option down the field when he can hold to the football, though he has not shown effectiveness in the run blocking game. Pat Freiermuth, rookie out of Penn State, who was drafted in the second round, has been solid all preseason and had one of the highest catch percentages as documented by the Steelers Depot Alex Kozora. Freiermuth also had a big showing against the Lions, in which he caught two long touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. If Freiermuth is able to contribute to the offense in that capacity, the tight end room becomes even better, especially when combining his talents with Ebron.
Rounding out the tight end room is third-year player, Zach Gentry out of Michigan who converted from quarterback to tight end. Gentry has made strides in the blocking game in the preseason and will be utilized as a run blocker during the regular season, and not so much a receiving threat.
Offensive line is the biggest question mark for the team, and while training camp provided a bit of clarity, the unit is still unsettled.
At center, rookie Kendrick Green looks to get the start as an athletic and fast blocker who can get to the second level in a hurry. However, he struggles with big bodied defensive linemen and the bull rush.
At right guard, Trai Turner gets the nod after being signed as a free agent from the Los Angeles Chargers, and if he can regain any of his form from his first five years in which he was a Pro Bowler, the position will be just fine. A better run blocker, his pass protection is his area for growth.
At left guard, second year player Kevin Dotson steps in with a nasty demeanor, and based on his preseason play, he appears to be the team’s best lineman. He is about punishment, and hopefully that mentality permeates the rest of the OL.
At left tackle, it appears to be Chukwuma Okorafor who will start, but with uncertainty surrounding Zach Banner’s injury, he may be moved to the right side, opening the door for Dan Moore, Jr., who has shown improvement every day in the training camp process. At right tackle, assuming Banner is healthy, he will get the nod.
In the preseason, the pass protection was sufficient and the run blocking was ok, but it wasn’t nearly convincing enough to have faith in this group heading into the season. While the 2020 offensive line was atrocious, there was familiarity, something that will have to be developed with this group. While they should be ok in the run game, I am concerned about their ability to pass protect, and with a 39-year old QB, this is troubling. Look for this unit to improve as the season goes on, and by the end of the year, they should be a decent group.
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Analysis of the 2021 Steelers Defense
The defensive side of the football is the team’s strength, with elite players in TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. With the development of other defenders such Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, and Alex Highsmith, and this defense could be better than it has been in previous years. However, counting on the accelerated growth of those players is unstable.
The Steelers have a strong starting D-Line, and it may be the best in the NFL. From Stephon Tuitt, to Cameron Heyward, to Tyson Alualu, this group is dominant. There is concern here at the start of the season with Tuitt on the IR, and Chris Wormley will be expected to ensure there isn’t a significant drop off. The depth on the defensive line is excellent with rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, who impressed in camp and in the preseason, Carlos Davis, and Isaiah Buggs, the coaches will develop some type of approach that may utilize all of those players to soften the loss of Tuitt. When this unit is playing at full strength and at a high-level, it enhances every other position group on the defense.
The inside linebacker position has promise with Bush returning from his season-ending ACL tear in 2020. Bush was drafted for his overall athleticism and ability to cover the entire field. If he can regain his pre-injury form, he will serve as a quality player inside. There is some concern whether or not he is fully recovered from his injury, as he was out of position many times in the preseason when covering the pass. Hopefully, this is just the result of readjusting to the game following his injury, and not a preview of what is to come in 2021.
Paired with Bush is Joe Schobert who was traded to the Steelers from Jacksonville. Schobert, like Bush, in strong in the area of coverage, and he should help to improve a Steelers defense which has historically struggled to cover running backs and tight ends. Schobert is a bit inconsistent in his tackling which will need to be shored up as to not allow for big gains in the running game.
Marcus Allen has versatility, with the ability to play safety in addition to ILB, though he is currently nursing an injury. Ulysses Gilbert, III is currently still on the roster, though he may be pushed to the practice squad as a result of another signing prior to the season opener. Rookie Buddy Johnson had a solid training camp and should contribute on special teams this year and be allowed for time to develop before. he contributes to the defense.
At outside linebacker, the Steelers are loaded with their starters and their depth, something that I called into question prior to and after the draft until they signed Melvin Ingram.
Watt is on the cusp of becoming the highest paid defender in the league and will legitimately compete again for Defensive Player of the Year. If he can avoid a soft tissue injury upon his return after not practicing throughout all training camp, he will be in a solid position to pursue the award once again, and if he can stack more splash plays, he can outshine Aaron Donald for the award.
Alongside TJ, second year OLB Highsmith will compliment him, and based on his outstanding preseason in which he was the team’s best defender, he should make a significant jump in year two. With a relentless motor, increased strength, and an enhanced repertoire of pass rush moves, I full expect Highsmith to accumulate 10 sacks and be more stout in his run defense.
Factor in Ingram who was equally productive and powerful in the preseason, and what you get is a trio of outside linebackers all capable of starting and playing at a very high level. At the 4th spot, Jamir Jones is an unproven commodity who flashed as a pass rusher and a special teamer, and he will get to learn from the best. He will have the time to develop and grow under the mentorship of elite pass rushers, and this will undoubtedly speed up his maturation as a player.
Cornerback is a position of question this season, and it could be the area where the greatest concern rests, next to the offensive line.
Joe Haden returns as the wise, experienced veteran at 32 years of age, and there are some concerns of lost speed and how that could impact his game. Haden has been a stabilizing force in the secondary since he was signed, and he truly found his home in Pittsburgh, so much so that he approached the team about a contract extension to be able finish out his career with the team.
Opposite Haden at right cornerback is Cameron Sutton who will start on the outside for the first time in his career. While Sutton has much experience from reserve time and playing in the slot in previous seasons, he has never been a regular starter, so it is uncertain what he can bring to the team in this type of role. In the preseason, he was just OK, and there were a few occasions where he allowed receivers to get behind him and where he was out of position in terms of making the tackle. Hopefully, this is not indicative of what to expect from him in a full season as a starter.
Backing up Haden and Sutton will be James Pierre and Justin Layne, both who are unproven, though Pierre has shown a great deal of promise this offseason, whereas Layne is still working to discover his NFL game and how to best utilize his talents on the Steelers defense. The plan, at least early in the season, will be for Sutton to shift inside to the slot, and Pierre to jump outside, when such a defense is needed, as the team was not able to identify a player who could man the slot corner role like Mike Hilton did in previous years. Arthur Maulet was also brought back to the 53 after initially being cut, and he will provide for depth and special teams help. The cornerback room will benefit from a strong pass rush, which they should get from Watt, Highsmith, and Ingram, and if this is the case, it will mask some of the deficiencies that exist in coverage.
What remains to be determined is how newly acquired Ahkello Witherspoon will be utilized in the CB room.
The Steelers safety room features one of the best players in the league, and arguably the best safety in the NFL, Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is smart, dynamic, and a playmaker. On any given down, he can flip a game with a splash play, and in his third year with the Steelers, he is primed for possibly his biggest season yet. Next to Fitzpatrick will be Terrell Edmunds who has been adequate but has never lived up to his first round pedigree, showing weaknesses in coverage, especially in covering tight ends. While he does flash at times, he still has much room to grow, and the Steelers are hopeful he takes that step this year. Edmunds’ 5th year option was not picked up, so that could be indicative that the team believes he has hit his ceiling.
Depth at safety is not great with veteran Miles Killebrew, who can also play inside linebacker and is more of a special teamer, and rookie Tre Norwood, who was a 7th round draft pick. With the recent signing of Karl Joseph, Killebrew or Norwood could be cut and shifted to the practice squad, as Joseph has a wealth of game experience and first round pedigree.
Analysis of 2021 Steelers Special Teams
On special teams, the Steelers have one of the better kickers in the NFL in Chris Boswell, and he has become more consistent as he has aged with the team. While he does not possess the big leg for long field goals, he is steady and reliable, and almost guaranteed for 3 when the Steelers need it.
Pressley Harvin steps in as the new punter, beating out Jordan Berry, and there is excitement around his big leg and how he can flip the field and benefit both the offense and defense. And the long snapper is new too, this season, as Christian Kuntz got the nod over Kameron Canaday, as he was more consistent in his snaps this preseason. How all these new parts work together (or do not) has yet to be seen.
In terms of who will return kicks and punts, it seems Ray Ray McCloud will be that guy, but with the signing of Steven Sims, this may be in jeopardy. If the team is not happy with either as their punt returner, look for Diontae Johnson to assume those duties.
Putting It All Together
If ever there was a year for change for the Steelers, 2021 is it, as there is a new running back, rebuilt offensive line, new starters at CB, ILB, and yes, even OLB (Highsmith didn’t start the year in 2020). This is a lot of turnover, and naturally, there will be growing pains and hiccups, as the new players mesh with the veterans to establish a new team chemistry and identity, one that hopefully is a successful one.
The team has added several talented players, most of them very young as draft picks, and along with that youth comes inexperience, and inevitably mistakes. Najee Harris is going to be a tremendous running back, but he will still be learning. Pat Freiermuth is going to be an excellent tight end, but he will still be learning. Dan Moore, Jr. and Kendrick Green are going to be solid offensive linemen, but they are both still learning. How this will translate into the season will be periods of success followed by moments of frustration, and as the season goes on, the mistakes and frustration should be minimized, and the team should be a better unit than it will be at the outset of the season. The key will be the support and guidance of the coaching staff and veteran players to the new additions, and helping to assimilate them into the team.
Offensively, the biggest unknown and weakness is still the offensive line, as there is just not enough information yet to draw a hard conclusion, and until we can see a few games, we won’t know what this group is capable of. This is unsettling, as they will be protecting a 39-year old quarterback, who if gets hurt, the chances for postseason play are crushed. As a result of this, look for an extreme emphasis on the running game, and the passing game taking a back seat until the coaching staff is confident in the pass protection of the unit.
Additionally, while I believe the wide receiving unit is strong, the lack of a true deep threat may limit the passing game somewhat, as teams will not have to account for someone stretching the field. Not having this element could make it easier for teams to defend, and the Steelers will need McCloud, Sims, Johnson, or Washington to emerge as a reliable deep ball threat. Again, this can be aided by a strong running game.
Defensively, the line will improve once Tuitt gets healthy, and hopefully that happens sooner rather than later, as his absence will hurt the run defense. At ILB, I do have concerns about Bush and his recovery based on his preseason play, which hopefully is just the result of him knocking the rust off. If his game has regressed, the interior of the defense could be susceptible, even with the signing of Schobert. And finally, I need to see more from Sutton at outside CB, as he is still unproven, and as I mentioned earlier, the greatest boost this defense can get is grabbing another gear in an already strong pass rush game.
Injuries are an inevitable part of the game, and we should expect to have at least 1 that impacts the starting lineup. It’s not fair, it’s just the reality of the NFL. We should also expect 1-2 Tomlin specials, where the Steelers bonk against a team it has no business doing so. It’s just part of Tomlin’s coaching. The more we can mentally prepare for these inevitabilities, maybe the easier they will be to process.
Nevermind. They’ll be just as difficult.
I wrote earlier this summer that when Tomlin’s teams begin the year 4-2, they almost always make the playoffs, and this is an indicator to pay attention to in those first 6 games. Additionally, teams who win at least 2 games in the preseason have a 75% chance of making the postseason, and the last 3 times the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, they had 3-1 records in the preseason.
With all that said, to start the season, it will be a mixed bag: moments of brilliance, flashes from the rookies, and previews of what this team can be when it is firing on all cylinders. But it will also be incorrect assignments, false starts, fumbles, and surrendering of big plays. However, as the season progresses, and as they enter the most difficult part of their schedule, this team will be at its strongest and will qualify for the playoffs. And what they do once they are there will be dependent on just how much they are able to grow as a team.
Make no mistake, this is a highly-talented roster. The kicker is, all of the teams in the AFC North are highly-talented as well. A softer start to the schedule allows for a strong start record wise as they work out their knots, and they come together to make a push for the stretch run.
When it’s all said and done, the Steelers finish the season 11-6, win the AFC North, and get a postseason win before exiting in the second round in the playoffs.
This is going to be one fun season, and I can’t remember the last time I have been this excited. This is the year of the youth movement. And depending on how fast this team can mature, it will dictate just how far they can go.
*Check out my game-by-game prediction of the Steelers schedule below.
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Steelers Awards/Superlatives 2021 Projections
Offensive MVP: Ben Roethlisberger
Ben’s newfound passion and realization of the finite nature of his career has refocused him, and as a result, he has one of the best seasons of his career, bolstered by his rookie running back in Najee Harris.
Statistical Stud: Najee Harris
Harris has a chance to lead the league in rushing this year, and I would not be surprised at all if he did.
Overhyped Player: Zach Banner does not have much NFL experience, and his preparation for the 2021 season has been limited by injury. I haven’t seen enough from him to believe he can be a quality starter on this offensive line, and I envision Dan Moore, Jr. to be the regular starter opposite Okorafor before it is all said and done.
Offensive Lynchpin: Diontae Johnson. Johnson is the Steelers most explosive receiver, and they need him to elevate his game to the next level to push the Steelers further in the postseason. I am looking forward to Johnson getting more deep ball opportunities and cash in, and if this happens, beware of this Steelers offense.
Defensive MVP: TJ Watt
Yes, I know, this is very predictable, but for a player who was been so close to DPOY, this is his year to bring the recognition home. With a new contract, he elevates his game even more, and terrorizes quarterbacks at an unprecedented level.
Statistical Stud: Joe Schobert
While new to the defense, Schobert is a tackling machine, and I can easily see him leading the team in tackles and making plays all over the field. I know there is some concern about him missing tackles, but that’s going to happen occasionally when you make as many as Schobert does.
Overhyped Player: Devin Bush
I hope am I wrong here, but I have a bad feeling about Devin Bush for some reason. Maybe it’s his recovery from the injury, maybe it’s his Twitter antics from over the summer, but for some reason I am envisioning a step back in 2021. Not based on anything other than my observations from him this summer, I sincerely hope I am wrong. Very wrong.
Defensive Lynchpin: Cameron Heyward
Heyward is the leader of this defense, and his health and leadership will be critical to the success of this defense. Early on with Tuitt out, Heyward will need to direct and communicate with the defensive line to ensure they are in proper position to stop the run and to make plays. His status with the team and the respect the players have for him make him someone who can and will lead this team into the postseason.
2021 Steelers Game-By-Game Predictions
Below are my predictions, game-by-game, for the Steelers 17-game season. While this is subject to change weekly based on new information (injuries, new starters, etc.), this is where I project the Steelers as of September 4th, 2021.
|9/12/21||@ Buffalo Bills, 1:00 PM||26-24, W||1-0|
|9/19/21||Las Vegas Raiders, 1:00 PM||29-13, W||2-0|
|9/26/21||Cincinnati Bengals, 1:00 PM||31-17, W||3-0|
|10/3/21||@ Green Bay Packers, 4:25 PM||28-27, L||3-1|
|10/10/21||Denver Broncos, 1:00 PM||31-13, W||4-1|
|10/17/21||Seattle Seahawks, 8:20 PM||28-23, W||5-1|
|10/31/21||@ Cleveland Browns, 1:00 PM||27-21, L||5-2|
|11/8/21||Chicago Bears, 8:15 PM (Monday)||36-15, W||6-2|
|11/14/21||Detroit Lions, 1:00 PM||31-19, W||7-2|
|11/21/21||@ Los Angeles Chargers, 8:20 PM||30-20, L||7-3|
|11/28/21||@ Cincinnati Bengals, 1:00 PM||24-20, W||8-3|
|12/5/21||Baltimore Ravens, 4:25 PM||21-20, W||9-3|
|12/9/21||@ Minnesota Vikings, 8:20 PM||31-28, L||9-4|
|12/19/21||Tennessee Titans, 1:00 PM||34-31, W||10-4|
|12/26/21||Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25 PM||30-27, L||10-5|
|1/3/22||Cleveland Browns, 8:15 PM (Monday)||27-17, W||11-5|
|1/9/22||@ Baltimore Ravens, 1:00 PM||20-19, L||11-6|
NFL Playoff Predictions
- Chiefs – BYE
WILD CARD WEEKEND
Patriots at Bills – Bills (2)
Browns at Steelers – Steelers (3)
Chargers at Titans – Titans (4)
Titans at Chiefs – Chiefs (1)
Steelers at Bills – Bills (2)
Bills at Chiefs – Chiefs
*Washington Football Team, 10-7
1 – Packers
2 – Buccaneers
3 – Rams
4 – WFT
5 – Cardinals
6 – Seahawks
7 – Vikings
WILD CARD WEEKEND
Vikings at Buccaneers – Buccaneers
Seahawks at Rams – Rams
Cardinals at WFT – WFT
Rams at Buccaneers – Rams
WFT at Packers – Packers
Rams at Packers – Packers
Chiefs vs. Packers – Packers