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2021 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Last updated: Fri, Aug 13

Offensive Philosophy

It wasn't long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense was one of the most concentrated in league history, with three men (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown) dominating all of the team's opportunities, yards, and touchdowns. What a difference a few years make; in each of the past two seasons, Pittsburgh's #3 receiver finished within 10 yards per game of its #1 receiver. Over that span, Steelers backs have had four seasons with 100+ carries and zero seasons with 200+. Part of the issue boils down to Roethlisberger, who seemingly doesn't have the velocity to ignore the matchups and force the ball into one player over and over when the defense knows it's coming. Also, much of the running back committee owed to injury (and the fear of injury), so it's possible that rooking running back Najee Harris can overcome the durability issues that have plagued the team at the position and mark a return to the old workhorse ways.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, Joshua Dobbs

Starting QB: The Steelers are going to try and get by one more year with Ben Roethlisberger as their starter. He's not the same player he used to be, so expecting him to fill the air with footballs is folly. Roethlisberger threw a whopping 608 passes in 2020, but he only threw for 3,804 yards. His 33 touchdowns were great and only the fourth time in his career he posted over 30 but how many think that can continue? Instead, we should see the Steelers take a more balanced approach on offense.

Backup QB: Mason Rudolph is the primary backup to Roethlisberger. The team likes him and there are some who think he could take over when Roethlisberger is done. Rudolph doesn't provide much as a passer or as a runner as he's more of a backup-caliber quarterback who can come in off the bench and win by being safe with the ball. Dwayne Haskins, former first-round pick of Washington, was picked up last year as a developmental player. If he starts to play up to his potential then the Steelers could have something. Haskins is a long shot to do that but the upside and low risk makes him a player to watch. Joshua Dobbs is incredibly smart and gives the team more depth and a sound reserve if he makes the team.

Running Backs

Starter: Najee Harris
Backup(s): Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Najee Harris was arguably the best running back in the 2021 NFL draft. The Alabama prospect was a dominant force on the field in college and his skill set translates perfectly to today's NFL. Harris is a big back, tall with a powerful stride, but he can make defenders miss with move in addition to tackle-breaking ability. While he's not a thumper in the traditional sense, Harris wins collisions and is tough to bring down when he builds a head of steam. Harris can really shine as a receiver too. Not only can Harris be relied on to catch passes out of the backfield, but he can line up out wide or in the slot if need be. Simply put, he's a three-down player who the Steelers can build their offense around. With an aging Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers should feature Harris as their primary player on offense.

Backup RBs: The Steelers have an interesting group of reserve backs. Benny Snell is a grinder who had a couple of good games last year (113 yards vs NYG Week 1, 84 yards vs CIN Week 15) when he had a larger role. This year, Snell will work as the primary backup to Najee Harris. He can give Harris a breather on rushing downs but will come off the field in passing situations. Anthony McFarland has some Phillip Lindsay to his game. He's a smaller back, and like Lindsay he has no hesitation when running between the tackles. McFarland could earn a role on passing downs where his speed and quickness can be quite advantageous in the open field. Kalen Ballage bounced around to two teams (NYJ, LAC) in 2020 but did flash a bit as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He's a big back with plenty of speed but he's never put it all together in the pros. Ballage gives the Steelers another option on passing downs. Jaylen Samuels is a player without a position and his versatility can kind of be seen as a double-edged sword. The Steelers don't really know what to do with the RB/FB/TE/H-back like skill set of Samuels and with the offseason additions at the position he may struggle to make the final roster. Trey Edmunds is your classic banger between the tackles. He won't "wow" you with his speed or quickness but he'll bludgeon opponents the few times he gets to tote the rock.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson
Backups: Chase Claypool, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud, Cody White, Mathew Sexton, Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Rico Bussey, Isaiah McKoy

Starting WRs: JuJu Smith-Schuster finally hit free agency this offseason. He talked to other teams but ended up staying in Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8 million deal. He has strong chemistry with QB Ben Roethlisberger, but Smith-Schuster is not the no.1 receiver many thought he could be. Instead, he's more of a no.2 receiver and fantasy projections reflect that. It's pretty much going to be a repeat performance of what he did last year if things go according to plan. Smith-Schuster, with a declining Roethlisberger, posted 97 catches for 831 yards and nine touchdowns. Smith-Schuster is more of a WR3/flex play for Fantasy GMs in 2021. Diontae Johnson could post career-best numbers this season - if he cleans up the frustrating parts of his game. He's fast and can turn on the speed in a moment's notice, but Johnson drops too many passes. His 15 dropped passes led the league in 2020, and if he keeps that up it will hinder his production. Johnson has run-after-the-catch ability because of his speed and quickness, but he needs to make sure and secure the ball before taking off to run. With the Steelers likely taking a more balanced approach on offense, Johnson isn't going to light the league on fire. However, he's got upside and Fantasy GMs should look at him as a low-end WR2 with plenty of flex appeal on a weekly basis.

Backup WRs: Chase Claypool is one of the most exciting young receivers in the league and could easily step into the starting lineup and thrive. He's a big-bodied target who can fly down the field and win contested catches regularly. Claypool flashed as a rookie in 2020 but did see his role scaled back as the season went on. If he hits, the upside is there for him to be a WR1 for Fantasy GMs. Claypool posted 62 catches for 873 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie. Those numbers made him the no.14 fantasy wide receiver in standard-scoring leagues. He was able to be that valuable for his team and for Fantasy GMs despite only posting two 100-yard games. James Washington has length and ball-tracking ability to make him a trusted target for QB Ben Roethlisberger - or for his backup Mason Rudolph. With 23 fewer targets than he had in 2019, Washington's numbers dipped (30 catches, 392 yards) but his five receiving touchdowns were a career high. Washington has always had talent and upside but he's never really gotten the role he needs to thrive. Perhaps that happens with his second team, much like it did with Emmanuel Sanders (who never had a 100-yard game in four years with the Steelers) years ago. Ray-Ray McCloud is mostly a special teams player where he can utilize his speed. His role on offense should be limited. Cody White has a nice size/athleticism combination. He can make contested catches and use his frame to "box out" smaller defenders, plus White does a good job of making difficult catches seem easy. We'll monitor White in dynasty formats. Mathew Sexton went undrafted out of Easter Michigan in 2020, but he flashed returner ability and plenty of speed in The Spring League. Undrafted out of Buffalo in 2019, Anthony Johnson is a big-bodied target with a nose for the end zone. He's been on three teams so far in his pro career and is likely looking to be on the Steelers practice squad. Undrafted out of Georgia in 2020, Tyler Simmons spent his rookie season on the practice squad with the Texans. Simmons has plenty of speed and can contribute on special teams. Whether it was at North Texas or Hawaii, Rico Bussey was a big play waiting to happen. He's got a nice size/speed combination and can fly down the field. Bussey does need to sharpen up his routes and concentration but the upside is there to watch in super deep dynasty formats. Isaiah McKoy was undrafted in 2021 out of Kent State. McKoy has explosive capabilities as evidenced by 13 of his 16 career receiving touchdowns being 20 yards or more. However, drops (15 in three years) are an issue and his build up speed doesn't maintain when changing direction.

Tight Ends

Starters: Eric Ebron
Backups: Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Dax Raymond

Eric Ebron had a good first season with the Steelers in 2020. He battled with a back injury and landed on the COVID list near the end of the year, but Ebron was still able to be a trusted target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Ebron was targeted 91 times, caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns. He's still an athletic playmaker who is difficult for linebackers or safeties to cover. Ebron can do more in the red zone, as evidenced by his 13 touchdowns in 2018 with the Colts, and that should be in the cards for him this season. Perhaps he doesn't get to double-digit touchdowns, but Ebron could be in line for more than five. He will be the starting tight end, but rookie Pat Freiermuth (known by some as "Baby Gronk"), is going to work into the mix as well. Ebron is a TE2 for Fantasy GMs in 2021. Freiermuth is a huge target with strength and tencacity as a receiver. He's got a nose for the end zone and a willingness as a blocker that could make him a favorite of the coaching staff. He's a reserve player this year but the future at the tight end position for the Steelers. A former high school quarterback, Zach Gentry made the switch to tight end in college at Michigan. The Steelers added him in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL draft as a big-bodied blocker. Undrafted out of Youngstown State in 2018, Kevin Rader has been with the Steelers since 2019. Undrafted out of Utah State in 2019, Dax Raymond is a move tight end with upside but injuries have held him back in the pros.

Place Kicker

Chris Boswell: Boswell has fully come back from 2018 valley to reliably serve the Steelers. He only missed one field goal last year, but he also missed multiple games with a hip injury. The Steelers only attempted 24 field goals in 2020, and Heinz Field is one of the most difficult stadiums for kickers. He should be considered a fine bye/injury fill-in, but not a draftable kicker in typical leagues.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers have plenty of talented receivers on their roster, but Ray-Ray McCloud has carved out a role for himself as a quality return man and hopes to leverage that skill to earn a roster spot in 2021.

Punt Returners: Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers have plenty of talented receivers on their roster, but Ray-Ray McCloud has carved out a role for himself as a quality return man and hopes to leverage that skill to earn a roster spot in 2021.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Chukwuma Okorafor, LG Kevin Dotson, C Kendrick Green [R], RG Trai Turner, RT Zach Banner
Key Backups: OL J.C. Hassenhauer, OL Joe Haeg, OL Dan Moore [R], OL B.J. Finney

This rebuilding group has an up and coming player in Kevin Dotson and road grader replacement for David DeCastro at guard, but it faces change at several key spots. Chukwuma Okorafor started fifteen games at right tackle last season and will compete with trade addition Rashad Coward for the left tackle position vacated by Alejandro Villanueva. After center Maurkice Pouncey retired, B.J. Finney returned to Pittsburgh but the team drafted Kendrick Green in the third round to compete. This line ranks in the bottom ten.

Team Defense

The Steelers D/ST was elite until Week 13, but that late fade shouldn't change their status as the #1 D/ST in fantasy drafts. They will get back Devin Bush, who went out with an ACL tear in Week 5 last year, but they lost Bud Dupree to Tennessee in free agency. Dupree's ACL tear did coincide with the defense's dropoff, but Alex Highsmith was solid in place of Dupree and should be even better in his second year. The other problem spot is at corner after the Steelers released Steven Nelson to create cap room.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Tyson Alualu, DE Cameron Heyward, DE Stephon Tuitt
Backups: DE/NT Chris Wormley DE Isaiah Loudermilk [R], DE Carlos Davis, DE Demarcus Christmas, NT/DE Isaiah Buggs

Starting DL: The defensive line has been the foundation of a perennially strong Steelers defense for much of the last decade. For the fourth consecutive year, Pittsburgh led the league in sacks while finishing among the top-ten versus pass and top-fifteen against the run. In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers have a pair of prototypical 3-4 ends who can both control the line of scrimmage to keep the linebackers clean and get after the passer. Heyward totaled 25 sacks over his first six years before exploding for a team-high and career-best of 12 in 2017. He followed with 17 more over the next two seasons but saw his total slump to four in 2020. With the exception of an injury-shortened 2016, that is Heyward's lowest sack total since becoming a starter in 2013. The Steelers do not rotate much so Heyward has a lot of mileage on him for a 32-year-old, so the question becomes, was it simply an off-year, or is the gas tank getting low? On the other side of the coin, Tuitt enjoyed the best numbers of his career in 2020. His 11 sacks were four and a half more than his previous best. Tuitt has been banged up often over his seven seasons with 2020 marking the first time he has played in all 16 games since his rookie campaign in 2014. If he can stay healthy, Tuitt could prove that last year was not an outlier. Tyson Alualu stepped into the starting nose tackle role when Javon Hargreave moved on before last season. Alualu has the versatility to play anywhere along the Steelers front but is not a player that puts up flashy numbers. Before last season, Alualu served as the fourth man, spelling anyone in the front three that needed a breather. If Isaiah Buggs is ready to step into a bigger role at nose tackle, Alualu could slide back into that familiar role.

Backup DL: Pittsburgh does not rotate linemen, so their backups generally see little action. Outside of the starters, no Pittsburgh defensive lineman saw action on more than 149 plays in 2020, and all their backup linemen combined for fewer than 400 total. Buggs and Chris Wormley collected the majority of that playing time. Buggs could land a bigger share of the nose tackle reps this year and Wormley would likely be the next man up at defensive end in the event of an injury. The Steelers do a great job at picking up late-round guys or free agents and developing them into major contributors. Rookie fifth-round pick Isaiah Loudermilk could be the next in that line. Chances are we will not hear much from him for at least a year or two though. The Steelers are getting a little long in the tooth along the front. They are going to have to think about the future at some point, but that is not the plan for 2020. There is no reason to any less from this unit in 2020 than we have seen over the last several seasons.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Joe Schobert, ILB Devin Bush, OLB T.J. Watt, OLB Alex Highsmith, OLB Melvin Ingram
Backups: ILB Ulysses Gilbert, ILB Marcus Allen, ILB Christian Kuntz, ILB Buddy Johnson [R], OLB Cassius Marsh, OLB Quincy Roche [R], ILB Robert Spillane

Starting LBs: The Steelers have so much success getting to the passer because everyone contributes. They got 18 sacks from the defensive line in 2019 but it is the legacy of outstanding linebacker play that sets the stage for this defense. T.J. Watt is not just part of that legacy, he may be the very best of it. Watt has now recorded at least 14 sacks in three consecutive seasons, and he has only been in the league for four. Watt also boasts 17 forced fumbles and has intercepted 4 passes over his relatively brief career to date. He is 26 years old and may not yet have reached his peak. Watt has set new career marks in sacks every season so far. Melvin Ingram was signed just before camp opened. Whether he or 2020 third-rounder Alex Highsmith start, both should see a lot of playing time. Bud Dupree totaled 19.5 sacks in 27 games over the last two seasons but the Steelers were not able to get him re-signed. Thus they find themselves counting on last year's third-round pick, Alex Highsmith, to pick up the torch. Highsmith logged 438 snaps as a rookie and started the final five games when Dupree was hurt. The modest total of two sacks has to leave Steelers fans feeling a little nervous. Devin Bush had a strong rookie season at inside linebacker in 2019 and looked like everything the organization expected from a top-10 draft pick. Bush was off to a slow start when his second season ended with a torn ACL. He is on track in his recovery from the injury and is expected to be ready at some point during training camp, if not at the start of it. Bush is set to be the centerpiece of this defense once healthy but it is hard to say if he will be 100% by September. When Bush was lost early in the season, it opened the door for a relatively unknown Robert Spillane to get on the field. The third-year undrafted free agent immediately turned heads with his play. Spillane was in line to start after Vince Williams retired, but the team traded for Joe Schobert during training camp and he'll be the starter next to Bush.

Backup LBs: The Steelers will have plenty of competition for the roster spots behind the starters at linebacker. Ulysses Gilbert was thought to be the top backup inside last year but when the time came he was passed over for Spillane. His play on special teams could save Gilbert's job but the team used a fourth-round pick on Buddy Johnson to challenge for the role of top backup inside. Marcus Allen is a former safety that also contributes largely to special teams. He and Christian Kuntz may be competing for the final roster spot at inside backer. With the loss of Bud Dupree, the Steelers find themselves thin at outside linebacker. Veteran Cassius Marsh should see plenty of action as the third man on the edge. Marsh had a career-high six and a half sacks in 2018 but his transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker could be an issue. There is some speculation that Vince Williams could see time on the edge. The Steelers also added edge rusher, Quincy Roche, late in this year's draft. He was productive at Miami but is considered a developmental player and is not expected to see the field much as a rookie.

Defensive Backs

Starters: FS Minkah Fitzpatrick, SS Terrell Edmunds, CB Joe Haden, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Justin Layne
Backups: S Miles Killebrew, CB Tre Norwood, CB James Pierre, CB Shakur Brown, CB Arthur Maulet

Starting DBs: While there may be some uncertainty at the second level of the defense, the biggest questions for the Steelers are in the secondary. The trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick during the 2019 campaign was a great move. He has proven to be a younger and possibly faster version of former Steelers great Troy Polamalu. In 30 games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick has produced nine interceptions, forced two fumbles, recovered three, and scored three times. Like Polamalu, Fitzpatrick keeps opponents off-balance by moving around to find favorable matchups and is a disruptive force in both the passing game and run support. He is a rock-solid cornerstone for the Pittsburgh secondary. The questions start after Fitzpatrick. The team elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on their starting strong safety, former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds. The three-year starter has been adequate but other than flashes, has not provided the standout performance the organization expected. He will play out the fourth year of his rookie contract as a lame duck and become a free agent at the end of the season. At the corner positions, Pittsburgh has a proven commodity in Joe Haden, who remains an excellent CB1. He is, however, 32 years old and entering his 12th season as a pro. Haden has shown no sign of decline thus far but has a lot of miles on him. The Steelers will be without their other two starting corners from last season, however. Nickel/slot corner Mike Hilton was second on the team with three interceptions in 2020, adding three sacks, a forced fumble, and a recovery, he was a major big play contributor on a defense built around the big play. Hilton signed with division rival Cincinnati. Steven Nelson was the team's number two corner opposite Haden last season and is currently a free agent. There is some chance he could return to the fold but a contract is not imminent. With Hilton and Nelson gone, Cameron Sutton projects as the CB2 with Justin Layne the favorite for slot duties. Sutton has been a backup and sub-package contributor since being drafted by the Steelers in 2017 and has three career interceptions. Maybe his promotion is by design but it feels a lot more like it is out of necessity due to salary cap issues. The story is similar for Layne who has played sparingly since being selected in the third rouns in 2019. This organization generally does an excellent job of developing young players and having them ready when their time comes but until the product hits the field the uncertainty will remain.

Backup DBs: A lack of depth in the secondary could be the Achilles heel for Pittsburgh if it is exposed. The backup at safety is former Detroit backup Miles Killebrew Killebrew's playing time while with the Lions came mostly as a third safety, working at linebacker depth in big nickel situations due to limited cover skills and modest speed. The most experienced corner behind the starters is former Jets backup Arthur Maulet who saw a little time as an injury replacement and/or in sub-packages for New York over the last two seasons. James Pierre logged 27 defensive snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2020 and Tre Norwood was a seventh-round pick this spring.