The window is closing on the Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh, but it’s not completely shut just yet. The veteran quarterback is back for his 18th season, and the Steelers did everything they could to construct the best team around him to compete in an absolutely stacked AFC North. Ultimately, that required weeks of salary cap gymnastics, including a big restructuring of Roethlisberger’s contract, just to prevent the number of departures from becoming even larger than it was.
Still, when you factor what’s left, what’s joined the team through the draft and the coaching savvy of Mike Tomlin, the reigning division champions are to be viewed as an AFC North contender until proven otherwise.
This isn’t the Roethlisberger of yesteryear, and it’s not even the Roethlisberger of a few years ago, but the 39-year-old signal-caller can still produce, and Pittsburgh has tailored the offense to suit its aging quarterback with shorter, quicker throws. Last season, Roethlisberger averaged the fewest yards per attempt (6.3) in his career.
After inspiring some wrinkles to the offense — more pre-snap motion, jet sweeps — in his first season as quarterbacks coach, Matt Canada will be the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2021. He replaces Randy Fichtner and will look to continuously adapt an offense that got downright predictable by the end of 2020.
Year after year, the Steelers attacked the wide receiver position in the early part of the draft — just not the first round — and it’s paid off by providing Roethlisberger with four dangerous pass-catchers who are more than capable of leading the team in receiving yards in a given week. JuJu Smith-Schuster seemed likely to sign elsewhere in free agency but returned on a surprise, one-year deal. Chase Claypool, whose nickname “Mapletron” is catching on fast, is coming off a breakout rookie season that included a four-touchdown performance against the Eagles. At 6'4", 238, Claypool stresses a defense due to his ability to line up all over the field — even sometimes getting handoffs from the motion looks. Diontae Johnson emerged as Roethlisberger’s most frequent target with 144 last year, and James Washington has home-run ability. It’s a deep group that can expose a secondary that isn’t confident in at least four of its cornerbacks.
Pittsburgh’s running game hit a wall over the past two seasons, as the Steelers ranked last in rushing offense in 2020 and were among the bottom five in 2019. There’s blame for a number of different areas in the offense, but Pittsburgh took a big step toward injecting some life into its ground attack with the first-round selection of Najee Harris. The first running back to be selected, Harris enters as the immediate top option in Pittsburgh’s backfield. Harris can handle a big workload while dealing out punishment and keeping teams honest as a pass-catcher out of the backfield; he had 70 catches for 729 yards and 11 TDs the past two seasons at Alabama. Harris and Pittsburgh’s other running backs — a group that features Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels — can provide Roethlisberger with solid check-down options.
The big question mark on Pittsburgh’s offense — bigger than what to expect from a quarterback entering his 18th season — is the offensive line. The unit wasn’t up to its standards in 2020, and it enters 2021 as one of the least experienced in the NFL. Chukwuma Okorafor, coming off his first season as a full-time starter at right tackle, is set to man Roethlisberger’s blind side after the departure of longtime left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The team also parted ways with six-time Pro Bowler David DeCastro after nine seasons and signed Trai Turner to replace him at right guard. Zach Banner, a fan favorite who boasts just two career starts and is coming off a serious injury, is the likeliest option to fill Okorafor’s right tackle spot. Third-round rookie Kendrick Green could be the first choice to replace the retired Maurkice Pouncey at center, while second-year guard Kevin Dotson also figures to get the nod to start. The end result is a complete change from the group that guarded Roethlisberger in his prime.
The defensive line — the heart and soul of Pittsburgh’s defense — survived the offseason exodus intact. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward are among the best in the business at what they do, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. Tyson Alualu nearly left for Jacksonville in the offseason but had a change of heart, ensuring the Steelers would return all of their defensive linemen from the previous season. The only concern here could be the depth, simply because a lot of it is untested because of how good Tuitt and Heyward have been through the years.
Linebacker T.J. Watt has been an All-Pro selection each of the past two seasons, including a 2020 performance that saw him lead the NFL in sacks (15) and tackles for a loss (23). The previous season, he led the league in forced fumbles (eight), and he has hit opposing quarterbacks in the past two years a stunning 77 times. Watt is trending toward a Defensive Player of the Year trophy and joining the franchise’s greats at the position.
What Watt will be missing in 2021, though, is the counterpart he’s had for his first four NFL seasons. The Steelers simply couldn’t keep Bud Dupree, who signed an $82.5 million deal with the Titans. Alex Highsmith, who had two sacks as a rookie, will be asked to grow up quickly to fill a spot that accounted for 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Pittsburgh signed former Charger Melvin Ingram III to a one-year deal prior to the start of training camp. Ingram didn't have a sack in seven games last season but he recorded a total of 43 the previous five seasons combined.
Devin Bush’s season-ending knee injury five games into 2020 opened the door for Robert Spillane to emerge as yet another undrafted success story, with 56 tackles in 10 games and a Week 8 pick-6 of Lamar Jackson. Now, Bush, fully recovered to resume his role as the vocal leader on Pittsburgh’s defense, and Spillane are poised to be running mates in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense.
The Steelers’ money crunch hit the secondary the hardest, as Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton weren’t retained. That leaves veteran Pro Bowler Joe Haden, entering his 12th season, as one of the few holdovers at cornerback, with Cameron Sutton — whose defensive snaps jumped from 265 to 548 last season — and a mix of a number of young, unproven players trying to fill the void, including rookie Tre Norwood, who can play cornerback or safety. Justin Layne is also poised for a bigger role.
The situation at safety is much clearer, with All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds locked in as every-snap players for their third season together. Fitzpatrick is an absolute game-changer in the back of Pittsburgh’s defense; he’s intercepted nine passes over the past two seasons and already has four touchdowns after just three seasons in the NFL.
The more time that passes, the more it becomes clear that Chris Boswell’s 2018 season was an aberration. After missing seven of his 20 field goals that season, he’s missed just three of 51 since then. Boswell, however, will want to improve on his four missed extra points from a year ago.
Punter Jordan Berry is also back for a seventh season, but he’ll have some competition to maintain his job after the Steelers used a seventh-round pick on Pressley Harvin III, the only punter selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
With Roethlisberger nearing the end of his career, and with major questions on the offensive line, the Steelers may not have the brightest long-term future, but they are, at the minimum, poised to be in the mix to win the AFC North in 2021. Though the Steelers likely won’t be predicted by many to defend their division crown, their mix of a savvy quarterback, explosive offensive playmakers and game-changers at every level of the defense will make them tough to dethrone.