The 2021 NFL Season is upon us and the Music City Drive In has you covered. We’ll be previewing all 32 teams, as well as our picks for award winners and playoff participants each day through Monday, September 6. Check back daily at 4 p.m. EST for each new piece in our preview series.
The 2020 season for the Steelers began like a dream and ended in a nightmare. The team, despite a re-arranged schedule due to COVID protocols, started 11-0, the last undefeated team in the NFL. They finished on a 1-4 run to end the regular season and proceeded to get blown out at home by the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. That left plenty of questions heading into the off-season, but the band is mostly back together as the Steelers will make another run with veteran quarterback Ben Roethlishberger in 2021.
The Steelers lost some big pieces this off-season as linebacker Bud Dupree signed with the Tennessee Titans and starting running back James Conner moved on to the Arizona Cardinals. While the Steelers were able to re-sign leading receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, the offensive line took a big hit. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired in February, and guard David DeCastro was released. Meanwhile tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens. But it wasn’t all bad news.
The team signed Melvin Ingram at linebacker and brought in former Chargers’ guard Trai Turner to help fill the whole on the offensive line. In the NFL Draft, the Steelers snagged tight end Pat Freiermuth in the Second Round and added center Illinois center Kendrick Green in the Third Round. But the biggest acquisition was running back Najee Harris out of Alabama.
Harris was the first running back drafted, taken in the First Round at No. 24 overall. Harris was regarded as the best back in the draft and is a great fit for a Steelers’ offense that needs more balance. He played four seasons at Alabama, the past two posting more than 1,200 yards. In 2020, he rushed for 1,466 yards and 26 TDs, catching 43 passes for 425 yards and 4 TDs. He’s got the most upside of any non-QB rookie.
Last year, lacking a consistent rushing attack, Roethlisberger was asked to throw… a lot. Coming off an elbow injury and surgery that caused him to miss nearly all the 2019 season, Roethlisberger threw 608 times in 15 starts, ending up with 3,803 yards and 33 TDs. That was good enough to finish as QB14. The Steelers will, no doubt, be seeking more balance on offense, and I suspect the team will try to be less pass-heavy, especially with former Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner no longer with the team. Roethlisberger should be decent, but I see him as a low-end QB2.
In the backfield, Harris should easily win the job. The team has backs like Benny Snell, Jr., Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels and Kalen Ballage in the mix, but those are just backups and change-of-pace options. I suspect at least one of them gets released as well. As a team, the Steelers rushed for just 1,351 yards while giving up 1,783 on the ground. That should change with Harris, who has a decent shot at 1,000 yards and a role in the passing game despite a middling offensive line. I have him as a high-end RB2 but wouldn’t be surprised to see him crack the Top 12.
At receiver, the band is back together. Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool all finished Top 25. I suspect all will be tightly packed again, but slightly lower in the final standings owing to a more balanced attack. I have Smith-Schuster the highest at WR25, with Johnson at WR26 and Claypool, more of the big-play guy, at WR34. One will likely go into the Top 24, but I’m not sold on who. The team also still has James Washington in a depth role and will likely see TE work split by veteran Eric Ebron and Freiermuth. I don’t see either tight end finishing Top 24 as the entire receiving group cedes targets to Harris.
The Steelers weren’t as good as their 11-0 start last year, but I think they can be better than the 1-4 finish and playoff collapse. Better work on defense and in the ground game will help take some of the load of Roethlisberger as he enters his 18th professional season. The AFC North is packed, as is the conference in general. I don’t see the Steelers are favorites in the division, but I think they’ll be in the mix for a Wild Card slot.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.
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