OFFSEASON REVIEW: Pittsburgh Steelers

By Mark Ross

As one season comes to an end and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers:

2020 Recap

Credit: Justin K. Aller (Getty Images)

2020 was a season that started off so well for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After 2019 and the absence of Ben Roethlisberger nobody really knew what to expect. Could number seven return from his elbow injury? Could he still perform at a high level? After eleven games everything was looking great in the Steel City. 

Ben Roethlisberger looked like he hadn’t missed a beat as he led his team to eleven wins on the bounce. All the more surprising was that he did it without any sort of run game to back him up. Early on in the season, the run game WAS the big number seven. In the opening week of the season, he outran star running back Saquon Barkley as the Steelers started with a win.

Finally, Pittsburgh had their offense back in the arm of their gunslinger quarterback. To go with their offense they had their star-studded defense. Coming into the season off the back of one of the most dominant defensive seasons ever. Despite the lackluster offense from 2019 the defense managed to get them to eight wins and sniff at the playoffs. In the early parts of the season, the Steelers defense continued their run of consecutive games with a sack. With TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, and, Devin Bush all getting to the quarterback and Minkah Fitzpatrick cleaning up in the back end the Steelers were poised for a run at the title.

When the crunch part of the season came round the Steelers began to falter. Injuries to Bush and Dupree left the Steelers missing key components in their defense. Weaknesses allowed teams to run through them and with no run game in the offense Roethlisberger had to throw the ball near 60 times per game. After going 11-0 the Steelers would finish the season 1-4. Still, they reclaimed their AFC North title and were back in the playoffs.

A home game in the playoffs used to be a common occurrence for the Steelers but recently they have struggled to get there. After one quarter in the playoffs this year, they would have wished they never made it happen. 28-0 down to their divisional rivals the Cleveland Browns is not what any Steeler fan would have imagined. Pittsburgh managed to fight back but it was too little too late as they crashed out in the opening weekend of the playoffs. 

A strong start followed by an abysmal finish left a sour taste in the mouth of Steelers fans. Needless to say, they will be looking for an improvement in 2021.

Staff Changes

After another year of a struggling offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers pulled the trigger and got rid of Randy Fichtner. After spending 14 years in the black and gold Fichtner found his time was over in Pittsburgh. His inability to lead an offense with stars like Antonio Brown, Leveon Bell and more recently JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner to the Super Bowl has been his biggest downfall. Since his sacking, Pittsburgh has hired former assistant offensive coach Matt Canada to do the job.

After spending the 2020 season as quarterbacks coach, the former Indiana OC was promoted to the offensive coordinator for Pittsburgh. A history of creativity could be a fresh start for a Steelers offense that has relied on the same old faithful of throwing the ball in recent years. The hiring of Canada makes it easier for Roethlisberger to return as it is someone he has spent a year working with. Canada will likely have one year with number seven at the helm before he has to hand the reigns over to a new starter at Heinz Field. Currently, they have Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins waiting in the wings. We are yet to see if either has the ability to be a starting quarterback but with Matt Canada bringing in some creative ideas who knows what the future holds in Pittsburgh.

As well as the change at offensive coordinator, the Pittsburgh Steelers have also let offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley go. Big changes in Pittsburgh with the hope that they can finally get another playoff win.

State Of The Roster

Credit: Charles LeClaire (USA Today Sports)

Pittsburgh finds itself in a difficult position heading into 2021. An aging quarterback, who is due to earn 41 million dollars, and 25 free agents. Included in their free agent’s list are star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner. One area that desperately needs addressing is the running game. Since his pro bowl season in 2018, James Conner has failed to recapture his form. An offensive line that can protect the quarterback is great, but they need to be able to create gaps for their running back.

Luckily for Pittsburgh, they have stars everywhere on the defense. Despite the injuries that occurred, players like Sam Highsmith and Robert Spillane stepped up when needed. As well as a talent-filled defense the Steelers have talent in the wide receiver position. Diontae Johnson and James Washington took big strides in 2020 and look poised for a breakout year in 2021. As well as that they added a stud receiver in the 2020 draft in Chase Claypool. Despite being taken in the second round, Claypool outperformed the majority of the receivers taken before him and looks like another great find for Pittsburgh.

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

As previously mentioned the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in cap difficulty. Prior to a few retirement announcements, Pittsburgh found itself about 30 million dollars over the projected cap. With Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald sailing off into the sunset the Steelers have managed to save about 13 million dollars against the cap. 13 million that could help them bring back some of their soon-to-be free agents.

13 million is good but it’s not close enough when your quarterback is due to earn 41 million dollars. With Conner, Smith-Schuster, and Dupree all due a new contract, the Steelers need to find the money from somewhere. The easiest way to free up some money is for Ben Roethlisberger to call it time on his hall of fame career and retire as a two-time Super Bowl winner. If he elects to do that then the Steelers will have an extra 20 million dollars to become cap compliant.

In a year where the cap is set to be slightly lower than normal due to COVID-19, the Pittsburgh Steelers have their work cut out for them.

Free Agents

Credit: Peter Diana (PIttsburgh Post-Gazette)

As mentioned the Steelers have 25 free against before the start of the 2021 season. The biggest free agent is JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster has electrified the league since he was drafted to the Steelers. In his first year in the league, he racked up seven touchdowns and over 900 yards. If it wasn’t for the injury to Roethlisberger in 2019 he could have had four seasons in a row with close to 1000 yards. 

2018 was his breakout year as he racked up 1426 yards and another seven scores. The return of Roethlisberger in 2020 saw him rack up the touchdowns, finishing the season with nine. With the emergence of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, Smith-Schuster operated out of the slot more and was willing to do the dirty work and pick up the difficult yards. Wherever he ends up he will be an asset to his new team, hopefully in Pittsburgh.

As well as the star receiver, James Conner and Bud Dupree are big names heading for free agency. Conner has struggled to recover his 2018 form but has shown enough that he is more than capable of being a starting running back in the NFL. Over on the defense, the Steelers look likely to be waving goodbye to Bud Dupree. His partnership with TJ Watt has left quarterbacks in the league shaking in their boots. 

Playing on the franchise tag in 2020 has left him looking to earn about 17 million dollars a year. A number that is too pricey for the Steelers in their current predicament.

Team Needs

If Pittsburgh wants to get back to winning Lombardi Trophies then they need to sort the running game. That starts with the offensive line. Given that the 2021 draft is full of offensive talent that shouldn’t be too difficult for the Steelers. In last year’s draft, they found Kevin Dotson who excelled in the small sample size that we saw.  As well as that they have Zach Banner who will be returning from injury and looks likely to be the new left tackle. The main need on the offensive line is a new center.

With Pouncey retiring the Steelers need to find a replacement, a job they haven’t had to do for eleven years. It’s all very good having a star quarterback, but you need someone to snap him the ball. As well as his stellar play nobody protected Roethlisberger better than Pouncey over the last ten years. Through the years nobody was quicker to his defense, or any other Steeler, than Maurkice Pouncey. He will be missed as a team player first and foremost, a true leader on the offense.

After the offensive line is sorted the Steelers need to find a running back. Whether it’s James Conner or someone out of the draft, Matt Canada has to get the running game going if he wants to be playing football in January 2022.