The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: AFC North – Pittsburgh Steelers


Pittsburgh Steelers

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins

It’s been a heck of a run in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers did not look like a team on the verge of title contention by the end of last season. The defense, which put together one of the more dominant stretches in recent NFL history from early 2019 into the middle of 2020, started to unravel when they lost edge rusher, Bud Dupree, on top of inside linebacker Devin Bush last season. While Bush will return, corners Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson have departed along with Dupree. The unit should still be a strong one if healthy, but an expectation that they will return to that ultra-dominant form is overly optimistic.

As we’ve seen with other dominant defenses of recent seasons (Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, etc.), that level of defensive play requires too many players to be playing at their peak for it to be sustained for long. On the offensive side of the ball, teams can dictate play in such a way that hides their weaknesses. On the defensive side of the ball, if there’s a weakness, that’s what gets attacked. To have an elite unit, a defense must have playmakers at every level, and solid players at every position in both their base and nickel packages, which requires a lot of players clicking at the same time. Barring something unexpected in terms of multiple players making big leaps, the Steelers won’t have that depth of talent this season.

This is problematic for a Steelers team that has significant issues on offense. To the surprise of many, they retained receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency and will run four deep at the position once again with him re-joining Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington. Tight end Pat Freirmuth was drafted in the second round to handle inline duties, which will allow Eric Ebron to continue to be featured in his role as a flexed tight end/big receiver.

They rounded out this skill group by adding running back Najee Harris with their first-round pick, who brings great size and ability as a receiver as well as a back, but he’s going to need to be a big upgrade on last year’s options, because last year’s offensive line was a problem, and this year’s version could well be the worst in the NFL. That doesn’t bode well for Ben Roethlisberger, who at this point is a quarterback who lacks mobility, no longer has the ability to shrug off sacks, and maybe incapable of getting under center regularly based on Pittsburgh’s overreliance on shotgun looks last season. Roethlisberger’s arm may be in better shape another year removed from elbow surgery, but even if it is, he won’t be working with the full set of skills he once boasted.

Right guard David DeCastro has had an excellent career and could bounce back, but he had a down year in 2020, and after years of playing with an accomplished group, he has no proven commodities around him. Center J.C Hassenauer and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor played the most among this year’s slated starters last season, and neither appears capable of providing more than adequate performance. Okorafor may kick to left tackle so Zach Banner, who narrowly beat Okorafor out in their competition for the right tackle spot last season, then tore his ACL, can slot in on the right side, but as Banner and Okorafor were in a tight competition, the best-case scenario may be that Banner provides the same adequate play Okorafor did at the position, and that wasn’t good enough to elevate the 2020 offense.

They did add Kendrick Greene and Dan Moore Jr. in the third and fourth rounds, and you’d have to think anything is in play as the Steelers figure this out, given that the left guard spot looks to be either Kevin Dotson, Rashaad Coward, or Joe Haeg if it’s not a rookie. It’s not a great group to pick from.

As mentioned, the defense should still be fairly strong. With Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, it would be hard not to field a fairly competent unit, but there are a lot of questions to be answered. Steven Nelson vacated one outside corner spot, and while Joe Haden has held up fairly well the past few years, the veteran has had a long career and won’t be there forever. Cameron Sutton, who has done a nice job filling in as the 4th corner, is now the 2nd best corner, and there are no proven players behind him. Corner Justin Layne was a third-round pick, but if he can’t handle the role of nickel starter, they will have an issue.

The Steelers will also fail to generate the same level of pass rush. Bud Dupree isn’t an All-Pro type, but replacing him with players such as Alex Highsmith and Cassius Marsh isn’t going to produce similar results.

Perhaps the Steelers surprise and pull out one last AFC North title with Roethlisberger at the helm, but a Super Bowl run is quite unlikely.

QB Passing Projections

Ben Roethlisberger2517392.4601.80.656.824105.727.514.315.33

QB Rushing Projections

Ben Roethlisberger2517361.9168.71.39.412.315.33

Skill Projections, Rushing

Najee HarrisRB4117216.94.37948.36.656.760.411.68
Chase ClaypoolWR81177.71.5611.
Kalen BallageRB2111770.13.35234.71.918.317.13.24
Benny Snell Jr.RB2991752.03.62188.40.913.68.21.42

Skill Projections, Receiving

Najee HarrisRB411768.639.29.24362.
JuJu Smith-SchusterWR511768.885.311.36968.57.520.627.410.87
Chase ClaypoolWR811763.361.713.90857.85.616.220.48.99
Diontae JohnsonWR821761.675.310.36779.96.220.322.58.99
Eric EbronTE1501761.445.510.89494.92.812.310.15.22
Kalen BallageRB2111771.818.05.4999.
James WashingtonWR2421751.618.012.38223.
Pat FreiermuthTE2441775.322.08.67191.
Ray-Ray McCloudWR3201786.917.84.2876.
Anthony McFarland Jr.RB3381755.79.65.5052.
Website | + posts

Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.