The Pittsburgh Steelers are a model of NFL consistency. They’ve had three head coaches since 1969. Each has won a Super Bowl while making the playoffs a majority of the time. The franchise hasn’t had a losing season since 2003, when it went 6-10 and parlayed that failure into drafting Ben Roethlisberger 11th overall the next year. A season after that, the Steelers were lifting the Lombardi Trophy. Head coach Mike Tomlin added another Super Bowl win a few years later, and he hasn’t had a losing season in his 14 years at the helm of the franchise.
Is that streak of relentless competence about to end? Who knows. But it’s crystal clear, even two months ahead of the season, that it’s possible, even likely. The available evidence says the 2021 Steelers should be mediocre at best. Avoiding that fate might be Tomlin’s biggest coaching challenge yet. If the Steelers somehow manage to stay above .500 this year, let alone make another playoff run, they should rename the team after him.
Here’s why this season is shaping up to be a rough one in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers faded hard at the end of 2020, and their quarterback seemed to run out of gas overnight.
The Steelers started last season 11–0 and were the last team in the NFL to lose a game. They finished 12–4 and then lost a Wild Card playoff game to the Browns. The score was 48–37, but it wasn’t nearly that close; the Steelers were down 7–0 after their first snap of the game and trailed 28–0 at the end of the first quarter.
— NFL (@NFL) January 11, 2021
It was indicative of how the Steelers fell apart in the last quarter of the regular season. A dominant defense looked a little bit less so, and more importantly, Ben Roethlisberger gradually (then suddenly) ran out of steam. The now 39-year-old QB was coming off elbow tendon surgery that cost him almost all of 2019, and he looked like, well, a 39-year-old QB coming off elbow tendon surgery. His best month by both passer rating and yards per attempt was September, and he declined sharply after that. He was particularly dreadful in December.
The Steelers didn’t seem to trust Roethlisberger’s arm strength at all. His average target was just 6.9 yards downfield, one of the lowest numbers of any starting QB. And he only spent 2.1 seconds in the pocket on his average attempt, also one of the lowest numbers of any QB. The picture was clear: The Steelers wanted him to get rid of the ball quickly and didn’t think he could throw it far with any regularity. It was a sad scene, given that Roethlisberger made a career out of doing just the opposite—extending plays against oncoming pass rushers, using his legs to get out of sacks, and then rifling the ball downfield. Remember this guy?
That’s no longer Roethlisberger, and the end of 2020 was so bleak that it briefly looked like the Steelers would cut him or he’d retire. As it stands, 2021 seems likely to be his last year. It’s not clear that he has enough left in the tank to create a storybook ending.
Free agency wasn’t kind to Pittsburgh at all.
The Steelers ended the 2020 season with about $6 million in spending room under the NFL’s salary cap. Then, because of a COVID-driven decline in league revenues, the league-wide salary cap dropped by about $16 million for 2021. You can see the problem.
After last year, a couple of the Steelers’ most important defensive players saw their contracts expire. Pittsburgh had little hope of re-signing them. Edge-rushing linebacker Bud Dupree left for a five-year, $85 million deal with the Tennessee Titans. Nickel cornerback Mike Hilton took a four-year, $24 million deal with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Dupree and Hilton were two of the most significant signings of the offseason, and both were exiting Pittsburgh.
— NFL (@NFL) September 20, 2020
The Steelers might be able to weather the Dupree loss because second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith showed good signs as a rookie. But they have no clear replacement for Hilton, who became a staple in an era where good slot cornerbacks are essential.
On offense, the Steelers were able to keep No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on a one-year deal. But the offseason took a toll on that unit in other ways.
Roethlisberger’s offensive line might get him decapitated mid-game.
The Steelers have had one of the NFL’s better offensive lines for a long time, though it faded somewhat over the last two years. Now, however, the situation is dire.
Center Maurkice Pouncey retired after making nine Pro Bowls in his decade anchoring the Pittsburgh line. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva left in free agency for the rival Baltimore Ravens. Matt Feiler, who played for the Steelers as both a guard and tackle, left for the Chargers. And in June, the Steelers cut six-time Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro, who played poorly in 2020 but still figured to be one of the team’s better linemen in 2021.
In early June, Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers’ line 29th out of 32 teams and called DeCastro “the one stabilizing player” up front. Well, he’s gone now. The Steelers are poised to have one of the worst offensive lines in football, even if second-year guard Kevin Dotson builds on a fine rookie season and entrenches himself as a DeCastro replacement. To restock the line, the Steelers are leaning on a mix of mid-round draft picks and low-level free agents.
The Steelers’ shaky-at-best line will pose a problem for Roethlisberger, obviously. But it will also be a problem for first-round rookie running back Najee Harris, who needs some bulldozers to give him space to show the full range of his talents.
The situation isn’t out of control yet, but it could spiral.
It’s possible to tell yourself a good story about how this Steelers season will unfold. Sure, the defense lost a few key players, but Pittsburgh had one of the best defenses in the NFL last year, and there are worse things than declining from “elite” to “very good.” And sure, Roethlisberger was rough in the late stages of last season, but he has a long track record of success and did manage to get the Steelers to 11–0 before falling apart. Plus, the Steelers have had some bad offensive lines before, and he thrived anyway.
But all of that requires viewing the Steelers in the most favorable light possible. Another way to look at them is that they have some strengths, but their most important player is rapidly closing in on the end of his career, his offensive line could be a risk to his safety, and a defense that would normally provide some margin for error should be worse than it was last year. Tomlin has pulled rabbits out of his hat before, but crafting a successful season this fall would certainly be his biggest feat so far.
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