The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books, and it ended in spectacular fashion—though the wrong kind of spectacular—in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.
After setting a franchise record by opening the year on an 11-game winning streak, they followed that up by losing three games in a row, going 1-4 in the final five games, with only a 17-point comeback staving off a five-game slide. But all the issues they had in the regular season showed up in the postseason that resulted in their early exit.
The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions, and right now, they lack answers. What will Ben Roethlisberger do, and what will they do with him? What will the salary cap look like? How many free agents are they going to lose? Who could they possibly afford to retain? Who might they part ways with—not just on the roster, but also on the coaching staff?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Which will be the bigger loss for the defense in 2021: Bud Dupree or Steven Nelson?
The Steelers lost two players from the defense last season who would typically play 1000 or so snaps every year, in the form of outside linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Steven Nelson. They also lost two other starters who typically play 6-700 snaps per season in nickel corner Mike Hilton and inside linebacker Vince Williams, but this isn’t about them.
Dupree left in free agency, while Nelson was a salary cap casualty. Both, it seems, will be replaced by in-house alternatives, with 2020 rookie Alex Highsmith taking over at outside linebacker and Nelson’s spot being taken over, perhaps primarily, by Cameron Sutton.
The slot position complicates the question, because there is a good chance that Sutton will be bouncing back and forth between the outside and the inside, so Nelson’s departure could affect two positions. But we don’t know quite yet how it will play out in terms of who is available. Trevor Williams is one candidate to play in the slot.
The Steelers still have T.J. Watt as their top pass rusher, and they have a strong defensive front that also contributes to the pass rush in and the run defense. Likewise, they have Joe Haden at safety and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds at safety, so the overall groups are still talented.