The popular thing to do, at least as a member of the mainstream media covering the NFL right now, is to dismiss the Pittsburgh Steelers’ chances ahead of the 2021 season.
Losing guys like Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Feiler in free agency, the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey, and the salary cap casualty of Steven Nelson have many pundits way down on the Steelers’ roster and overall chances this season. Add in the seemingly endless questions that surround Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities entering Year 18, and you have the perfect mix for many to be out on the Steelers this year.
That is, unless you’re NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal.
In his AFC North projected starters series, Rosenthal was quick to defend the Steelers, saying they shouldn’t be dismissed this season, especially when looking at the projected starters he cobbled together.
Rosenthal didn’t project any surprise starters on the offense, slotting in rookies Najee Harris and Kendrick Green into the lineup to supplement a rebuilt run game and offensive line, but he did have a surprise projected starter on defense, going with Justin Layne as Nelson’s replacement, projecting the Steelers to (correctly) play more nickel than base, meaning a second inside linebacker next to Devin Bush was not projected.
Some quick notes from Rosenthal included the following when discussing the Steelers:
-“For all the falling sky in Pittsburgh this offseason, Ben Roethlisberger’s group of weapons ranks among the best in football if rookie RB Najee Harris delivers.”
-“Chase Claypool has the skill set to take a step forward to become a true No. 1 wideout.”
-“On paper, this could be the worst offensive line of the Roethlisberger era. In reality, I give coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert some benefit of the doubt when it comes to self-scouting. If they believe that Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner can hold up at tackle, the concept shouldn’t be dismissed. Kevin Dotson looked like a building block in his rookie season. Colbert needs third-round rookie center Kendrick Green to be a hit. No matter how optimistic the Steelers are about this line, it’s a group that’s built to maul better than pass protect.”
-“Alex Highsmith taking over for Bud Dupree isn’t a huge concern. Highsmith can ball and it’s an enviable spot for a pass rusher. The bigger concern is the depth behind T.J. Watt and Highsmith if an injury occurs. Teams always want three pass rushers.”
-“The Ravens and Browns have better rosters than the Steelers overall, but not by that much. Pittsburgh’s embarrassing end to last season has too many people believing this team is cannon fodder. Tomlin hasn’t had a losing record yet and there’s little reason to think he’ll start now.”
It’s hard to really, truly disagree with anything Rosenthal wrote about the Steelers in his piece, though I do take exception to the offensive line potentially being one of the worst in the Mike Tomlin era. From 2006 to 2009, the Steelers had a pretty rough go of things up front, allowing 189 total sacks of Roethlisberger, good for an average of an astounding 47.25 sacks per year.
In that era, the Steelers employed linemen such as Sean Mahan, Justin Hartwig, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex, and Darnell Stapleton. Sure, that same era included names like Marvel Smith, Jeff Hartings, Hall of Famer Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, but there was a lot of rough line play back then.
Something would have to go drastically wrong if this year’s offensive line struggles like some of those from 2006-2009 did for the black and gold.
Overall though, Rosenthal is spot on when it comes to not dismissing the Steelers in 2021. They still have Roethlisberger — who is relatively healthy — which should keep them in contention. A rebuilt run game and offensive line should give them some balance offensively under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, opening things up for the passing game in the process.
The loss of Dupree might not be as noticeable in 2021 with Highsmith stepping up too, especially with the way Highsmith closed the regular season in 2020 after Dupree tore his ACL.
While the roster certainly isn’t on par with the Ravens and Browns today, this group knows how to win — and win consistently — in the regular season. That matters, especially when staring down a new 17-game schedule, which just so happens to be the toughest in the NFL.
Don’t count this group out just yet.