Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin (Photo Credit: Vince Butts-UMT Sports)

                 Steelers Seek Redemption from disappointing 2020

When you look back at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 season, you will see a Franchise Record 11- 0 start(The first NFL team to do so since the 2015 Carolina Panthers), their first AFC North Division Title since 2017 and a league-leading 54 sacks and concluded that it was a successful season.

But as you continue looking, you will also see that after their 11-0 start, they would finish the season 1-4 and a dreadful 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in an AFC Wild Card Game at Heinz Field. You also saw a depleted and worn-out team that was forced to play 3 games in 12 days due to a rescheduled game (vs. the Baltimore Ravens) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You also saw a struggling offensive line and the worst running game in the league, which made them very predictable on offense. After looking at that, it’s easy to conclude that the Steelers 2020 season was a failure.

Was it a disappointment? Yes, but it wasn’t a failure because a 12-4 season is never a failure. But the Steelers are hoping to redeem the time in 2021 and succeed where they fell short the previous season, and by doing that, they worked on fixing the broken areas on the team.

  1. Running Game-It’s strange to hear that a team that’s legendary in the run game and have 3 Hall of Fame running backs (John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis) ends up finishing last in that category. But in 2020, that was the Steelers reality. Leading rusher James Conner was only able to manage 721 yards and dealt with the COVID-19 virus and injures. Backups Benny Snell Jr and Anthony McFarland was just as ineffective as well and Jaylen Samuels was basically a non-factor.To correct that, the Steelers allowed Conner to leave via free agency (signed with the Arizona Cardinals) and they used their first-round pick to selected Alabama All- American and Doak Walker award winner RB Najee Harris. He’s the first Steelers 1st round RB since Rashard Mendenhall (2008)
  2. Offensive line-Even though they produced 2 Pro Bowlers (Maurkise Pouncey, David DeCastro) this unit was a disappointment in 2020. Injures and ineffectiveness tormented this unit. And in the offseason, Pouncey retired, G Matt Feiler left via free agency and Alejandro Villanueva and DeCastro were released. Plus, the addition of new OL coach Adrian Klemm, the Steelers basically have a new offensive line.In the off-season, the Steelers signed BJ Finney (who played with the Steelers in 2015- 19), and drafted C Kendrick Green (Illinois) and signed Pro-Bowl G Trai Turner and they will join G Kevin Dotson, T Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor with hopes of an improved 2021.
  3. Offensive Coordinator-When the running game struggles like it did, it’s evident that the offensive coordinator will take the most heat, which is why the Steelers relieved OC Andy Fitchner and promoted QBs coach Matt Canada who is more run-oriented and is known for his success at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016.

4. Linebackers-Of course there’s no issue with All-Pro TJ Watt, who led the league with 15 sacks, and was awarded the Deacon Jones award, but with the departure of Bud Dupree (to the Tennessee Titans), the Steelers lacked depth and Outside LB experience behind 2nd year man Alex Highsmith, so they signed veteran Melvin Ingram who has 49 career sacks. In filling in for the injured Dupree, Highsmith finished 2020 with 2 sacks and an interception. On the inside, veteran LB Vince Williams announced his retirement, which leaves budding star Devin Bush who returns from his 2020 injury and Robert Spillane who filled in admirably for Bush as the starters. The Steelers are hoping rookie Buddy Johnson (Texas A&M), converted LB Marcus Allen and Ulysses Gilbert III can provide effective depth.

 

Training Camp Battles-Here are significant training camp battles for the 2021 Steelers:

  1. Backup Quarterback-Obviously we know who the starter is as future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger returns for his 18th season. And even though Mason Rudolph was given a contract extension through the 2022 season, he is expected to get some competition from Dewayne Haskins who was signed to a Futures’ contract after 2 disappointing seasons (and getting released) in Washington. Even though Rudolph has slightly more experience as starter, Haskins has a new attitude and is more suitable in Canada’s offense. Joshua Dobbs (Drafted by the Steelers in 2017) could also have a say as well despite never starting a game.
  2. Backup Running Back-Some may feel like there isn’t much competition here because Snell backed up Conner, but he could get some heat with the signing of veteran Kalen Ballage who has played with Miami, the NY Jets and most recently with the LA Chargers. Ballage stands 6-2 (231 lbs) and has 629 career rushing yards, while Snell has 794. 2nd year man Anthony McFarland didn’t make much an impression in 2020 as he didn’t dress for several games and finished with 113 yards. He does have speed, (4.4/40) which could benefit him in Canada’s offense. Samuels remains the odd man out.
  3. Center-The retirement of Pouncey is a cause for concern, which is why the Steelers drafted Green. But they also have the veteran Finney (who was Pouncey’s backup for years) and J. C. Hassenauer who was signed last season.
  4. Slot Cornerback-It’s strange that this position has a camp battle, but with the departure of Mike Hilton (to the Cincinnati Bengals), this is a reality. Cam Sutton was expected to play here, but the release of starter Steven Nelson promoted him to starter, so that left a hole in the slot position. The first person to get a shot is undrafted free agent Shakur Brown (Michigan State) and he will get some heat from 2020 undrafted free agent James Pierre, who had 7 tackles last season. 2019 3rd round pick Justin Layne could also get a shot, but he has not had an impressive career thus far.

The Steelers will begin the season without veterans Pouncey, DeCastro, Dupree, Nelson, Hilton, Villanueva and Feiler, but they feel that they’re not in any type of a rebuild. Instead, they feel like they’ve added younger talent to go with their veterans with the expectations of making the

2021 season a special one. And with $12 million of cap space available, it’s still very possible that the Steelers could make another move. Time will tell.

Ray Porter Jr July 2021

Please e-mail Ray at rayporterjr72@gmail.com

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