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Offseason Team Previews

2021 Steelers Offseason Preview

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: March 5, 2021, 1:05 am ET

My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).

 


Steelers 2020 Recap

Steelers2020

 

From Patrick Daugherty's 2020 Season in Review: "If there is such a thing as the worst 11-0 team of all time, the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers were it. It was confirmed by their 1-4 finish and subsequent blowout loss to the Browns in the Wild Card Round, a team that was missing its head coach and hadn’t won a playoff game since 1994. The Steelers’ dink-and-dunk offense simply became too predictable. Ben Roethlisberger’s average intended air yards completed their collapse from 9.2 in 2017 to 7.1 in 2020. Roethlisberger’s QB rating on passes 20-plus yards down the field was 78.3, parking him behind such deep ball luminaries as Teddy Bridgewater and Gardner Minshew. As was the case in 2019, quarterback was the weak link for a team with an elite defense and overabundance of weapons on offense. It didn’t help that coach Mike Tomlin predictably turtled up with the season on the line in the playoffs, dialing up one of the most egregious punts in NFL history. An impressive talent base remains for 2021, but a drafty championship window is looking all but closed."

 


Steelers 2021 Offseason

Notes

 

Steelers Cap Space

-$11.7 million (27th)

Steelers Draft Picks

1.24, 2.55, 3.88, 4th, 6th, 7th, 7th, plus compensatory picks

Steelers Departures

LT Alejandro Villanueva, EDGE Bud Dupree, C Maurkice Pouncey, Slot WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, NT Tyson Alualu, Slot CB Mike Hilton, Slot CB Cameron Sutton, RB James Conner, LB Avery Williamson, LB Robert Spillane

Steelers Cut Candidates

TE Eric Ebron ($6.0M cap savings)

 


Steelers Depth Chart

Position

Base Offense

Notable Backups

Personnel

11

-

% of Passes

82%

-

QB

Ben Roethlisberger

Mason Rudolph

WR

Chase Claypool

 

WR

James Washington

 

WR (Slot)

Diontae Johnson

 

TE

Eric Ebron

Zach Gentry

RB (Early Down)

Benny Snell

Anthony McFarland

RB (Third Down)

Jaylen Samuels

 

LT

???

 

LG

Kevin Dotson

 

C

???

 

RG

David DeCastro

 

RT

Chukwuma Okorafor

 

 

Offensive Coordinator: Between Ben Roethlisberger’s decline and the offensive line’s injuries, the Steelers became one of the most one-dimensional offenses in the league last year. They were first in neutral pass rate because they were 27th in rushing EPA, and when they did pass, the looks were repetitive. 82% of their passes came in 11-personnel and they finished 28th in air yards per attempt, meaning it was nothing but shallow crosses, slants, and screens. Unless Roethlisberger takes Alex Guerrero’s TB12 pills this offseason, it’s hard imagining this offense looking much different in 2021. Adding to the fire are the exits of C Maurice Pouncey (retirement), LT Alejandro Villanueva (free agency), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (free agency). I’ll take the under on the Steelers finishing 12th in points scored again.

Passing Offense: Only 19% of Big Ben’s pass attempts traveled more than 15 air yards (25th) last year, and his completion percentage over expected (-6.3) on those passes ranked 28th. Roethlisberger’s arm simply looked toast, and there’s a chance that both of his offensive tackles are below-average players this time around. Roethlisberger’s mobility can’t afford that. The defensive blueprint to Pittsburgh’s short-yardage passing attack is already out there, so it could be another long year for the veteran. Luckily for him, the Steelers boast one of the more intriguing receiving depth charts featuring volume hog Diontae Johnson and high-ceiling 24-year-old Chase Claypool. A large chunk of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 128 targets will head to Claypool, and whoever the third receiver is. For now that’s James Washington. Eric Ebron is a potential cut candidate ($6.5M cap savings), but he’s a full-time player if he returns. He was the TE12 on TE8 fantasy usage in year one of a two-year contract.

Rushing Offense: The Steelers’ run-blocking was a mess last year, and it’s not likely to get much better in 2021. All-Pro C Maurice Pouncey retired, LT Alejandro Villanueva is a free agent, and 2018 third-round RT Chukwuma Okorafor and 2020 fourth-round RG Kevin Dotson are replacement-level starters. It’s one of the worst offensive lines heading into the offseason. The running back depth chart is equally as bad, too. James Conner is “unlikely” to re-sign after another injury-filled season, and the youngsters haven’t shown much on tape behind him in recent years. Early-down grinder Benny Snell, undersized 2020 fourth-rounder Anthony McFarland, and H-back Jaylen Samuels are about to get replaced by a rookie this offseason. Overall, it’s hard to see this unit climbing out of their No. 27 rushing EPA ranking in 2021.

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Position

Base Defense

Notable Backups

Coverage

Cover 1

-

% of Plays

38%

-

CB

Joe Haden

Justin Layne

CB

Steven Nelson

 

CB (Slot)

???

 

SS

Terrell Edmunds

 

FS

Minkah Fitzpatrick

 

LB

Devin Bush

Ulysses Gilbert

LB

Vince Williams

 

DT (1T)

Stephon Tuitt

Isaiah Buggs

DT (3T)

Cameron Heyward

Carlos Davis

Edge

Alex Highsmith

 

Edge

T.J. Watt

 

 

Defensive Coordinator: The Steelers get after it on defense. They play a ton of man defense -- specifically Cover 1 (38%) -- and blitz at the highest rate (41%). It’s a boom-bust playing style, but boomed in 2020 with their elite pass rush. OLB T.J. Watt was a defensive player of the year candidate and allowed veteran CBs Joe Haden (31 years old) and Steven Nelson (28) to play bump-and-run coverage on the outside. Ultimately, the Steelers finished 3rd in points allowed, 1st in passing EPA defense, and 1st in adjusted sack rate with this formula. Those numbers are unlikely to fully repeat because of regression and some personnel turnover this offseason, but it would be a disappointment if the Steelers ranked outside of the top eight in 2021. They should be good again.

Passing Defense: T.J. Watt led edge rushers in sacks (15.0), quarterback hits (27), and defensive stops (43) last year. His dominance, the Steelers’ league-high blitz rate, and 2020 third-rounder Alex Highsmith’s late-season emergence will soften the blow of likely losing EDGE Bud Dupree (8.0 sacks) to free agency. Pittsburgh also is one of the few teams that gets quality pass rush on the interior with Stephen Tuitt (11.0 sacks) and Cameron Heyward (4.0 sacks). Behind them, the Steelers will be looking for a slot CB replacement -- Mike Hilton and backup Cameron Sutton are free agents -- and more youth at outside corner. Joe Haden, 31, and Steven Nelson, 28, are both entering the final year of their contracts. Pittsburgh is set with young cornerstones at safety, however, as FS Minkah Fitzpatrick and SS Terrell Edmunds have both played like high-end starters while on their rookie contracts. 

Rushing Defense: The Steelers’ run defense is a little more unsettled than the pass defense because veteran nose tackle Tyson Alualu is a free agent and 2020 first-round LB Devin Bush will be returning from a Week 6 torn ACL. Two of Bush’s backups are also heading to free agency, leaving #98 jersey-wearing linebacker Vince Williams and 2019 sixth-rounder Ulysses Grant as key contributors currently. The good news is that Stephen Tuitt, 28, and Cameron Heyward, 32, are playing at high levels still and that the Steelers’ defensive scheme puts more defenders in the box than most in obvious rushing situations; That 5-2 front clogs things up plenty. Another borderline top-10 finish in rushing EPA (11th) feels about right for 2021.

 


Steelers Team Needs

1. Offensive Tackle(s) - Veteran LT Alejandro Villanueva is a free agent (as is backup RT Zach Banner), and 2018 third-round RT Chukwuma Okorafor is a fringe starter. Villanueva remains a quality starter, but money is tight in Pittsburgh and a reset is coming over the next two offseasons. Going the rookie route is an option if Villanueva finds more money elsewhere.

2. Center - All-Pro C Maurice Pouncey retired, and both starting offensive guards haven’t played center in the NFL. Fixing the offensive line will help the Steelers’ run-game more than finding the next bellcow running back. Pittsburgh was 27th in rushing EPA last year. 

3. Corner - Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton split slot corner duties last year, and both are headed for free agency. Even if one is re-signed, the Steelers need to add more youth to the depth chart. Outside corners Joe Haden, 31, and Steven Nelson, 28, are in the final year of their contracts.

4. Nose Tackle - The Steelers used a 5-2 defensive front at times, especially in obvious rushing situations, last year, and the man in the middle (Tyson Alualu) is hitting the market. A one-for-one replacement to mix in alongside DTs Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Hayward is needed unless this look is getting scrapped from the playbook in 2021. If that’s the case, Pittsburgh needs to find another linebacker.

5. Slot Receiver - JuJu Smith-Schuster is a free agent. One cheap way to fill this need would be moving Diontae Johnson to the slot and starting Chase Claypool and James Washington on the perimeter. Going this route would allow the Steelers to invest more into running back. Free agent James Conner is reportedly “unlikely” to re-sign.

6. Quarterback - Ben Roethlisberger will be back as the starter for 2021, just at a lower salary than initially signed for. The 38-year-old is on the very last legs of his career, and Mason Rudolph has shown us that he isn’t the next franchise quarterback. The Steelers have the fewest players signed for the 2022 season (17), so a complete reset will be happening next year, but the front office could find their heir this offseason with a rookie (Mac Jones?) or cheap veteran (Cam Newton?).

 


2021 Fantasy Football Rankings

Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.

Chase Claypool (WR2/3) - The 24-year-old is going to soak up a chunk of the 128 targets Smith-Schuster will be leaving behind, and his profile is one to be betting on. Claypool was the WR35 per game as a rookie despite having an inconsistent role, something he’ll have dialed in from Week 1 on next year. Claypool will be the Steelers’ top red zone and downfield weapon.

Diontae Johnson (WR2/3) - A “targets are a signal for talent” legend, Johnson somehow averaged 18.1 expected PPR points (WR3 overall) in healthy starts last year as Roethlisberger’s check-down darling. He was extremely inefficient on them (WR85 out of 114 qualifiers in PPR points over expected per game), but that level of volume isn’t going anywhere and there’s theoretical room for growth in his individual game. Johnson was the WR10 per game in PPR leagues despite leading the leagues in drops (14).

FA JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR2/3) - Pittsburgh has been preparing to lose their productive slot receiver for years it seems like, and the cap situation almost guarantees a divorce is coming. Smith-Schuster could be ranked as the best free agent receiver once others are tagged, but his landing spot will ultimately determine his fantasy ranking. He was the WR25 per game in PPR leagues last year and has the 31st most PPR points through four seasons in the history of the NFL.

Eric Ebron (TE2) - The Steelers can save $6.0 million by cutting Ebron, and they certainly need the money. If he’s cut loose, Ebron will sign as a low-end starter. He has only averaged 6.7 yards per target since leaving Detroit and will be 28 years old next season. Ebron was the TE12 per game last year on TE8 fantasy usage, meaning he was one of the least efficient tight ends.

Ben Roethlisberger (QB2/3) - The 38-year-old was fantasy’s QB14 per despite finishing third in pass attempts. Roethlisberger’s situation will be worse in 2021 and his arm/mobility aren’t getting better. There’s a chance he’s benched midseason if the Steelers find a serviceable backup before Week 1.

FA James Conner (RB4) - Reportedly “unlikely” to re-sign as a free agent, Conner will likely have to settle for a competition this offseason. He’s missed 12 games over the last three years due to injury and was the RB53 out of 74 qualifiers in my efficiency stat PPR Points Over Expected Per Game. Nick Mensio lists him as the No. 6 running back on his free agency tracker.

James Washington (WR7) - Currently the No. 3 receiver, Washington needs to dodge more receiving competition to remain in the starting lineup. The deep threat doesn’t mesh well with Roethlisberger’s skill set even if he’s a starter on opening day. Washington hasn’t been on the redraft radar often through three NFL seasons.