My three predictions for the 2020 Steelers could certainly be characterized as bold. A year removed from major elbow surgery, Ben Roethlisberger would earn his first All-Pro nod. T.J. Watt would win NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the first time. The Steelers, who went 8-8 in 2019 despite not having Roethlisberger for the majority of the season, would reach the Super Bowl.
Suffice to say, I felt pretty good about each bold prediction 11 games into the 2020 season. Pittsburgh was the NFL's last unbeaten team, largely on the play of Roethlisberger and the pass-rush prowess of Watt. Things went off the track after that. The Steelers won just one of their final six games that included a 48-37 loss to the Browns in the wild card round. Big Ben staggered to the finish line and was ultimately passed over for NFL Comeback Player of the Year by Alex Smith. Watt led the NFL with 15 sacks but came in second to Aaron Donald for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The 2020 season has compelled me to temper my three bold predictions for the 2021 Steelers. You won't find any Super Bowl predictions here, but I'm also not forecasting a doom-and-gloom season for the black and gold in 2021. Pittsburgh's roster went through some changes this offseason, but it is still certainly good enough to be in the field of 14 when the NFL playoffs kick off in January.
Let's take a look at this year's three bold predictions for Mike Tomlin's Steelers, starting with the team's first-round pick.
Najee Harris will break Franco Harris and Le'Veon Bell's franchise rookie records
It's important that Steelers fans temper their expectations for Harris, who had a solid preseason debut during Pittsburgh's win over Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game. Harris didn't break any long runs, but three of his seven carries gained at least 5 yards. He also showed his ability as a receiver after catching a check-down pass from Mason Rudolph.
Given their questions on the offensive line, it's a stretch to consider Harris as a front-runner to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. It's not unreasonable, however, to expect Harris to possibly break Franco Harris and Le'Veon Bell's franchise rookie records. Franco Harris' 1,056 rushing yards during his transformative rookie season of 1972 remains the franchise's rookie benchmark. Bell, after missing the first three games of his rookie season with an injury, amassed a rookie franchise record 1,259 all-purpose yards.
If healthy, Najee Harris will surely get enough touches to break both records. Pittsburgh has been adamant about getting back to its roots after finishing last in the league in rushing in 2020. Furthermore, a successful passing attack should help open things up for Harris. That should be the case in 2021, as the Steelers return each of their top receivers from last season. They also gave Roethlisberger a new weapon in Pat Freiermuth, the second tight end selected in this year's draft.
The play of the offensive line will ultimately determine how much success Harris has in 2021, which is why Tomlin is having Harris play in each of the Steelers' four preseason games, in order to grow as much chemistry as possible before Week 1.
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Pittsburgh will boast the league's top-scoring defense
It's been a decade since a Steelers defense led the league in scoring. They've come close in recent years, finishing fifth in that category in 2019 and third in 2020. Pittsburgh has the tools to finish first in 2021. In fact, don't be surprised if the Steelers have at least five players from their defense receive Pro Bowl recognition on the strength of the unit's overall success.
Once again, the Steelers have one of the league's best defensive lines, led by Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu. Inside linebacker Devin Bush has recovered from a knee injury that kept him out for the final 11 games of the 2020 season. Starting alongside Bush will be Robert Spillane, who played well after filling in for Bush last season. The Steelers' edge rush may have actually gotten better despite losing Bud Dupree. Melvin Ingram has looked like the Pro Bowl version of himself during training camp. Alex Highsmith looked like LaMarr Woodley circa 2008 during Pittsburgh's first preseason game. Rookie Quincy Roche recorded a sack in his preseason debut. And we'd be remiss not to mention Watt, who has the NFL's second-highest sack total since the start of the 2018 season.
The Steelers are confident that cornerback Cam Sutton is ready to start alongside three-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden. The starting nickleback position is still up for grabs, but the Steelers have several viable candidates in Antoine Brooks Jr. and James Pierre. At free safety, the Steelers have one of the league's best in Minkah Fitzpatrick. Strong safety Terrell Edmunds (who is entering the final year of his rookie contract) is coming off of the best year of his career. Behind them, rookie Tre Norwood has shown promise during camp, while free agent signee Miles Killebrew brings hard hitting and veteran savvy to the group.
To top it off, the Steelers have a defensive-minded coach in Tomlin, who knows full well that championship teams often have dominant defenses.
Steelers win first playoff game since 2016 season
It's hard to believe that Pittsburgh's last playoff win was Jan. 15, 2017. Since their 18-16 win over the Chiefs in the 2016 divisional round, the Steelers endured one AFC title game loss to the Patriots (2016) and two home playoff losses to Jacksonville (2017) and Cleveland (2020). The Steelers missed the playoffs altogether in 2018 and '19.
Pittsburgh's 2021 schedule is the NFL's toughest in terms of last year's opponents cumulative .574 win percentage. The Steelers will have to take advantage of a schedule that gets significantly tougher once the calendar turns to December. Preseason predictions have the Steelers winning anywhere between 8 and 11 games this season. I have the Steelers going 10-7 in 2021. That probably won't be enough wins to get a second consecutive division crown, but it should be enough to get Pittsburgh one of the AFC's three wild card spots.
The Steelers went 5-3 against AFC playoff teams in 2020. Two of those wins were against the Ravens, as the Steelers have had significant success defending Lamar Jackson during their first two matchups against Baltimore's Pro Bowl quarterback. A week before their wild card loss to Cleveland, the Steelers nearly defeated the Browns despite several prominent players in street clothes. The Steelers also defeated the Titans, a team that has been in the playoffs each of the past two years. Given their success in 2020, the Steelers' playoff drought could very well come to an end this winter.
To do that (as well as possibly advancing beyond the divisional round), the Steelers will need some luck as far as injuries are concerned. They will also need improved play from Roethlisberger and his revamped offensive line. Defensively, the Steelers need to prove that they can still contain opposing quarterbacks after losing Hilton and Steven Nelson. Chris Boswell will have to continue to play at a level that has made him one of the league's most reliable kickers.
Unlike past years, the Steelers won't be the front-runner to win the AFC North or represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Less national attention, however, may actually be a good thing for the Steelers, who have traditionally thrived in the underdog role.