Ben Roethlisberger was despondent last season as he sat alone on the bench during the end of the Steelers' 48-37 wild-card playoff loss to the Browns. Maurkice Pouncey, Roethlisberger's best friend on the team, joined him on the bench, as the two veterans shared one last moment as teammates. It was a bitter end to what was a once promising season for the Steelers, who won their first 11 games before injuries, dropped passes and a non-existent running game led to a 1-5 finish.
That was the final game in a glittering career for Pouncey, but Roethlisberger chose not to let January's playoff loss be his final game as the Steelers' quarterback. The 39-year-old agreed to a contract restructure in order to return for an 18th season. His restructure, along with the restructure of several other veterans' contracts, allowed the Steelers to add significant pieces via free agency. Pittsburgh also filled some of their roster needs during the draft that included the first-round selection of former Alabama running back Najee Harris.
There are legitimate questions hovering over the 2021 Steelers. Offensive line is a concern after the team lost four of last year's starters. The secondary will have to prove that it is still one of the league's best after losing two starters during the offseason. Roethlisberger will look to prove that he can play at a high level for an entire season. Pittsburgh will try to answer each question while navigating through the NFL's toughest schedule.
It won't be easy, but the Steelers have the pieces to win the franchise's seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy. Here's a look at the three reasons why Pittsburgh can get back to the mountaintop.
A healthy Roethlisberger
Two years ago, Roethlisberger missed 14 games after undergoing major elbow surgery on his throwing arm. Big Ben said the injury not only healed his elbow, it took care of other lingering issues that had bothered him over the past several years. Once his arm had recovered from surgery, Roethlisberger began the grueling process of rehab. He also threw on an almost daily basis in order to get his arm back in shape.
Roethlisberger played better than even his expectations at the start of the 2020 season. He attributes some of his struggles late in the year to his arm simply being worn out after having to rehab it back into shape the previous offseason. With that in mind, Roethlisberger gave his arm plenty of rest this offseason. The result was a fresher arm during training camp, thus leading to the return of his formidable deep ball, something that was dormant during the end of the 2020 season.
"Oh, he's still got an arm," Steelers defensive backs coach Teryl Austin said after a training camp practice, via Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider. "There's no issue with that. He made some throws out there that were, really, typical Ben throws."
While a healthy Roethlisberger is good news, a quarterback is only as good as his receivers, something Pittsburgh fans know all too well. After catching nearly everything in sight at the start of 2020, the Steelers' wideouts had butterfingers during the season's final six games. Diontae Johnson, the team's leading receiver last season, worked extensively on improving his hands this offseason after leading the league in drops in 2020. If he and the rest of the Steelers' receiving corps (a group that also includes former Pro Bowler JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington and tight end Eric Ebron) play like an elite group, Pittsburgh's passing attack will be one of the league's best.
Speaking of the passing game, general manager Kevin Colbert gave Roethlisberger another weapon during the draft in tight end Pat Freiermuth. The recipient of both of Roethlisberger's preseason touchdown passes, the former Penn State standout reportedly did not drop a single pass during training camp. His play has drawn subtle comparisons to Heath Miller, the best tight end in franchise history.
A more balanced offensive attack
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada's game plan will have more pre-snap motion, jet sweeps, bubble screens, and other gadgets that will give the Steelers' offense a needed facelift. More so, Canada's offense will be more committed to running the football after team president Art Rooney II essentially mandated it after his offense finished last in the league in rushing last season. That's why it was no surprise to see the Steelers select a running back in the first round for only the second time in Colbert's two-plus decades as general manager. Harris will be a constant reminder for Canada to not leave his running game in the rearview mirror.
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Passing has become the NFL's preferred mode of transportation, running the football is still a necessity as it relates to being a championship-caliber team. Just ask the Buccaneers, who were the beneficiaries of a strong postseason by Leonard Fournette that included his 135-yard, two touchdown performance in Super Bowl LV. Running games remain the backbone of a successful team. That was the case when Franco Harris led the Steelers to their first of back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1970s, and it remains the case in 2021.
What does a successful running game mean for the Steelers? It means that Harris and company can help limit third-and-long situations for Roethlisberger and the offense. It also means the occasional third-and-short pickup as well as being able to churn out the tough yards in short yardage situations. Being able to do those things are the subtle yet crucial ingredients to a successful offense. Harris, along with teammates Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage, should be able to do that, even behind an offensive line that is still finding its way.
Fans should have reasonable expectations for Harris in his rookie season. Yes, he should be able to break both Franco Harris (1,056 rushing yards in 1972) and Le'Veon Bell's (1,259 all-purpose yards) rookie records, but fans will be disappointed if they are expecting Jerome Bettis circa 1997 type numbers from Harris in 2021. In three preseason games, Harris rushed for 42 yards on 11 carries, with a high run of eight yards. He had several negative runs, mostly due to breakdowns from Pittsburgh's offensive line. That's going to continue to happen, but as long as it happens on a less consistent basis during the season, Harris and the Steelers' running game should be able to hold their own. Harris did show his flair for making big plays on a 46-yard catch-and-run during the preseason, as fans should expect Harris to be a significant contributor to the passing game.
The success of the offensive line (led by rookies Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr., Zach Banner, Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner) will play a sizable role in the success of the Steelers' running game. How Mike Tomlin disperses the workload of his backs will also play a role in their overall success. Tomlin likes having a bell cow, so you can expect a big workload from Harris this season. But the Steelers need to do a better job of sharing the carries if Harris is going to produce when it matters most, in December and during the postseason.
A dominant defense
It's a constant juggling act when it comes to putting together a sound roster. No one knows this better than Colbert, who has built strong offenses only to see his defense regress (see the 2014 Steelers). Conversely, Colbert has constructed championship-caliber defenses only to see his offense regress (see the 2019 Steelers). But over the last few seasons, Colbert has put together rosters that are capable of playing complementary football; a team that can rely on its offense one week and the defense the next week. And don't forget about special teams, as the Steelers boast one of the NFL's most reliable kickers in Chris Boswell.
The Steelers lost several key contributors from last year's defense, including outside linebacker Bud Dupree, inside linebacker Vince Williams and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton. Despite losing Dupree and Williams, you could argue that the Steelers' linebacker corps is better now with the additions of Joe Schobert (who is already the team's best inside linebacker when it comes to pass coverage) and Melvin Ingram. The Steelers are also getting back 2019 first-round pick Devin Bush, who missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL. Pittsburgh is also expecting big things out of Highsmith, who simply could not be blocked at times during the preseason.
Pittsburgh's defense includes three of the NFL's best players in Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Heyward has evolved into one of the league's best defensive linemen, while Watt's play in 2020 nearly resulted in him winning Defensive Player of the Year honors. Colbert's acquisition of Fitzpatrick in 2019 has paid off handsomely, as the Steelers' pass defense has been a top-five unit since Fitzpatrick came to Pittsburgh. Fitzpatrick has meshed well with fellow 2018 first-round pick Terrell Edmunds. The secondary also features a three-time Pro Bowler in cornerback Joe Haden, who will be motivated to have a big year after he and the Steelers were unable to come together on an extension.
While it has the makings of an elite defense, the unit does have some question marks, particularly on the defensive line as well as in the secondary. Cam Sutton will have to hold his own opposite Haden, while James Pierre has the tough task of replacing the versatile Hilton. Reserve linemen Chris Wormley, Henry Mondeaux, and rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk will be looked on to contribute early with Stephon Tuitt's starting the season on injured reserve. There are also questions as it relates to the Steelers having enough inside linebackers that are capable of covering athletic tight ends, something that was an Achilles heel on previous units.
Fortunately, the Steelers have solid depth on the defensive line and linebacker positions. As far as the secondary, don't be surprised if Colbert brings a veteran to Pittsburgh between now and when the Steelers line up against the Bills in Buffalo in Week 1. Regardless, the Steelers do have the makings of being a dominant defense, one that should be able to put consistent pressure on the quarterback, create turnovers while also stopping the run. If the unit lives up to their potential, they could very well find themselves standing behind some of Pittsburgh's other legendary defenses, units that played substantial roles in bringing titles to the City of Champions.