State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers: Does Ben Roethlisberger have one last Super Bowl run in him?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Steelers organization, Steelers fans around the world and those who understand just how great Primanti Brothers can be:

This feels like the last hurrah in Pittsburgh. Well, not the last hurrah for the franchise, obvs, but the last hurrah of the Ben Roethlisberger era. With Big Ben under center for the bulk of this millennium, the Steelers have enjoyed so much success, allowing this passionate fan base to grow accustomed to contending for the Super Bowl on a near-annual basis. OK, so the final years have come off like the final years of the Undertaker in the WWE. I mean, sure, we popped for the music, the pageantry and the history of the Deadman character, but it had been a long time since he was truly in the MAIN EVENT picture. The Steelers are kind of like that right now. Looking for one more run at a title before that tombstone is set.

How the Steelers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Going unbeaten through Week 12. The Steelers had the best record in football through the first weekend of December. And if you wanted to make a Moneyball-like movie for the 2020 season, you'd just stop right after that 11-0 start.
  • Managing to sweep the Baltimore Ravens. As I predicted (and was laughed at for predicting). Any time you can beat your arch rivals twice, you have to enjoy that.
  • Earning a come-from-behind victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 to clinch the AFC North. Down 24-7 midway through the third quarter, Pittsburgh scored the final 21 points of the game to win, 28-24.

The low:

  • Losing three consecutive games and four of the final five in the regular season. That three-game losing skid, following the 11-0 start, made many question the validity of the Steelers. The first loss against the Football Team had some concerning aspects, but it should be noted that the setback followed a win over the Ravens on a Wednesday. The Steelers had to endure some pandemic-related scheduling delays to get games in. Not saying that was the reason why they lost, but it needs to be acknowledged.
  • Falling to the Browns at home on Super Wild Card Weekend. I'm not here to pronounce that it was a complete changing of the guard in the AFC North. But it was an embarrassing loss. The Steelers fell behind 28-0 in the first quarter. And despite some cosmetic touchdowns in the second half, this was a blowout.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Tomlin. Is there any way to retroactively give Tomlin an award for all of the great work he's done over the past decade? I kind of bring this up because Le'Veon Bell recently said he would never play for Andy Reid again. Which comes off a lot like the kid at the birthday party who doesn't like ice cream cake. As in, I'm sure you're not the only one, but it is still surprising to hear it. And to think, Tomlin somehow managed to win games with Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger on the roster at the same time? I don't know. It's like reading about the manager of Mötley Crüe in The Dirt and wondering how he was able to keep that band together long enough to produce so many legendary hits. It's staggering.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that I'm sorry if I've underestimated you over the years, coach. You've done an amazing job. And it feels like you need to go back to the well once again in 2021. The front office has worked hard to put together a pretty decent roster, and the Steelers still have talent, but the franchise lost some big names to free agency and retirement. So they are going to need some more of that Tomlin magic.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger. He's done it. Roethlisberger has outlasted both Eli Manning and Philip Rivers from the famed 2004 NFL Draft class. (Many might forget Matt Schaub was also part of that class -- and he, too, retired during the offseason.) Roethlisberger needs a Roethlisberger-like season to reach some nice career milestones. He is 3,093 passing yards away from passing Rivers for fifth all time in passing yards. He needs 29 touchdown passes to join Tom Brady (581), Drew Brees (571), Peyton Manning (539) and Brett Favre (508) as the only quarterbacks with at least 425 passing touchdowns. (Broncos quarterback Aaron Rodgers needs just 13. Oh wait, is he not the Broncos' quarterback yet?)

But let's be honest: Roethlisberger did not take a pay cut and a one-year deal to reach some personal milestones. He wants that third ring. Look, he's going to the Hall of Fame. Probably. Just kidding -- he's in! The only reason to come back is to chase that third ring. Get a seventh Lombardi Trophy for the organization. And honestly, he couldn't have that Browns game in the playoffs be the last performance of his career. Even Johnny Unitas: Chargers Edition thought that was bad. (Google it, kids.) And it's not like Roethlisberger wasn't OK last year. Sure, he faded down the stretch. Even so, why not try to go for it?

Projected 2021 MVP: T.J. Watt, edge rusher. Watt is still playing under his rookie contract, proving to be quite a deal for the Steelers. Watt has become one of the best defensive players on the planet, deserving of DPOY status after leading the league with 15 sacks last season. Having talent like this still on a rookie deal (though he's poised to earn a big payday at some point in the near future) allows Pittsburgh to continue to have solid players across the board. But he's going to need to be even better in the coming season, since Bud Dupree walked this spring. But how much of Dupree's success stemmed from playing with Watt? Kinda feel like the Titans signed this year's Robert Quinn.

2021 breakout star: Cameron Sutton, cornerback. Sutton is expected to be a starting cornerback for Pittsburgh this season. Fulfilling an annual tradition of the Steelers, where they lose some stud and yet somehow have a more-than-capable replacement waiting in the wings. Like the way they find no shortage of people to play Batman. And while I thought Hollywood could never replace Michael Keaton on this front, numerous guys have stepped up. Yes, even you, Ben Affleck. Sutton has also earned praise from Minkah Fitzpatrick, who said that in a reserve role, "Cam last year was everything for our secondary."

New face to know: Pat Freiermuth, tight end. I know, this wasn't the Pittsburgh rookie you expected in this spot. Don't worry, I discuss the first-round pick in a bit. But I really liked this second-rounder for the Steelers, and it shows why GM Kevin Colbert is one of the best in the business. They had a need on the offensive line, sure, but Freiermuth projects as a two-way tight end who can help out both as a run blocker and receiver. And I know this might take a year or two, because the transition for tight end is tough, but this was a really nice selection. Also, take note if you play dynasty in fantasy football.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Big Ben's 39 years old. The sands are flying through the hourglass.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Buffalo Bills. The Steelers got steamrolled by the Bills last year in the middle of their three-game losing skid. Now they have to go on the road, with the Bills looking like true Super Bowl contenders. A great opportunity for the Steelers to immediately announce that last year was last year -- and that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
  • Week 8 at Cleveland Browns. Speaking of getting steamrolled ... The Steelers have another opportunity for vengeance here. This time coming off the bye week. I'm almost a little worried for the Browns in this one.
  • Week 13 vs. Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers' first game against their blood rivals. The two teams will also close out the season in the historic Week 18 -- the 17th game of the regular season. And as I already noted, Pittsburgh swept the series last year.

Will the Steelers be able to …

Look more like the 11-0 Steelers and not the team that stumbled down the stretch? Pittsburgh had a +129 point differential through the first 12 weeks of last season. And then the unpleasantness happened as they lost five of their last six games (including the postseason). It was not just last year, either. The Steelers have a 6-11 record in December/January over the last three seasons and need to start finishing strong. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh has the toughest schedule based on opponent records from last year. The good news I can say for the Steelers is that there is a lot of new blood on this team. And despite having an aging quarterback, there is some youth that can help keep them competitive down the stretch -- and possibly in the playoffs, where the Steelers have traditionally played very well. Then again, the roster lost a bunch of key cogs in a critical area ...

Replace four longtime starters on the offensive line? Despite the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the free agency departures of Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva, I still trusted the Steelers to cobble together a viable offensive line. But will the sudden release of David DeCastro be the straw that broke the camel's back? That's four starters from last year's O-line. FOUR. And I'd say DeCastro and Feiler are the two losses that hurt the most. Yes, Trai Turner joining the squad is a good thing. But it just feels like a lot to ask, for an essentially brand-new line to come together so quickly. Especially playing in front of Ben Roethlisberger, who is tough as nails ... but gets hurt all the time. And he's nearly 40. A few weeks ago, I was bullish on Najee Harris' fantasy prospects. Now? I don't really know. This is a pretty talented dude, though. Allow me to expand:

Is Najee Harris the next great Steelers running back? Pittsburgh averaged the fewest rushing yards per game (84.4) in the NFL last year, and second-lowest total in club history (78 rush ypg in 1966 is the low). And honestly, it was worse than that down the stretch, as the Steelers rushed for 573 yards in their final 10 games of the season. I think Derrick Henry got that in two games against the Texans. (Holy smokes -- I just looked that up and I wasn't far off.) So while draft nerds say you shouldn't take a running back in the first round, the Steelers don't listen to that noise. The Steelers have used early -- well, relatively early, in some cases -- picks on James Conner, Le'Veon Bell and Rashard Mendenhall during the Mike Tomlin era. Each player had at least 1,200 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns in his first season as a starter. Harris reminds me of Matt Forte and has a knack for making defenders miss. He forced 93 missed tackles last year -- the most in FBS, per Pro Football Focus. But with four new starters up front on the O-line, Harris might have to make a lot of people miss if he wants to thrive. Can his multi-faceted skill set overcome the significant attrition in the road-grading department?

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The Steelers are LOADED at receiver. In his last two healthy seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 33 and 34 touchdown passes -- the two highest totals of his career. This is a testament to the quality of receivers Pittsburgh continues to bestow upon its aging quarterback. The 2021 season will be no different. I mean, when JuJu Smith-Schuster is a luxury, you know you're doing pretty well. (And apparently, he took less money than he could've received on the open market to stay with the team.) Pittsburgh wideouts had 30 receiving touchdowns last year, which led the NFL. They had 297 receptions and 3,096 receiving yards by receivers 24 years old or younger, which again topped the NFL. And I hate to be the guy who keeps repeating himself (not really), but the Steelers rarely miss when they draft wide receivers. Or just about any position. But especially wideouts. Diontae Johnson, the Steelers' target leader from last year, has more receptions than a lot of his more-heralded receivers from his 2019 draft class, including Terry McLaurin, DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown. And what's funny is people are asking if Chase Claypool can break out this year. As if he didn't score 11 touchdowns last season. This WR unit's scary good.

… people are also overlooking: The risk of having Mason Rudolph as the backup quarterback. And maybe I'm just overthinking this. Because Roethlisberger has started at least 14 games in four of his last five seasons. The only blemish was 2019, when he played in just two games. Maybe it only seems like Big Ben is always injured. Or maybe Roethlisberger just talks about it a lot. But this dude has 17 seasons of NFL wear, so I'm a little surprised they didn't go for one of the top backups in the league this offseason. Like bring in Mitchell Trubisky. Or maybe make a deal for Nick Foles. (OK, my bitter Bears fan is showing.) It just seems a little risky to fully pin your hopes on Roethlisberger making it through an entire season when he's knocking on the door of 40. The Steelers were 7-0 before he hurt both knees in the Week 8 win over the Cowboys. While Ben didn't miss any time until Week 17 -- when he sat, because the Steelers had already clinched the division -- Pittsburgh obviously sputtered down the stretch.

… people are overthinking: JuJu's dancing. Way to go, fellow old people. Way to take the joy out of the game for JuJu Smith-Schuster. You're all the living embodiment of that Steve Buscemi meme ("How do you do, fellow kids?"). Let JuJu do his thing. His TikTok is not for you to understand. Just understand that JuJu tied the NFL lead with eight touchdown receptions from the slot, according to Next Gen Stats. His 32 receptions on third down trailed only Keenan Allen (33). Don't worry about whether you approve of his pregame routine or not. Dude delivers.

For 2021 to be a success, the Steelers MUST:

  • Win a seventh Super Bowl. The Steelers have not had a losing season since 2003, the longest active streak in the league. The Steelers are 179-92-1 since drafting Ben Roethlisberger. But even having a winning season isn't enough in Pittsburgh -- not with Big Ben in his final days. Anything less than a Super Bowl will be a disappointment.

In closing

At some point, the Undertaker was finally used to put over some younger talent at WrestleMania. Well, not Brock Lesnar. But Roman Reigns at WrestleMania XXXIII. And I have to wonder if last year's playoff loss to the Browns was the beginning of a new normal in the AFC North. But again, every time we write off the Steelers, Mike Tomlin has them back in the playoffs again. The only question is, can they reach the top of the mountain with Big Ben one last time?

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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