The Pittsburgh Steelers will have to overcome some challenges if they truly hope to raise the Lombardi Trophy for a 7th time. Here’s a breakdown of the top 5 highest priority areas in which the Steelers have challenges to overcome:
#1 – Offensive Line
It was not that long ago that the Steelers fielded arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. However, due to a combination of factors, the once elite unit declined to arguably the worst OL in the NFL in 2020. With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey leaving only David DeCastro as the only proven quality starter, the OL is unquestionably the biggest question mark as the Steelers enter the 2021 season.
It does not, however, automatically default it to the weakness that “experts” will suggest. Just because a player’s name is not widely known does not mean they cannot play and there is a tremendous amount of confidence in Kevin Dotson. The Steelers targeted free agency with an eye on players who have exposure in the league and might just need the opportunity, fitting the mold of Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva before them. It’s exactly how they viewed Zach Banner, who earned the role as starter last year. The key will be who, if anyone, can seize the opportunity.
#2 – Depth
While the Steelers have quality depth in some areas, there are certain players and positions they cannot afford to rely on a “next man up” philosophy, beginning with T.J. Watt or Joe Haden. They are dangerously thin with reserves at CB and OLB and it would leave them in a precarious situation if injury were to claim either for an extended period. This goes beyond the obvious players that cannot be lost in order to make a serious run, but they are very unlikely to have any sustained success the injuries hit has hard as they did in 2020.
#3 – Schedule
There’s no denying the Steelers 11-0 start was aided by playing the AFC South and NFC East in 2020. They face a much harder 2021 slate and have the toughest schedule (.575) in the NFL. 2021 is offering no such creampuffs in which they will get away with not playing their best game. Over the last three years, the Steelers have struggled in the last four games of the season, combining to go 4-10 and missing the playoffs by a game twice. The stretch run looks rough in 2021, with the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens on the schedule as they try and play their way into the post season.
Far as SOS – Strength of Schedule goes – some context and factual history:
- The SOS entering the season is not as important as that of how it finishes the season
- The 2008 Steelers faced the toughest SOS (.598) entering the season of any Super Bowl Champion
- The 2008 Steelers won the Super Bowl against the 2nd highest SOS (.525) based on actual season results
- The 1979 Steelers won the Super Bowl against the highest SOS (.527) based on season results
#4 – New Starters
Bud Dupree was snatched in free agency as expected, though the Steven Nelson bridge burning was not expected. Alex Highsmith was drafted to mitigate the anticipated Dupree exit and he has large shoes to fill. He showed flashes in limited time as a rookie, but OLB in Pittsburgh is different as it both requires and demands a high level of play. Cam Sutton is expected to take over as starter at CB and based on his performance over his initial four seasons, it will be a marked leap for him to ascend to the level that Nelson performed at. Chukwuma Okorafor is shifting from RT to LT, and he didn’t exactly distinguish himself in 2020. In plain fact, Okorafor was awful. In plain truth, nothing teaches like experience and now he has that benefit of experience to aid him in truly preparing him this year. A lot is riding on how much he improves.
#5 – Mindset
This could be a strength for the team, in particular if they can find a rallying point around Ben Roethlisberger and it potentially being his last season. But this team is tremendously short on players who have played in really big games and have learned from the missed opportunities of 2016 and 2017. The aforementioned abysmal performance in the final four games of the season over the past three years speak largely to this. This is a far cry from the resilience built up by many players in 2005, pulling from the disappointments and how heartbreaking the losses in the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championships were. How mentally tough will the 2021 team be? Will it lose focus and get distracted by social media, or will they become more than the sum of their parts and come together in a way not seen in over a decade?
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