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The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2020 season with a franchise record 11-0, beating up on lesser competition, but also playing at a high level with a defense that laid out opposing offenses and an offense led by Ben Roethlisberger that played well enough to win.
Then, in a fashion many fans have never seen from the six-time Super Bowl champs, the bottom completely fell out for the Steelers.
The team dropped five of their last six games, starting with a 23-17 upset loss to Alex Smith and Washington at home on December 7th. They also lost their home playoff game 48-37 to the Cleveland Browns, a team they had beaten at home by 31 earlier in the season.
The fashion in which the season ended left tons of questions regarding who should line up at quarterback in 2021, how to adjust offensive play-calling (which was somewhat settled with the dismissal of OC Randy Fichtner), and how the defense — beaten up by injuries — will be handled in 2021 and beyond.
Many think that with 25 free agents pending for 2021 and the team being $21.789 million over the salary cap, bad things are coming for the Steelers.
Before you count them out though, let’s not forget that Mike Tomlin remains one of the best coaches in all of the NFL, going 145-78-1 in 14 years as head coach.
Tomlin has never gone under .500 in a season as coach. He’s finished 8-8 a couple times but never below that.
The Steelers appear to have settled one of their biggest questions already in the 2021 offseason, as the club has determined that they will bring back 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, despite a massive cap number that has to be addressed to give the Steelers some form of flexibility.
While most NFL ‘insiders’ will put Cleveland and even Baltimore as the two AFC North front runners for 2021, this is still a Steelers team that won 12 games and has some excellent young talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Here’s a list of the team’s 25 free agents:
LB Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, 23
S Marcus Allen, 25
DE Tyson Alualu, 34
S Jordan Dangerfield, 30
S Sean Davis, 27
OLB Jayrone Elliott, 29
DE Cassius Marsh, 29
LB Robert Spillane, 25
CB Cameron Sutton, 26
ILB Avery Williamson, 29
DT Chris Wormley, 27
T Zach Banner, 27
P Jordan Berry, 30
QB Joshua Dobbs, 26
RB Trey Edmunds, 26
T Matt Feiler, 29
C J.C. Hassenauer, 27
T Jerald Hawkins, 27
G Danny Isidora, 27
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, 24
RB James Conner, 25
WR Ray-Ray McCloud, 24
T Alejandro Villanueva, 32
Offseason Outlook: When it was announced that the Texans and DE J.J. Watt were going their separate ways, many felt that he would find his way to Pittsburgh to play with his brother T.J.
It does not sound like now that’s going to happen, which is wise since the Steelers should focus more on seeing if they can get former first-round pick LB Bud Dupree back. Dupree tore his ACL against the Ravens in Week 12 of the 2020 season.
Signing Dupree is a risk as he’s going to miss time into the 2021 season, but he and T. J. Watt on the outside make the best 1-2 punch in the NFL, and the Steelers should find a way to sign him, even if it means he’s not going to be ready till the second half of 2021.
Dupree could average anywhere between $13-17 million a season, which is not going to help the Steelers in terms of their cap issues, but if they have to make sacrifices to get Dupree back, it would 100 percent be worth it.
When you look at some of the other names on the Steelers free agent list, there are quite a few players that the team really would like to bring back.
DE Tyson Alualu, LB Robert Spillane, CB Cameron Sutton, ILB Avery Williamson, T Matt Feiler, C J.C. Hassenauer, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, WR Juju Smith-Schuster and T Alejandro Villanueva are all players that have contributed to this team in big ways, and the Steelers will likely chat with most of them about coming back.
Pittsburgh usually doesn’t make a huge splash when it comes to signing free agents from other teams, but there could be a swing in that in 2021, as the club has to figure out how and why their run game struggled so badly in 2020.
Week in and week out, the RB unit was held in check, and many think it’s time to move away from running back James Conner and pick up a big name running back like Aaron Jones from the Packers or Chris Carson from the Seahawks.
The team should start building around the run game again and figure out who will be the QB after the 2021 season, which will almost certainly be Roethlisberger’s last.
Pittsburgh’s front office has always been smart with handling money and not overpaying. This offseason will test them in that department more than ever.