Three reasons why the Steelers could repeat as AFC North champs

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason needs high goals

By: Noah Nichols

Everyone knows the story. The Steelers began the 2020 NFL season with an impressive 11-0 record. They would then go 1-4 and be eliminated in the first round the by the Cleveland Browns. However, that first round loss has really brought down people’s expectations for the Steelers. It is a popular opinion to believe that the Steelers will not make the playoffs in 2021. To be sure, the end of 2020 left a bad taste in the mouth of both fans and critics. The Steelers flaws really came to the surface at the end of the season.

But that does not mean that the Steelers won’t win the division, like they did last year. Even when they were predicted to finish third in the division. Yeah, the Steelers did not look good at the end of the season. But they have changed some things to fix the flaws that were apparent at the end of the 2020. Like their running backs and offensive line.

The AFC North is not so different from 2020. Some new players here, same players there, talent lost, and talent gained. That’s what happens in free agency and the draft. And while the critics are quick to point out the Steelers flaws, and praise the rest of the division for players acquired, they forget the Steelers. They have everything that they need to win the division. And they plan to. They wont say it, but they don’t have to, they will let their play do the talking, and let the rest of the division take the spotlight. Like the Browns, who are now expected to win the division, something that they have not done since 2002.

The Steelers have a running game

It is not early to say that the Steelers will have a better run game in 2021 than in 2020, where they finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game.

Najee Harris will make sure that doesn’t happen again.

After being drafted in the first round at 24 overall, he instantly improves the Steelers run game from worst, to average. At least. I can’t say, well he improves the running game, here, here, and here. Oh wait, I can. He’s smarter, bigger, more fluid, a better pass catcher, stronger, and more athletic than any other running back on the Steelers roster. By far.

It’s not just the influx of talent, it’s the amount of times that he will touch the football. 300 times this season is probably too low of a mark. 340 is closer. And that threat, will force the division to do something that they have not had to do in a long time.

Focus on stopping the run against the Steelers. The division has been able to key in on the pass for the past two-three years and largely ignore the running game except when James Conner was playing, when he was healthy. Now, they cannot ignore Harris. A great example is the second Bengals game from 2020 where JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a dump-off pass over the middle and was clocked by Vonn Bell. Bell knew that the Steelers weren’t going to run the ball, because they were so bad at it, so he keyed in on JuJu.

Harris will force teams to respect the running game, which also opens up the passing game even more. Essentially, Harris ensures that the division cannot focus on one aspect of the Steelers offense. And that’s something that they are not used to doing, not since the days of Le’veon Bell.

The Steelers defense is still elite

The offseason losses to the Steelers defense are a little overblown. First, Bud Dupree is a big loss. But Alex Highsmith, who took his place last year when Dupree tore his ACL, proved that he is a worthy starter. Highsmith will ease the loss of Dupree. The loss of Mike Hilton is more of a pass rush loss than a coverage loss. Hilton, being 5″8 and never the fastest player on the field, was never great in coverage. His bread and butter was defending the run and blitzing.

While Hilton was great at what he did, it’s not that hard to find someone who can blitz. And the Steelers are replacing Hilton with Cameron Sutton, who was much, much better in coverage. And even though Steven Nelson is no longer on the team, he was cut. Clearly the Steelers are confident in what they have behind him.

The Steelers still have an insane pass rush, probably the best interior defensive line in the NFL. They have the best edge rusher in the NFL to pair alongside that defensive line. And they have arguably the best safety tandem in the league. The defense is not going anywhere, and will be a pain to play against for the division.

The Steelers know the division, and how to win it

I wanted to put these statistics in the above column, but it made more sense here. Lamar Jackson has played the Steelers as a starting quarterback twice. He has been sacked nine times, thrown five interceptions, thrown 24 incompletions, compared to three touchdowns and 369 yards passing in two games. Not so great. Jackson lost both those games. (Fun fact, Jackson has never beaten the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger as the opposing quarterback.)

Baker Mayfield has a passer rating of 80.4 with 884 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 5 games versus the Steelers in his career, much better than Lamar. However, Mayfield has been sacked 16 times in those five games. And one of those games was against the Steelers backups to end the 2020 season. Joe Burrow has not fared much better, going 21 of 40 for 213 yards, one touchdown, 4 sacks, and a passer rating of 76.4. Burrow has only played on game though, so that information cannot be taken as 100% accurate.

However, the division clearly struggles at quarterback when playing the Steelers defense. Ben Roethlisberger is 63-20 versus the AFC North, and half of those losses belong to the Ravens. Eight belong the the Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger has lost to the Browns only twice in his 18-year career. He knows how to beat the rest of the division. The Steelers know how to win the division. Yeah, the division got a little tougher in some areas, but it got weaker in others. Like the pass rush, outside of Myles Garret, not a single player on the rest of the division’s front seven would start on the Steelers front seven. And that’s not even because of how good their front seven is, but how bad the rest of the division’s is.

Bill Cowher said it best in a interview on First Take.

“I think they will, they’ll be the hunt,” Bill Cowher said when asked on First Take recently if the Steelers will make the playoffs in 2021. “When you look at them, yes the division’s got tougher, but I love the pick of Najee Harris…” “Defensively they get Devin Bush back and that’s a top-tier defense. So, yes the division’s gotten better, but they’ve got a lot of veterans in that locker room that know how to win close games. And that’s what it’s going to come down to, and they got a great kicker in (the) kicking game. So, I think they’ll be in the hunt, and yes, I will say they will make the playoffs.”

The Steelers have a running game, they have a great defense, and they know how to win the division. Oh, and their receivers are still pretty darn good. They have everything they need to win the division. Just because no one in the national media is predicting it, does not mean it won’t happen. Don’t be surprised when it does. Don’t sleep on the Steelers. I guarantee the rest of the division isn’t.

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