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.

Is Lamar Jackson a Top-5 QB

Is the Ravens QB Lamar Jackson an elite QB?

By: Reese Nasser

Lamar Jackson has terrorized defenses for three seasons now. He is an all-pro quarterback. A league MVP. And the leader of the Baltimore Ravens. 

Since his entrance into the league in 2018 as the 32nd pick of the draft, Lamar has been a polarizing figure. He has proven that he can perform at the highest level. He has a career record of 30-7. In the regular season, he has thrown for 68 touchdowns and added another 19 on the ground. 

Yet, even with all of these accomplishments, Lamar still doesn’t seem to be held to the same regard as other top quarterbacks. He has the resume to support his case. He has led the league in passing touchdowns. He has made the plays necessary to win games. He has found success with both his arm and his legs.

So is he a top-5 quarterback in today’s NFL? Let’s take a look at some of the top passers in the NFL and where Lamar stacks up against them.

#5. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen is quickly transforming into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He has taken control of Buffalo and is the leader of the future. He can make big plays, has an enormous arm, and can also make big plays in the run game. 

Allen proved to be one of those players who was able to fully break out in his third season. He improved greatly as a passer and looked much more confident as a passer. Stat wise, he saw increases in nearly every category. He threw for 37 touchdowns, ran for eight, and added another one through receiving. His 46 touchdowns were smong the most in the NFL. 

Even with throwing the ball more than 100 times than he did in 2019, Allen only added one more interception to his stat sheet. His biggest problem heading into 2020 was turnovers and his ability to contain that aspect of his game can’t be ignored. 

Coming in at the five spot, Allen is in elite company. He is near the best at his position but still has room for improvement. 

#4. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Lamar has proven time and time again that he is among the best at his position. When watching the Ravens play, he is their entire offense. He is able to impact both their passing and running game in a way that few players can. 

His big play capability is elite and is a dynamic offensive piece. When looking at the roster that Baltimore has, you see that Lamar has not had a true number one receiver up to this point. His main target has been tight-end Mark Andrews. Even with a lack of receiving depth, Lamar has still led the NFL in passing touchdowns. He has played well consistently, which is more than most quarterbacks can say. Even with a subpar supporting cast, he has won 30 games in just 37 regular season starts. 

With the addition of wide receivers Sammy Watkins, Tylan Wallace, and Rashod Bateman. Lamar could be headed back towards an MVP caliber season. 

#3. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson proved last season that he is still among the NFL’s elite. He led Seattle to a record of 12-4 and threw for 40 touchdowns. He also led the Seahawks on three game winning drives, as he has often throughout his career. 

Even with apparent trade rumors that have been brought up when talking about Wilson, he will be a top-5 quarterback regardless of the team that he suits up for. His ability to win a game is unparalleled and his leadership is clear. Wilson is the guy in Seattle and he has been since he became QB1. 

Last season showed a sense of resurgence for the veteran quarterback. His 40 touchdown passes were the most of his career. He did also throw 13 interceptions, which was also the most of his career.
This next season should be even better for Wilson. Wide receiver DK Metcalf is coming off of a season where he had over 1,300 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. The third year receiver will only be getting better as time goes on. 

Wide receiver Tyler Lockett has shown no signs of slowing down. He will be entering year seven hoping to build off of what was the best season of his career in 2020. 

Wilson will have a top-wide receiver duo to work with in 2021. He is leading an offense that can be prolific when it is running correctly. Wilson has proven to be a top quarterback in this league and that won’t change anytime soon.

#2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers will go down as an all-time great. Even at 37 years old, he is playing at the highest level of the game. His ability to stretch a play and take over a game is the stuff of legends. 

His 48 pass touchdowns in the regular season were the most in football. Even while being in an offense that asks him to air the ball out, Rodgers threw just five interceptions. 

Rodgers found success last season while also having one of the most inconsistent receiving groups in football. While Davante Adams is his WR1, nobody has stepped into the second spot. This has led to Rodgers looking for his tight end Robert Tonyan. The pair of Adams and Tonyan combined for 29 touchdowns. Adams also went for 1,374 receiving yards on 115 receptions. 

Rodgers will look to have another explosive season in 2021, whether that be in Green Bay or somewhere else. Regardless of where he plays, elite quarterback play will be expected.

#1. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes will be the number one quarterback in the NFL for the foreseeable future. Whenever he steps on the field, greatness is expected. He is able to do nearly anything he wants and is already one of the most prolific quarterbacks the game has ever seen. 

Last season he threw for 38 touchdowns and 4,730 yards, finishing in the top four in both categories. Even with almost 600 pass attempts, Mahomes threw just six interceptions. 

When looking for critiques in Mahomes’ game, they are hard to find. He is typically smart with the ball. It is the rare occasion where any of his outlandish plays turn into turnovers. 

Through 54 career starts, Mahomes has 131 passing touchdowns to just 28 interceptions. He has also gotten another ten touchdowns with his legs. 

Mahomes will be the league’s QB1 for the foreseeable future. His success up to this point is no mistake. Yes, he has one of the best assembled offensive units in football but he has proven to be the machine that makes the unit one. Not every quarterback would be able to do what he has done up to this point. 

Opinions of Lamar Jackson are all over the place. Even with his success, he still receives the remarks of “he’s just a running back”. Lamar has and will continue to have all eyes on him. The only thing Lamar has struggled with up to this point is success in the postseason. While that should not play into how he ranks among quarterbacks, it most likely has. Once he makes a playoff run, his standings in the top-five will be cemented. 

 

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