NFL 2020 Team by Team Year in Review and Look Ahead to 2021: Pittsburgh Steelers


2020 Grades on everything from the Draft, front office and coaching staff and players. First look at potential 2021 retained, outgoing and incoming free agents, fits and needs, mock drafts.

photo credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

he Pittsburgh Steelers headed into the 2020 campaign with cause for optimism given the events of a frustrating 2019 season. After going 8 – 8 on the back of an outstanding defensive effort that helped paper over the gaping hole at the quarterback position after starter Ben Roethlisberger was lost to an elbow injury in Week 2, there was a general feeling that the return of their franchise man could spark a 1st playoff appearance for the Steelers since the 2017 season. 

Front Office Staff

photo credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Position201820192020
Team PresidentArt Rooney IIArt Rooney IIArt Rooney II
Vice PresidentArt Rooney Jr.Art Rooney Jr.Art Rooney Jr.
Vice President General ManagerKevin ColbertKevin ColbertKevin Colbert
Vice President of Football Business AdministrationOmar KhanOmar KhanOmar Khan
Player Personnel DirectorDan Rooney Jr.Dan Rooney Jr.Dan Rooney Jr.
College Scouting CoordinatorPhil KreidlerPhil KreidlerPhil Kreidler
Pro Scouting CoordinatorBrandon HuntBrandon HuntBrandon Hunt
Analytics Football Research CoordinatorKarim KassamKarim KassamKarim Kassam

Head Coach Mike Tomlin took the wheel for his 14th season in the Steel City. Consistency, as per usual, was the name of the game for Pittsburgh on their defensive staff just as it was in the front office, with the only major addition on that side of the ball from a coaching perspective being the hiring of Denzel Martin as Assistant Outside Linebackers Coach, the first time since 2018 that the Steelers had filled that position. Keith Butler retained his position as DC, while Jerry Oslavsky, Tom Bradley and Teryl Austin all returned to their respective posts.

Defensive Staff

photo credit: PennLive
Position201820192020
Defensive CoordinatorKeith ButlerKeith ButlerKeith Butler
Defensive LineKarl DunbarKarl DunbarKarl Dunbar
Assistant Outside LinebackersJoey Porter (Not Assistant)N/ADenzel Martin
Inside LinebackersJerry OlsavskyJerry OlsavskyJerry Olsavsky
Defensive BacksTom BradleyTom BradleyTom Bradley
Senior defensive assistant/SecondaryN/ATeryl AustinTeryl Austin

Just for something different, Pittsburgh sprinkled in just a little more consistency on the offensive side of the coaching staff as well. Randy Fichtner returned as Offensive Coordinator, while Eddie Faulkner (RBs), James Daniel (TEs), Shaun Sarrett (OL) and Adrian Klemm (Ass. OL) were all retained. There were some new faces, and roles, on the offensive staff for the Steelers, with Matt Canada brought in as QB Coach, Ike Hilliard taking over the WRs after Ray Sherman filled the position on an interim basis in 2019, and Blaine Stewart hired in the position of Assistant WRs Coach, a position the Steelers had not filled the previous two seasons.

Offensive Staff

photo credit: Behind The Steal Curtain
Position201820192020
Offensive CoordinatorRandy FichtnerRandy FichtnerRandy Fichtner
Quarterbacks CoachRandy FichtnerRandy FichtnerMatt Canada
Running Backs CoachJames SaxonEddie FaulknerEddie Faulkner
Wide ReceiversDarryl DrakeRay Sherman (Interim)Ike Hilliard
Assistant Wide ReceiversN/AN/ABlaine Stewart
Tight EndsJames DanielJames DanielJames Daniel
Offensive LineMike MunchakShaun SarrettShaun Sarrett
Assistant Offensive LineShaun SarrettAdrian KlemmAdrian Klemm

The introduction of Matt Canada was of particular note as it suggested that the Steelers were ready to begin bringing some new ideas and concepts into their offense. The 49-year old New Palestine, Indiana native had spent the previous 25 years in the College game, holding positions ranging from Grad Assistant in Indiana in 1994, to Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach with nine different teams including Pitt and LSU, and served as the Maryland Interim HC in 2018. As the NFL continued it’s shift toward more College style offensive concepts, particularly in the passing game, gaining the experience in those systems that Canada possessed seemed like a no brainer in the evolution of the Steelers 21st Century offense.

FREE AGENCY ACQUISITIONS

photo credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The Steelers said that they would dip into the XFL talent pool in Free Agency, and they were true to their word, signing the XFL’s Sack Leader in DT Cavon Walker from the New York Guardians, as well as DC Defenders Safety Tyree Kinnel. Fortunately these were low risk moves for Pittsburgh, as both were waived prior to the first snap of the season. The Steelers also picked up Eric Ebron on a 2-year $12 million dollar deal from the Colts. Ebron gathered 63 catches on 102 targets, for a catch percentage of 61.7%, with 602 yards and 6 TDs. Nothing horrific, but nothing spectacular either. 

Other Free Agency additions of note included Derek Watt, Stefen Wisniewski, and the Franchise Tagging of LB Bud Dupree. Watt played just 55 offensive snaps for the season, but contributed significant time on Special Teams, playing 198 snaps and snagging a safety against the Broncos in Week 2. Stefen Wisniewski was signed on a 2-year $2.85 million dollar contract and started at RG for the Steelers in Week 1, only to suffer a chest injury in that game and be placed on injured reserve, eventually being activated in November and waived three days later. Bud Dupree was on track for a blistering season opposite T.J. Watt, with 8 Sacks and 15 QB Hits in 11 games, before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in Week 12.

NamePosition2020 Grade
Eric EbronTEB
Cavon WalkerDTF (Waived Sept 5th) (Bears, Chiefs, Guardians led XFL sacks)
Stefen WisniewskiGF
Derek WattFBB
Bud DupreeLBA (Partial)
Zach BannerOTB+
Kameron CanadayLSA
Jordan DangerfieldSC+
Jarron JonesOTD+ (Practice Squad player. Aggravated Assault)
Tyree KinnelSF (waived August 2nd) XFL, Bengals 2019, DC Defenders.

DRAFT 2020

photo credit: Irish Sports Daily

The Steelers were without a 1st Round Draft Pick in 2020 and so were stuck waiting until the 49th pick of the Draft to select their first player. With their Round 2 selection they took Chase Claypool, a big bodied WR out of Notre Dame, who played four seasons for the Irish and garnered 66 catches, 1,037 yards and 13 Touchdowns in his Senior season. That pick proved to be a fruitful one, as Claypool found his role in the Steelers offense as a deep and contested catch threat in breakout fashion against the Eagles in Week 5, hauling in 7 catches for 110 yards and 3 Touchdowns on 11 targets, while also rushing for a score in the red-zone. Claypool ended his rookie season with 62 catches on 109 targets for 873 yards and 9 Touchdowns, but like many of his teammates suffered during a spate of dropped catches in the second part of the season.

Many of the Steelers Draft Picks in 2020 saw significant action due to injury at their respective positions, with Charlotte LB Alex Highsmith appearing in 16 games and starting the final 6 matches after the Bud Dupree injury. Ragin’ Cajuns OL product Kevin Dotson played in 13 games and made three significant starts against the Broncos, Browns and Colts, in which he played 100% of offensive snaps, while two Maryland’s RB Anthony McFarland Jr and S Antoine Brooks Jr. also saw the field in some capacity. 7th Round DL Carlos Davis out of Nebraska progressed as the season wore on, and saw snaps in 8 of Pittsburgh’s final 9 games, including the playoff loss to the Browns.

While the Steelers had some misses in Free Agency during 2020, there was a lot to like about the signs from their Draft Class, even if that was in the development of some lower round depth players.

RoundPlayerPickPositionCollege2020 Grade
2Chase Claypool49WRNotre DameA-
3Alex Highsmith104LBCharlotteB+
4Anthony McFarland Jr.124RBMarylandC-
4Kevin Dotson135OLLouisianaB
6Antoine Brooks Jr.198SMarylandC-
7Carlos Davis232DTNebraskaC+

The Steelers also waded into the Undrafted Free Agent market to sign 10 Rookies to the team. These included FB Spencer Nigh, G Christian Montano, CBs Trajan Bandy and James Pierre, LBs James Lockhart, Leo Lewis and John Houston, DTs Josiah Coatney and Calvin Taylor, and Punter Corliss Waitman. Pierre, Taylor and Waitman all currently remain on the active roster.

THE SEASON

photo credit: The Denver Post

The Steelers 2020 campaign began with single score with a costly 10 point victory on the road against the New York Giants, in which Ben Roethlisberger shook off the rust after 18 months on the sideline, but Pittsburgh lost multiple offensive linemen for the season due to injury. Pittsburgh spent the next four weeks on home turf, staving off gallant efforts from the Broncos, Texans and Eagles before blowing out the Cleveland Browns 38 – 7.

The Steelers then hit the road with away victories over the Titans, Ravens and Cowboys. While the Steelers found themselves sitting pretty at 8 – 0, there was a sense of dissatisfaction emanating from seemingly every corner of the Steelers camp. This was a team that seemed increasingly unhappy with the finer points of their on-field production. The Baltimore Ravens game in particular proved to be a turning point in the season for a number of reasons.

Through the first six games of Pittsburgh’s season, the team totalled 2,172 yards on offense, averaging 358.6 total yards per game. The run/pass balance was 1,374 yards passing (63.2%) and 778 yards rushing (35.8%). This meant that the Steelers were getting around a third of their offensive production on the ground. Through six games the Steelers had five games with 100+ rushing yards, and 94 in the one game in which they failed to hit triple figures.

Their defense had also been stout against the run during those first six games, allowing just 413 yards (68.8 per game) on the ground and only 1 game of 100 or more rushing yards. However, in their seventh game of the season in Baltimore, the Ravens exposed the Steelers in the run game – on both sides of the ball.

1234TOTAL
Steelers31301026
Giants370616
1234TOTAL
Broncos0311721
Steelers7100926
1234TOTAL
Texans7140021
Steelers3143828
1234TOTAL
Eagles778729
Steelers71014738
1234TOTAL
Browns07007
Steelers10147738
1234TOTAL
Steelers7173027
Titans0710724
1234TOTAL
Steelers7014728
Ravens7100724
Photo credit: The Athletic

Baltimore’s run game obliterated the Steelers defense to the tune of 265 rushing yards, and if not for the fact that Pittsburgh managed to force 4 turnovers, would likely have won the game. That close win in Baltimore set the tone for the following 9 games as the Steelers became exposed on the ground.

Over the final 10 games of the regular season, Pittsburgh totalled 3,202 yards of total offense, but the run pass balance was horrifically skewed towards the air. Of those 3,202 yards, the Steelers amassed 2,629 (82.1%) of them with the pass, and just 573 (17.8%) on the ground. For a team that had totalled 5 games with 100+ rushing yards through the opening 6 weeks of the season, the Steelers reached triple figures just once in their final 10 games, averaging a woeful 57.3 yards per game on the ground. The run defense was just as poor. After conceding just one game of 100+ yards on the ground through their opening 6 matches, the Steelers allowed 8 such games in their next 10. All told, their rushing defense allowed a total of 1,370 yards (137 per game) across those 10 games, almost exactly double what they had allowed in the first month and a half of the season.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 11-0.jpg
photo credit: Steelers Depot

It was an achilles heel that left Pittsburgh exposed on offense and defense, and from an 11 – 0 start, the Steelers were defeated three weeks in a row, by the Washington Football Team, the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals game in particular was as embarrassing a performance as the Steelers have had in recent memory, being entirely outplayed by Bengals backup Ryan Finley, who produced a spirited display of 7/13 for 89 and 1 TD with 10 rushes for 47 and 1 TD.

Pittsburgh righted the ship somewhat in Week 16, with a remarkable come from behind victory against the Colts, storming back from 21 – 7 down at the half to win 28 – 24. A Week 17 loss to Cleveland, with the majority of Steelers starters rested ahead of playoffs, set up a Super Wild Card Weekend game against those same Browns.

1234TOTAL
Steelers0901524
Cowboys3106019
1234TOTAL
Bengals070310
Steelers12107736
1234TOTAL
Steelers01701027
Jaguars30003
1234TOTAL
Wash.0371323
Steelers0140317
1234TOTAL
Steelers070815
Bills0914326
1234TOTAL
Steelers0010717
Bengals31401027
1234TOTAL
Colts7143024
Steelers0771428
1234TOTAL
Steelers0631322
Browns737724

The playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, played in a ghost-like Heinz field, was the final boiling over of all of the patterns and problems Pittsburgh had faced and accumulated down the stretch of the 2020 season. A pass heavy attack incapable of running the ball with any consistency, paired with a rushing defense that couldn’t stop teams on the ground, as well as several snap issues early in the game, buried the Steelers in a 35 – 7 hole at half time. While Pittsburgh fought their way back to a 49 – 37 loss, the game never felt in doubt.

As Mike Tomlin likes to say, “The Standard is The Standard”, and the reality for Pittsburgh in the second half of 2020 was that the standard of their play in one facet of the game, on both sides of the ball, simply wasn’t good enough.


1234TOTAL
Browns28701348
Steelers010131437

TRANSITION 2020-2021

photo credit: Steelers Depot

The Steelers entered the 2021 offseason with much work to do in regards to the make up of their roster and cap management.

But across the last month they have set about that work, and been helped by two retirements and a willingness from Ben Roethlisberger to restructure his sizeable contract. In terms of retirements, veterans Maurkice Pouncey and TE Vance McDonald deciding to hang up the pads gives some much needed relief to the Steelers cap, with Pouncey’s decision offloading $8.5M in 2021, and McDonald’s clearing $7.9M.

Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Roethlisberger agreed to a pay cut of $5M in his final year, spreading his cash pay out across the 2022 season. That reduces his 2021 cap hit by $15M, which had been at $41.2M, the highest cap number of any player in the league going into 2021. This restructure is perhaps the biggest alleviator of cap stress for the Steelers as they prepare for the next season.

At the time of writing, Pittsburgh has 24 pending Free Agents heading into the 2021 offseason according to sportrac.com. This includes a handful of stars and regular starters like LB Bud Dupree, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OT Alejandro Villanueva, OG Matt Feiler, NT Tyson Alualu, RB James Conner and CB Mike Hilton, all of whom hit the market as Unrestricted Free Agents.

I would expect to see RB James Conner walk out the door, along with JuJu Smith-Schuster. A lack of production the last two seasons and a checkered injury history should see Conner be set loose, while a desire for a bigger deal than what Pittsburgh is likely willing to pay, should seal the deal for a JuJu exit.

Don’t be surprised to see the Steelers seek trade options for, or potentially cut, 32-year-old CB Joe Haden. Haden’s front-loaded contract means that while his 2021 season would cost the team a cap hit of $15.5M, he becomes infinitely more moveable with a dead cap number of just $2.9M.

As it stands, the Steelers have worked their way out of a reasonable cap-hole, back into the positive side of the ledger, with $3.6M in cap space. Which is a hell of a lot better than the situation they found themselves entering the offseason.

Significant Pending Free Agents

photo credit: CBS Sports
NamePositionAge2020 GradePosition RankFA Type
Bud DupreeLB28A
UFA
Alejandro VillanuevaOT32A-
UFA
Matt FeilerOL28B+
UFA
Tyson AlualuNT33B+
UFA
JuJu Smith-SchusterWR24B+
UFA
James ConnerRB25C
UFA


Free Agent Targets

photo credit: 12th Man Rising

Even with the work they have done, it’s difficult to imagine the Steelers being aggressive movers in the acquisition market this Free Agency period. Now that JJ Watt has signed with the Cardinals, there aren’t exactly a bevy of major names on the radar that seem like automatic hits. One option I would look at, particularly if they allow James Conner to walk, is Seattle’s Chris Carson. Carson has a similar skillset to Conner in terms of his ability to get involved in the passing game, garnering 101 catches from 125 targets in his first 4 years in the league with 7 receiving touchdowns. Pair that with 3,270 yards and 21 TDs on the ground at 4.6 YPA, and you have a RB with reliable production. The issue of course with Carson is that he has an injury history, and so in that sense may not present much of an upgrade over someone like Conner.

There’s also been some talk of Pittsburgh seeking out a veteran backup at the QB position, a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Andy Dalton type of player to provide better cover for Ben Roethlisberger than Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs have provided. I personally find it hard to see the Steelers chasing after a veteran backup in a year where Ben has dramatically restructured his contract in order to have one last roll of the dice on a Super Bowl title, when that money could be better spent helping to fix the run blocking of the offensive line and secure their 2021 Draft choices to contracts.

NameCurrent TeamPositionAge2020 GradePosition RankFA Type
Chris CarsonFree AgentRB26B+
UFA



2021 NFL Draft

photo credit: 24/7 Sports


When it comes to the 2021 Draft, the Steelers are projected to receive two compensatory picks this season, in the 4th and 6th round respectively. Predicting who, what and where teams should take players is one of my least favourite exercises, as there are so many elements of the process which we as outsiders do not have access to. The true health of players already on the roster, a team’s true ambitions in regard to free agency, each franchise’s scouting evaluations of the players themselves, and finally just how a player might transition their production into the NFL. There are just so many unknowns that Draft prediction, at times, feels like more of an exercise in entertainment than expertise. It’s also possible I just suck at it. Either way, I will take a stab at where I would be looking if I was the Steelers. For me, the areas of massive need for Pittsburgh are in the run game on both sides of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked 13 times last season, but Pittsburgh’s ability to run the ball was atrocious. I would be looking to invest in both the run-blocking ability of the offensive line, as well as a heavy-set, thick-arsed RB. I’m looking at a premium line talent like Alex Leatherwood in the first round, and angling to get Rhamondre Stevenson, cannonball RB out of Oklahoma, somewhere in the first 4 rounds. From there I would continue to add beef and talent to the offensive line, perhaps someone like Creed Humphrey at Centre from Georgia.

I would also to continue value adding to that defense in the top 4 rounds, with some defensive line talent like Rashad Weaver out of Pitt. If JuJu is on the out, I might also look to snare Tylan Wallace from Oklahoma State or a similar WR to keep that talent pool deep for Ben to throw to.

As we progress down the order, I might try to snag Khyriris Tonga from BYU. While I’m at it, why not take a swing at a developmental QB like Dustin Krum from Kent State late in the Draft? At worst you cut him, at best he comes out of the blocks fast and forces competition for the backup job behind Ben. I’d also take a swing at a developmental TE like Tony Poljan and another CB for that secondary in LSU’s Kary Vincent.

RoundNameCollegePosition
1Alex LeatherwoodAlabamaOT
2Rashad WeaverPittDE
3Creed HumphreyOklahomaC
4Rhamondre StevensonOklahomaRB
4Tylan WallaceOklahoma StateWR
6Khyiris TongaBYUDE
6Tony PoljanVirginiaTE
7Kary VincentLSUCB
7Dustin CrumKent StateQB



FINAL THOUGHT

photo credit: SI



Perspective is a remarkably elusive thing to grasp in life, and in football, and Steelers fans seem more hard-pressed than most to maintain that grip. The way the 2020 campaign ended overshadowed what had been a remarkably successful year in spite of many logistical and personnel issues in the Steel City. The Steelers were incredibly hard hit by injury at crucial positions at crucial times, but still found a way to dominate their Division while blooding some young talent at the same time. Another more season with Big Ben at the helm, and a brilliantly aggressive defense to boot, presents this immensely competitive franchise another opportunity to add a seventh title to it’s collection.

Because regardless of personnel, or pandemics, cap space or injury, winning the Super Bowl remains the singular goal of the Pittsburgh Steelers organisation, year in, year out.

… It’s A Football World, we’re all just passing through.

For more from Jake, check out his podcast at: The Jake Bowtell Football Experience

Feature photo credit: College Gridirons

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