When it comes to finding the bar for what a successful season would look like for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it really depends on who you ask.
If you ask the team and the organization, they’d tell you they’re on the up. They’d focus on the fact they were 11-0 to start the 2020 season and finished the regular season with another AFC North title and another playoff appearance at 12-4. They weren’t able to maintain that strong start into the postseason and lost in the wild-card round, but they did have a double-digit win season yet again and their defense was top three in the league. With their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coming back, they would tell you that their goal is another playoff appearance, another division title, and hopefully a Super Bowl run.
For basically anyone outside of the Steelers’ building, they’re not as hopeful.
For as great of a start as the Steelers had last year, they were awful down the stretch. They lost five of their last six games, including their wild-card loss at home in the playoffs. They started off the season with a strong running game, and paired with their defense, they didn’t ask nearly as much of the aging Roethlisberger’s arm to bail them out. But as the season went on and the running game became less efficient, Roethlisberger tried to be more of a focal point and the results weren’t pretty. The future Hall of Fame quarterback is showing his age and though he is back, it would be difficult to bet on him being drastically different in a positive way from what he was last season.
The Steelers are also replacing pretty much all of their Week 1 starters on the offensive line from last season. Throw in the fact they’ll be leaning heavily on a rookie running back Najee Harris and it’s a tough ask for this Steelers offense to try to balance out a defense that will likely regress a little bit; they won’t be awful, or even bottom half of the league, but likely not top five like we’re used to. They also lost one of the best nickelbacks in the league in Mike Hilton as well as pass rusher Bud Dupree.
The saving grace here is head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin will be a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Fame head coach whenever he decides to put down his headset. In the 14 seasons he’s been head coach of the Steelers, the team has never been below .500—not once. If he can pull that off again in a stacked division and even more stacked AFC, it might be his most impressive season yet outside of his Super Bowl victory in 2008.
With the Cleveland Browns champing at the bit for their first division title since 1989 as members of the AFC Central, the Baltimore Ravens still boasting a strong team, and the Cincinnati Bengals hopefully on the up, the Steelers don’t have a cakewalk in any of their six division games this season. They’ll also play the Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, and Kansas City Chiefs throughout the season. Using last year’s records, the Steelers have the No. 1 hardest strength of schedule in the league for 2021.
It’s going to be an uphill climb for the Steelers. For them, success is another playoff run, but realistic expectations are likely much lower. They’re at a turning point, no doubt. A strong season could extend their winning window a bit longer (at least in their minds), but missing the playoffs and a below .500 season—well within reason—might catapult them into a few years off to re-tool that roster.
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