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Pittsburgh Steelers Writers
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In 2021, the Steelers ran one of the most straightforward schemes in the NFL. The lethal combination of Ben Roethlisberger's immobility, an offensive line that surrendered the lowest pocket time in the league at 2.2 seconds, and Najee Harris's lack of relative speed forced the team to rely solely on an inside zone run concept. The domino effect removed the ability to threaten the edge and, along with it, play action. The result was the second-lowest intended air yards per attempt at 6.7. The rush game faired no better, second last in the league at yards before contact at just 765, a far cry from the Eagles' league-leading 1,806. The question for 2022 relies on the team developing all these areas to an acceptable level. The good news is the team's patented siloing of opportunities returned. After 2020 saw the team spread targets and rush attempts, Diontae Johnson placed third in targets at 169, and Najee Harris finished with the second most rush attempts at 307, which brought back memories of the Killer B's with Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown dominating fantasy leaderboards. Improved efficiency through the offense and improvement on the 7th fewest NFL touchdowns at 35 should see the offense continue to produce elite individual fantasy performances.
Ben Roethlisberger's final season draws eerie parallels to Mitch Trubisky's career numbers (Trubisky listed second):
- Completion Percentage- 64.5% to 64.1%
- Passer Rating- 86.8 to 87
- Average air yards attempt- 6.17 to 6.45
- Touchdowns per game- 1.4 to 1.1
The major question with Trubisky is which version will arrive in Pittsburgh? Trubisky ran for six yards per rush in his first two seasons and averaged 26 yards per game. For the remainder of his career, he dropped to 13 yards per game. The early version of Trubisky hit fantasy usability with 18.79 fantasy points per game, which would have made him QB12 in 2021. The latter version cratered to 14.19. The addition of Kenny Pickett in the draft throws this room into flux. Trubisky signed a two-year contract worth $14.285 million, a classic bridge contract. Stylistically they mesh, allowing the Steelers to insert Pickett when they are ready with minor changes to playcalling. Pickett has functional athleticism for the position but will never be a scrambling quarterback at the NFL level. Instead, he will play the role of distributor and feed the ample fantasy weapons.
The good news on Mason Rudolph is the Steelers feel comfortable with letting him throw the ball. In the one game he started in 2021, week ten against the Lions, he threw 50 passes, a number that finished in the top 20 individual games last year. The rub was only 242 passing yards and a dismal 4.8 per attempt. Rudolph is a functional enough backup quarterback but unlikely to produce for fantasy consistently should an injury create an opportunity.
Between 2013 and 2018, seventh was the Steelers' lowest running back finish on a PPR per-game basis. After two years of wandering the wilderness with injuries and ineffective backups ruined the run game, they landed a bell-cow back. Najee Harris is a physical back at 232 lbs who shines as a natural receiver. Harris finished second in rush attempts in his rookie season and fourth in rushing yards with 1,200. He also saw heavy involvement in the passing game; his 94 targets lead all running backs. Harris faces the slightest threat of sharing work in a chaotic group at the top of running back rankings. An easy argument is that 2021 represented Harris's floor, and he still finished RB5 at 18.2 points per game.
The Steelers lacked a second running back who topped 100 yards on the season. That is not 100 yards in a single game; the Steelers did not have a second back who totaled 100 yards. Benny Snell is the clear handcuff. In the past, he has shown flashes, including a 113-yard performance in week 1 2020 that ignited a mad scramble on fantasy waiver wires. He is limited to spurts of productivity and is solely a handcuff, though one of the easiest to obtain. Anthony McFarland Jr was an afterthought in 2021, with injury costing most of his season. The 2020 4th-round pick has yet to impact his first two seasons significantly. Trey Edmunds got to run when the team searched for answers in 2020, but he spent the entire 2021 season on the practice squad. Warren and Durant will fight for spots on the roster as undrafted free agents.
Derek Watt is a classic blocking back with no fantasy involvement. He received four touches on the season, one rush for one yard and three receptions for fifteen yards. This situation is not even a potential goal line; break glass in emergencies.
- Calvin Austin III, Anthony Miller, Steven Sims Jr., Miles Boykin, Cody White, Tyler Vaughns, Rico Bussey, Gunner Olszewski
The 2021 season brought a much-welcomed return of the team funneling targets through a primary receiver. Diontae Johnson stepped into the role Antonio Brown rode to finish no lower than fantasy WR3 from 2013 to 2018. Johnson saw 169 targets in 2021, tying Davante Adams for second in the NFL. During Brown's incredible six-season stretch, he averaged 171 targets. As with Najee Harris, the usage was available to place Johnson at the top of fantasy leaderboards, but the offensive efficiency made it nearly impossible. He landed at WR7 on a per-game basis. Chase Claypool was the clear secondary receiver and the most apparent victim of the offensive failures. His usage was two primary methods; his 105 targets stretched the field; at 11.3 air yards per target, he saw a similar depth as field stretchers like Marquise Brown and Mike Williams. Unfortunately, an offense that struggled to influence defensive coverage left Claypool with one of the smallest separation windows in the league at just 2.4 yards (Kenny Golladay and Devonte Parker were last at 1.7). The encouraging sign in Claypool's game was a willingness to involve him in the run game. He tallied 14 rush attempts for 96 yards. In a game heavy on replication, he has elements to serve as a Wide Back as popularized by Deebo Samuel. George Pickens has the athleticism to emerge as the best of the 2022 class but was pushed down the board due to character concerns. His initial role is likely stretching the field, which could see Claypool as a primary beneficiary if he frees up to run a more diverse route tree. Diontae Johnson is approaching a contract year, and the team may decide between an extension or working Pickens as a long-term replacement.
After arriving in the draft's fourth round, Calvin Austin III is the most exciting piece in this room. He is a fast but small receiver, an experienced field stretcher who can create with the ball in space. A trio of players looking for second and third chances with other teams highlights the backups on this depth chart. Anthony Miller reconnects with Trubisky after the two started their careers in Chicago. Miller never lived up to his status as a second-round pick in 2017, but seven touchdowns in his rookie season and averaging 521 yards over his first three seasons showed flashes of potential. After a brief stint in Houston, this could be his last good chance at an NFL role. The Steelers ran 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) on 75% of their snaps in 2021, trailing only the Bengals and Rams for most in the league. Miller projects as a deep bench dart through with potential injury or bye week utility. The rest of the depth falls into two categories. Size to replace Claypool: Miles Boykin, Cody White, and Tyler Vaughns are all over 6'2". As a former day two pick, Boykin flamed out in Baltimore and has the highest pedigree of the group with 470 career yards and seven touchdowns. White and Vaughns are project players with five career catches between them, all belonging to White. The other category is slot receivers who could step in to cover Diontae Johnson's lineup spot: Steven Sims Jr., Gunner Olszewski, and Rico Bussey. Sims is the most intriguing; he finished his rookie year with Washington in 2019 with a four-game stretch averaging 57.5 yards and one touchdown. Unfortunately, injuries hit and stopped him from building off that momentum in 2020 or 2021. He fits Johnson's profile closely and could be asked for increased production if injuries force him into action. Olszewski is likely limited to special teams contributions with an occasional offensive appearance but lacking fantasy utility. Bussey spent his rookie season on the practice squad on injured reserve and is fighting for a roster spot.
With force, Pat Freiermuth grabbed control of the tight-end job in his rookie season. He has established himself as a go-to red-zone threat, with 20 targets running only second to Diontae Johnson's 25. He was the first rookie tight end since 1960 to record at least 60 receptions and seven touchdown catches. Numbers that become more impressive, considering 80% of the production came after Week 5. In that stretch, Freiermuth placed TE9 on a per-game basis. Without a third clear wide receiver, the runway is set for Freiermuth to ascend as a top fantasy tight end. Gentry is not the type who would catch attention, but he shares a similar profile as Freiermuth as a strong blocker who can perform when called upon in the passing game. Sternberger is a developmental player who the Packers drafted in the third round in 2019 but finds himself on his fourth NFL team since September 2021. Rader is a depth piece; entering his age 27 season, he has spent most of his career on the practice squad with two career receptions.
- LT Dan Moore Jr., LG Kevin Dotson, C Mason Cole, RG James Daniels, RT Chukwuma Okorafor
- OT Joe Haeg, OT Chaz Green, IOL Kendrick Green, IOL JC Hassenauer, IOL John Leglue, IOL Malcolm Pridgeon, IOL Nate Gilliam, IOL Chris Owens, OT Jordan Tucker
The offensive line struggled badly in 2021, with clear indicators like a league-low pocket time of 2.2 seconds and 756 yards before contact, the second-lowest in the league. The team uncharacteristically dipped into free agency, signing guard James Daniels to a three-year deal at an $8.8 mil average annual value, making him the 13th highest-paid guard. He performed well in 2021, ranking 19th out of 82 guards on PFF. At 25, he should solidify at least one spot on the line. The rest of the line is an open question; with only $21.5 mil in cap committed, it is the cheapest line in the NFL. The team struck out again in free agency, adding center Mason Cole, a third-round pick of the Cardinals in 2018; he has starting history. Left guard Kevin Dotson graded very highly as PFF's 5th best pass-blocking guard. The former fourth-round pick in 2020 is entering his age 26 season and should be coming into his prime. The tackles of Okorafor and Moore Jr. are still younger than 25, but both struggled setting contain on the outside and allowing the rush game to reach the edge. Haeg is a veteran who played snaps at every position but the center for the Steelers last year, performing at an acceptable level as a backup. Kendrick Green was the starting center as a rookie third-round pick. His performance led to the signing of Cole and stories that he could see reps at guard in camp.
Boswell peaked in 2021 after an injury-marred 2020. He tied for sixth in scoring with Tyler Bass and Greg Joseph and hit on 8-of-9 field goal attempts from 50+ yards after making only nine kicks (on 12 attempts) from that distance previously in his career. He was second in the league in field goal attempts last year and should stay among the tops in that department, with the Steelers likely relying on their defense to keep games close along with a conservative offensive game plan. He's a good Plan A if you decide to be one of the last to take a kicker.
The team brought Olszewski in to serve as their primary returner. A serviceable player, he lacks a home run threat from the position. In 36 career returns, his career-high attempt is 37 yards. He has big shoes to fill as the departed Ray-Ray McCloud III led the NFL in total return yardage with 1,134.
Punt return is where Olszewski shines. He led the NFL in punt return yardage in 2020 with 346 and scored once. In 2021 his productivity continued with 309 yards. He is an intelligent special teams contributor.
The Steelers entered 2021 as an elite fantasy team defense, and finished 2021 as a unit that could put up a good result against weakened offenses like the Ravens, Browns, and Titans, but otherwise wasn't very useful for us. The defense did lead the league in sacks but was in the bottom 10 in yards allowed, thanks to a leaky performance against the run, the worst in the NFL. They'll have to rely on Akhello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace at outside corner, but as long as key pieces like Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt stay healthy, they'll still be a good matchup play. Cincinnati Week 1 is a tough draw, but if the Steelers are on the waiver wire for Week 2 against New England, they'll be worth a pickup if they aren't overdrafted on reputation and name value.
For much of the last decade, the defensive line has been the foundation of a perennially strong Steelers defense. Pittsburgh led the league in sacks for the fifth consecutive year and finished among the Top 12 versus the pass. One big difference from previous years, this unit plummeted from the top-fifteen to the basement versus the run. Injuries significantly contributed to the slide as the team lost Stephon Tuitt before the season and Tyson Alualu in week two. If they can stay healthy up front, look for a strong rebound. In Cameron Heyward, the Steelers have a prototypical 3-4 end who can control the line of scrimmage to keep the linebackers clean and get after the passer. Heyward averaged almost ten sacks per season from 2017 through 2019 before falling off sharply in 2020. He rebounded last year, tying his career-best in tackles and adding nine more sacks. The Steelers do not rotate much, so Heyward has a lot of mileage on him for a 33-year-old, yet he still had fuel in the tank. The other spot will be manned by a rotation of unproven players as the Steelers had stalwart Stephon Tuitt retire in the offseason. Chris Wormley replaced Tuitt last season and was a solid addition, totaling seven sacks. His skill set is a great fit for what the Steelers like to do. The team signed Larry Ogunjobi after Tuitt retired, and he could share the vacated role with Wormley, if not have the starter's job to himself.
A lack of depth along the defensive line bit the Steelers in 2021. The team learned last year that Isaiah Loudermilk is an adequate backup but a considerable step down from a healthy Wormley and Alualu. To ensure no repeat, the team stocked up on veterans and rookie bodies. Between Loudermilk, Montravius Adams, and rookie DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers have a shelf full of options to plug in, but no one with obvious potential to be a long-term starter. They hope Leal will possibly be that guy. Leal is the prototypical Steelers defensive end prospect. He has the body type at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds and the production while in school. Leal played mostly tackle at Texas A&M, where he was a solid run defender with a little more juice as a pass rusher than most interior linemen, totaling 58 tackles and 8.5 sacks as a junior in 2021.
When the Steelers selected Devin Bush at ten overall in 2019, they thought he would be their leader at inside linebacker for years to come. Bush played the part as a rookie in 2019, but since suffering an ACL injury in October of 2020, he has not been the same. It might be a case where he just needs two years to fully recover, but his part-time role in 2021, along with the team's decision not to exercise Bush's fifth-year contract option, and the free-agent addition of Myles Jack, are telltale signs that the organization does not expect him to be that guy. Jack was signed in hope that he could step up and be the leader in the middle. His time in Jacksonville was filled with ups and downs and unfulfilled expectations. Much of Jack's struggle with his previous team was due to coaching and an unwillingness to put him in a position to take advantage of his skill set. Jack's game came to life when he was finally moved to the weak side, where he belonged in 2020. It remains to be seen if he will adapt well to playing inside in the Steelers 3-4, but he did not look all that good when Jacksonville went to a 3-4 last year. The Steelers have so much success getting to the passer because everyone contributes. They got 22 sacks from the defensive line in 2021, but the legacy of outstanding linebacker play sets the stage for this defense. T.J. Watt is not just part of that legacy, he may be the best of it. Watt has recorded at least 14 sacks in four consecutive seasons and has only been in the league for five. Watt also boasts 22 forced fumbles, 7 recoveries, and 4 interceptions over his relatively brief career to date. He is 27 years old and is entering the prime of his career. Watt has set new career marks in sacks in every season of his career so far. If that trend continues, he will be the record holder at the end of this season. The organization is still looking for a breakout season from Alex Highsmith. He showed signs as a first-time starter in 2021, holding up well at the point of attack and contributing six sacks. The team remains committed to Highsmith, who could be in line for that breakout in 2022.
While the team may not be fully settled on their long-term answer at inside linebacker, they are in good shape for depth with Robert Spillane on the roster. Spillane has seen a lot of action as an injury replacement over the last two seasons, starting multiple games and playing rather well for the most part. So much so that it would not be a shock to see him take significant snaps from Bush this year, especially in passing situations. Ulysses Gilbert and Marcus Allen have been with the team long enough to know they are career backups and special teams contributors, but the jury is still out on last year's fourth-round pick, Buddy Johnson, who rarely got on the field as a rookie. Pittsburgh has some depth at the inside linebacker positions but is shaky at the top. On the outside, it is just the opposite. There are no questions about Watt and Highsmith being long-term cornerstones. However, if one of those guys were to go down, there is not much behind them. The top two backups are Denver's 2020 seventh-round pick Derrick Tuszuka who could not stick with the Broncos, and career backup Genard Avery. Avery has not played in a 3-4 scheme over his four years as a pro and has seven and a half career sacks, most of which came when he was a rookie in 2018.
- FS Minkah Fitzpatrick, SS Terrell Edmunds, CB Levi Wallace, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Ahkello Witherspoon
- SS Miles Killebrew, SS/FS Karl Joseph, FS Damontae Kazee, CB Arthur Maulet, CB Justin Layne, CB James Pierre, CB/FS Tre Norwood, CB Linden Stephen
When looking at Pittsburgh's secondary on paper, one might wonder how they even managed to be middle of the pack versus the pass in 2021. It shows that it's easier to cover receivers when your front seven is all over the quarterback. Besides free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has become a do-everything playmaker since joining the team, this group is void of star power. Strong safety Terrell Edmunds is a former first-round pick that has been a steady starter since 2018 but has not fully lived up to expectations. The organization did not think enough of him to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. Edmunds might be in danger of losing the starting job if there were anyone on the roster capable of challenging. Levi Wallace, Cameron Sutton, and Ahkello Witherspoon are all decent corners, suited for the number two or three roles. With Joe Haden gone, one must step up to number one. Chances are that will be Sutton since Witherspoon has never been able to stay healthy, and Wallace is more of a slot guy.
When your starters are questionable, chances are good that depth will also be an issue. To their credit, the Steelers have good veteran depth with plenty of starting experience at safety. Karl Joseph is another former first-round pick that has not stepped up at the pro level. If anyone were going to push Edmunds for the job, Joseph would be the favorite to do so. Free safety Damontae Kazee is a former corner turned safety. He will back up Fitzgerald initially but could eventually find playing time as a slot corner/third-safety. At the corner position, Art Maulet, Justin Layne, Tre Norwood, and James Pierre are all guys that have seen playing time over the last two seasons and are solid backups. The good news is, it would not be a huge step down from one of the starters to any of these guys in the event of an injury. Unfortunately, that is bad news as well.