The final whistle of the Super Bowl marks the end of the 2021 season. That solidifies all draft positions and gets us looking to free agency as the next chance for teams to make significant changes to their rosters. In this series, I’ll break down the needs and goals of every team as it relates to the 2022 offseason. Included will be cap space, cut candidates, positions of need, and plenty of other useful stats and notes as we prepare for free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. Special thanks to Over the Cap, Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, and Ben Baldwin’s RBSDM.com for all of the useful stats they track and house.
Steelers 2021 Recap
Pittsburgh entered the 2021 season hoping to give Ben Roethlisberger a proper sendoff. Though his throwing arm was attached to his body via duct tape and string, the Steelers’ defense drug their quarterback and his tepid offense to a final playoff appearance. Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs made quick work of Pittsburgh in the first round of the postseason. Roethlisberger then rode off into the sunset. His departure puts the Steelers in a position to run it back with a nearly identical roster. No defense recorded more sacks than Pittsburgh and only the 49ers notched more TFLs. Their front-seven was dominant but the offense limped to the finish line. Roethlisberger posted career-lows in touchdown rate and yards per attempt while rookie running back Najee Harris was stuffed at the line of scrimmage all too frequently.
Key Offensive Stats
- Points per game: 20.2 (21st)
- Dropback EPA: -.04 (26th)
- Passing yards per game: 222 (15th)
- Rush EPA: -.08 (17th)
- Rushing yards per game: 93 (29th)
It’s difficult to judge the Steelers’ receivers because of Roethlisberger’s shortcomings but we can try. Diontae Johnson ranked 23rd in yards per route run, just behind D.K. Metcalf and Stefon Diggs. Chase Claypool was 40th and preceded by Amon-Ra St. Brown and Darnell Mooney. That looks like good company given the circumstances. The Steelers spent their first-round pick on a running back last year, choosing to create a patchwork line through recent late-round picks and free agents. They would have been better off spending more on the line and less on the back because Harris was never going to thrive behind a line than Pro Football Focus Ranked 24th in run-blocking. Harris finished 42nd out of 47 qualified running back in yards before contact per attempt.
Key Defensive Stats
- Points per game: 23.4 (20th)
- Dropback EPA: .03 (11th)
- Passing yards per game: 215 (9th)
- Rush EPA: -.02 (27th)
- Rushing yards per game: 146 (32nd)
Pittsburgh masked PFF’s 25th-ranked coverage unit with a dominant pass rush. T.J. Watt tied the record for sacks in a single season by getting to the quarterback 22.5 times. Cam Heyward also pitched in for 10 sacks of his own. The Steelers and Cardinals were the only teams to have multiple defenders reach double-digit sacks in 2021. What’s even more insane is that the Steelers have actually accomplished this feat three seasons in a row. Pittsburgh’s Achilles’ heel was their run defense. They gave up eight more 20-yard runs than any other team. Pittsburgh was the only team to allow opponents to run for five yards per carry as well.
Steelers 2022 Offseason
Total Draft Value
Notable Free Agents
Notes: Pittsburgh's total draft value is the sum of the value of every pick they own using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger NFL Draft Trade Value Chart. The values are only estimates until the NFL announces compensatory picks. Cap savings are listed assuming the player is cut before June 1st.
The Steelers are paying Banner and Haeg to be starters but neither player was able to consistently crack the lineup last year. Pittsburgh’s line performed poorly and the team can’t afford to pay players who aren’t helping in the course correction. Moving on from the lineman and Schobert alone would give them the sixth-most cap space.
Needs don’t get more obvious than this. The Steelers can’t expect to push past their Wild Card exit with Mason Rudolph under center. Rudolph has thrown 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his three years with the Steelers. He has a career average of 6.2 yards per attempt. His yards per attempt mark is slightly worse than Big Ben's over the past three years.
Harris averaged three yards after contact per attempt as a rookie. That number wasn’t stellar but it shows that he can create extra yards if given the chance. Improving on both ends of the offensive line is the only way to make the most of the team’s first-round pick from 2021.
The Steelers only had five cornerbacks play more than 100 snaps in 2021 and three are set to be free agents. Cornerback was one of the few weak points on the Steelers' defense and they are about to see a mass exodus in bodies. They will be addressing this in free agency and the draft.
Seven-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler retired in January. Secondary coach Teryl Austin was tabbed as his replacement. Austin has been with the Steelers for three years and has five years of experience as a defensive coordinator at the NFL level. With the defense humming along nicely in recent years, the team sought an in-house option to keep the ship on course. Pittsburgh also added Brian Flores to the staff, giving them even more experience on the sidelines.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is entering his second year and it's hard to say how much of the team’s 2021 performance is on his shoulders. Mike Tomlin alluded to this in a presser after the year ended, saying, “When you got red paint, you paint your barn red." Canada ran the same Roehlisbrger playbook that former OC Randy Fichtner ran before getting fired. It went as poorly as expected. With Ben watching from his couch, Canada will get to run an offense he designed. Canada was aggressive with his use of pre-snap motion, unique formations, and play fakes while in the college ranks. That all disappeared when he joined the Steelers. Getting a new quarterback will give the team an upgrade at the position, but it will also allow Canada to call the offense that allowed him to work his way up the college ranks.
The Steelers have a surprising amount of cap space for a playoff team and haven’t mortgaged their future to get there. They rank 10th in cap room and have all of their selections through the first three rounds of the draft. After that, they begin to run dry on picks but the bones of their draft remain in place. Pittsburgh has the resources and the motivation to make a significant upgrade at quarterback.
Most of the buzz surrounding quarterback trades has involved other franchises and Jimmy Garoppolo. Assuming Washington, Carolina, or some other team wins that bidding war, Pittsburgh has two options. They can add a free agent or bet on a rookie. Marcus Mariota would be an affordable, high-floor option to pursue in free agency. If Pittsburgh wants to build for the future, there are already rumblings that they like Liberty's Malik Willis.