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Team Previews

Steelers Fantasy Preview

by Nick Mensio
Updated On: July 25, 2021, 3:45 pm ET

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2020 Stats (Rank)

Total Offense: 5,354 (25th)

Offensive Touchdowns: 47 (13th)

Offensive Plays: 1,043 (11th)

Pass Attempts + Sacks: 670 (2nd)

Rush Attempts: 373 (28th)

Unaccounted for Targets: 63 (24th)

Unaccounted for Carries: 169 (8th)

 

Coaching Staff

Hired ahead of the 2007 season, Mike Tomlin is the league’s third-longest-tenured head coach, behind only Bill Belichick and Sean Payton. His .656 winning percentage trails only Belichick and Sean McVay among active coaches. But Tomlin hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016, and his Steelers lost in the Wild Card round to the division-rival Browns last season despite Pittsburgh starting its season 11-0 before losing five of its last six contests. The offense completely flatlined over the second half of last season. Tomlin’s name has been on the hot seat a couple times over the last half-decade, but the Rooney’s believe in him and handed him a three-year extension through 2024 this offseason. Continuity at the top has been the mantra in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers have only had three different head coaches over the last 50 years. However, after the Steelers’ offensive collapse last season, OC Randy Fichtner didn’t have his contract renewed, and the team promoted QBs coach Matt Canada to OC. This has long been Ben Roethlisberger’s offense as an “OC” on the field under center. Big Ben really calls the shots. Canada was the Steelers’ QBs coach for one season after coaching in the college ranks from 1994-2018 across various stops. He at least brings a fresh perspective to the offense. On defense, DC Keith Butler enters his sixth season in that position. Butler’s defense was No. 1 in DVOA last season and is the backbone of the team with Big Ben’s career winding down.

 

Passing Game

QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins

WR: Diontae Johnson, James Washington

WR: Chase Claypool, Ray-Ray McCloud

WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster

TE: Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Kevin Rader

 

Injured in Week 2 of the 2019 season, Big Ben returned to start every game and finished third in the league in pass attempts with 33 touchdowns, the second-most of his career. The Steelers flew out of the gates to an 11-0 start to the season, but the wheels fell off the rest of the way, losing five of their last six games as the offense flatlined. Ben’s 6.3 yards per attempt was 29th in the NFL. Big Ben essentially begged the Steelers to let him come back for another season, saying he’d basically play for free. OC Randy Fichtner was fired after the playoff loss, and QBs coach Matt Canada was promoted to fill the space. It’s always going to be Big Ben’s offense, for better or worse. The only notable offensive addition was first-round RB Najee Harris. The offensive line looks to be one of the worst in the league following so much turnover. Not good for a statuesque Big Ben with no movement skills. With no rushing floor to speak of, Roethlisberger should be treated as a low-end QB2 in fantasy. In a stronger division, it’s possible Big Ben will again be among the league leaders in attempts, but the ownership group has already stated they want the Steelers to run the ball more. Easier said than done in today’s NFL, but the team is constructed to play defense and run it to “try” to win.

Chase Claypool opened the year behind James Washington, but that didn’t last long, as Claypool became the first rookie in NFL history to score 10 touchdowns across his first 10 games. He also averaged a ludicrous 14.1 yards per catch and totaled 10 designed rushing attempts from the receiver spot. There’s plenty of meat left on the bone of Claypool’s 13.4 fantasy points per game since coach Mike Tomlin admitted to scaling Claypool’s snaps back from Week 12 forward as a way to keep Claypool from hitting “the rookie wall.” That predictably coincided with the Steelers’ losing ways. Claypool should open the year in 11 personnel ahead of Washington from Week 1. Anything resembling the six targets per game and three carries he received inside the 10-yard line during the first half of the season would stamp Claypool as a steal in his current back-end WR3 range. Fantasy players should consider Claypool a high-floor, high-ceiling option who could potentially surge above his current ADP.

Diontae Johnson truly emerged with the league’s eighth-most targets (144) as a sophomore, recording a team-high 26.3% target share and 10.4 targets per game in the 13 starts he avoided injury or being benched. Pittsburgh invested in a first-round running back and a third-round center, suggesting last year’s league-low run-play rate from neutral game script will flip in order to keep 39-year-old Roethlisberger fully healthy deep into the year. With the same starting receivers and tight end slated to return this year, it’s not as much a question of Johnson’s opportunity as it is the volume (or lack thereof) that would be available if the Steelers run the ball more. Claypool taking on more of a second-year role could also hurt Johnson. Johnson should still be considered a matchup-proof WR2 destined to lead the team in targets again.

Two years removed from playing across from Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh’s offense, 24-year-old Smith-Schuster again underwhelmed with a career-low 6.5 yards per target last season, failing to record 100 yards in any start. Though he lacked a ceiling, his consistent opportunity of eight targets per game kept his weekly floor high. JuJu shockingly agreed to return to the Steelers on a one-year, $8 million contract after a failed trial on the market where he spurned the Ravens and Chiefs to come back to Pittsburgh. He’ll reportedly play on the boundary to make room for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool in the slot this upcoming year, which would move JuJu further from the line of scrimmage. It could help JuJu’s playmaking numbers but would likely lead to fewer targets per game in an offense that wants to run the ball more. Even if he replicated his 19.6% target share from last year, it’s hard to imagine Smith-Schuster offering a ceiling as the inferior talent in his own offense. His weekly floor still offers fantasy players points in a pinch as a WR3/FLEX option.

Washington worked as Pittsburgh’s fourth wideout much of last season, catching 30-of-56 targets for 392 yards and a career-high five touchdowns. Washington’s outlook was much more favorable before JuJu Smith-Schuster agreed to return on a one-year contract, keeping Washington as the low man on the Steelers’ totem pole. With Smith-Schuster returning, Washington is stuck as a WR4 on his own team. He’d need an injury for fantasy impact.

Ebron meandered through the 2020 season like the rest of the Steelers’ pass-catchers, racking up receptions but adding little fantasy value. He finished 10th in catches but 15th in receiving yards among tight ends. Ben Roethlisberger’s aging arm kept Ebron as nothing more than a safety valve in his seventh pro season. If Ebron could barely return TE2 value last year, 2021 is not going to do him any favors. He’ll continue to face significant competition for targets, while the overall number of pass attempts will likely shrink in Pittsburgh. He isn’t anything more than a backup option or waiver wire fodder for fantasy purposes.

 

Running Game

RB: Najee Harris, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage

OL (L-R): Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, Trai Turner, Zach Banner

 

First-rounder Najee Harris (6’1/232) was a five-star high school recruit and four-year contributor for Alabama, playing behind Josh Jacobs early in his career before starting as a junior (1,224 yards and 13 TDs) and senior (1,466 yards, 26 TDs). Harris showcased three-down talent each season, ultimately earning first-team All-American and Heisman Finalist honors in 2020 after setting career highs across the board in receiving with a 43-425-4 line. Unlike many 230-pound backs, Harris exited college without much of an injury history. Although he lacks high-end speed and is old for a prospect (23), Harris’ entire profile suggests he’ll be a quality three-down player at the NFL level. Harris is the rare rookie to immediately slide into an every-down role. His surroundings are problematic — the Steelers have one of the league’s worst offensive lines experiencing turnover across all five spots up front and Ben Roethlisberger’s popgun-armed passing will invite defenses to camp out at the line — but Harris is in the right place at the right time for a team desperate to juice its rushing attack. The ownership group has already publicly stated they wanted Harris and want the Steelers to return to their glory days of running the ball down teams’ throats. Harris is a subtle runner for his formidable size, and his workload provides the RB2 floor but his special skills allow for an RB1 ceiling in an offense that wants to run it. Harris is currently coming off the board as the overall RB15 in half-PPR drafts.

Benny Snell failed to place pressure on ineffective starter James Conner, averaging a woeful 3.3 yards per carry behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. As expected, Snell did not help himself in the passing game, catching 10 passes all year. Pro Football Focus rated Snell as one of the NFL’s least “elusive” backs while also grading him with a bottom-barrel “breakaway percentage,” which measures big plays. Even in the event of a Harris injury, Snell would be a low-upside early-down committee grinder, if he even makes the team. The Steelers signed Kalen Ballage in free agency and have second-year back Anthony McFarland also on the depth chart. We know who Snell is at this stage of his career, and it’s a low-upside plodder.

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Win Total

After winning 12 games last season, the Steelers’ win total currently sits at a measly 8.5, and they’re projected to finish third in the AFC North behind the Ravens and Browns. The juice (-125) is also on the under 8.5 wins with the Steelers slated to face the league’s toughest schedule based on 2020 win percentage. After finishing first in the AFC North last year, the Steelers will draw a tougher schedule, with out-of-division road dates against the Bills, Packers, Chargers, Vikings, and Chiefs. That’s really tough. Pittsburgh gets home draws with the Raiders, Broncos, Seahawks, Bears, Lions, and Titans. There’s a real chance the Bengals finish with a better record than the Steelers. It’s hard to see the Steelers making the playoffs.

Nick Mensio

Nick Mensio has been covering the NFL for NBC Sports Edge since 2012. He can be found on Twitter at @NickMensio.