’Tis the season for NFL analysts to make their 2021 season predictions. But if you’re looking for the Pittsburgh Steelers on those lists, you won’t often find them.
For example, on Wednesday six representatives from Pro Football Talk (PFT) made their 2021 season predictions, and none of the six included the Steelers among their projected AFC playoff teams. Yet all six included both the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns among their AFC playoff representatives, with an even split among those choosing the Ravens and Browns as AFC North division champs.
And PFT is not alone.
Analytics-Driven Analysts Don’t Much Like the Steelers, Either
NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund projects the Steelers at 8.4 wins, with the Browns at 10.9, the Ravens at 10.8 and the Bengals bringing up the rear in the division with 5.8 victories.
Then there’s Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics, who used ESPN’s Football Power Index to simulate the 285-game NFL schedule 20,000 times. The good news is that Walder has the Steelers as the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. The bad news is that the simulations have the Steelers losing to the No. 3 seeded Browns 35-30 in the first round of the postseason.
Meanwhile, Pro Football Focus’ power rankings have the Ravens at No. 4 with a 5% probability of winning the Super Bowl, while PFF has the Browns at No. 8 (with a 6% chance of emerging victorious in Super Bowl LVI). This as compared to the No. 13 ranked Steelers, who are given a 1% chance of realizing their ultimate goal.
PFF also simulated the 2021 season 10,000 times using its rating system and player grades. It has the Steelers winning an average of 7.6 games and making the playoffs 26.9% of the time, coming away with the division title 9.6% of the time, while reaching and winning the Super Bowl 1.7% and 0.7% of the time, respectively.
By way of comparison, PFF has both Baltimore and Cleveland among its top six teams, with the Browns averaging 10.2 wins and the Ravens 9.7.
PFF also has the Browns as the class of the AFC North, at least in terms of potential playoff performance. That’s thanks to its 72.7% playoff rate and the fact that simulations resulted in Cleveland winning the division 46.3% of the time. The Browns also reached the Super Bowl in 14% of PFF’s simulated seasons, winning the Big Game 7% of the time. In fact, they were the fifth-most frequent simulated Super Bowl champion (behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills).
Old School Media Ignoring the Steelers, Too
As for ESPN, it ranks the Steelers No. 17 among the league’s 32 teams, a far cry from the No. 4 ranked Ravens and No. 6 ranked Browns (but ahead of the No. 27 Bengals).
And in his latest Football Morning in America column, Peter King likes the Browns to win the AFC North, with Baltimore as an AFC Wild Card team. King leaves the door open for the Steelers to possibly exceed expectations, though. “It won’t surprise me to see Ben Roethlisberger play great and the Steelers win 11,” King writes. “The neophyte offensive line is the key there.”
Only John Breech of CBS Sports likes the Steelers to win its division. “Everyone is sleeping on the Steelers, except for me, because I don’t sleep,” quipped Breech in an article where all six other analysts picked the Browns. “This team won the division last year and I’m expecting it to repeat as champs in 2021,” he concludes.
Pittsburgh’s 2021 Season Hinges on Quarterback, Offensive Line Play
But as King noted, Pittsburgh will go only as far as its offensive line allows. Not only does the line feature four new starters, two of the newcomers are rookies and one—left guard Kevin Dotson—is entering his second season. It may be a lot to ask a rookie third-rounder (Kendrick Green) to start at center and a rookie fourth-round pick (Dan Moore Jr.) to hold down the left tackle job.
The other issue is whether Roethlisberger, 39, can still play like something approaching a franchise quarterback. Roethlisberger was still good enough to win AFC Offensive Player of the Week last November, but he looked completely washed up by the end of the 2020 campaign, after the physical wear and tear of a long season had clearly taken its toll.
It probably doesn’t help that the season is longer than ever this year, and it remains an open question whether his young, inexperienced offensive line can keep him from finishing the season as the most sacked quarterback in NFL history, a two-man race between himself Tom Brady, who is five years older and has been in the league three years longer.
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