Over the next few weeks, Steel City Underground will take a look at the upcoming 2020-21 NFL regular season, and the opponents the Pittsburgh Steelers will face, by quarters. This week we preview NFL Weeks 5-8.
Week Five: Steelers vs Philadelphia Eagles
The last time the Steelers went head-to-head with the Eagles during the NFL regular season, in a "Battle for Pennsylvania", was on September 25, 2016, at Lincoln Financial Field. The Steelers entered the game with a 2-1 record and were dominated by the Eagles, 34-3. It was an especially tough day for Ben Roethlisberger as he faced overwhelming pressure from Philadelphia, being sacked four times and throwing an interception. Pittsburgh also lost one fumble out of two that were created by the Eagles defense. Meanwhile, the Eagles' offensive line kept quarterback Carson Wentz clean as he completed 23-of-31 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Placekicker Chris Boswell scored the only points for Pittsburgh that day with a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter. Although the Eagles were hot against the Steelers that day, they'd slide into a slump at the end of the regular season and finish fourth in their division.
Last Season Records: Steelers (8-8), Eagles (9-7)
Although Philadelphia only won one game more than Pittsburgh did during the 2019 regular season, they finished ranked first in the NFC East division. They lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card round of the playoffs. Wentz led the Eagles in passing air yards in 2019 with 2235 in what many considered a comeback year for the young quarterback.
During the 2020 NFL Draft, the Eagles selected the following players: Jalen Reagor (WR, TCU), Jalen Hurts (QB, Oklahoma), Davion Taylor (OLB, Colorado), K’Von Wallace (S, Clemson), Jack Driscoll (OT, Auburn), John Hightower (WR, Boise State), Shaun Bradley (LB, Temple), Quez Watkins (WR, Southern Mississippi), Prince Tega Wanogho (OT, Auburn), and Casey Toohill (OLB, Stanford).
The Eagles wanted to surround Wentz with more weapons and were able to do that by selecting Reagor in the first round of the draft. Reagor led the Big 12 with 14 touchdowns in his last season at TCU and everyone is hoping he'll have an instant rapport with Wentz. In later rounds, the Eagles grabbed Hightower and Watkins. The additions look to give the Eagles speed at the receiver position and some versatility on special teams as Reagor and Hightower both have experience as returners. By utilizing a two tight-end set so often in their offense, it became clear that Philly wanted 'burners' to stretch the field against opposing defenses. Watkins, who ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the Combine led Conference USA with 1,178 receiving yards.
On Day Two, the Eagles used their second pick of the Draft to add Hurts. This sparked a social media storm as speculation about the future of Wentz in Philly was questioned and speculated about. Wentz has suffered a number of injuries. Nick Foles is no longer there to back him up and has moved around before settling down with the Chicago Bears for the 2020 season. Backup, Josh McCown, only saw action in three games last season... and it was very limited. Whether the Eagles would utilize Hurts and Wentz on the field at the same time is speculative at this point.
Taylor, Bradley, and Toohill were added as players of need in a position that was of concern for the Eagles.
Week Six: Steelers vs Cleveland Browns
After enduring nearly nonstop hype over how good the Browns would be (remember the cries that they'd finally get to the Super Bowl?), and the nearby Ohio fans who kept talking and talking, Pittsburgh ended up splitting the series last season. During the Week 11 meeting at FirstEnergy Stadium, Mason Rudolph struggled behind poor offensive line play. And then, after both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson were forced into the concussion protocol due to helmet-to-helmet contact by Browns defenders, the now-infamous Myles Garrett helmet attack on Rudolph happened with just eight seconds left in the game, down by three touchdowns. The Steelers would like to avoid that kind of fireworks in their first showdown with their division rivals early in the 2020 season.
Last Season Records: Steelers (8-8), Browns (6-10)
During the 2020 NFL Draft, the Browns selected the following players: Jedrick Wills (OT, Alabama), Grant Delpit (S, LSU), Jordan Elliot (DT, Missouri), Jacob Phillips (LB, LSU), Harrison Bryant (TE, Florida Atlantic), Nick Harris (C, Washington), and Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR, Michigan).
As the new general manager, Andrew Berry negotiated two trades, added seven players to the team, and garnered a draft pick for the Browns' 2021 class. The Browns finished their 2018 campaign with a No. 2 ranked offensive line per Pro Football Focus as a result of play from Joel Bitonio, Kevin Zeitler, and J.C. Tretter. When John Dorsey traded Zeitler, there was no backup plan for the right guard position. Greg Robinson (left tackle) had a team-high 11 penalties, and the guards on the right side of the line (Wyatt Teller, Chris Hubbard, and Eric Kush) all struggled throughout the season to keep opponents out of the offensive backfield and away from Baker Mayfield. Right tackle Kendall Lamm played in just three games due to injury. That Cleveland selected Wills as their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft was no surprise. The Browns wanted someone to pair with free-agent signee Jack Conklin, and Wills, who played right tackle in college, will likely be moved to the left side.
The Browns added Austin Hooper via free agency and gave Mayfield two more weapons on offense in Bryant and Peoples-Jones. Defensively, the Browns needed help in their backfield and were quick to take one of the top safeties on the board in Delpit while collecting a fifth-round pick due to trading back three spots with the Indianapolis Colts. Behind Sheldrick Redwine, Andrew Sendejo, and Karl Joseph, Delpit should have time to pick up the system and speed of the NFL.
Week Seven: Steelers at Baltimore Ravens
In a year that looked like the Steelers might take their division, it was the rivals from Maryland, led by young, enigmatic quarterback Lamar Jackson (NFL MVP via the Associated Press) that stormed to the front of the pack. Baltimore finished the regular season with a 14-2 win/loss record and entered the postseason by facing-off with the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round, losing by a score of 28-12. The Steelers lost in overtime in their first meeting with the Ravens last season. In their final game of the 2019-20 regular season, the Ravens also walked away as victors. That's something Pittsburgh would like to remedy in the upcoming season.
Last Season Records: Steelers (8-8), Ravens (14-2)
During the 2020 NFL Draft, the Ravens selected the following players: Patrick Queen (LB, LSU), J.K. Dobbins (RB, Ohio State), Justin Madubuike (DT, Texas A&M), Devin Duvernay (WR, Texas), Malik Harrison (LB, Ohio State), Tyre Phillips (OT, Mississippi State), Ben Bredeson (OG, Michigan), Broderick Washington Jr. (DT, Texas Tech), James Proche (WR, SMU), and Geno Stone (S, Iowa).
When Marshal Yanda retired after the Ravens' loss to the Titans, Baltimore's draft team knew they'd need to shore up their offensive line but that wasn't their primary focus. In fact, they looked toward the other side of the ball, so to speak, and picked Queen who was the second-leading tackler in his first full season as a starter at LSU, helping the Tigers to the national championship game. Inside linebacker was one of the areas many experts felt the Ravens needed to address immediately.
"We tried to draft the best players that checked off the most boxes that could help us right away and also long-term... in most cases, you’re always going to have a hole that kind of stays open. But, we’ll continue to try and fill those holes." - Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta
After drafting for need, Baltimore turned to find valuable depth on both lines as well as adding targets and playmakers on offense. Dobbins will get a chance to compete in camp with Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. Duvernay was an underrated receiver that could help Jackson stretch the field and Harrison's physical play should assist Baltimore's pressure-first defense. Thanks to two late trades (with the Minnesota Vikings for the No. 201 and 219 picks), the Ravens scooped up Proche and Stone who help balance out and fill holes that DeCosta and the Baltimore staff were concerned about.
The Ravens appear to be in a "win-now" mentality heading into the 2020 regular season - not unlike the Steelers. That makes this first game between the two rivals one that absolutely will be a must-watch for AFC North fans.