Is the Steelers Super Bowl window closing?
With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey, talk of needing “a talk” with Ben Roethlisberger (about his contract) and a large number of players from the Steelers 2020 roster set to hit free agency, one must wonder whether or not the window for Pittsburgh to contend for another Super Bowl is closing smaller by the moment.
General Manager Kevin Colbert is working on a year-to-year basis currently with Head Coach Mike Tomlin operating into the final year of his contract as well.
With the Steelers doing the improbable, and opening their 2020 season 11-0, it felt as if it would finally be their year to hoist their 7th Lombardi Trophy. However, a late-season collapse saw them sputter toward the postseason, losing four of their last five games and getting bounced in the Wild Card game.
Eyeing a number of changes this offseason, including a new offensive coordinator plus a new quarterbacks, offensive line, and tight ends coach, the winds of change are swirling in the Steel City. But does that mean their ability to challenge for a Super Bowl trophy goes with it?
The Steelers’ Super Bowl 56 odds opened at +3000. By comparison, the Chiefs are the favorite to win: their odds are listed as +550. The Buccaneers and Packers follow after at +900 (source).
It’s a very difficult thought with an AFC North division rife with high draft picks and former Heisman Trophy winners leading each of the three opposing teams. Yet, the Steelers still showed that in 2020, with a 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, that they could sweep the Ravens and likely should’ve done similar with the Cleveland Browns, at least during a regular season finale that saw a majority of backups play.
Those backups, Mason Rudolph included, showed a lot of poise for what lies on the road ahead. It was already assumed an aging and banged-up offensive line would be a primary focus for Pittsburgh this offseason. The retirements of Pouncey and tight end Vance McDonald will help to make a push, however, to sign some key free agents that the team likely couldn’t afford anyway.
Should the salary cap be higher than anticipated, and Roethlisberger rework his contract for some cap relief, 2021 could still set the stage for the Steelers to be as competitive as they have. JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton headline a class of to-be free agents, of which if half or more are somehow retained, the Steelers team won’t be altered too much.
In fact, for what they lose, they could actually improve upon their shortcomings from last season with prudent free agent additions and lower-cost rookies coming aboard via the NFL Draft.
That may seem like crazy talk, but the Steelers were likely headed in the direction of drafting offensive linemen anyway. Getting some money on the books to bring back players such as Hilton and/or Sutton would help retain a strong secondary, while losing Dupree, all but a reality for what his market demand should be, has Alex Highsmith waiting in the wings.
Highsmith showed he’s more than capable of being a starter after a rookie season with a trial-by-fire experience replacing Dupree.
Devin Bush returns solidifying the Steelers defense which is already anchored by Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Even if Joe Haden were to retire or be released, that cap savings should be enough to slide Sutton into his place as a longer-term solution anyway.
That leaves the skill positions, where the Steelers were four-deep at wide receiver and could weather the storm if Smith-Schuster left town. The running back situation is sticky, but it already was with Conner anyway – his injuries had piled up and left the Steelers looking at different ways to replace him over the years. This offseason gives them a better head start on doing so going forward than in-season.
In all, a total makeover for the offensive line and a new look in the backfield may be what the Steelers need to get their offense back on track, while retaining as many pieces as possible on a world class defense should put them right in the thick of the AFC hunt.