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Eager: The definitive guide to why people are fading the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) look on prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 offseason has been quite fun. It started even before the 2020 season ended, with the Los Angeles Rams trading Jared Goff and a bunch of assets to the Detroit Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers then followed their Super Bowl 55 win against the Kansas City Chiefs by bringing literally every single player back, while the Chiefs responded to losing the same game by completely revamping their offensive line, spending a pretty penny asset-wise to do so.

The San Francisco 49ers stuck their neck out to draft Justin Fields Mac Jones Trey Lance out of North Dakota State, a decision that was, after much consternation, overshadowed on draft night by Aaron Rodgers‘ alleged discontent with the Green Bay Packers, which continues to this day. Meanwhile, star wide receiver Julio Jones, possibly the best receiver of his era,  is also on the trade block, which goes to show that the NFL is now a 12-month league, with entertainment lasting the whole calendar year.

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One of the low-key bigger stories in the NFL is one that has spilled over from the final two months of the 2020 season. As many know, my podcast co-host George Chahrouri made waves when he said that the 10-0 Pittsburgh Steelers were the most overrated team in the NFL (for the record, I said it was the Philadelphia Eagles, who, like the Steelers, won just one game thereafter).

Now-Tennessee Titan Bud Dupree was not happy with the tweet, predicting that the opinion of someone who has never played organized football couldn’t and wouldn’t be right.

Everyone (with the exception of Steelers fans, apparently) remembers what happened next. After barely beating an RG3-led Baltimore Ravens team on a COVID-stricken Wednesday afternoon game, the Steelers lost five of their next six games, including a loss to a Washington team led by Alex Smith and a Bengals team quarterbacked by Ryan Finley before a blowout playoff loss to an injury-plagued Cleveland Browns team at home in which they gave up 48 points and 390 yards of total offense.

The Steelers’ finish, coupled with the loss of starters Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva and James Conner, followed by a draft in which they spent their first two picks on a running back and a middling tight end, has many down on a team that is coming off a 12-4 season and a division title. Our simulation, which uses a combination of our grades, power ratings and market-implied data, has the Steelers repeating for the division title just 10% of the time, making the playoffs just 27% of the time and winning an average of 7.6 games.

The above, as well some attempts at humor on the part of our social group, has led many to believe that PFF has a bone to pick with the Steelers.

In this article, I will get more serious than the tweet above and lay out the reason for fading Pittsburgh in 2021. Enjoy!

You’re not actually fading the Steelers, as the market is already down on them

Here’s the thing, PFF is not the only entity that is down on Pittsburgh. The betting markets — we’ll use DraftKings Sportsbook as a reference point here — are mostly in alignment with where we are on Pittsburgh in 2021.

The Steelers’ win total is currently 8.5 (-110 to both sides), meaning that the market believes that Pittsburgh has an equal chance of being an above-0.500 team as it does being a below-0.500 team. The latter outcome would be the first sub-0.500 season of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as the Steelers’ head coach, which might explain why both Steelers fans and (strangely) members of their media have been so incredulous at the idea that they would struggle this year.

Pittsburgh hasn’t made the playoffs consistently in recent years, doing so just once in the last three seasons. The market believes that they are more likely to miss the tournament again (-210, 67.7% break-even probability) than make it (+170, 37.0% break-even probability).

While the seven-team format should make it easier than normal for a long-standing contender like the Steelers to make it, the AFC is pretty stacked, with the market liking Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cleveland, New England, Miami, Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Tennessee to make the playoffs more than they do Pittsburgh.

When it comes to repeating as division champs, the Steelers are considered third, behind the Ravens (+125) and the Browns (+145), with odds of +400 (break-even 20%). These are the lowest current odds to repeat as division champions on the board, as even Seattle (+300) has a better chance to repeat in a stacked NFC West than the Steelers do in the North.

Lastly, QB Ben Roethlisberger, despite a below-average season efficiency-wise in 2020, was touted by many as a Comeback Player of the Year and MVP candidate during the Steelers' early undefeated run. No such touting is happening this offseason, as his odds to win MVP are currently 100/1, lower than a pretty, let's say, interesting list of NFL quarterbacks:

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