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Fantasy Opportunity Spotlight: Pittsburgh Steelers

A team-by-team analysis of coaches’ tendencies and using them to help create realistic fantasy football projections. @TubaDeus takes a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Welcome to the new home of my yearly Fantasy Opportunity series! For those who didn’t see this series on Reddit last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill analyst. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously, individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.

As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.

Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.

Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last Year’s Accuracy

Total PlaysRush Attempts (Rush %)Passing Plays (Pass %) – Includes SacksSacks Allowed (Sack %)WR Targets (WR Target %)RB Targets (RB Target %)TE Targets (TE Target %)
2020 Projections1010395 (39.1%)615 (60.9%)25 (4.1%)360 (61.0%)110 (18.6%)105 (17.8%)
2020 Stats1043373 (35.8%)670 (64.2%)14 (2.1%)459 (70.0%)80 (12.2%)113 (17.2%)
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.

Coaching Changes

It has to hurt that a season that started with so much promise ended in absolute heartbreak. After an 11-0 start, the Steelers went 1-4 the rest of the way, including a loss to the rival Browns while resting starters in week 17. That last loss in particular has to sting as the Browns ended up beating Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round the very next week. Head coach Mike Tomlin will stick around (and, in fact, just signed an extension), as will defensive coordinator Keith Butler for leading the defense to a second straight top 5 finish. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was not so lucky as he will be replaced by promoted quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

Steelers promote QBs coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Coaching History

This will be the first time Canada will call the shots on offense at the NFL level. For that matter, this is only his second season in the NFL at all after joining the Steelers’ staff last year. However, he is still a seasoned offensive coordinator; he spent most of the last 25 years as the offensive coordinator for 8 different college teams. The one constant between them all? Canada really wants to run the ball. His offenses haven’t fallen below a 55% run rate in the last 10 years. Canada doesn’t leave the running just to the running backs, either; he likes to get his wide receivers involved on jet sweeps, too.

While he’s happy to get wideouts involved in the run game, he tends not to favor them in the passing game. Sure, sometimes his personnel calls for it, but he’s one of the very few college coaches who actually has a strong history of getting tight ends involved in the passing game. The position group frequently commands over 20% of the receptions in his offenses. His running backs also consistently post strong target share numbers, having dropped below 15% only once in the last 10 years.

Looking Ahead

While first round rookie Najee Harris certainly possesses the skill set to carry the running backs to a solid group target share, the tight ends likely do not possess enough talent to compete with one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL. Canada will probably try to get the tight ends involved as much as he can, but he may find it tough to justify extensive usage. Expect the wide receivers to continue to see a larger than average target share, but it should be pretty significantly reduced from last year as the running backs (and tight ends, to a much less extent) chip away at it.

Steelers trio of wide receivers could 'reshape the NFL'
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Of course, all the receiving numbers will be hurt if Canada installs a more run heavy scheme like he used at all his college stops. After posting the second highest pass rate in the NFL last year, the Steelers are likely to run at a higher than league average rate in 2021. The only real limitation for the running game is going to be the offensive line. After ranking as one of the worst run blocking units in the league last year, Pittsburgh allowed several of their starters to walk this offseason in free agency. On the one hand, it makes sense to move on from players who are clearly underperforming. On the other, it might be rough plugging in rookies to replace them. It’s possible the offensive line won’t be worse, but they’re not likely to be much better, either.

The offensive line wasn’t the only unit hit hard by free agency; the defense lost several high priced starters as well. At least the defense remained a top 5 unit for the second year in a row, so while the defections will hurt, they shouldn’t cripple the unit. Expect Pittsburgh to once again boast one of the better defenses in the league, which should help get the ball back into the offense’s hands quickly.

2021 Projections

Total PlaysRush Attempts (Rush %)Passing Plays (Pass %) – Includes SacksSacks Allowed (Sack %)WR Targets (WR Target %)RB Targets (RB Target %)TE Targets (TE Target %)
2020 Stats1043373 (35.8%)670 (64.2%)14 (2.1%)459 (70.0%)80 (12.2%)113 (17.2%)
2021 Projections (17 Games)1085485 (44.7%)600 (55.3%)19 (3.2%)344 (59.2%)115 (19.8%)112 (19.3%)

Previous Entry: Philadelphia Eagles

Next Entry: San Francisco 49ers

Find this article helpful? You can follow me on Twitter and Reddit as @TubaDeus, though I spend most of my time on Discord.

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