Projecting 2021 Playoff Teams: Who’s In? Cardinals. Who’s Out? Steelers

Since 2015, an average of six teams that missed the playoffs one year made it the next. Last season, the Steelers, Browns, Colts, Football Team, Buccaneers and Bears were the 2019 non-playoff teams that reached the postseason (granted, they did expand the playoffs to fit in two additional teams).

This is the second in a series of stories in which we’ll highlight five 2020 non-playoff teams that we think will make the playoffs in 2021 – along with five 2020 playoff teams that we expect to miss the postseason this year.

Part 1: Dolphins in, Bears out

Miss the Playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers

The AFC North has been one of the most inequitable divisions in all of football since the realignment. Either the Steelers or Ravens have won the division in 15 of the last 19 seasons. The shifting of the Steelers/Ravens dominance of the North started last season and played out in the playoffs, as the Browns beat the Steelers after an historic collapse. The Steelers started the 2020 season 11-0 before their loss to Washington in Week 13. From there, they lost five of their last six games, culminating in their 48-37 playoff loss. Now, in 2021, they will face the league’s hardest schedule while seeing improvements from every team in their division this offseason.

The Steelers haven’t finished below .500 since 2003, when they went 6-10, which led to them drafting Ben Roethlisberger with the No. 11 pick. In his career, the Steelers QB has never had a losing season, and he’s made the playoffs in 11 of his 17 seasons. But this season will be different, with Roethlisberger coming off a year that featured his second most pass attempts ever but his fewest passing yards (at least 13 games) since 2008. The 2020 season resulted in Roethlisberger’s lowest yards per attempt of his career (with more than two starts in a season) and almost a full yard less than his second-lowest (6.3 to 7.0). Over his last four games, including the playoff game, Roethlisberger averaged 48 pass attempts a game, with two games under 190 total passing yards and 7 total INTs.

As Roethlisberger’s play declines, he’ll also be tasked with playing behind an offensive line that lost its starting LT, LG, and C from 2020: LT Alejandro Villanueva (100% of 2020 snaps), LG Matt Feiler (77.2% of 2020 snaps) and C Maurkice Pouncey (78.9% of 2020 snaps) will be elsewhere in 2021. The Steelers allowed the fewest sacks per game last season but struggled to run the ball effectively (32nd in rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt). Despite the holes left on the OL, they selected RB Najee Harris in the first round. Harris should improve their running game but could struggle to get push from the line.

The third-ranked defense in the league in points against and total yards will bring back some key players, but Pittsburgh will be losing EDGE Bud Dupree (59.1% of snaps), LB Vince Williams (65.2%), CB Steven Nelson (88.1%) and NB Mike Hilton (45%). The Steelers defense was by far the best in the league through their undefeated streak, allowing over 21 points just three times in 11 games). Yet, after Week 12, they struggled to keep the ball out of the end zone, with every opponent putting up at least 21 points to finish off the year. They forced the second most turnovers in the league with 27, but only 4 of them came in their final six outings.

At the end of the day, the Steelers will have to trust a 39-year-old QB who struggled down the stretch last season to make enough plays with good weapons around him. All the offense needs to do is score enough for their possible top-tier defense to take over. Only five QBs in the history of the NFL started at 39 years old or older and won at least eight games (Tom Brady has done it five times, Drew Brees three times, Brett Favre twice, Warren Moon and Philip Rivers once each).


Make the Playoffs: +137

Miss the Playoffs: -167

Make the Playoffs: Arizona Cardinals

Last season, the Cardinals finished with an 8-8 record, good for third in the NFC West – arguably the toughest division in the NFL. In two years with Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury in charge, Arizona has improved steadily – a far cry from the 2018 squad that went 3-13 with Steve Wilks at HC and Josh Rosen and Sam Bradford at QB. In 2019, Murray and Kingsbury’s first year in Arizona, they went 5-10-1 on the way to becoming a .500 team last season. Not only has their record improved, but they have improved their offense in terms of points scored every season:

2018 Scoring Offense: 32nd

2019 Scoring Offense: 16th

2020 Scoring Offense: 13th

With the majority of their holes coming into 2021 being on the defensive side, they made a concerted effort to improve on every level. On the DL, they added Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and will also have outside linebacker Chandler Jones back after he missed all of 2020 with injury. In 2019, Jones was second in the NFL in sacks with 19, and first in forced fumbles with 8.

This offseason, Arizona lost breakout pass rusher Haason Reddick, who led the 2020 team in sacks and forced fumbles. In order to secure the middle of the field on defense, they spent their first-round pick on LB Zaven Collins, who will start at MIKE linebacker alongside 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons. The pairing is the largest in the NFL in terms of height, with Collins standing as the tallest off-ball linebacker in the NFL at 6-5, 259 pounds, and Simmons measuring at 6-4, 238. They are hoping to bring length and versatility to a linebacking corps that had the fifth-most missed tackles against passing plays last season. Collins and Simmons both have shown the ability to cover and tackle effectively, and have a high ceiling as cost-controlled, versatile weapons for Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense.

With the loss of Patrick Peterson in free agency, Arizona brought in former Titans CB Malcolm Butler to fill the void. Last season, despite seeing 37 more targets than Peterson, Butler allowed a lower completion percentage, less total TDs, a lower QB rating against and a lower first-down/TD percentage in primary coverage. This swap of Butler for Peterson could be an unexpected upgrade for a Cardinals defense that ranked 18th in INTs in 2020.

On offense, the Cardinals were a top-7 team in total yards and top 15 in points scored last season. This offseason, they lost starting RB Kenyan Drake, but brought in ex-Steelers RB James Conner. Their top 10 rushing offense could suffer a bit, but they counteracted the loss of Drake by drastically improving the offensive line. The Cardinals traded for C Rodney Hudson, signed RG Brian Winters and re-signed starting RT Kelvin Beachum. Hudson has been the best pass blocking center in the NFL over the past four years, per PFF’s Pass Blocking grades. He has only allowed one sack for every 1,148 pass blocking snaps since 2015, per PFF. To put that into context, Hudson had 646 pass blocking snaps in 2020. That means that basically Hudson allows a sack in pass protection only once every two years.

The Cardinals also made transactions to improve their passing game (17th in the NFL in yards) by adding veteran WR A.J. Green in free agency and dynamic playmaker Rondale Moore in the draft. Green should bring a big-bodied WR opposite DeAndre Hopkins with experience making plays for young QBs. In the slot, Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, and Moore will fight for snaps, and all three are dynamic assets in the open field. Kingsbury will be able to use them as versatile options to line up across the offense.

With the improvements along the offensive line and added weapons at WR, the Cardinals are primed to improve upon their scoring output from 2020. With a middle-of-the-pack strength of schedule (13th), they will hope that key additions of Watt and Collins, plus Jones’ return from injury will help them win some tough divisional games to improve on their 8-8 record. While the NFC West will remain strong, the Cardinals made the most moves this offseason to improve their roster for 2021.


Make the Playoffs: +200

Miss the Playoffs: – 250


Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook

Stats: PFF, Pro-Football-Reference

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