It might seem weird to be slightly critical of an offense that has averaged just under 380 yards over its first two games. It may be strange to say that a quarterback that has tallied a combined 540 passing yards, five touchdowns and only one interception in his first two games back after missing a year with a major elbow injury still looks a little off. It might seem absurd to say that a ground game that has produced two separate 100-yard rushers and has averaged 4.85 yards per carry could do a little better.
But it sure does feel like the Steelers offense has been sputtering a bit at the start of the 2020 regular season, doesn’t it?
It does feel that way—which could explain how it only converted two of 12 third downs on Sunday—but the great news is it’s still producing in a major way, as evidenced by those aforementioned statistics, as well as this one: 26 points, that’s what Pittsburgh has scored in each of its first two games.
That’s an easy enough average to figure out (I hope so, for your sake, anyway), but maybe you can’t figure out my problem with the offense.
Again, it just feels off, it just feels like there’s so much more than it can do. Believe me, as a writer, I can certainly relate. There are times when I sit down in front of my trusty laptop and peck away at the keys with the greatest of ease. There are other times when it’s a struggle, when I have to work to really get across what I’m trying to say. You may not even be able to detect my struggles upon reading my work, but I know how hard I had to work to put that adequate or even really good piece together.
I think that’s what the Steelers offense is going through right now. I think we forget that there are a few new targets that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he of the surgically-repaired right elbow, has to get used to working with after a year away from the game of football.
In 2018, Roethlisberger’s top two targets were Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. After that, he preferred to work the football around to various pass-catchers, including James Conner, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and even Ryan Switzer.
Brown is obviously long gone, as are the likes of Switzer, James, Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey; in their places are four passing targets that Roethlisberger either barely worked with or never worked with at all prior to his injury— receivers James Washington, Diontae Johnson (barely A and barely B) and Chase Claypool (that’s a never for the rookie out of Notre Dame); and tight end Eric Ebron (that’s also a never for the newly-acquired free agent).
With Brown out of the picture, who is Roethlisberger’s new go-to guy? Is it Johnson, who has 14 receptions in two games? Is it Smith-Schuster, who’s tallied 13? Or maybe there’s a difference between go-to guy and go-to guy. In other words, forget targets and catches, who does Roethlisberger look for in clutch situations? Brown used to be Mr. Target and Mr. Clutch, but maybe the Steelers can distribute the wealth more evenly among many these days.
It is clear that Smith-Schuster and Johnson are the top two wide-outs, but how will Washington and Claypool factor into the passing-game? What about McDonald? Is he the main tight end target, or has Ebron become more preferable?
When it comes to the ground game, it seems a bit clunky. Through two weeks, Conner has shown that he’s still both injury-prone and also capable of being a really good and productive running back. As for Benny Snell, Jr.? I hate to keep using these nicknames, but is it the “Snell Cow,” the guy capable of producing 113 yards on 19 carries, or “Benny Smell,” the guy who has put the ball on the ground twice so far, with the second one nearly costing Pittsburgh a win in Week 2?
And you have to factor in the offensive line, which has been in a never-ending state of flux since the end of last season, thanks Ramon Foster’s retirement; right tackle Matt Feiler taking Foster’s place at left guard; Zach Banner winning the camp battle to take Feiler’s place at right tackle; right guard David DeCastro’s injury; the injury to DeCastro’s Week 1 replacement at right guard, the newly-acquired Stefen Wisniewski; rookie Kevin Dotson taking Wisniewski’s place at right guard in Week 2; and Chukwuma Okorafor permanently taking Banner’s place at right tackle starting in Week 2.
Did you get all of that?
Anyway, thanks to no preseason games and very-limited padded training camp practices, the Steelers offense probably has a few more bugs to work out.
I have all the confidence in the world that it will, and when it does, well, those yards and those points will start to flow much more easily as the 2020 regular season progresses.