A team's won/loss record can be deceiving. Take the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers as a recent example. The Steelers enjoyed the best start to a season in franchise history, with a undefeated 11-0 record at the high water mark of the season. However, record alone doesn't tell the whole story. There are always extenuating circumstances in any situation, whether the results are positive or negative. Oftentimes one must take a step back to clearly view the complete picture.
At no point during the perfect start to the season did the Steelers faithful truly believe that they were witnessing a complete team, one capable of contending for a championship. My BTSC colleagues and I wrote quarterly report articles grading the progress of all three phases of the team, coaching staff, and their current standing in the league. Each of us lauded their overall record, but stressed the need for continued growth, especially the need to develop a competent running game and diversify the offense. Roster shortcomings and numerous injuries made further development unattainable.
The Steelers roster had grown comfortable and stale, desperately in need of a spark that an infusion of youth can oftentimes provide. The Steelers followed their impressive 2020 draft haul with an even better 2021 draft class. Throw in a few shrewd UDFA signings during both off seasons, and suddenly the Steelers are a team comprised largely of first and second year players. As expected, the infusion of youth has brought with it some much needed enthusiasm.
Although the offensive line continues to be the biggest unknown on the team, the reasoning behind those concerns couldn't be more different. The 2020 Oline had grown old and unenthusiastic, earning the dreaded "soft" label due to their inability to create push in the running game. The 2021 Oline is anything but old or soft. They are a collection of powerful young men who's greatest shortcoming is inexperience, both in the NFL and playing together as a unit.
Experience is merely a matter of time, but it sure has been refreshing for this avid fan of the Black and Gold to see these hungry young linemen driving defenders off the ball and competing through the whistle. Let's take a look back at the Steelers rookies performances on Sunday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks.
RB Najee Harris
Just in case anyone has failed to notice the obvious, let me point out a undeniable truth. Najee Harris wants to be a great player. Blessed with what is quickly becoming a legendary work ethic, Harris is willing and able to make any necessary sacrifices to accomplish his goals.
Just in the past week alone, there have been three separate reports about the youngster seeking out his mentors for guidance. He reportedly asked Coach Tomlin for advice, and was promptly denied. He has spoke openly about how Roethlisberger has been like a big brother in helping him adjust to the NFL. Finally he approached former Steelers HOF RB Jerome Bettis for his observations.
Harris started the Seahawks game like a young runner with alot on his mind. He tried to display the necessary patience required to set up his blocking, but the running lanes were opening and closing very quickly. His hesitancy lead to plenty of short choppy steps, which prevented him from accelerating and driving through tacklers for those extra yards we have become accustomed to at the end of his carries.
He made the necessary style adjustments near the end of the first quarter, as he started attacking the hole quickly and at full force. His productivity increased as his timing improved with his blockers. He managed to catch his second TD reception of the season after a crisply ran route.
Harris' weekly production directly reflects the improvements being made by his offensive line. I fully expect that trend to continue.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Freiermuth has left little doubt that he has already ascended to TE1 status. In the week leading up to the game, Roethlisberger spoke openly with the media the need to utilize Muth more often with JuJu Smith-Schuster being placed on IR. Then the Steelers went out on Sunday night and did just that.
Freiermuth continues to display his great mitts, pulling in all 7 of his career high targets. His effort level, regardless of the assignment, is particularly impressive. I have actually been shocked that he hasn't found the end zone yet, but as he continues to gain the trust of his QB, that should be in the near future.
C Kendrick Green
Apparently far too many football fans fail to fully appreciate the magnitude of Green's development and improvement thus far in his rookie campaign. He has been tasked to not only make a positional switch, but to do so under a spotlight at the highest level of competition in his profession. His consistent improvement on a weekly basis has been truly impressive.
Green enjoyed the best performance of his young career against the Seahawks, reflected in his PFF grades. His film definitely passed the eye test. He repeatedly opened running lanes, looking like a jumbo sized FB leading the ball carrier up the field. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his confidence blossoms by the week.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for Moore. Unlike Green, Moore wasn't being counted on to contribute this season. He was at best a swing tackle, at worst on the weekly inactive list. That all changed, after a crash course of a preseason and training camp, when it became apparent he was the best option at LT.
Moore desperately needs time to build his surprisingly underdeveloped upper body, particularly his arms. The Steelers didn't have that luxury, and he appeared to be wearing down late in the Seahawks game. He was knocked from the game with what was later ruled a hip injury, but reportedly hasn't missed any practice time this week. Moore still appears overwhelmed at times, but he continues to get the job done through sheer will and allout effort. He has been the Steelers most pleasant surprise this season.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Another healthy scratch for the youngster. Expect that trend to continue barring unforeseen events force otherwise.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk still has the same strengths and weaknesses that I have written about each week in this article, but he finally appears to have found his niche in the Steelers defense. After the Seahawks repeatedly ran the football at will directly at Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley throughout the third quarter, the Steelers inserted Loudermilk trying to stop the bleeding. The powerful young man did just that.
He still struggles to disengage from blockers, and he has no pass rush arsenal to speak of, but he can definitely tie up blockers and help keep the ILBs clean and flowing to the ball. His solid performance should warrant him a place in the rotation moving forward. At least until the status of Davis and Tuitt gains clarity.
DB Tre Norwood
What's left to be said about Norwood that hasn't already been said? He has proven to be a revelation as a seventh round selection, exceeding all expectations. He has been lauded for his intelligence and rare football IQ, traits that were well known from his days as a Oklahoma Sooner. His versatility was his calling card. I wrote recently about his better than advertised athleticism.
He displayed yet another skill set against the Seahawks that was believed to be a weakness coming out of college; physicality.
He only had three tackles on Sunday, but they were all big time solo stops. He stopped star WR Metcalf short of the sticks at a key moment during the first half. He's definitely not your average seventh round pick, just as his father predicted immediately after his selection.
If Moore wasn't performing so admirably as the starting LT, Norwood would definitely be the most pleasant surprise of the season.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin has been the typical rookie punter, meaning he has been consistently inconsistent. An extremely talented young player with a powerful kicking leg, he routinely booms the ball for excellent hangtime and distance. I haven't seen the numbers, but he appears to get the kick off quicker than most. He has the occasional miss hit every game or two, but that can be remedied with improved technique. Based on Chris Boswell's exceptional success rate, one can only assume that Harvin has performed well as his holder.