After seeing a unicorn in Green Bay in the form of not just a first quarter offensive score, but an opening drive touchdown, Pittsburgh Steelers fans got to see the same old Steelers struggle to move the ball, Najee Harris excluded, on offense and get stops on defense.
Looking at the snap counts this week, it is easy to see how few options the depth chart has left.
Joe Haeg came in for Chukwuma Okorafor against the Bengals and wasn’t very good. He was better this week as the line put together it’s most consistent and effective game this year, they have gotten noticeably better each week, and they still haven’t reached the level of ‘good’ yet. But we can say they weren’t bad this week, and that’s a huge improvement.
That improved line showed off what Najee Harris can do with adequate blocking, and Harris was again the best offensive player on the field. Yeah, he didn’t hit every hole, but he more than makes up for each mistake he makes.
Benny Snell again was the main sub for Harris, and again showed he’s never been good at spot duty. He plays his best when he is the main guy, but he’s not nearly effective enough to warrant that role. Kalen Ballage received his first offensive snaps as a Steeler, but didn’t get to touch the ball. We’ll see if Ballage can overtake Snell for the role of back who comes in to drive home just how good Najee Harris is.
Ray-Ray McCloud returned to only receiving a few snaps after coming in last week when the Steelers were down multiple receivers, Cody White even got a couple snaps vs. the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3. James Washington showed up again, like he usually does, looking good when the quarterback play looks terrible.
Eric Ebron tripled his season total of catches, moving from 1 to 3. His 2 catches on 2 targets gives him his first 100% catch rate game of his Steelers tenure. He also ranked behind both Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry in yards. The Steeler tight ends were 4/4 with 29 yards on the game. Not the production we were expecting from a room with Freiermuth and Ebron.
Where do the Steelers go from here? There’s talent on the field, but not production to match it. The offensive line has been taking the lion’s share of blame since Week 1, but they are improving and the offense isn’t. The negativity surrounding Ben Roethlisberger and fans’ faith that he will turn it around as they are used to seeing after a bad game seems to be waning.
The Steelers aren’t likely to bench Roethlisberger, but looking at the roster, where else can fans hope for a spark?
We are going to jump right to what I consider the key snaps on this list. Last week it lined up that Arthur Maulet played all the nickel snaps and Tre Norwood and James Pierre played the dime snaps. Looking at film of last week, and looking for them in this week’s game, it held up. Tre Norwood has film out there now, and the rookie’s flaws are going to be exploited by veteran receivers. In dime they can protect him more. Maulet hasn’t been great, but he’s been solid. James Pierre is a second year player, but he still has some areas he needs to grow in. This isn’t the veteran group the Steelers had in 2019 and 2020, and there are clear areas for teams to attack this secondary, and they are doing it.
It’s becoming clear that Joe Schobert isn’t going to be good in the Buck linebacker role, he’s more of a Mike in this defense. To be clear, those aren’t positions on this defense anymore, the Buck or Mike roles change with the play. Devin Bush has been better as the Mike linebacker, but with this roster he is the best ILB taking on blockers, blitzing and navigating traffic. He isn’t 100%, I saw Aaron Jones run away from Bush and turn the corner on him, first time I’ve seen that happen to Bush, his speed isn’t there right now.
Speaking of not playing at full speed, T.J. Watt also didn’t seem 100%. When Dupree and Watt were together, quarterbacks didn’t outrun the Steelers edge rushers. Aaron Rogers did that to T.J. Watt this week. On the field and playing hard doesn’t mean you are 100%, and while Watt gave it a great go and was one of the best players on the defense, he clearly wasn’t 100%. Ingram and Highsmith both played, and they both looked good, but not great. You have to wonder how much more we can get from them, and how much they are going to need T.J. Watt dominating to produce.
On the defensive line Isaiah Buggs played the most of any game this season, both in total snaps and percentage. In fact, he tied his career high in snaps and set a new mark for percentage of snaps. He didn’t play poorly at all, he had a good game. But we also know Buggs’ limitations. He’s not going to give the Steelers what Stephon Tuitt or Tyson Alualu gives them. Buggs is a nice reserve, and he stepped up for the Steelers this week, but in a game where the line had struggles in the run game, and weren’t putting much pressure on Aaron Rogers at all, it isn’t enough. The Steelers need impact play, and there aren’t a lot of places to get it from.
The injury report will be key to watch this week as the team prepares for the Denver Broncos in Week 5 at Heinz Field. Stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they press on throughout the regular season.