Based on the NFL's new 17 game regular season, the Steelers impressive crop of contributing rookies have reached the halfway point of their inaugural campaign. Compared to their collegiate careers, where they had multiple off weeks and the holiday break to look forward to prior to preparing for potential conference championship and bowl games if so lucky, the pressure of their professional lives is just starting to ramp up.
Considering the fact this point of the collegiate season is closer to the end than the beginning, the newcomers are starting to transition from inexperienced novices to slightly informed contributors at the midway point of the 2021 NFL season. This is the point of the season were many rookies hit the proverbial wall, a physical and mental malaise that is often the byproduct of fatigue due to the longer professional season. The NFL has made significant strides, both on a corporate and franchise level, in instructing the young men on better ways to handle the inevitable situation through proper diet and conditioning.
With this year's Steelers squad depending so heavily on each member of their rookie class, it is vitally important that the Steelers coaches, veterans, and trainers are aware of this potential problem, and assist the rookies in anyway necessary to minimize the effects. The 2021 Steelers continued success depends on it. Let's take a quick look back at how each rookie performed against the Chicago Bears on the primetime stage.
RB Najee Harris
Harris deserves far more recognition from the national sports media for his accomplishments, both on and off the field, and his undeniable importance to the Steelers offense this season. Beyond his football abilities and attributes, he has impressed me with his patience and character. I am not referring to his running style, but the maturity he has shown throughout what has had to have been an incredibly frustrating situation performing behind a struggling offensive line.
He has been limited by their shortcomings, consistently looking for running lanes that never develop, something he seldom if ever experienced at Alabama. Never once have you seen him whine or complain, or throw a water cooler out of frustration. A young man blessed with an insatiable desire to succeed, he realizes that his teammates are trying their best, and he has fully committed to growing right along with them. That's one of the characteristics of a good teammate, a winner, and a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Harris had at least 3 or 4 carries against the Bears that were nothing short of miraculous, the epitome of determination where superior talent and desire merge. If the Steelers Oline can hold up their end of the bargain, Harris will explode on the national scene as the focal point of the Steelers second half of the season playoff drive.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Some players love the spotlight of the biggest stage. They save their best performances for the largest audience, and it doesn't get any bigger than Monday Night Football. Freiermuth appears to be one of those players. He started his night by meeting former Steelers great Heath Miller; the man to which he is most often compared, during pregame warm ups. He finished the night with a couple of TD receptions and plenty of recognition from a primetime audience of NFL fans.
Freiermuth was the second TE selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, after Atlanta Falcons emerging star Kyle Pitts, and he has proven worthy of his second round selection. Pitts is incredibly athletic, resulting in plenty of mismatches, but he is more gigantic WR than traditional TE. Freiermuth is a traditional TE, albeit in the modern form. Freiermuth has every attribute to be a Pro Bowl caliber TE. He threw multiple NFL level blocks against the Bears, proving he is much more than a great set of hands and a granite jawline.
The trust and chemistry between Roethlisberger and Freiermuth seems to be growing by the week, and Muth potentially could be part of the Steelers solution to the loss of JuJu Smith Schuster. He caught his first career TD pass against the Detroit Lions back in the preseason, who just so happens to be the Steelers upcoming opponent. Could a encore performance be behind the curtain?
C Kendrick Green
After three weeks of improvement and progress, Green took a step back against the Bears large and powerful interior defensive line. He struggled to gain leverage and create movement versus the Bears interior length and girth. These struggles were most evident in the Steelers ineffective running game, as he anchored reasonably well in pass protection. This is going to continue to be a reoccurring issue for the talented young man, until he cleans up his technique at center, and has a off season to add girth and functional strength.
Many fans with only the best of intentions have suggested moving Green back to guard, his collegiate position. I don't know any other way to say this, so here we go: not going to happen. Green's lack of height and arm length limits him to the center position. You know who else lacked those attributes; former Steelers HOF center Mike Webster. Modern NFL guards are usually the heaviest players on the offensive line. Green is too small to be a fulltime guard at the NFL level. Green was drafted to be the Steelers starting center, and despite his expected struggles on occasion, he has done an admirable job of fulfilling those expectations. He is going to be a good one, but some patience is required.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
The Steelers other rookie starter on the offensive line struggled as well against the Bears. Dan Moore Jr. was matched up for most of the night against accomplished veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn, who promptly gave Moore a master class in pass rushing. He utilized every trick and tool in his arsenal; ranging from repeatedly lining up slightly offsides, to anticipating the snap count to make his speed rush even more effective. He was called for multiple penalties, but could have been flagged on numerous other occasions.
Moore struggled against Quinn's speed rush, which hadn't really been an issue thus far this season. He previously had struggled with the bull rush tactics of opposing pass rushers, mainly due to his lack of upper body development and functional strength. His smooth slide and footwork had allowed him to hold up reasonably well against speed rushers. That's why I fear he maybe wearing down, both physically and mentally. There could be some tough decisions for Tomlin and the coaching staff on the horizon if so.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Another healthy scratch for the talented young man trapped in a numbers game at the position.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk's services haven't been needed as often in recent weeks, with Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley doing a much better job maintaining lane responsibility against the running game ever since the Seattle second half debacle.
With his pass rushing repertoire virtually nonexistent at this point of his young career, his immovable object impersonation makes him what Mike Tomlin likes to call a "one trick pony". He may only have that one trick at his disposal currently, but he is pretty good at it. His services will prove more useful against run heavy opponents down the road.
DB Tre Norwood
Similar to Loudermilk, Norwood's usage has been sporadic recently. He has established a spot in the rotation, seeing snaps at multiple positions and in various coverage schemes. I honestly find his usage, or lack thereof, rather puzzling on occasion.
The Bears consistently targeted Arthur Maulet in coverage throughout the fourth quarter, with great success. I expected the Steelers to slide Cameron Sutton or Norwood into the slot for better coverage, but they stuck with Maulet for some reason, and promptly watched him get abused. Thankfully the Steelers won the game, and a valuable lesson was learned.
P Pressley Harvin lll
I am going to keep Harvin's section of the article rather short, since I already reviewed his subpar performance against the Bears in depth in my Steelers Stock Report article earlier in the week. Check it out if you missed it for some reason.
Harvin isn't going to perform to the level his talent suggests until he finds some consistency in his game. Bottom line: Do better, young man. Before it cost your team a game, and the Steelers find themselves looking for their next punter.