The 2021 Steelers rookie class has already proven that the NFL moment isn't too big for them to handle. That's a positive development, because the Steelers have had to rely on them in a big way to stay competitive in the division. Taking into consideration the fact the Steelers are presently 5-3-1, and still very much relevant as a potential playoff contender, the youngsters have passed their midterm tests with flying colors.
The main problem with proven talent is heightened expectations, and the intense pressure that accompanies them. They are no longer allowed to go into each game with wide eyed wonder, but are expected to prepare and perform like the professionals they are. The training wheels have been taken off. Now it's ride or die from this point forward.
I mentioned in last week's article the dangerous possibility of each young man hitting the infamous rookie wall, and the coaching staff and trainers working diligently to avoid such pitfalls. Let's take a look back at how each rookie performed against the Lions this past Sunday.
RB Najee Harris
Harris had arguably his best game as a professional against the Lions on Sunday. He was consistent throughout the game, displaying impressive patience to allow running lanes to develop, and the vision necessary to recognize and exploit them. He is starting to incorporate more of his nifty footwork and jump cut ability into his powerful running style. He finished the game with over 100 rushing yards and a hand full of receptions. The fact he enjoyed such success without Ben Roethlisberger and both starting offensive guards at one point was truly impressive.
What was even more impressive was the fact Lions HC Dan Campbell admitted after the game that Harris was the focal point of their defensive game plan coming in. They struggled to stop him throughout the game, even with all the extra attention. There was one man who proved capable of limiting him on the afternoon: Steelers OC Matt Canada.
TE Pat Freiermuth
The fans giveth, and they can just as quickly taketh away. Freiermuth was the talk of the town after another strong performance against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, where he caught two touchdown passes in front of the primetime audience. It was the perfect scenario to announce your arrival to the football loving Nation, not just Steelers Nation. His popularity exploded overnight it seemed, to the point he was stealing some of Najee Harris considerable spotlight. What a difference six days can make.
Freiermuth continued his high intensity play against the Lions. He played a major role in the Steelers success running the ball on the afternoon thanks to his effective run blocking, but he failed to reach the end zone as a receiver. He obviously missed his future HOF QB, with whom he was just starting to develop chemistry with.
He consistently fights for extra yardage after every reception, and every yard was desperately needed in the late stages of the Lions game with the score tied. For the first time in his young career, it appeared that the pressure of the moment may have gotten the better of the talented young TE. First he dropped an easy completion, something that never happens. Then he fumbled the ball with 8 seconds left on the overtime clock as he was fighting to get the Steelers into better field goal range. To be fair to Freiermuth, the defender put his helmet right on the ball to dislodge it, so it was both an excellent play by the defender and a little bit of bad luck for the Steelers. It was a tough moment for the young man, one I feel certain he will no doubt learn from and utilize as fuel for the fire.
C Kendrick Green
Najee Harris and the Steelers ran the football consistently from the opening kickoff, and backup QB Mason Rudolph was rarely pressured on the afternoon. A large part of that success was due to the continued improvement of the Steelers young offensive line. Green is a valuable member of the offensive line, and he enjoyed another solid performance on Sunday against the Lions, with one notable exception.
His shotgun snaps were all over the place, completely erratic, and mostly high. He struggled with his snaps throughout the game, to the point it felt almost inevitable that it was going to negatively impact the Steelers at a key juncture of the contest. It got to the point late in the game that I was hoping that the Steelers would abandon the shotgun altogether and have Rudolph only take snaps from under center. Alas, the inevitable happened.
I find it puzzling that these snapping issues have only popped up for the Steelers centers over the past couple of seasons. Also, why isn't the opposition's center having similar issues if it's a Heinz Field phenomenon? At least Green is new to the position, leaving me hope that the issue can be remedied.
Otherwise, Green played another solid game, especially when you consider that he played much of the afternoon without the stabilizing presence of Roethlisberger and Trai Turner in the huddle, two veterans he has come to lean on heavily for instruction and support.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
It must have been a huge relief for Moore that the Lions have an anemic pass rush, after going up against stud pass rushers Myles Garrett and Robert Quinn in back to back contests. Moore took full advantage of the situation, and played with more confidence than I have seen at any point prior.
He was solid all around, blocking effectively in the running game, and in pass protection. His holding penalty that negated a Harris TD run was the definition of ticky tacky, but he rebounded nicely. All in all, I think the Lions game was just what the young man needed. A chance to not feel overmatched on the field, and a perfect opportunity to rebuild his confidence.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Another healthy scratch for the talented young man, but could a change be on the horizon. If the Steelers inside linebackers continue to struggle with consistency, especially against the running game, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Buddy Johnson could get an opportunity to show what he can do. He is the only true Buck LB on the roster, and the most physical against the run.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
The Detroit Lions, fresh off their bye week, utilized their two weeks off wisely. They game planned specifically to attack the Steelers biggest weakness on defense, the run defense, by running repeatedly out of a previously unseen heavy formation. Due mainly to the absence of Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt, coupled with the less than physical combo of Joe Schobert and Devin Bush at inside linebacker, the Steelers are struggling at times to maintain gap control and lane responsibility. Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley are getting pushed around on early downs. That leads me to this suggestion.
Why not make Isaiahh Loudermilk the starter over Wormley to start the game? He is by far the superior run defender, and the run defense improves drastically whenever he is in the game. Cameron Heyward desperately needs another physical run stuffer on the line to help him, as he isn't getting any younger and therein lies the very real danger of fatigue in a extended 17 game season.
Loudermilk doesn't offer much as a pass rusher, but Wormley could be kept fresh for obvious pass rush situations, especially if he isn't getting regularly abused against the run on early downs. It's at least something to consider moving forward. By the way, Loudermilk was credited with a couple of solo tackles against the Lions. He also saw his highest snap count of the season. He is improving by the week.
DB Tre Norwood
Norwood saw a slight uptick in snaps after Joe Haden was lost for the afternoon with a foot injury. This was unexpected, especially considering the amount of time the Lions spent running out of the aforementioned heavy formations. Norwood isn't overly physical at this point of his career, but you can see his intensity and technique improving as the season progresses. He continues to excel in coverage, where his instincts are most noticeable.
He is going to need every one of these attributes moving forward, because the pressure is about to be amped up bigtime. Reports came out on Monday that starting FS Minkah Fitzpatrick has tested positive for COVID and will miss the Steelers Sunday night game against the Los Angeles Chargers, a young and upcoming team blessed with an explosive offense. The Steelers will most likely promote Karl Joseph, a player with extensive NFL experience at FS, to the active roster for the game, but Norwood will no doubt be entrusted with an increase in responsibility sans Fitzpatrick's absence. I believe he is up for the task.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin's services were needed far too often for my liking against the Lions, as the Steelers struggled to convert third downs and extend drives. He was solid, if not spectacular, when called upon. He struck the ball well throughout the game, but he struggled to achieve adequate hangtime with his impressive distance, resulting in a couple of instances where he outkicked his coverage. The Steelers punt return coverage units struggled to maintain lane integrity and limit the damage. To his credit, Harvin did make a TD saving tackle on one of these occasions. A more consistent effort from the youngster overall.