Lots of folks (even here in Steelers nation) are pretty down on the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s understandable, following an anticlimactic, and bafflingly sloppy, tie against a winless Detroit team at home. But in-game emotions are fleeting and the truth is more complicated. So, as the heavy-duty back stretch of the Steelers schedule unfolds, I thought it might be useful to tease out some of the good and the bad, and see if there are conclusions (or at least context) for this season’s black-and-gold.
Some of you will hammer me in the comments; have at it. But let’s be clear from the start: we’re all pulling for this team to make a season out of this, to hit the playoffs running, and to make a legitimate run at Lombardi #7. Will this team get there? Who knows, but maybe the notes below will help us get through the next couple months. Go Steelers.
The Steelers, of course, tied a winless team last week.
Every team in the NFL has had at least one WTF? game this season, and the Steelers’ version didn’t end in a loss.
The defending champion Bucs just got outplayed in a double-digit loss to a hapless Washington team that lost its best player mid-game. The powerhouse Bills got brick-walled by Urban Meyer’s Jaguars the week before. The exalted Baltimore Ravens got humiliated on national TV by a Dolphins team with two injured quarterbacks...
The Steelers tie to the Lions was ugly, but Pittsburgh was missing nine starters by game’s end. Moreover, the Lions should have beaten Baltimore earlier this year, and played the Rams straight up a few weeks later; they’re bad, but not hopeless. If this was the Steelers WTF? game, I suppose I’ll take it. Especially since it wasn’t a loss.
AND THEM SOME
This team is actually on the 2nd best streak in the NFL right now.
After opening 1-3, Pittsburgh is 4-0-1 in the last six weeks (with a bye in the middle). No other NFL team is undefeated over the last month and a half except the Tennessee Titans (who play the Steelers in a few weeks). That’s actually remarkable.
And it’s remarkable how little anyone seems to care about that fact. We can say, “they haven’t beaten anyone good in that time,” but beating Denver means beating a team that went on to demolish the Dallas Cowboys last week; beating Cleveland means beating a team that crushed the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks ago. It hasn’t been smooth sailing (and that matters), but losses are losses, and these guys haven’t had one in a while. That does count.
The Steelers are 5-0-1 in one score games.
Steelers defense is allergic to takeaways.
They have only three INTs this season, and five fumble recoveries.
AND THEM SOME
These are connected because turnovers usually make or break tight games.
As a point of reference, the Steelers have had three overtime games in the last three seasons, going 1-1-1, all three decided on fumbles:
2019, they lost to Baltimore when (after the defense stifled eventual MVP Lamar Jackson), JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled within Justin Tucker’s field goal range.
2021, they topped Seattle when T.J. Watt beat a triple-team for his second overtime sack of Geno Smith, forcing a fumble that led to the winning field goal.
2021, against Detroit. The Steelers had two overtime opportunities to win this game, but the team’s two most reliable receivers (Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth) both fumbled, and the Lions held onto a tie.
Given how closely aligned takeaways are with winning, it’s genuinely stunning that the Steelers are a winning team this year.
Notably, Pittsburgh was outstanding at forcing turnovers the last two seasons. They’ve averaged a league-leading 34 takeaways, and a league leading 19 interceptions, over 2019-20. Their eight takeaways this year are inexplicable.
At the end of the day, this team tied Detroit despite losing the turnover battle 3-0; but then again, they didn’t win that game because they lost the turnover battle 3-0.
Najee Harris is the real thing.
He’s 6th in the NFL in rushing this season, and on pace to surpass 1100 rushing yards, and nearly 1800 yards from scrimmage. For reference, now-former Baltimore Raven Le’Veon Bell only hit those marks three times in his Steelers career (he was a Pro Bowler each time, and an All Pro in two of them). But Bell also had the benefit of playing with peak-Ben Roethlisberger, peak-Antonio Brown, and the best offensive line the Steelers may have ever sported. Harris is a rookie and doing it without any of those benefits. This kid is a star.
No one else in the backfield seems to be worth a damn.
I say this with a tiny bit of wonder, because I don’t actually think they’re bad. But neither Benny Snell, nor Kalen Ballage, nor Anthony McFarland seems to have the support of Mike Tomlin or Matt Canada in day-to-day offense.
AND THEM SOME
I can’t explain this, but it’s a bad thing.
I’ve gotten into my share of arguments on this forum about Snell (I think he’s a strong runner, particularly late-game, and a valuable backup who should log 6-10 carries per game in relief), but Ballage certainly looked the part in the preseason too. I know Ballage has an injury history, and that’s not going to help your reps, but injuries aren’t keeping him off the field this year. In general, these guys just aren’t getting carries.
And that’s a bad thing when your rookie star is already carrying too much, and has never played a season anywhere near this long. I want Najee fresh for the stretch run, but it sure doesn’t look like that’s a priority for this team…
(Quick counterpoint: there might not be a meaningful stretch run if Najee leaves the field too much. I suppose I understand that. I still say the backups aren’t scrubs. But they’re getting the reps of scrubs...)
There’s a ton of talent at the WR position.
It’s rare that a team opens a season with four legit starting wideouts, any of whom could catch 75 balls for 1000+ yards without shocking anyone.
It often feels like unrealized potential.
Does this wide receiver room scare defenses? I really don’t think so.
AND THEM SOME
Neither Diontae Johnson nor Chase Claypool seem to fight. (Or something.)
I watch Johnson and see Santonio Holmes and Antonio Brown — those shifty, quick route runners the Steelers often have. Brown was precise, and a nasty hand-fighter; Holmes was a ghost, who always seemed to get open and find the ball. Johnson doesn’t seem to have the body control or the fight.
Meanwhile, I watch Claypool, and I see Larry Fitzgerald — big, fast, agile, and with a huge leap. But Larry Fitz always seemed to high-point the ball, and then meat-hook the pass out of the air. Strongest hands I’ve ever seen. Claypool always seems to wait for the pass to come to him; he never attacks it. It’s like he doesn’t know how big he is.
I wish these guys would apprentice behind those old masters.
The Steelers have an All Pro punt returner on their roster.
It’s not RayRay McCloud.
AND THEM SOME
Diontae Johnson led the NFL in punt returns and was 2nd team All Pro in 2019.
I suspect he’s been pulled off return duties because of his growing importance to the offense. But then again, I remember Holmes returning punts in the 2008 playoffs – the same postseason where he was named Super Bowl MVP (which made him, I think we can agree, a pretty important part of the offense). Moreover, AB still occasionally returned punts in seasons where he was the best WR in the league. He was FAR more important to the offense from 2014-18 than Johnson is today.
So I can’t fathom why McCloud, who has now fumbled three times this season alone, and who has never brought a kick back to the house in his career, is still the only returner on the team. Even just to give Johnson a return every so often would be welcome – in the way the team used to give Antwaan Randle El or Mwelde Moore the return based on situation.
Count me among those scratching their heads about RayRay. I’m fully willing to be proven wrong, but I don’t understand the coaching staff’s faith in him.
This is a defense fully capable of stuffing the best running attacks in the league.
Just a couple weeks ago, the run defense stonewalled the league’s best running attack (Cleveland), and one of the league’s best runners (Nick Chubb).
They also got gashed by Seattle & Detroit on the ground.
I have no defense of this. I thought the Seahawks game was all about D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett – i.e. they’d rather let Alex Collins churn five yards at a time than watch Geno Smith throw up a prayer to one of those physical freaks, that would turn into a 70 yard touchdown. But that obviously wasn’t the case vs the Lions. I can’t explain that disaster.
AND THEM SOME
This defense can be great, but is inconsistent.
I’m betting that the losses of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu hurt on every single play. But also, Devin Bush has been slow to recover from his torn ACL (which happened just about a year ago now, and is really a much longer recovery than most of us probably give Bush credit for). I’d like to see Robert Spillane in the lineup a little more, for that reason, but I’ve always thought Spillane is a strong pass defender but average against the run. That won’t solve this. Maybe Vince Williams is bored?
The other piece of context may be about Alex Highsmith. That is, it’s possible that success as a run D will be contingent on success of their pass D. If Highsmith can pick it up in the season’s second half, and provide a legit presence opposite T.J. Watt, then perhaps there won’t need to be as many blitz formations or deep defenders committed on each play, and the rest of the defense could be more run oriented?
I’m really just thinking out loud here. This is a strange imbalance. I’m mostly just lighting candles for Tuitt’s return.
The Steelers’ secondary and OL are young.
Very young in fact. And generally inexperienced on top of that. That’s good because they’re (a) cheap, and (b) going to continue to grow. A young team has the potential to mature over the course of a season. And a young, cheap team has the potential to develop alongside each other over a couple of years. Those are exciting possibilities.
Young units are going screw up sometimes.
Because they’re young. And inexperienced. I probably don’t need to explain this much.
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There are also some potentially fascinating veterans on the bench that I wonder about.
Karl Joseph is a name I was surprised by a few weeks ago, and haven’t heard anything about recently. Joseph was a top-10 draft pick a couple years ago, and while he never really lived up to that status, he certainly has the tools to be a contributor.
B.J. Finney is another. I always liked Finney as a backup. In fact, in 2019, I started noticing that the Steelers ran better when Finney was at center than when Maurkice Pouncey was there. So when they brought him back this off-season, I figured we’d see plenty of him this year. He’s been pretty quiet though. I can’t explain either of those.
The final eight games are a rough
No team is really trustworthy this year.
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The Steelers aren’t trustworthy either, but finishing hot is absolutely not out of the question.
This isn’t a bad team; it’s a mystery that can play well or can play badly. It’s possible that they’ll sputter through the finish, but it’s also quite possible that they’ll start to figure each other out (the way the O-Line already has) and finish strong. It wouldn’t be the first time. And of course, as the kids say, that’s why they play the games...
In any case, bring on the Chargers. Go Steelers.