The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers learned a tremendous amount about the intestinal fortitude of their roster during their valiant comeback attempt that sadly fell just a little short against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday Night Football. They also received confirmation on a few questions where they already knew the answer.
This team is long on potential, but short on proven experienced depth. The short and long term injuries, plus COVID issues recently, have exposed their weaknesses exponentially. It reveals just how much this team relies on it's proven superstar performers.
This is a common occurrence around the NFL actually. Teams are able to survive, and better manage their salary cap, by surrounding elite talent with complimentary players. The Steelers are blessed to have above average talent on multiple levels, with the complimentary components of the roster proving to be more than adequate for the most part.
The Steelers struggle when they are forced to ask their complimentary players to be more than they already are. Truthfully, that's a reality for every NFL franchise. That's when coaching matters most. The ability to squeeze every ounce of production out of the talent on hand is a valuable and uncommon quality reserved for the truly elite. You cannot continue to stick to the status quo when your talent won't allow you to do so effectively.
The Steelers are a average team at the moment, but their talent suggests they could be more than that by the end of the season. For that to come to pass, the Steelers need their rookies to continue to improve, the proven performers to enjoy the good fortune of good health, and for the AFC conference to remain competitive throughout and within striking distance.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Ben Roethlisberger
Their were a couple of worthy candidates this week, even in a losing effort, especially with so many starters and established contributors missing the game. The players that were able to suit up had to carry more than their fair share of the load throughout the contest to at least keep the Steelers competitive.
Even though the situation looked very bleak at times, the Steelers kept fighting and clawing to the point they were able to come all the way back from a 17 point deficit to take a 3 point lead late in the game. Regrettably, the absence of the aforementioned talent lead to game defining breakdowns in coverage, and pass protection. A valiant effort came up just short.
Cameron Heyward continues to have a All Pro season, and cementing his place among the all time great Steelers defensive linemen. He has been doing so without two thirds of what I believe was the best defensive line in the NFL last season. Then he put on an impressive display of talent, determination, and hustle on Sunday night against the Bolts, almost willing his team to victory. He made game changing plays even though he was the focal point of the Chargers game plan due to the absence of the Steelers other superstar caliber defenders. His intensity throughout the game and his leadership were a joy to behold.
I had to go with Ben Roethlisberger as the trending up selection due to the circumstances leading up to the game, and the questions he answered during it. Roethlisberger had COVID. He wasn't just a close contact who remained asymptomatic. He was actually ill, and made the type of decisions at each step of the process reserved for a truly selfless team leader and all time franchise great. His wisdom protected his teammates and allow him the opportunity to recover in time to compete in the game.
Then he went out against the Chargers and gave his faithful fanbase vintage Big Ben Roethlisberger. Ben, along with Najee Harris and the rest of the Steelers skill position talent, have been limited by the performance of the young and still developing offensive line. The line was already missing it's best player in LG Kevin Dotson, on IR with a high ankle sprain. Then his replacement, J.C. Hassenauer, was lost for the game with a shoulder injury. The Steelers running game was greatly impacted by Dotson's absence.
Many national sports pundits and a shockingly large number of Steelers fans have doubted Ben's ability to lead his team in comeback fashion, to still make every throw at the elite level we have all become accustomed to seeing him make. Without the services of a running game and an even functional defense to lean on, he was forced to abandon his recent game manager ways and dust off the old six shooter. Activate the gun slinger mode of yesteryear once again. It's good to know the old timer still has plenty of ammo in the missile launcher if and when it's needed.
Sunday's rise up off the sick bed to once again lead the team into battle was another unforgettable moment in a career filled with extraordinary performances by the greatest QB in Steelers history, who also happens to be my favorite player. Here during the holiday season for giving thanks, I want to thank Big Ben for every cherished memory.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Defensive game plan
Insanity was defined by Albert Einstein as “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I would offer another slightly different definition. Insanity is the attempt to run the same defensive schemes and principles as usual with a severe absence of elite talent available due to injuries and illness.
The Steelers have become extremely predictable on defense, a troubling reality that was exasperated by the devastating absence of T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Without the presence of their Pro Bowl abilities, the Steelers defense couldn't function as they normally do. Therein lies a huge undeniable problem. Keith Butler struggles with defensive adjustments. The bigger question remains as to why that is.
If the Steelers original game plan is ineffective coming out of the gate, or the opposition makes early in game adjustments, Butler and the defense are slow to counter. Even more troublesome is the fact that many of the necessary adjustments could and should have been discussed prior to installing that week's game plan.
The Steelers already knew that in all likelihood they would be without at least four of their primary defenders heading into the game. They already knew that Devin Bush is struggling mightily to make even the routine plays, even when surrounded by the full compliment of talent. That the Steelers pass rush is a shadow of it's usual self without T.J. Watt on the prowl. That the Steelers haven't won a single game without Joe Haden on the field since 2017. This was all common knowledge heading into Sunday night's game.
So what was the Steelers brilliant plan of attack? What new wrinkles would Butler and company install to compensate for all the missing talent? Basically, they stuck to the highly predictable concepts they rely on week in and week out, and expected the replacement level players to maintain the whole "the standard is the standard" ideology. Maybe the Steelers defenders aren't intelligent enough to learn and execute a new game plan that quickly. If that is true, then look to acquire a better caliber of player. That is one attribute that Bill Belichick notoriously demands in all of his players.
Although Justin Herbert repeatedly gashed the Steelers defense with his legs, I can't recall Butler ever assigning a spy on him to prevent that from happening. I am not sure if Butler is merely stubborn, lazy, or extremely limited, but that simply doesn't cut it. Anyway you look at it, the Steelers defensive effort and game plan didn't measure up to any standard.