At the opening kickoff of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2021 regular season, many more questions than answers loomed in the minds of Steelers Nation. These question marks included Ben Roethlisberger, whose capabilities are widely suspected of lapsing, an untested offensive line and a defense needing to secure some key positions.
When their record sank to 1-3 after Week 4, it was easy to imagine these Steelers heading for their worst season in many years. But a 3-game winning streak capped by their gritty showing in a 15-10 victory at Cleveland speaks strongly of a Steelers team starting to cement the foundation of a new identity.
In a performance more slugging than stylistic, the Steelers' faithful were treated to some captivating previews of coming attractions, particularly from their 2021 NFL Draft picks Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, each of them playing a key role in the hard-fought win.
In addition to veteran Diontae Johnson (6 catches for 96 yards), who's proven nearly as difficult to cover as the departed Antonio Brown, we saw a very positive mix of targets in the passing game including Freiermuth (4 catches for 44 yards plus a stellar TD grab), Chase Claypool (4 catches for 45 yards), Zach Gentry (3 catches for 39 yards) and Najee Harris (3 catches for 29 yards to go along with his 91 yards rushing on 26 carries).
What really stands out are the key contributions being made by the Steelers' recent draft picks, including rookies on the offensive line who clearly have been improving week by week.
Despite some periodic lapses, the Steelers defense also looks like it's starting to play better as a unit. It's no small feat to hold Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and company to a paltry 10 points. The leadership of defensive stars and former No. 1 draft picks Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt has been the glue holding this group together despite the absence of some key players due to injury.
With the toughest matchup of their current 3-game stretch including Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit already in hand, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a rare opportunity to continue their evolution as they head towards the most difficult portion of their schedule during the holiday season. As a team aiming to be playoff competitive, Pittsburgh cannot afford to squander a friendly mid-season schedule like this.
On display in Cleveland this past Sunday was a still-evolving Steelers team with a changed offensive approach. It's a team powered by young and veteran players who affirm the organization's continuing success in the NFL Draft. Equally on display is the leadership of Mike Tomlin and his staff -- first in recognizing that 2021 would be a season of transition and, secondly, in successfully navigating this transition as the season unfolds.
Of course some pitfalls during the course of this development are inevitable but, nearing the season's midway point, the Pittsburgh Steelers' arrow clearly is pointing upwards. Perhaps most importantly, Sunday's big win on the road gave Steelers Nation a welcome glimpse of the team's rising potential and promising future regardless of how the current season concludes.