The NFL schedule makers sure didn't do the Pittsburgh Steelers any favors this season. The Steelers already had the toughest 2021 schedule based on the 2020 winning percentages of their opponents. The Steelers play in the AFC North division, which is ultra physical and competitive.
Similar to the majority of the AFC conference, parity rules. Teams that are healthy and surging, plus well coached, like the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, are starting to separate from the congested pack.
The Steelers are neither healthy or surging. They are more talent dependent than scheme driven. This is most evident when said talent is missing or trying to contribute at less than 100% healthy. When the Steelers handful of elite level performers are not able to carry the majority of the load, the replacement level players are exposed.
To make matters worse, an abnormally large percentage of the Steelers available talent is either rookies and first time contributors, or dealing with debilitating injuries.
Playing on Thursday Night Football, 4 days after the emotionally draining and physically demanding must win dramatic victory over arch rival Baltimore Ravens, was not an optimal scenario for the Steelers. That was precious little recovery time for veterans like Ben Roethlisberger and Cameron Heyward, and superstar T.J. Watt, who is still dealing with the lower body injuries suffered against the Detroit Lions.
This tsunami of circumstances culminated in the flattest and most uninspired performance I can honestly ever remember from a Pittsburgh Steelers squad. It was to be expected, considering how many in the BTSC community accurately predicted the underwhelming start by the Steelers. Mike Tomlin and company had no answers or possible solutions for the inevitable outcome. Sadly they seldom do.
Let's take a quick look back at each rookie performance.
RB Najee Harris
Another strong performance from the Steelers first round selection. On a night that the majority of his teammates could have been accused of sleepwalking through the motions, Harris was all out effort from start to finish. He came up 6 yards short of another 100 yard performance toting the rock, which was actually rather surprising since the Steelers were forced to abandon the running game for the most part after falling behind 29-0 midway through the third quarter.
With the Steelers losing big and trying to mount some semblance of a comeback, the Vikings loosened up their defense. This resulted in some room to roam for Harris finally. He looked quick and explosive in the open field, and had his longest rush of the season, a 23 yard gain. He continued to display his all around excellence, scoring both a rushing and receiving TD. There was a hiccup or two in pass protection, but the protection packages were completely out of sorts for the first two and a half quarters. Anyway you cut it, Harris is having the best rookie season for a Steelers running back since living legend Franco Harris.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Sufficient to say, Freiermuth is the most talented young man to don the black and gold in the Steel City at TE since Heath Miller. Another game, another TD reception. Regrettably, he will never forget the epic almost comeback because of the TD reception he was unable to corral rather than the clutch score he had brought in just a few minutes prior. The fan favorite known as Muth ran a beautiful route to flash open in the endzone for a split second, where the perfect pass from Ben Roethlisberger arrived exactly where it had to be. The Vikings defense, especially safety Harrison Smith, made a game saving play to knock the ball from his grasp.
The agony that shone on his face after the game reveals the passion he has to be great, and I feel he is well on his way. As I watched San Francisco Forty Niners star TE George Kittle dominate the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, I couldn't help but see the similarities between Kittle and Freiermuth. The talent, intensity, and physicality. Kid has it all.
C Kendrick Green
Green definitely hit the notorious rookie wall against the Vikings. For the first time this season, you could see the young man shut down mentally on multiple occasions in the game. He has struggled to handle interior girth and length at various points this season, but his anchor has improved recently. The first time center has worked hard to speed up his snapping process so he can engage the initial defender more rapidly. While his speed has improved, his accuracy and reliability have not. Ben Roethlisberger resembled a shortstop in baseball trying to field a bad hop on multiple occasions throughout the game, which can greatly impact the timing of passing attack. These struggles were first revealed about three games ago, so it's past time to address the situation.
The biggest problem facing the Steelers is the reality that it's impossible to duplicate the pressure of a live game situation in a practice setting. Practice makes perfect, but experience is only gained through trial and error. The Steelers issues in pass protection on Thursday night weren't talent or effort, they were cohesion and communication. The Vikings exploited the fact the Steelers young and revamped offensive line had never seen a pass rush package designed quite like theirs. The results weren't pretty. Adrian Klemm and his stewards should watch the tape, learn from what they witness, and then burn the evidence.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
While Kendrick Green and his interior line mates were looking for someone to block on many occasions, Moore was often overwhelmed by shear numbers on the edge. The Vikings attacked the first time tandem of Moore and LG John Leglue, making his first career start. If Moore picked up the outside blitzer, the interior rush lane was often exposed. Offensive line efficiency is built on trust and cohesiveness. These attributes are in short supply along the Steelers offensive line. Roethlisberger hadn't taken a beating like that in years.
Thankfully the Vikings backed off on the pressure after going up 29 points midway through the third quarter, choosing to play soft on the backend and force the Steelers to take time off the clock methodically moving the ball down the field trying to score. This gave the Oline an opportunity to regain their composure, and the offense finally was able to find their rhythm. Moore had a solid outing, but he definitely needed more help from his line mates.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Well, it finally happened. All it took was a blowout deficit of ginormous proportions to convince the Steelers coaching staff to give Buddy Johnson his first snaps of the season on defense. The results were about what you would expect. He appeared hesitant and unsure at first, but eventually improved through his two series of work. His explosiveness was immediately recognizable in his mobility. He has the ability to engage and shed blockers, something that Schobert and Bush have struggled mightily to do this season. If the Steelers would have given him more reps earlier in the season, he would have probably been a starter by now. Hopefully it's not too little too late.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk was once again a limited participant in the Steelers defensive line rotation. Considering that was the poorest excuse for a run defense effort as a unit I have ever seen from a Steelers defense, there really isn't much more to say.
DB Tre Norwood
Norwood's effectiveness and usage has fluctuated more than any other rookie contributor this season, mainly due to their aforementioned atrocious run defense. His impact will continue to be impacted until the Steelers show the ability to improve their run defense enough to create more obvious passing down situations.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Thursday night's game against the Vikings was a head to head showdown of sorts, pitting Harvin against the man who he was drafted to replace, current Vikings punter Jordan Berry. In a statement that I never imagined making, Berry emerged victorious, by a longshot.
Even in the perfect climate controlled conditions of a domed stadium, Harvin failed to strike the ball cleanly a single time all night. He appears to have no idea what direction he is trying to kick the ball either. I am starting to believe that Danny "BubbleGum" Smith is the kiss of death for a punter.