The 2021 Steelers rookies have now experienced a two game road losing streak. While both games ended in defeat, the circumstances surrounding the conclusions of both games couldn't have felt more different.
The Steelers defense struggled mightily in both contest, but for vastly different reasons. The Steelers were missing a few of their defensive stalwarts against the Chargers, none bigger than their superstar edge rusher T.J. Watt. Even through all the defensive struggles versus the Chargers, the Steelers had to have been encouraged by the valiant comeback attempt that came up just short, led by their future HOF QB Ben Roethlisberger, who managed to clear COVID protocol in time to play his best game of the season.
There was nothing encouraging about the Steelers utter destruction at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, an up and coming division rival that Big Ben and company have dominated throughout his career.
Based on the results of the past three matchups against the Bengals, plus Roethlisberger's rapidly approaching retirement, it appears highly unlikely that this Steelers rookie class will ever experience that level of domination against a division rival in their careers.
The AFC North is a loaded division, apparently set up to be highly competitive for the near future. Let's take a quick look back at how the rookies faired against the Bengals.
RB Najee Harris
Harris has hit the mental portion of a rookie wall. He endured the worst performance of his young career against the Bengals, and it was hardly all his fault. The Steelers have lost any semblance of an inside rushing attack without the services of Kevin Dotson; easily their best offensive lineman, who happens to be on the IR at the moment. Harris effort has remained consistent, even if his results have been anything but. He grows more and more frustrated by the week, and who can blame him.
His past couple of performances have reminded me of James Conner's from the past couple of seasons. Conner was struggling to run effectively behind a deteriorating offensive line, and became indecisive about when to be physical and when to be patient. In the end, he struggled to do either successfully. When he finally decided to drop his pad level and plow forward for positive yardage, the injuries would always mount up.
Harris has endured a ridiculous workload this season. You can see how desperately he wants to get into the open field and make splash plays for the Steelers. So instead of simply putting his head down consistently and turning negative attempts into three and four yard gains with regularity like he did earlier in the season, he has become hesitant as he has resorted to jump cuts and other elusive maneuvers trying to break a long run. It defies logic that we have yet to see Harris at least galloping into the clear for a 30+ yard gain. I fully expect his productivity to improve upon Dotson's eventual return.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Another game, another TD reception for the Steelers talented young tight end. His hands and contested catch ability are already elite, and it would seem almost sinful to not target him anytime the Steelers are in the vicinity of the red zone. His consistent intensity and non-stop motor pair perfectly with the Steelers expectations for the position and culture. The Steelers hit a homerun with his second round selection. He needs to become an even bigger part of the Steelers offense moving forward.
C Kendrick Green
Green has been the target of an abundance of misplaced blame for the Steelers offensive line struggles over the past couple of contests. Many have tried to compare him to the top rookie center in this year's draft class, but that's an unfair comparison. Creed Humphrey has played center basically since he first put on a helmet. He has studied the position extensively, including the NFL greats from the past. That's why he was my top rated center coming out, and at the top of my wish list. As we know, that didn't happen.
Green shouldn't be judged for who he isn't, but instead for what he is and has the potential to become. He is a former defensive lineman who switched to the offensive line in college. He was a collegiate guard who lacks the girth and length to play the position full time at the NFL level. His past experience playing multiple positions on both sides of the ball have molded his aggressive demeanor and playing style. His mobility and motor are already elite for the position. Now he needs the rest of this season, plus a productive off season, to strengthen his areas of weakness. He also needs to grow and develop with Kevin Dotson and the rest of his line mates. He missed Dotson's powerful run blocking against the Bengals Sunday.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
Moore's struggles continued against the Bengals. Similar to fellow rookie line mate Kendrick Green, Moore missed the stabilizing presence of Dotson. After a couple of respectable outings against the Lions and Chargers, Moore once again appeared overmatched against Bengals DE Trey Hendrickson. He has struggled this season when matched up with top edge rushers, and that trend continued on Sunday. Moore was directly involved in two of the Steelers turnovers on the day. Hendrickson beat him around the edge for a strip sack of Ben Roethlisberger on one play; and was driven all the way back into Ben's lap on another occasion, to the point his QB was unable to step into the throw. The back of his helmet contacted Ben's throwing arm, resulting in a wobbly duck of a throw that former Steelers CB Mike Hilton easily interception and returned for a pick six. Two of the biggest plays in the game on a day I feel certain that Moore would rather just forget.
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
Loudermilk was able to return to action against the Bengals after missing the previous game against the Chargers with a groin injury. Although it was hard to tell if he was completely recovered from his injury and ready for action, it really didn't seem to matter, as the Bengals ground game ran roughshod over the Steelers pathetic excuse for a run defense. Loudermilk made little impact, although he did flush Burrow from the pocket after some quick penetration, and he played hard throughout. That's more than can be said about too many of his teammates. Loudermilk really should be starting and playing more on early downs, as his run stuffing capabilities are far superior to Chris Wormley.
DB Tre Norwood
Norwood's playing time decreased against the Bengals, with Minkah Fitzpatrick making his healthy return to the starting lineup. Norwood returned to his more familiar and effective situational usage. The Steelers inability to slow down opposing rushing attacks has limited both his opportunities and impact recently. The Steelers have been forced to stay with their base defense, even though they still struggle to stop the run, regardless of scheme or personnel. It will be a positive development if Norwood's snap count increases over the coming weeks.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin was called on early and often against the Bengals, after he only punted once against the Chargers. He was merely adequate on the day, nothing spectacular, but no shanks either. In one of the worst overall team performances in recent Steelers history, average to adequate seemed sadly noteworthy. We are all still waiting for his breakout performance.