The standard may be the standard around the Steel City facilities, but the Pittsburgh Steelers knew all too well that the 2021 NFL season was going to be anything but status quo.
Their normal modus operandi had to be thrown out the proverbial window, because numerous rookie performers would have to be counted on to produce in a big way this season for the Steelers to maintain any semblance of their yearly contender status. Free agency losses and retirements saw to that.
That situation became even more apparent after the Steelers brought in an impressively deep and talented draft class, at least on paper. I eagerly predicted that all nine draft picks would make the final roster. I was almost correct, with sixth round OLB Quincy Roche losing out in a numbers game.
Now that the eight rookie draft picks that remain on the roster have experienced their first taste of game week preparation, I am going to take a glance back at their performances and a sneak peek at the week ahead.
RB Najee Harris
It didn't take long for Harris to realize that he wasn't playing for the Alabama Crimson Tide on Sunday. He was no longer running behind the equivalent of an NFL caliber offensive line at the collegiate level, whose talent disparage resulted in huge holes and running lanes on a regular basis. Everybody gets paid to play at this level.
Harris made the most of a tough situation at Orchard Park on Sunday. The Bills stacked the line of scrimmage from the get go, daring the Steelers to beat them over the top, virtually making the running game for the Steelers an afterthought in the process.
Harris had to make a defender miss or break a tackle near the line to even sniff positive yardage in the first half. The second half was a little better. Harris was able to show flashes of his powerful running abilities, including an 18-yard gallop where he ran through multiple arm tackle attempts. Based on the circumstances of first-game jitters and hostile arena, Harris enjoyed a successful debut.
This Sunday he will get to play in front of the Steelers faithful for the first time at Heinz Field in the regular season. I expect a productive game, both running and receiving the ball, from the highly motivated young man. Look for a hurdle attempt or two.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Freiermuth went out against the Bills and demonstrated why the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and why there is so much excitement surrounding his immense potential.
He played approximately half the Steelers offensive snaps, and he played well. His blocking was consistently above the line, including one play where he put the defender on skates and drove him completely off the field into the players standing on the sidelines. It was reminiscent of a scene from the movie The Blind Side.
He was only targeted one time, but he turned that target into a 24-yard catch and run down the seam. There will be plenty more productive games ahead for the talented young man, but he will never forget his first live NFL action.
This week Freiermuth gets a early glimpse of what a Pro Bowl TE looks like when the Raiders Darren Waller comes to town. I suspect Freiermuth to be highly motivated in front of the home crowd. His first NFL score could be imminent.
C Kendrick Green
Green had a solid debut. No bad snaps or penalties, especially impressive when the circumstances are taken into account. He is getting more comfortable at anchoring effectively immediately after snapping the ball. That can be a tall task for any converted guard, particularly at the NFL level.
His mobility is especially impressive, as he demonstrated by leading Chase Claypool some thirty yards downfield on an end around. His aggressiveness is off the charts, as he is always looking for his next knockout block. The Steelers are trying to dial that intensity back just a smidgen, where he goes to the whistle but not beyond. No late hit penalties please.
I expect the Steelers to be more effective running the ball against the Raiders, with Green playing a large part in that success.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
Moore had a rough start to begin the Bills game, which coincided with the Steelers slow start on offense. He appeared to be surviving rather than thriving. He struggled to get any push in the running game, and was giving ground regularly in pass protection. That all changed with the halftime to regroup.
Similar to how he adjusted in the early portion of training camp, Moore came out fighting to start the second half. You could almost see his confidence blossom as his familiarity with Kevin Dotson continues to grow. As his play improved in the second half, so did the Steelers offense.
He will have his hands full against the Raiders pass rush, where the Steelers won't be able to offer him much assistance with Okorafor desperately needing help on the other side of the line. I believe that Moore will be up to the task.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Johnson surprisingly got a hat Sunday against the Bills after Robert Spillane was ruled out with a shin injury during pregame warmups. Johnson saw action on multiple special teams units, but failed to crack the stat sheet. That should be a regular occurrence this season, barring a catastrophic injury within the inside linebackers group.
CB Tre Norwood
Norwood was probably the biggest surprise of Week 1 for the Steelers. Not because he saw snaps working out of the slot and playing center field, but because of how effective he was with his responsibilities throughout the game. He definitely didn't look like a seventh-round rookie starting his first game in the NFL.
Norwood needs to work on improving his physicality and tackling fundamentals, but the instincts and intelligence are unmistakable. He will have his hands full again this week trying to slow down the Raiders big play passing attack. I see an interception in his near future for some reason. Call it intuition.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin is a vital part of the Steelers new look special teams that is high on athletic talent, but not so much on experience. They endured their own slow start in the first half, not only giving up the long kickoff return to start the game, but almost having Harvin's first NFL punt blocked by allowing immediate pressure right up the middle.
Harvin, a young man with immense potential, even shanked a 30-yard duck from deep in his endzone. Other than that one miss-hit, which is one too many, he had a solid debut. He was called on early and often, as the Steelers offense sputtered and field position was critical. He performed adequately, both punting and as a holder, considering the circumstances. I expect better days ahead for the youngster.
DL Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk was a healthy scratch against the Bills, as the Steelers are incredibly deep along the defensive line. That may change this week, with Stephon Tuitt still on IR and Carlos Davis dealing with a knee injury.
In conclusion, the Steelers extraordinary draft class enjoyed a successful opening act to their NFL careers. They need to keep trending in the right direction for the Steelers to exceed expectations this season.
For additional coverage on the Steelers 2021 draft class in their first regular-season action of their professional careers, you can listen to The War Room podcast with Matt Peverell in the player below.