It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers offense was the dominant force of the team.
Unfortunately, that dominance seemed to leave town right around the same time both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell did a few years ago. The offense really hasn’t been dominant and a unit capable of carrying a struggling defense to victory ever since.
The Steelers defense is absolutely terrific, these days; unfortunately, it lost the war of attrition on Sunday, and that played a huge role in a 26-17 Week 2 defeat at the hands of the Raiders in the 2021 home opener at Heinz Field.
The defense looked great early, even with both cornerback Joe Haden and inside linebacker Devin Bush missing the game due to groin injuries. The unit even seemed to hold up when defensive lineman Tyson Alualu was lost in the first half with a season-ending ankle injury. But the straw that broke Keith Butler’s back appeared to be the groin injury suffered by Mr. T.J. Watt before halftime, a blow that prevented the difference-making linebacker from playing the rest of the day.
It was the proverbial skeleton crew on defense for the final two-plus quarters, one that more resembled what you’d normally see in an exhibition matchup in mid-August.
In the wake of the Steelers wave of defensive injuries, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like the thorn-in-the-side he’s always been against Pittsburgh; Carr completed 28 of 37 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns—including a 61-yard dagger to Henry Ruggs III with nine minutes and change remaining in the final period. It was a dagger because it came just moments after Pittsburgh appeared to have all the momentum in the world following a fantastic 25-yard touchdown catch and run by rookie running back Najee Harris to pull the team to within two points with 11:15 left in the game.
In the recent past, the defense may have continued the momentum with a quick three and out—or even better. But it just wasn't up to the task against Las Vegas. How could it have been, what with so many of its big guns standing on the sidelines with blanks in their chambers?
Speaking of the recent past, the offense the Steelers used to have may have carried its depleted defense to victory on Sunday. Heaven knows it carried enough mediocre units to comeback wins, playoff appearances and division titles in the mid-to-late 2010s.
But this isn’t your older brother’s Steelers offense anymore. It’s one that often resembles the potency of your great grandfather.
It certainly resembles the unit that failed to scare or even fool anyone down the stretch of the 2020 campaign when the team went from 11-0 in the regular season to one and done in the postseason.
It used to be cool (and highly accurate) to say that the Steelers went as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went.
I’m not so sure that’s cool to say anymore (and it no longer seems accurate).
Derek Carr was the best quarterback at Heinz Field on Sunday, and it didn’t appear to be close.
Roethlisberger might still be a fine quarterback, one capable of making the occasional huge play or even getting hot at various points of a football game. However, he no longer appears to be the guy who can take an offense that otherwise would only be capable of scoring 14 points a game (the Roethlisberger-less 2019 unit comes to mind) and through sheer will, push it to do much more than that over the course of a season. Maybe before the year is out, the rookie Harris will prove to be the catalyst for the offense and someone who can lift it up and carry it on his back.
But if Sunday was any indication—Pittsburgh rushed for an abysmal 39 yards—Harris and the guys blocking for him aren’t even close to being in a position to accept such an important responsibility at the moment.
The success of the 2021 Steelers will almost surely rest on the broad shoulders of their defense. Those shoulders are slumped a bit at the moment due to issues with its lower extremities.
What’s that saying in boxing? Take out the body and the head will follow.
If the Steelers defense doesn’t get healthy and quick, the 2021 campaign could begin to unravel before that offense can even resemble something competent.
Premature “sky is falling” talk? No, just keeping it real. The Steelers' defense is really good and needs to stay as healthy as it can be in order for the team to have a chance.
As for the offense? It’s really, really, well, if you’ve been paying attention since 2019, you know what it is.