Despite the high expectations coming off a win against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1, the Steelers fell flat against the Raiders on Sunday.
As always, there’s plenty of takeaways to be had:
1. The sky is not falling (yet)
Did the Steelers look bad against the Raiders? Sure. They were outplayed in just about every aspect of the game. However, it’s important to remember that the loss was only in the second week of a seventeen game season. And the Raiders are shaping up to be one of the AFC’s best teams. It’s far too early to panic.
Many of the positional groups that struggled against the Raiders will likely improve as the season progresses, especially the young, developing offensive line and injury-plagued defense. Even Ben Roethlisberger should improve as he continues to get more comfortable in Matt Canada's system. Some forgot that this is the same team that beat a talented Bills squad just over a week ago; there’s more than enough talent in Pittsburgh to be a legitimate contender this year, they just need to play more consistently.
That isn’t to say that the issues that the Steelers’ displayed against Las Vegas weren’t disconcerting, but rather that there is plenty of time to fix them. But if the Steelers don’t fix their issues, the team will certainly be in trouble.
2. Proving his worth
All-Pro linebacker T.J. Watt was injured in the first half and forced to sit out the rest of the game against the Raiders. Some may have seen that as a consequence of his limited participation throughout training camp, or even as a reason why the Steelers shouldn’t have given the pass-rusher so much guaranteed money. But if anything, it showed how important it was for the Steelers to keep him in Pittsburgh. Watt had already recorded a strip sack and tackle for loss in the first half before his injury, and without him in the second half, the Steelers’ pass-rush was noticeably worse. Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith had solid games, but without Watt, Derek Carr began to have enough time in the pocket to pick the Steelers’ secondary apart. Even without playing, T.J. Watt proved how much he is worth to the Steeler defense.
And for those worried that Watt will be enjoying all his guaranteed cash without playing, it looks like he’s slated to make a timely return from injury.
3. Let JuJu play on the outside
JuJu Smith-Schuster was very vocal throughout the offseason that he wanted to play on the outside more, but he’s been relegated to the slot throughout most of the season. He’s been exceptional there so far, but it may be time to fulfill the receiver’s wish. Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have been Roethlisberger’s main deep targets so far this year, and while both have gotten open, Johnson hasn’t always followed through on his routes while Claypool has struggled greatly when catching through contact. On the other hand, Smith-Schuster routinely showed on Sunday his ability to play through contact and make catches, always on the same page as Roethlisberger.
Even though he’s predominantly ran short routes over the past few seasons, Smith-Schuster is a proven playmaker down the field when given the chance. Expanding his route-tree may also be a valuable wrinkle to add to a predictable offense. Besides, Smith-Schuster’s strong hands and connection with Roethlisberger may be the key to opening up the Steelers’ deep to intermediate passing game.
4. Haden holds it all together
As many pointed out following the Steelers’ loss, Pittsburgh’s secondary has often struggled when Joe Haden has been out with injury. That trend continued against the Raiders, as the Steelers’ cornerback room, which had enjoyed such a strong performance against Josh Allen and the Bills last week, gave up 382 passing yards and 2 touchdowns to Derek Carr and the Raiders. The Steelers’ young cornerback room simply couldn’t cover for the injured Haden, who despite his age remains the best corner on the roster. It’s important he is able to return soon this season, or it may be a rough few weeks for the Pittsburgh secondary.
5. A special day for special teams
The Steelers’ specialists were the bright spots for the team in their Sunday loss. After a strong performance against Buffalo, kicker Chris Boswell doubled down by setting the new record for the longest field goal in Heinz Field history on his lone attempt against the Raiders, a 56-yarder that went straight down the middle. Boswell has continued to make the front office’s decision to keep him after an abysmal 2018 look very smart.
Rookie punter Pressley Harvin also impressed, landing three of his four punts inside of the twenty and recording an average of nearly fifty yards. He landed one inside of the five yard line, and was also the holder on Boswell’s record-setting field goal. It was a nice comeback for the young punter, who had struggled with consistency last week. In a rough loss, it was good to see at least one positional group have a strong game.
6. Flashes of brilliance
The Steelers’ offensive line wasn’t great against the Raiders, but rookie running back Najee Harris still made the best of what he had. His 38 yards on ten carries certainly was’t an impressive stat line, but every yard was hard-earned, punctuated by a powerful stiff-arm on talented Raiders’ safety Jonathan Abram. Additionally, Harris found success through the air. He’s slowly starting to become the dump-off target Roethlisberger hasn’t had since Le’Veon Bell last played, recording five catches for 43 yards, recording his first NFL touchdown on a tackle-breaking run after the catch in the fourth quarter. Harris won’t be able to fully live up to his potential until the Steelers shore up their offensive line, but in the meantime he’s still finding time to impress.
7. Redemption game
It’s not an exaggeration to say that linebacker Robert Spillane had one of the worst Steelers preseasons in recent history in 2021. So it’s no surprise that most were worried how he would perform in the starting lineup with Devin Bush out with an injury. However, Spillane had a strong game opposite Joe Schobert as the Steelers let him play to his strengths: stopping the run and special teams. Spillane did both admirably, recording some big hits as well as a tackle for loss. He even led the team in tackles, staying close to the line of scrimmage while Schobert took care of most of the coverage duties. It’s fair to say that Spillane isn’t a particularly versatile defender; however, he can still be a solid starter when put in a place to succeed like he was on Sunday.
8. Pat Freiermuth is TE1
Eric Ebron wasn’t very noticeable on Sunday, but when he was noticed it wasn't good. Ebron once again struggled as a blocker, and he couldn’t hang onto a pass he should’ve held onto following an impressive play and pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Freiermuth made some good blocks against the Raiders, catching four passes for 36 yards as well. Ebron is still a dangerous weapon, but Freiermuth is simply a far more reliable pass-catcher and blocker at this point. He’s been slowly overtaking Ebron when it comes to the snap counts, and expect that to continue throughout the season.
Additionally, it was nice to see the “MUUTH” cheer already going strong at Heinz Field on Sunday. When one of the CBS announcers jokingly asked if the fans got together ahead of time to plan such things, I started laughing. That place is called BTSC.
9. Heyward steps up
At 32 years old, many have predicted Steelers’ star defensive lineman Cam Heyward’s play to regress. If anything, it seems that he’s getting even better. With both Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu out against the Raiders, and possibly for a good bit of the remaining season, it was paramount for Heyward to step up. And he certainly did. He continued to record pressures and tackles, but perhaps most impressive was his hustle. For a veteran lineman, Heyward was consistently downfield in pursuit of runners once they made it past the line of scrimmage. His hustle and effort are second to none. With a defensive line room as thin as the Steelers’ is right now, Heyward is giving his all to ensure that the interior of the Steelers’ defense is still a quality unit.
10. Don’t blame it all on Ben
Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play his greatest game on Sunday, and he’s certainly responsible for some of the Steelers’ offensive struggles. But he doesn’t deserve all of the blame. He consistently held onto the ball and tried to make plays behind an unreliable offensive line, passing for 295 yards on the day. His deep ball wasn’t great, but he had several passes down the field dropped by his receivers. Roethlisberger had some notable bad throws, particularly his early interception, but it’s important not to place the expectations too high on an aging quarterback playing behind one of the league’s worst lines.
Roethlisberger played a decent game on Sunday, one that was certainly better than the one he turned in against Buffalo. There’s certainly still room for improvement, but Roethlisberger shouldn’t be the lone scapegoat following his team’s loss to the Raiders.
The Steelers beat a good team in Week 1, and lost to a good team in Week 2. It’s still far too early to worry about what could still be a successful season for the Steelers in 2021.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.