The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2021 NFL season fully aware that they would be forced to rely on what they believed to be an impressive draft class to an abnormally large degree; due mainly to retirements and free agency losses, and a serious lack of funds to adequately replaced those losses with the league imposed salary cap reduction due to financial constraints caused by the pandemic. Kevin Colbert and company did their best with what they had.
The Steelers just completed the first 17 game regular season in their history, and they were forced to rely on their talented rookies every step of the way. No Steelers fan would want to imagine where the Steelers would be without their outstanding first round RB Najee Harris, who seemingly carried the Steelers struggling offense on his back at various points of the season. Pat Freiermuth quickly assumed the TE1 position, even before Eric Ebron was lost for the season with a knee injury, and has performed like the second coming of Heath Miller. Even fourth round project Dan Moore Jr. exceeded all expectations as he displayed consistent improvement as he solidified the left tackle position throughout the year.
Just how good was this ragtag group of still wet behind the ears first timers, you might ask? Good enough for this talent and experienced deficient Steelers squad to miraculously finish 9-7-1 after completing what was considered the toughest schedule in the NFL, and earning a playoff berth as the 7th seed in the AFC. Undoubtedly one of those situations where the final product is greater than the sum of it's parts.
There is a old idiom that states, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." The Steelers have definitely overachieved this season, but there is no time or reason for reflection until after the season. Everyone's focus should be on the Kansas City Chiefs and the Steelers chance to avenge the regular season beatdown only a few weeks prior. With nobody giving the Steelers any chance of pulling off the upset, the Steelers should be as loose as a goose, seeing how they have nothing to lose. All the pressure is on the Chiefs.
RB Najee Harris
Najee Harris produced a truly remarkable rookie season. Broke the Steelers rookie rushing record behind an inexperienced and ineffective offensive line. Led the entire NFL in total touches, and set the rookie record of most overall touches without a fumble. So he combines hardnosed production with unbelievable ball security. Even his pass protection improved as the season wore on.
He injured his right arm early in the Ravens game, and wasn't able to return to the field until late in the contest. The Steelers offense struggled without his presence, especially in the first half. His importance to the offense was never more apparent than in his absence. He immediately impacted the game in a huge way upon his return. He made a leaping one hand catch with his left hand, juked a Ravens LB out of his shoes, and raced to a key first down. Later in that same game winning drive, he was able to bounce a run outside for a 15 yard gain to set up the game winning FG. He is a clutch young star to build around.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Freiermuth's focus and intensity on Sunday against the Ravens would lead one to believe that he fully comprehends what is at stake, and just what it takes to be successful, in arguably the biggest rivalry in the NFL. He led the Steelers in receptions and receiving yards in the game, but none where bigger than his huge third down reception in overtime on the aforementioned game winning drive. Coming through in the clutch must have brought a sense of relief and redemption for the rookie TE, after he was unable to complete the catch against the Minnesota Vikings in what could have been a record setting comeback. No way he wasn't catching this perfect pass from Roethlisberger.
C Kendrick Green
Green once again watched the game from the sidelines, sans helmet. Barring an injury to Hassenauer, that's exactly where I expect him to remain, and just where he needs to be. The Steelers fortunately can blame his absence on a calf injury, but Green desperately needs a off season to regroup and grow as a professional.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
Moore also missed the Ravens game due to injury, and the Steelers improvement in the running game previously displayed against the Browns also disappeared. While a large percentage of the blame for the drop off must be attributed to the the Ravens stout run defense, Moore's absence has to be taken into consideration. He has improved throughout the season, even with the revolving door of LGs he has had lining up next to him in recent weeks. The Steelers chances of pulling an upset on Sunday night against the Chiefs improve ever so slightly if Moore is able to return to the lineup.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Johnson missed the final regular season game of his rookie campaign with the nagging foot injury, and his return this season is highly questionable, even if the Steelers are able to advance in the postseason. Hopefully next season will be his first opportunity to really show what he is capable of.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk had another mostly quiet afternoon against the Ravens. He received about 14 snaps on defense, and was credited with a single tackle. I was shocked he didn't see more action, because I felt certain that the Ravens would lean heavily on their rushing attack with Lamar Jackson missing the game. They chose to put the ball in the air more than I expected, but they did gash the Steelers for numerous big gains on the ground when they did. They rushed for over 240 yards on the day, with the majority of those yards attained with Loudermilk standing on the sidelines. I still find his usage on early downs confusing.
DB Tre Norwood
Norwood was barely noticeable on the day, to the point I had to browse the stat sheet to see if he cracked it. If a Norwood only receives seven snaps in a game, and fails to register any statistics, did he make a sound, or an impact in this instance. The Steelers credited him with a single tackle in his extremely limited action. I expect him to see a uptick in usage against the high flying Chiefs.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin made a admirable return to action against the Ravens, but he still failed to impress or strike the ball cleanly. Even though there wasn't any straight shanks on the day, his kicks still lacked distance and hangtime. Although the Ravens didn't register any return yardage in the game, that was more good fortune on the Steelers behalf than it was execution. He revealed on a Instagram post that his grandmother had passed away on Saturday prior to the game. Somewhere in this learning process the Steelers coaches need to save the young man from himself.