The NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers threw the biggest retirement party on the primetime stage I can ever recall, at least since former Steelers great Jerome Bettis rode off into the sunset carrying the Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers victory over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football might not have quite lived up to Bettis' storybook ending, but Ben Roethlisberger's fare thee well sendoff in presumably his final performance at Heinz Field was truly special nonetheless. Unforgettable actually, and in the end memories are even sweeter and more previous.
On a night that was more about Steelers Nation celebrating and honoring the HOF career of the greatest QB in franchise history than trying to keep this season's slim playoff chances alive, there was the unmistakable energy of desperation and determination in the air. Everyone of Ben's teammates were committed to doing whatever necessary to see Ben's final act on his home field end in victory. Some even went above and beyond the call of duty, producing career defining moments when the stakes were at their highest. They came through in the clutch, a trait that Big Ben himself is renowned for.
T.J. Watt performed like a man possessed on the big stage, almost as if trying to cement his claim to the 2021 NFL DPOY Award. Najee Harris put the Steelers offense on his back, coupled with some improved run blocking from his offensive line, and carried the team to victory. Another trait that Roethlisberger is known for. The fact that these two Steelers stars, one on offense and defense, were able to perform to the apex of their abilities under the immense pressure of the rather unique circumstances bodes well for the future of the franchise after Ben's imminent retirement. I may not be ready for it, but I have to accept it.
RB Najee Harris
Harris had easily the best game of his initial NFL campaign. He has been compared often to the Tennessee Titans superstar RB Derrick Henry, also an Alabama alum. Both men are big physical runners, who happen to have quick feet and superior athleticism for their size. Harris has proven to have many of the same qualities as Henry, and has even been able to showcase most of them as a rookie, despite running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. It is truly remarkable to consider all he has accomplished inspite of the circumstances. However, one question still remained.
Was Harris capable of a long TD run if the opportunity arose. Harris will never be mistaken for a speedster, but questions about his speed have persisted since he was unable or unwilling to run the 40 in his pre-draft process. Most evaluators estimated him in the 4.5 to 4.6 range, which seemed probable based on his collegiate tape. That's plenty fast for a RB of his size, especially with all his other impressive attributes. He has shown power, determination, and some nasty stiff arms thus far this season. Thankfully, he finally got to showcase some speed on his 37 yard TD gallop to seal the biggest victory of his young career, after breaking some more arm tackles prior to finding daylight. Regardless of who will be taking snaps behind center next season, Harris will be a focal point of the offense.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Mostly likely due to the magnitude of the Roethlisberger situation, plus the otherworldly performances of Najee Harris and T.J. Watt, Freiermuth played a rather unremarkable game. In a game where the Steelers passing attack was unable to get going, and the Steelers WR crew appeared completely out of sorts, Freiermuth was barely noticeable.
That was hardly his fault, as Roethlisberger seldom looked his way in the game. It was Najee Harris' breakout game, and the offense went through him. Freiermuth displayed his customary determination and intensity whenever he was fortunate enough to get the ball in his hands during the game. His efficient blocking throughout the game shouldn't be overlooked either.
C Kendrick Green
Green missed the first game of his career, reportedly due to a calf injury, but he was active for the game. While I don't want to question the severity of the injury, or accuse the Steelers of benching the struggling young lineman for his own wellbeing and benefit, I guess that is exactly what I am doing on both accounts.
Green is completely overwhelmed mentally at the moment, and he will benefit greatly from an offseason to refocus and regroup. Green's struggles this season could prove beneficial in his NFL future, but only if the young man learns from the experience and puts in the requisite hard work to improve.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
Moore's growth as a professional was on full display in his second career matchup against the Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl DE Myles Garrett. His progress and improvement from their first meeting was unmistakable and rather impressive actually.
Moore struggled to even impede Garrett's progress in their first matchup in Cleveland. That's not an indictment of Moore's abilities actually, as I have gotten the opportunity to watch multiple Browns games this season, and Garrett has had similar success against far more experienced tackles than the rookie Moore. This time Moore knew what to expect, and he basically shutdown the talented pass rusher one on one.
Moore is actually a better run blocker than pass blocker at this point of his career, in spite of his pass blocking display on Monday Night Football. It's not clear just yet where Moore will be starting on the Steelers offensive line next season, but he appears to have earned starting consideration somewhere on that line.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Johnson's foot injury once again robbed him of an opportunity to produce on the primetime stage for a Steelers defense in desperate need of healthy bodies at inside linebacker. He has had a frustrating and disappointing rookie season overall, as I feel certain he had higher goals in mind.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk's rookie season has been the opposite of Buddy Johnson's in many ways. Loudermilk was considered a project at best, but similar to the Dan Moore situation, he was forced into action earlier than expected due to injuries to multiple veteran performers. He has been able to make the most of the opportunity.
Loudermilk had arguably his best game against the Browns outstanding offensive line. He still excels at tying up blockers against the running game, but has shown real improvement in disengaging blockers and filling running lanes. He continues to collapse the pocket consistently, and his hand fighting has improved drastically. Depending on what happens with Stephon Tuitt after the season, Loudermilk could be starting as early as next season. The Steelers may have found a real gem. Shame on me for ever doubting them.
DB Tre Norwood
Norwood actually picked up the first NFL interception of his career off a Minkah Fitzpatrick deflection late in the game. He has shown a real nose for the ball, a knack for being in the right place at the right time, going all the way back to his collegiate days at Oklahoma. His future NFL success will depend on his ability to overcome his rather pedestrian measurables. Thankfully his instincts and football acumen appear elite.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin again missed the game as he remained on the bereavement list. With his fill in Corliss Waitman playing very well in his stead, there is absolutely no reason to rush Harvin back to action. He remains in our thoughts and prayers.