The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers skill position players lacked game changing speed, especially by current NFL standards. The majority were quicker than fast.
However, this glaring shortcoming was by no means responsible for what became a mind-numbingly predictable and extremely limited offensive attack, with offensive being the most accurate description. It actually caused physical pain for many Steelers fans to watch the Steelers offense, particularly the first three quarters of each contest.
Steelers legend Ben Roethlisberger was damaged goods going into the season, especially his knees, and it went down hill from there. He needed a strong running game, and a clean pocket, with time to survey the field. Those must haves were common knowledge prior to the season, but they never came to fruition.
The Steelers revamped offensive line was a collection of newcomers; starting two rookies, a veteran cast off on the backside of his career, an athletic but underwhelming youngster that lacks intensity, and Kevin Dotson. First the first time in recent memory, the Steelers offensive line didn't excel at any phase of the game.
It amounted to the worst line in the league. It handcuffed every aspect of the offense, but negatively impacted both sides of the ball. Combined with the worst run defense in the NFL, the Steelers as a team couldn't stay on the field when they possessed the football, or get off the field when they didn't. Talk about a recipe for disaster.
Well, that's about enough living in the past, which accomplishes nothing. But we must never forget as those that forget the past are bound to repeat it. Based on the coaching changes and offseason additions, I strongly believe that the Steelers have now learned that valuable lesson, albeit the hard way.
The Steelers have restocked their talent reserves, across the roster, but we will focus on the offense for this article. Improvements have been made, especially in the speed department.
When you think about speedy additions, rookie receiver Calvin Austin lll immediately comes to mind. Not only is he blazingly fast, but he has elite quickness as well. It's been many years since the Steelers have enjoyed the services of a weapon with Austin's elite-level skill set where a slip, stumble, or missed tackle by a defender means six points for the good guys wearing black and gold. If and when that happens, as "Dandy" Don Meredith used to say, "Turn out the lights, because the party's over!"
Here's the gist of this article. If the Steelers are going to be able to utilize Calvin Austin lll to the full extent of his abilities, the opposition must get accustomed to seeing him on the field. It makes sense that he has to see the field to make an impact, right? It's not that simple.
In the past, the Steelers have employed certain players that they liked to use in the occasional gadget plays. Since those plays are usually run sparingly and out of limited formations, they quickly lose the element of surprise needed for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
A recent example would be current Steelers running back Anthony McFarland Jr. The Steelers tried to use the speedy McFarland in a variety of ways during the 2020 season. They wanted to utilize his speed to work the outside edges in the running game, and create mismatches in the passing game. While the ineffective offensive line was the primary factor in the offenses ineptitude, there was another determining factor.
Everybody in the building could see him coming from a mile away.
You could hear opposing defensive signal callers screaming out his number, paying special attention to his presence on the field. He was quickly noticed and easily defended because he played so infrequently, therefore defenses knew something was up when he did see the field.
Now consider the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers offense for comparison. That offense was both talented and efficient, and also very adept at the perfect timed trick play. Truthfully, it's always easier to successfully utilize trick plays from a well-balanced and productive offensive attack. However, there was another underappreciated factor in the success of the 2005 squads trick plays. The main participants were always on the field.
The Steelers were blessed with not one, but two, extremely versatile former collegiate quarterbacks that just happened to be NFL starting wide receivers in Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. Although that Steelers offense was loaded with current and future Hall of Fame talent, the ball handling skills and versatility of these two gentlemen allowed the Steelers to be extremely creative and aggressive. The opposition never saw it coming. It culminated with the Randle El to Ward touchdown pass in Super Bowl XL, still the only receiver touchdown pass in Super Bowl history.
At least on paper, the 2021 Steelers offense appears substantially more talented and versatile than last season. Matt Canada's offense now has the components necessary to be successful; mobility at the quarterback position, strengthened interior offensive line, and increased talent and versatile at the skill positions. Although it will obviously take time to figure out the optimal lineup, and then get everybody on the same page, the foundation of a markedly improved offense appears to be forming.
With all the aforementioned notable additions at the skill positions, it could be extremely difficult for talented youngsters like Calvin Austin lll and Connor Heyward to see the field. That would be an huge mistake for Matt Canada and company in my opinion.
Both newcomers need to see the field, early and often, and in multiple formations. That will not only speed up their learning curve, but it will make their usage far less predictable, both in type and frequency.
If so, 2022 may just be the year that the element of surprise for the Steelers offense makes it's triumphant return to the Steel City.
Many will never see if coming. You can't say I didn't try to warn you. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.