STEELERS TIGHT END ERIC EBRON. The Steelers are in for a difficult season, weathering injuries and a suspect offense. (Photo courtesy
Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers)
by Mike Pelaia, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Can’t run, can’t pass much through first two games
Before the 2021 season started, if you had told the Steelers faithful that the team would be 1-1 after two weeks, they would have jumped at that. Everyone, including myself, expected that. The difference? The results of the games thus far have been the opposite of how most thought.
In Week 1, Pittsburgh went into Buffalo and despite a relatively poor offensive performance, they rode the backs of their defense to steal a big victory. Yet, this past Sunday in Week 2, playing a Las Vegas team who had played an overtime game on Monday night and had to come halfway across the country to play in Pittsburgh, the Steelers offense, and in big spots, the defense, laid an egg, dropping the team to that expected 1-1 record.
It may have been done in an unorthodox manner, but the Steelers are exactly where we thought they’d be.
The problem right now is the offense is no better off than they were in 2020. In fact, you could argue the running game is actually worse. Through two games in 2020, the Steelers had rushed for 250 yards. Through two games this season, they’ve rushed for 114. Where’s this renaissance that new Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada was going to bring to this team? Why did you draft Najee Harris with your first-round pick if you don’t have a line that he can run behind? While it’s still extremely early, the team must start to think about, and answer these questions.
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The offensive line is young and inexperienced and while I do expect them to get better as the season progresses, they aren’t going to allow Ben Roethlisberger to make it through the season if they don’t start progressing sooner than later. Harris won’t gain 1,000 yards, let alone the 1,200-1,400 many predicted, if these guys can’t create holes.
The offense that couldn’t and wouldn’t go downfield in 2020 that everyone thought Canada would fix in 2021, won’t be fixed if things don’t change up front, fast. Roethlisberger catches a lot of heat for not throwing deep, but how can he? He needs to release the ball in about 2.3 seconds or else he’s going to be hit. How can the team utilize Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster or even James Washington the way they should be utilized when Big Ben is back there running for his life?
Defensively, the Steelers looked as good as anyone in the league in Week 1. Then, the injury bug hit. Stephon Tuitt remains out through at least Week 3. Joe Haden and Devin Bush may or may not play this Sunday, Sept. 26, vs. Cincinnati as they are nursing groin injuries and the same is true for the team’s best player and sack-master, T.J. Watt. To add insult to injury, Pittsburgh may have lost Tyson Alualu for the season with a fractured ankle.
The secondary looks weak and James Pierre is no replacement for Haden. Minkah Fitzpatrick can’t make splash plays when his top corner is out. Pierre, Haden and Cam Sutton won’t be able to cover the deep threats of opposing teams if Watt is out of the game, as proven vs. Las Vegas. With no truly effective pass rush, the Steelers defense was exposed.
I will be shocked, as the team heads into Week 3 to play the Bengals on Sunday, if the Bengals don’t plan to go deep on the Steelers early and often. The Steelers are going to need to keep Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow contained and hit him early and often to prevent any big plays from happening in the secondary. The question is, if these key players don’t play again this week, do they have the horses to do it? Based on what we saw against the Raiders, the answer is no.
Offensively against Cincinnati, the Steelers must find a way to run the ball. The offensive line has to block longer, create holes and allow Harris to break free. Harris is culpable of game-changing plays, if he’s given the opportunity to make one. If he’s not, which I don’t think he will be, the Steelers are going to have to make their run game come from the short passing game, as they did last year. Steelers fans won’t like it, but they won’t have a choice.
This coming Sunday, Sept. 26, look for the Steelers to use a lot of screen and short dumpoffs to gain four and give yards at a time. I do believe they need to, and will, utilize some tight end packages and get Pat Friermuth involved more.
If the Steelers can effectively rush Burrow and they can find a way to create some form of a running game, they can win this game against the Bengals while nursing their injuries.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Bengals 17.