Let’s face it. Offensive line isn’t “Sexy.” An offense might need to field five lineman, but the other six men are said to play “The skill positions.” Even then, interior offensive lineman get short shrift.
Quibble you do?
Take a look at how NFL teams prioritize Center and Guard in the draft and in how they spend their salary cap. Heck, offensive tackles get Hollywood movies made about them. Try making On the Blind Side about a guard.
During the last two springs both Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan have invested heavily in interior offensive line positions. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore them in the draft? Let’s take a look.
Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.
Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters
The leader of the Steelers offensive line is unquestionably James Daniels. Kevin Colbert signed him last spring to a 3 year 26 million dollar contract, after Daniels had finished four years as a starter in Chicago.
Last year Colbert also signed Mason Cole to play center, after Cole had played for 3 years in Arizona and 1 Minnesota. Cole helped shore up a position that had been a weakness was solid all season.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Officially speaking, Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starting guard. Kevin Dotson was the Steelers 4th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and while he missed games in both 2019 and 2020, the Steelers line was certainly stronger with him playing. Dotson fortunately played all 17 games in 2022.
But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Andy Wedil from going out and signing Isaac Seumalo, who brings 7 years of NFL experience with the Philadelphia Eagles totaling 81 games and 60 starts, including 17 last season. The money the Steelers are paying Seumalo makes it clear that they’re not bringing him to Pittsburgh to be a backup.
Steelers Guard and Center Depth Chart: The Backups
When talking about depth at guard and center it would remise not to point out that both James Daniels and Isaac Seumalo have some experience at center. As does Nate Herbig, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent from the New York Jets (although he is another ex-Philadelphia Eagle.)
The Steelers also have Kendrick Green, their 2022 3rd round pick who was their starting center for most of 2022. Green also has position flexibility at guard, and many feel he’s more naturally suited there.
The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard
“You can never have enough good offensive lineman” the old adage goes. And that’s a sound philosophy. But the Steelers have three if not four starter-capable guards, a former 3rd round pick, and an established starter at Center.
And oh, by the way, 3 of those guards have experience playing center. And the Steelers only have 7 picks this year. Therefore, their need at both center and guard going into the 2023 draft should be considered as Negligible.
And of course they came in rapid succession after that.
Isaac Seumalo lines up against the Steelers. Photo Credit: Indianapolis Star
Saturday was the first day I was able to pick up my pen, so I wrote about Nate Herbig signing as an indication of Andy Wedil’s influence. Figured that as free agent news is typically slow on the weekend, I could run the Herbig story on Sunday morning, use Sunday to write about the inside linebacker situation with the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb and that would be that.
But Omar Khan and Andy Wedil are marching to their own drummer, aren’t they?
And there can be no doubt that Andy Wedil is deliberately leaving his finger prints on the Steelers roster. Isaac Seumalo is a 6-foot-4, 303-pounder whom Pro Football Focus rated as the NFL’s ninth-best guard in 2022. At age 29 Seumalo only gave up one sack and started all 20 games for the Eagles.
How does he fit in?
Well, to quote Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, that’s “…a mystery to team sources not named Mike Tomlin and OL coach Pat Meyer.” Herbig’s arrival signaled that Kevin Dotson’s starting job was likely on the line. The arrival of Herbig and Seumalo mans that Dotson will have to fight for a roster spot.
Kendrick Green’s chances of making the team just got very, very complicated. And it is also very unlikely that J.C. Hassenauer, whom the Steelers made an unrestricted free agent, will get a chance to return to Pittsburgh.
So far everything the Steelers have done in free agency has been by the book. Well, ok “by the book” if you channel your Ben Kenobi and agree that its “by the book from a certain point of view.” Which is to say that by signing 33 year old cornerback in the form of Patrick Peterson is not something the Steelers typically do.
Yet the Steelers wasted little time in signing Nate Herbig for 2 years at 8 million dollars with Herbig getting 3 million of that in guarantees. That’s not crazy money for an NFL guard – James Daniels is going to have a cap number $11,166,666 this year, but there are certainly starting guards that make less in today’s NFL.
That means that heading into his contract year Kevin Dotson is going to need to fight for his starting job.
The move is also the first sign of Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl’s influence. Herbig came out early from Stanford and that probably cost him getting drafted. But the Philadelphia Eagles signed him. When Joe Douglas left Philadelphia for the New York Jets he signed Herbig. And now he’s followed Weidl to Pittsburgh.
During his time in Philadelphia, Weidl developed a reputation as a personnel man who bought into the idea that football games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. (See the Eagle in people moving mode on short down situations in the Super Bowl.)
At 6’4” and 335 pounds, Herbig is in the 93rd percentile of offensive guards. By all accounts he’s a road grader in the run game even if his pass pro skills remain a work in progress. When asked about where he would play, Herbig quipped he’d play punter if the Steelers asked him to.
Just the attitude you’d like to see in an offensive lineman.
Cutting Them Loose – Steelers Don’t Tender RFAs
The Steelers also made another uncharacteristic, if under the radar move: They didn’t tender any of their four Restricted Free agents.
Most people probably don’t know who Jermey NcNicols was so that’s no surprise. Hassenauer has some starting experience, but he wasn’t much of a surprise. But Sims is their de facto 3rd wide out and James Peirre was their starting cornerback at year’s end.
So it is a bit of a surpise that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin opted to let those guys reach the free market.
All remained unsigned at this point, so they could still remain in Pittsburgh.
You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.
Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.
Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.
What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.
Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.
In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.
As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.
Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.
Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.
Believe it or not.
I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.
The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).
File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.
Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.
Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.
What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.
At least youth was on its side, though, right?
Not if you were Dotson and Green.
Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.
Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.
That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.
As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.
It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.
And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.
Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.
Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.
Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?
What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisbergerat quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?
Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.
James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.
Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.
The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.
Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.
There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.
For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”
Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?
Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.
Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters
The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.
Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.
To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.
Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.
Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups
The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.
The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard
The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.
The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.
The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.
But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.
Say this about the Steelers brain trust here in 2022, they’re not trying to sweep their weaknesses under the rung. After opening free agency by signing Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers moved quickly to protect him.
First they came to terms with center/guard Mason Cole, who most recently played for the Minnesota Vikings. Then word came that they resigned tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, for 3 years. And now they’ve added Chicago Bears center/guard James Daniels.
Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com
The moves address what was a chronic and historically bad for the Steelers in 2022, and they also put Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson on notice that they’ll need to fight for playing time, if not their roster spots.
The decision to bring back Chuck Okafor, and to do so as a priority in free agency must count as a bit of a surprise. Okafor does bring the Steelers 35 starts, but terms of his contract suggest that his deal is structured as more of a “prove it” contract.
According to Aaron Wilson of the NFL network, Okafor’s 3 year contract three years, will give him a 9.25 million dollar signing bonus, with base salaries of 1.25 Million, 6 million and 4.75 million. It also calls for 4 million dollar roster bonuses to be paid on the 5th day of the league year in 2023 and 2024.
For those readers not fluent in salary cap speak, this is a deal the Steelers can easily bail on this time next year.
According to internet reports, James Daniels contract is for 3 years and 26.5 million dollars. Mason Cole is said to have signed a 3 year contract, the terms of which have not yet been leaked.
Too Quiet for Comfort on the South Side?
If news of newcomers to Pittsburgh has been prolific, word on who might be staying on the South Side has become a little worrisome.
The glass half full way to look at this is that none of these three has come to an agreement with another team. But the glass half empty conclusion is that had any of these three players been a priority for Pittsburgh, the Steelers already would have resigned them.
Word has leaked that the Steelers have come to terms with cornerback Levi Wallace, which we’ll have more to say about later.
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.
T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+
Tight Ends Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D
Linebackers T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-
Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Secondary Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B
Special Teams Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.
So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.
Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.
Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?
Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.
And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.
The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.
The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.
Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.
Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.
Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?
It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.
Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.
The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.
Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.
Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser
Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had
Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.
David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.
Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?
At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).
Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?
So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?
Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.
But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.
But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.
’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix
If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.
They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.
But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.
To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.
Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Wattcame through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.
Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”
A Few Pieces in Place for the Future
With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.
Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.
The Gamble Was Worth It
Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.
I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.
Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.
But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.
The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.
And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.
A defense that stopped NOBODY on the ground, coming up with a stop on 4th and 1
A 45 yard Chris Boswell field goal with the clock winding to 3:29
Yes, the game had it everything, but in the end everything was not enough as the Steelers fell to the Chargers 41-37 in their first trip to SoFi Stadium. The Steelers first loss in 41 days drops their record to 5-4-1, while Mike Tomlin’s uncharacteristic response reveals a lot about how he sees the rest of 2021 unfolding.
Miles Killebrew blocks a punt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Steelers Can’t Run. Chargers Can, Without Even Trying
The first half ended with a 17-10 advantage for the Chargers. Although a 7-point half time deficit is hardly cause for panic, if it felt like San Diego er um Los Angeles was in charge, its because they were.
On Pittsburgh’s second possession, Chase Claypool had brought the Steelers to the Chargers 5, but Pittsburgh failed to punch it in. An end around by Claypool yielded 3 yards while a rush up the middle by Najee Harris delivered none. Mike Tomlin opted to pass on third and 4th downs and the Steelers misfired on both, getting no points for 73 yards.
In contrast, the Chargers responded by going 98 yards and netting a score.
Justin Herbert accounted for 40 of those yards on four unplanned scrambles were just as easy as they looked. The Steelers couldn’t rush the ball while the Chargers could, even when they weren’t trying to.
By the time a Cameron Sutton penalty gave Dustin Hopkins a do over field goal that he converted for 41 yards, the Chargers had a 17 point lead owith just 18 minute left to play.
For all intents and purposes, the game seemed to be over.
Give the Men in Black and Gold Credit for Something
Let’s be blunt. You can talk all you want about professionals football players being paid millions to play a boy’s game. The truth is that a lot of teams facing a 17-point deficit, at night, on the road, with just over a quarter to go would mail it in. The allure of the showers, of getting out of the stadium and on to the plane becomes too strong.
Kendrick Green blocks to set up Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers responded to the Chargers field goal with one of their own. On the next drive the Steelers defense did something it hadn’t done all night – force the Charger to punt. For the record, Ray-Ray McCloud returned the punt for 12 yards.
Ah, but off setting penalties forced a re-kick, which Miles Killebrew blocked, igniting the Steelers 24-point 4th quarter explosion. (Note, the Steelers also scored 3 points in the 4th prior to the blocked punt.)
Symmetry within the Number 3 Dooms Steelers
That 24-point explosion was entertaining. It would have been something really special had it not been broken up by 14 points scored by the Chargers. Or by Kyler Fackrell and Joey Bosa book ending the 2 minute warning with 8 and 11-yard sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers defense made 3 separate stops the Chargers in the 4th quarter.
Those there the only 3 stops the unit had in them. I suppose that’s an odd sort of symmetry for a Steelers defense missing 3 starters in the form of T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. At the end of the day the Steelers couldn’t get pressure – or containment – of Herbert without Watt.
And if James Pierre did a fine job of filling in for Haden, that forced Tre Norwood out of his slot position and into Minkah’s which is how you get a 53 yard walk off touchdown to Mike Williams with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Factor in Joe Haeg playing for an injured J.C. Hassenauer was in for an injured Kevin Dotson which opened the door to the Chargers final sacks. The Steelers simply didn’t have the players they needed to compete.
Tomlin’s Uncharacteristic Remarks Revealing
Once upon a time, Mike Tomlin would have scoffed at a long injury list with “The Standard Is the Standard.” But after the game he explained, “We have to get back to the drawing board and do a better job of putting them in positions to be successful with the people that we have at our disposal.”
Is Tomlin stepping back from “The Standard is the Standard?” Is he, in effect, making excuses?
Don’t bet on it. Mike Tomlin is taking the blame upon himself because he doesn’t want criticism contaminating the spirit and attitude of a promising young crops players.
Clearly, he believes that, with a little confidence, this group’s best football lies ahead of it.
The fight they showed in the 4th quarter suggests Tomlin is right. We’ll find out over the next 7 games.
Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.
But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.
So what can we expect?
J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today
Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One
Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.
That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.
First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:
Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
The running game disappeared
Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group
Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.
When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:
Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?
Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.
So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.
The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.
After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.
But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.
The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.
Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.
But does change equal improvement?
That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.
Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.
As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.
It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?
Wimp Out Disclaimer
After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”
The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.
The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.
You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.
The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.