The Pittsburgh Steelers will not be going for another franchise-record win streak to open a season in 2021. They got that first loss out of the way on Sunday afternoon in a rather miserable 26-17 defeat at the hands of the Oakland Raiders.
Making matters worse, the Steelers entered the game without cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush due to injuries. There was not a ton of noise surrounding their availability for the game, so their absences were sort of a surprise.
By the end of the game, three more starters were added to the injury report. T.J. Watt (groin), Tyson Alualu (ankle), and Diontae Johnson (knee) all left with injuries. Watt came up lame after pursuing a tackle. Alualu got rolled up on and fractured his ankle, effectively ending his season. Johnson got hurt on the very last play of the game, and a meaningless one at that.
There is a lot to unpack, can you tell? Without further ado, let’s begin.
Coaching Decisions Were Very Questionable
First and foremost, I am as staunch a Mike Tomlin supporter as you’ll find. Sometimes even to a fault. He made some very questionable and potentially costly decisions throughout the afternoon.
Most egregiously, Tomlin punted the ball back to the Raiders on 4th and one with just over nine minutes to go in the game down by nine. That was inexplicably bad. Don’t get me wrong, the Steelers can’t run the ball all that well. Even then, the Steelers have to make an attempt to go for it. You aren’t going to have enough time to get the ball back and score again by punting it away. To me, that was Tomlin literally punting the game away.
Following the game, Tomlin cited wanting to play the field positioning game. Pressley Harvin III has been magnificent through two games. That doesn’t mean you give the ball back and essentially end the game that early on.
Running an actual play when the Steelers regained the ball with just over 10 seconds to go is also a bonehead move. If Johnson doesn’t end up clutching his knee at the end of the play, maybe no one even bats an eye. But the game was quite literally no longer winnable. Now the status of your de facto number one receiver is in question in an already anemic offense.
It’s unfair to pin this game on Tomlin but he can’t be absolved of blame following such a bad performance.
As Expected, the Offensive Line is Playing Poorly
The Raiders defense is miles better than it was last season. They have a budding star in Maxx Crosby on their defensive line. They deserve credit for getting a consistent push on Pittsburgh’s offensive line. But the fashion in which they were dominated is just embarrassing.
Every time Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, the Raiders were in his grill. They took constant shots at him, even leading him to get up a bit gingerly at times. Without any time to throw, Roethlisberger isn’t granted much opportunity to make plays.
Roethlisberger is 39-years old. He returned to the team on a one-year deal. He is no longer at an age where he can be hit in the volume that he was Sunday and expect to survive a 17 game schedule. The front office knew all of this and put together a band-aid, patchwork offensive line in front of him.
It has also resulted in the running game being a dud for the second year in a row. The Steelers took Najee Harris in the first round. Based off of his college success, it is fair to say Harris is an upgrade at the position over James Conner. But behind this offensive line, Harris is going to have no running room and won’t make enough impact to improve the run game.
The offensive line has no choice but to improve or there will be many more games much like this one.
Defensively, the Steelers Were a Mixed Bag
When you enter a game without your top corner and starting middle linebacker, things will already be a challenge. Add to that losing your best defensive player and a solid veteran defensive lineman, and it becomes that much harder.
The team effort to replace Haden didn’t go as well as planned. Tre Norwood couldn’t follow up last weekend’s stud performance as he looked more like a seventh-round draft pick. James Pierre, Cam Sutton and Justin Layne didn’t really stand out in a good way, either.
Robert Spillane took a 15-yard personal foul when he hit Derek Carr a half an inch too high. Otherwise, he actually looked good in replacing Bush. Cam Heyward also played a magnificent game as he batted down a pass on a third down and was a constant force in both the run defense and getting after the passer.
Minkah Fitzpatrick stood out in a negative way today. It can be forgiven as he’s been everything the Steelers have needed and more since coming to Pittsburgh from Miami. He played very poorly today. He was beat on the Henry Ruggs touchdown that iced the game midway through the fourth quarter. He missed a few key tackles.
He had a lot on his plate today trying to make up for Haden being out as well. He’ll undoubtedly be better next time out. In fact, I’d be willing to bet he gets his first pick of the season.
Shoutout to the defense, though, for keying in on tight end Darren Waller. Waller was going for his fifth consecutive game with 100+ yards. He would’ve been the first tight end in history to do so. While he still made an impact with 65 yards on five catches, the Steelers forced Derek Carr to use his other options. Unfortunately, the Raiders still found a way to win this contest.
Najee Shows Off Receiving Prowess, Gets Rewarded
I remember a specific exchange with a media member in training camp where the reporter outlandishly questioned Harris’ ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Harris put that on display for everyone to see.
Harris has a paltry 88 rushing yards through two games. The offensive line has opened virtually no holes for him. When there has been even a sliver of daylight for Harris, he has busted off a few nice runs, including a 14-yard scamper Sunday. Unfortunately, he ended with a total of 38 yards.
The Steelers selected Harris with their first-round pick to use him as a weapon. If he isn’t going to have many chances to impact games running the ball, why not use him as a pass-catcher out of the backfield?
Harris hauled in five passes for 43 yards and scored his first career touchdown. I’m sure he’d like to have done it on the ground but he hopefully will get those opportunities if the Steelers can begin to efficiently run the ball.
Harris’s usage in both facets of the offense was one of the few encouraging things that came out of the game Sunday. If Roethlisberger continues to be pressured at such a high rate and quickness, Harris’ effectiveness in the pass game will at least allow the Steelers to use him if the running lanes aren’t as open.
Shoutout to Chris Boswell
I could very much use this space to analyze something else about this performance, but it’s my space, and I will use it as I please. Thus, Chris Boswell deserves some shine.
While the field goal ended up being meaningless in the grand scheme, Boswell’s 56-yard boot got the Steelers within one score. The kick is the longest field goal in the history of Heinz Field.
Looking back at Boswell’s career, he’s been as consistent as anyone in the league. He had one season in which the Steelers almost moved on from him, but he has rebounded and been consistent ever since. He wasn’t needed much Sunday but when he was finally needed late in the game, Boswell delivered with the longest bomb in Heinz Field history. He’s done nothing but come up clutch for the Steelers since his arrival.
When the kicker hierarchy gets discussed around the league, Boswell’s name usually isn’t thrown around and that’s criminal. He has the leg. He has the accuracy. Boswell is the epitome of what a team wants in its kicker, especially with the uncertainty and inconsistency of kickers around the league.
Boswell’s 88% field goal rate and 94% extra point conversion rate quietly ranks him among the league’s top kickers.
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