What were the Pittsburgh Steelers thinking in the offseason when they constructed this offense?
That was a question that almost everyone has been asking over the first month of the season. To say that the Steelers offense had struggled leading up to Sunday would be quite the downplay. Sunday's performance against the Denver Broncos provided us with the answer to that very question, though.
It seems like the Steelers want to be this balanced offense where they run the football effectively, reducing the workload on their now 39-year-old quarterback. Through three weeks, they struggled to run the football with any sort of efficiency, consistently putting the offense behind the chains. That's started to change here in the past two weeks, however.
Najee Harris was getting busy behind his offensive line on Sunday. The interior offensive line has started to come alive as they repeatedly gave the rookie tailback optimal running lanes up the middle. Both Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner seemed to have found their groove lately as they have not only held their own, but they've started getting consistent push at the point of attack. 16 of Harris' 23 carries were deemed successful plays, which is a much improved, fantastic number for this rushing attack.
Already dealing with injuries, Roethlisberger was kept mostly clean throughout the game, surely something that the 18-year veteran appreciated from his offensive line. Denver registered just a single sack and two hits on the Steelers signal-caller. Upon first watch, Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr. had their best games of the season in pass protection. There were hardly any noticeable issues on the edge, which is considerably impressive whenever facing a future Hall of Famer in Von Miller.
Diontae Johnson continued his fantastic start to the 2021 campaign with another opening drive touchdown on a deep ball from Roethlisberger. Johnson beat Kyle Fuller inside and began to drift just a bit towards the middle of the field before tracking the ball masterfully back outside. When Denver chose to match Von Miller on Chase Claypool in man coverage, Claypool took advantage of the mismatch in space, taking a slant 59 yards.
Claypool followed that up by making a nice contested grab over the middle of the field in heavy traffic for the Steelers' third and final touchdown of the game. Both guys made an impact with explosive and timely plays whenever their numbers were called in the passing game.
The surroundings around him were favorable and Roethlisberger delivered his best, most complete outing of the season. It wasn't a spectacular, jaw-dropping performance by any means, but he was sharp and delivered when they needed him to. He was both accurate and decisive on third downs, throwing past the marker. The Steelers converted their first four third down opportunities through the air and finished the day 7-12.
At this stage of his career, Ben Roethlisberger needs to be relied upon as the point guard of the offense, not the go-to scorer. Roethlisberger's 25 passing attempts on Sunday were his lowest since Week 6 of last season. While he can still make enough plays when the environment around him is stable, Big Ben has some limitations, most notably involving his mobility, that just come with age.
The Steelers brought him back at a modest $14M salary to be a facilitator, not the star that he was for the entirety of his career. In order for the Steelers to settle Roethlisberger into that role, it starts with running the football better, staying on schedule and playing with a lead.
So, what were the Steelers thinking in the offseason when constructing this offense? Just look at Sunday's game plan because that was their vision. Don't get me wrong, the Steelers' margin for error offensively is slim, the penalties need to be cleaned up, and they have to protect the football. It's also fair to question just how high their ceiling is with a play style like this, but that's where the other side of the football comes into the equation. A quality rushing attack, a facilitating Roethlisberger and an elite defense is the formula for another playoff run.
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