A deep dive into the minds of the obsessed as NFL Free Agency rolls on, and the 2021 NFL Draft is on the horizon.
The National Football League just moved to implement a 17 week season, which provides fans over four months of weekly intensity. But for legions of die hard fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s a 365-day-a-year obsession.
While many normal, and probably well-adjusted, fans move on to other pursuits once the Super Bowl concludes, the obsessed worry and opine about their beloved team even more. After all, the offseason always engenders hope for the future, as well as fears.
If you’re reading this site and watching the NFL Network daily this time of year, chances are you pass the litmus test of the obsessed.
What’s next, these fans want to know, and how can we improve so we can obnoxiously brag we are on the Stairway to 7? Here are some of the issues the obsessed offseason Steelers fans are pondering.
The Ben Roethlisberger situation
Let’s get the elephant out of the way first. Probably the most discussed Steelers topic of them all, from both fans and pundits. Ben’s 2021 performance will be the lynchpin for the entire season, the difference between beating those hated Ravens and Browns, or watching those teams in the playoffs.
While this is the worry, I feel Big Ben will be in a good position to lead the team as long as he is upright and healthy. Let’s not forget that he was coming off major surgery with no preseason last year. Still, he led the team to an 11-0 start, and finished the season with 38 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Many point to the fact that his yards per attempt decreased and that he had weaker games later in the season, suggesting a downfall of his abilities.
But you can point to several issues that also just as easily could have led to his late season swoon. First, the protection was awful, forcing him to get the ball out quick. Couple that with Randy Fichtner’s seeming fetish for a short pass game plan, and defenses caught on and snuffed out that strategy as the season progressed. Additionally, the run game was so ineffective that that put even more pressure on Ben and the passing game. With no fear of the run game and a line that didn’t protect its quarterback, it is not surprising that Roethlisberger’s stats regressed.
It was a lot to overcome, especially for an aging QB.
When it wasn’t the line faltering, or the OC calling a game plan of quick, short passes, the receivers decided to go through a multi-game streak of dropping ball after ball, getting so bad that the once reliable Dionte Johnson was benched. Had those balls been caught at their normal rate, Ben’s numbers would have been much better, and, likely, some of those lost games would have been won.
Also, I think it was obvious when Ben injured his knee in the Dallas game on November 8, it effected his play towards the end of the season. This probably made him try to get the ball out even quicker to avoid the sack. If you remember watching his initial reaction to the hit on his knee, it did not look good. He limped around and occasionally grabbed at the knee. It’s hard to believe that just disappeared. If I’m correct, Ben playing through that nagging pain is admirable, but it very well made him veer even greater towards quick passes behind his shaky protection.
Ben shouldn’t be asked to carry the entire team on his shoulders anymore. As long as he’s not, I think there’s reason for optimism for solid play if he maintains his health.
The Running game
A Steelers team that can’t run the ball? Sacrilege! When do you recall the last weak Steelers run game? Merrill Hodge, maybe? Walter Abercrombie? Frank Pollard?
Yep, that’s right – it’s ancient history!
You simply can’t be excited with a backfield of Benny Snell Jr, Kalen Ballage, and Anthony McFarland Jr. That trio is as weak as any in the league. I will say the jury is still out on McFarland because of the limited chances he had last year, but he projects as more of a third down back with some juice than as a reliable three down back. If James Conner were still on the team, he would still be the best option when he’s healthy, which is his big concern, of course. It’s possible he comes back ala Ju Ju Smith-Schuster, but who knows.
It seems the draftniks believe the Steelers will add to this stable during the draft, and we can only hope so. Najeh Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams appear to be the consensus top three, with others like Chuba Hubbard included in a slew of others considered later picks.
It’s hard to see a scenario where the Steelers don’t draft help so as not to put it all on their 39-year-old quarterback’s arm. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
But, the first two issues above unfortunately depend on the next Steelers fan’s offseason obsession.
The Offensive Line Woes
The importance of the offensive line to Ben Roethlisberger and the run game can’t be overstated. The line was not up to standard last season and this was with the now retired, possible HOFer Maurkice Pouncy. Ben was crying at the end of the Cleveland playoff loss likely because his buddy played his last game, but probably a few tears were also shed realizing the pain he could possibly endure in the near future without his rock protecting him.
That said, Pouncey was on the decline anyway. He’s not the only loss, though. As of this writing, the future of Alejandro Villanueva is also up in the air and I would include him in the same category as Pouncey as an asset on the decline. Losing Matt Feiler to free agency further depletes a line that needs an overhaul.
I’d argue the line play has slipped overall ever since losing Mike Munchak. The guy was invaluable. His loss, aging, and simple lack of talent are all factors in an evident decline. An injection of new juice and improved play from those currently on the roster is desperately needed.
Richard Dotson looked like a good addition last year and David DeCastro was still solid, but Chukwuma Okorafor has to improve and Zach Banner is a question mark, though the Steelers’ brass seemed to like him. The center position is rough with BJ Finney seemingly the starter at this point.
There were a couple free agent additions, but, really, did any excite you? Didn’t think so. You can hope.
Since this unit effects Ben and the running game, it is a big offseason worry. It needs addressed even more so than the running back position in the draft since a good line can cover up inadequacies in most backfields, as San Francisco has illustrated. Any back SF threw behind their blocking scheme seemed to excel.
Opinions vary, but some suggest a first round pick on an offensive lineman at the Steelers’ draft position might be better used elsewhere since, aside from the high valued line talent at the top of the draft, there are many 2nd and 3rd round picks as good as any in the late first.
Perhaps, but it can’t be ignored.
The New Offensive Coordinator
Let’s just state this every season because, really, don’t the fans always want to crush the offensive coordinator? Randy Fichtner? He stinks, fire him. Todd Haley? He stinks, fire him. Bruce Arians? Yep, Steelers fans hated him, too, and wanted him fired. Time may have left that hazy in people’s minds, but, yes, there was no love for him when we had him and fans wanted a change, and there were zero outcries when he was fired (retired…lol) by the Rooneys.
That said, Randy Fichtner was pretty awful. This time, a change was as inevitable as Thanos. The hope is Matt Canada can get some creativity out of an offense that has been as predictable as any I can remember.
Better scheme and play calling can only improve all the offensive components already outlined above.
Those Defensive Defections
Lastly, this snuck up as a concern and snowballed towards the end of last season and picked up steam into the offseason. The defense that looked so sterling early last year suddenly has causes for concern. Losing Devin Bush Jr to injury started the in-season decline of the defense, and by the end of the season his loss, and that of Bud Dupree and Tyson Alualu, was really noticed.
Injuries happen. Those players, sans Dupree, will be back, and even Dupree had a nice fill-in by Alex Highsmith, who Pro Football Focus raves about. But, the exodus of Dupree still isn’t a good thing, Highsmith or not, especially when followed by Mike Hilton, Steve Nelson, and Vince Williams.
While this is a concern, you can’t be too frightened for the prospects of a defense that still has Bush, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and T.J. Watt. Those are true talents. If Cam Sutton and Justin Layne can live up to their draft expectations, that would go a long way to solidifying the backfield. Then there are those like DB James Pierre that have received praise from the coaching staff. Who knows? Mike Hilton wasn’t all that till given the chance, either.
And, it would not be surprising again for the Steelers to draft an impact linebacker that will likely fall to their draft position with all the hyped QBs and WRs in this draft. It just seems that’s what the Steelers do in the first round.
The bottom line:
There is a flood of opinions and daggers being thrown from the football intelligentsia that the Steelers are on the decline, and could finish third in the division. It’s trendy to bury the 6-time Super Bowl champs. They believe the 11-0 start of last season is squarely in the rearview and it is the beginning of some lean times for the Steelers.
I think this is overblown, to a degree.
While any of these above concerns that fans are obsessing about can help derail the Steelers, I think the most important is the offensive line play. If this unit improves through some combination of new additions, better health, cohesion, and offensive scheme, the offense will solidify behind Ben Roethlisberger for his last run, improving both the run game and pass game with them.
This, admittedly, is a big if. You only need to re-watch the last Super Bowl to see how weak line play can derail even the best quarterbacks.
Ben isn’t done yet. I’ve never seen a done QB throw for 500 yards and 4 TDs in his final game, not to mention setting a league record with 47 completions in the process. As long as he’s not forced to shoulder the entire load and gets his protection, he’s more than capable of leading this team.
The defense needs contributions from new parts in the defensive backfield, but overall has its fair share of studs to keep it a quality unit. Hopefully, this takes some pressure off the offense as well.
The next fan obsession, the draft, will go a long way to quelling some concerns. Or, it will only enflame them. Stay tuned obsessed Steelers fans.
I know you will.