The Steelers 2020 season ended with an embarrassing playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions in the 48-37 blowout at the hands of their hated division rival. The lasting memory of that game was Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey sitting on the bench after the game, heads down, contemplating their future. As Kevin Colbert and company began to formulate the Steelers 2021 plan, it’s hard to imagine a complete rebuild wasn’t in order. As it turned out, they had the exact opposite in mind.
Strike one: Keeping the quarterback
Everyone seemed to know that Ben Roethlisberger was no longer the same quarterback after 2020 season. Everyone is except Steelers management that is. He had clearly lost his biggest asset, the ability to scramble and shed would be tacklers with ease. What was left was a shell of the former player. Big Ben had become a dink and dunk pocket passer, which was never his strong suit.
The time to move on, and find the next Steelers quarterback was upon them. This franchise either didn’t realize, or refused to admit their “guy” was done. They instead bypassed one of the best quarterback drafts in sometime. The results were predictable. Roethlisberger had another sub par season, which worsened as the season went on. By the end, the team could barely scrounge up any semblance of an offense.
Strike two: Ignoring the offensive line
If the plan is to bring back your 38 year old broken down quarterback, then its not a good idea to basically ignore the crumbling offensive line. The Steelers ended the 2020 season with both Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro over 30 and in a steep decline. Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler were impending free agents, and the lone bright spot from 2020 was a rookie fourth round draft pick in Kevin Dotson.
Most, including us, thought that priority number one during the off-season would be to bolster this group. Will the Steelers offensive line be their undoing in 2021?
Instead, the team again chose to put the offensive line on the back burner and concentrate elsewhere. Kevin Colbert waited until the third and fourth round to fill out key positions along his line. Adding two mid-round rookies to an already failing group had predictable results. The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the worst offensive lines in football in 2020. The team finished dead last in rushing, and Roethlisberger had precious little time to throw.
Strike three: The draft
The Steelers 2021 plan was centered around the belief that all that was missing from this offense was a bell cow running back. They quickly fell in love with Alabama’s Najee Harris. Throughout the draft process, Pittsburgh made no secret that Harris was their guy despite all the other holes along the roster. Drafting a running back in the first round is a bad idea to begin with. It has been proven over and over again that top quality backs can be found much later in the draft. Add to this the fact that he would be running behind an awful line, and this plan was doomed from the start.
On the surface, Najee Harris’ stats look very good. A rookie with 1,200 yards rushing is usually a pretty good season. But dig deeper and we see a very different story. Harris’ very pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry show a back who did not make many impactful plays. It was only his league leading 307 carries that made his rushing total so impressive. This is not to say Najee Harris is not a very good player. But rather to point out the team would have been much better off drafting lineman early, and then addressing back later on in the draft.
The Steelers bypassed some very good lineman because of their obsession at running back. Creed Humphrey, to name just one, could have been the answer at center for years to come. Instead it looks like the team will be once again trying to fill the center position after the disastrous rookie season of Kendrick Green. The rest of the draft looks spotty at best. Pat Freiermuth appears to be a solid selection, but again at the expense of filling more pressing positions. Dan Moore struggled mightily after being thrown in as the team’s starting left tackle. He showed some flashes, but is still very much a question mark as we head into 2022.
A failed plan:
The 2021 Steelers plan was a clear case of an organization refusing see a franchise player has declined past the point of no return. Loyalty is a great trait for any team, but when it leads to clouded judgment it can be a huge detriment. The Steelers did everything they could to prop up Ben Roethlisberger for one last Super Bowl run. They tried to emulate teams and players who were around when Roethlisberger was at his best. Najee Harris as Le’Veon Bell, Diontae Johnson as AB, and Pat Freiermuth as Heath Miller. In the end none of those players was as good as there predecessors, including the quarterback. Refusing to start a rebuild in 2021 set this franchise back. How far back remains to be seen, but there is no championships in the near future for this team.