The Pittsburgh Steelers might have the widest range of possible outcomes in the NFL during the 2021 season. The team could be a postseason contender with its offensive weapons, strong coaching, and dynamic defense. The franchise’s aging quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, inexperienced offensive line, and stubborn commitment to airing it out could put it at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Ahead of the meeting with the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw called the organization out. He cited the franchise’s team-building strategy and refusal to commit to the run. The Steelers heeded Bradshaw’s call, and now the team’s 2021 outlook might be bright again.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers are struggling
The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like the best team in the NFL through 11 undefeated games in 2020. Then, over the last six regular-season and playoff games, the league exposed the team and its 39-year-old quarterback.
The Steelers lost five of those final six, including a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Game. Ben Roethlisberger threw 12 interceptions in those games, including four picks in the playoffs.
After an uncertain offseason in which it looked like the Steelers’ longtime signal-caller night retire, the former Miami (OH) passer returned. He came back with a new-look offensive line and a young, talented new running back.
While the early results were promising — with a surprising Week 1 in Buffalo — the next three games looked much like the end of 2020.
In those games, Roethlisberger threw the ball an average of 46 times per contest. This resulted in losses to the Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, and Green Bay Packers. The signal-caller threw four interceptions in those contests and averaged a stunningly low 6.22 yards per attempt, which would currently rank 31st in the NFL.
Despite the clamor that Big Ben is done as an NFL QB, some, including a Pittsburgh Steelers legend, don’t agree that Roethlisberger is the offense’s main problem.
Terry Bradshaw and the ‘FOX NFL Sunday’ crew call out the Pittsburgh Steelers
The narrative around the Pittsburgh Steelers’ struggles centers around Ben Roethlisberger’s regression as a passer. However, the FOX NFL Sunday crew believes there are other culprits. The offensive line and the lack of a running game are chief among them.
When discussing the Steelers’ Week 5 matchup against the Denver Broncos, the FOX pundits called out the Steelers for their lack of a running game.
The organization drafted star Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 draft. However, prior to Sunday, the team hadn’t rushed for over 100 yards since a 2020 Week 11 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. There also hadn’t been a Steeler RB who rushed for 100 yards since James Conner went for 101 against the Cleveland Browns last Week 6.
Howie Long noted that the Steelers used not one of their last 18 first- and second-round picks to draft an offensive lineman. Michael Strahan then shared that the Steelers passed on 73% of their offensive plays in the first four weeks of 2021.
Finally, former legendary Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw mounted a passionate defense of his successor:
The toughness of a football team comes from the offense running the football. That’s historically true. You can’t fix a running game with a great running back. You gotta have linemen. They’ve gotta create creases. They’ve done nothing — and Howie, you’re right — they’ve not drafted linemen. They blame it on Ben. Listen, you protect Ben, you put Ben in Tampa Bay, he’s firing it away, throwing deep passes just like he’s always done because they have a great offensive line.Terry Bradshaw on the Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada obviously weren’t glued to the pregame shows on Sunday ahead of their game. But it sure seems like they heard this message loud and clear.
Roethlisberger’s offensive line rose to the occasion on Sunday
After the criticism from Terry Bradshaw and company on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ much-maligned offense went out and beat up on the Denver Broncos, 27-19.
The offense broke both its team and individual 100-yard rushing streak as Harris ran for 122 yards on 23 carries. Roethlisberger threw it a season-low 25 times and avoided throwing an INT. This balanced approach spotted the Steelers a 17-6 lead at the half. At the start of the fourth quarter, the team was up 24-6.
After the game, Harris gave major credit to the group up front that Bradshaw had bashed just a few hours earlier.
“Man, the 100-yard game,” Harris said, per ESPN. “It’s not so much me, I’m more excited of how the O-line did, just because of all the criticism they’ve been taking, and they stuck through it. We never broke.”
The unit — tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr., guards Trai Turner and Kevin Dotson, and center Kendrick Green — performed well against a tough Broncos D-line that includes All-Pro Von Miller. In addition to the 100-yard ground game, the Steelers’ line also surrendered just one sack.
The O-line still has a ways to go to become a feared unit like the one Pittsburgh had for the better part of the last decade. That group included nine-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Alejandro Villanueva, six-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro, and longtime starting guard Ramon Foster.
For the line to gel and become as good as the impressive linemen of Steelers past, it is up to Tomlin, Canada, and Roethlisberger to commit to the Steelers Way. That means running the ball and playing great D.
If they don’t do so, Big Ben’s possible last season in the NFL could be another one of his worst.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference