The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at what would have been the quarter point of the 2021 NFL season, prior to the league adding a 17th game to the schedule. That actually looks like a positive development at the moment, because the Steelers are still searching for their identity at this early stage of the season.
The extra preseason game for the Steelers may have been beneficial for the rookies and other newcomers, but did little to hasten team chemistry with most veterans participating in only a few series, or missing precious time due to injuries. The lack of cohesion and consistency is the direct byproduct of limited experience functioning as a collective group. Nowhere is that more true than for the offensive line.
This is an especially youthful roster for the Steelers at the moment, which bodes well for the future. Accomplished veteran performers like Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Haden, and Cameron Heyward skew the average age of the roster, which would be the second youngest in the NFL without those elder statesmen.
Make no mistake about it, the Steelers have a talented young roster that suggests continued future success is probable, but the more immediate concern is the present. Let's take a look back at how each of the Steelers talented rookies performed against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.
RB Najee Harris
Harris enjoyed his most productive game running the football against the Packers. He continues to break tackles consistently, but he wasn't forced to encounter or evade first contact until near or even past the line of scrimmage on multiple occasions for the first time this season. He also didn't experience the frustration of having many of his most productive rushes negated by penalties.
He did a much better job of identifying and setting up his blocking, prior to utilizing his impressive power and explosion to maximizing each carry. He wasn't utilized in the passing game nearly as frequently as the previous week, primarily because his record breaking performance the game prior catching the ball resulted in him being the center of attention against the Packers.
Harris leads all NFL rookies in total yards thus far this season. He has done so through incredible effort and determination, in spite of a subpar offensive line and a struggling passing game. He has exceeded most realistic expectations, and has to be in any discussion for Rookie of the Year.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Freiermuth is simply too talented to not be utilized more frequently in the passing game. He received the most snaps of any Steelers TE on Sunday, but finished with a single reception on the day.
He continues to be the team's best blocking TE, but needs to be targeted far more often in the passing game, especially across the middle and up the seams. Roethlisberger compared Freiermuth to Steelers legend Heath Miller during the preseason, so it stands to reason that Ben would want to strive towards developing a similar connection with the talented young pass catcher.
Freiermuth needs to be a valued commodity utilized to exploit the middle of the field, and the red zone. He can no longer be an afterthought if the Steelers passing game is going to improve, particularly in the intermediate routes.
C Kendrick Green
Prior to the start of the game, there were numerous comments suggesting real concern for Green's ability to succeed in his matchup with Packers former Pro Bowl DT Kenny Clark. Many expected Clark to dominate the matchup, and create havoc for the Steelers offense. Green proved the concern was unwarranted.
Green played the best game of his young NFL career. In a hostile environment, against a accomplished opponent. He anchored well, and carried out his assignments cleanly, finishing his initial block before looking for his next target.
He appeared to pay greater attention to detail, as the game continues to slow down for the newbie center. He delivered his best professional performance against arguably his toughest opponent. His PFF grade, the highest of the year, definitely passed the eye test.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
Every player has areas of weakness that require experience and focused training to improve. Even more so for a fourth round rookie offensive tackle project. Moore has done an admirable job to overcome his shortcomings through gritty determination after being forced into action earlier than expected.
Moore's areas of weakness are being exposed as he builds his NFL portfolio, leaving any warts to be closely examined on film. The opposition have definitely been doing their homework.
Moore had a solid game run blocking, but struggled throughout in pass protection. He consistently gave ground as he was bull rushed repeatedly, getting basically run through for one sack.
An offseason of specified weight training will help alleviate that issue, but in the meantime, Moore has no choice but to continue to fight through the struggles. The Steelers can offer help on occasion when needed, especially if the right side of the line settles down.
ILB Buddy Johnson
For the first time this season, Johnson was a healthy scratch for the game. That should be a regular occurrence moving forward barring injuries or ineffectiveness higher up the depth chart.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Loudermilk is proving to be exactly what his pre-draft evaluations suggested. Excellent size and length, but extremely raw. Struggles to gain leverage, or disengage from blockers.
Injuries to Tyson Alualu and Carlos Davis have forced the young man into action sooner than preferred, where the Steelers suddenly find themselves needing size and strength along the interior defensive line, attributes that Loudermilk can provide.
He provided the occasional respite for Cam Heyward on the day, but was unremarkable. He was credited with a pass defense. His opportunities should diminish if and when Carlos Davis returns.
DB Tre Norwood
Norwood's snap count continues to fluctuate weekly, depending on matchups and in-game situations. Arthur Maulet has seen an increase in snaps over the past couple of weeks due to his physicality and efficiency as a tackler. Basically, the Steelers like to use Maulet similar to how they utilized Mike Hilton in the past.
Norwood's intelligence and instincts in pass coverage will always be his best attribute, although his physicality has been improving. He will really shine if and when the Steelers offense improves enough for the team to play with a lead on occasion.
P Pressley Harvin lll
Harvin is a rather rotund individual, leading to numerous fun nicknames. However, if he isn't careful, Big Shank maybe added to the list. That is one he definitely doesn't want on his portfolio.
With the Steelers backed up deep on their own end, they desperately needed Harvin to boom one of his rocket kicks to flip field position. The rookie promptly booted a...20 yard duck. Clear miss hit when the team needed him the most. Sound familiar?
With Jordan Berry now playing extremely well for the Minnesota Vikings, one starts to wonder if the Steelers punter situation is destined for failure. Maybe it's the Curse of the Lonesome Kicker. Google the hilarious Adam Sandler song and video if you aren't familiar.
All joking aside, I believe that Harvin will develop into one of the best punters in the league. Rookie growing pains are inevitable, regardless of position. Patience is required.