3Rivers’ Takeaways: No candy-coating, the Steelers have major issues

Christina Rivers (3Rivers_Writer on Twitter) offers her Pittsburgh Steelers post-game takeaways, both positive and negative, as Steel City Underground extends its coverage of the Steelers’ on-field performances throughout the 2021-22 NFL regular season.

Although I am not a negative person and am relentlessly given grief, especially on social media, for looking at the positives that the Pittsburgh Steelers are able to display rather than dwelling ceaselessly on nothing but the negatives, I have to be realistic this week – this 2021 Steelers squad has major issues. There’s no way to put a Willy Wonka candy coating on certain areas of this team, as much as it would taste better to do so.

Before I go completely off, however, I would like to point out a couple of players that have impressed me through four weeks of play: Najee Harris and Diontae Johnson.

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For the first time all season, the Pittsburgh offense was able to score on their opening offensive series. Arguably the Steelers’ offensive MVPs in this game, Harris, and Johnson, were key to that success. Johnson caught a Ben Roethlisberger pass for a 45-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-four after the Packers defense jumped offside. In the same series, Harris was able to convert a third-and-one with a two-yard rush in what would be an eight-play drive that covered 75 yards.

Johnson, who has improved his route running and ball-handling this season, had his best game of the season after missing Week 3 with a leg injury. He recorded nine catches in 13 targets for 92 yards (69.2% catch percentage and 7.08 yards-per target), a touchdown, and played 92 percent of the offensive snaps.

Harris, who has been showing his worth when given the opportunity, gained 62 yards on 15 carries despite an offensive line that has been floundering. The rookie running back also earned 29 yards on six-of-seven receiving opportunities for his second-best receiving percentage of the year. After scoring his first receiving touchdown earlier this season, Harris finally broke the plane of the goal in a fantastic leap-and-stretch over the pile for his first rushing touchdown.

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The hard truths

I admitted I wasn’t going to put sugar and spice and everything nice into my takeaways, and I’m keeping my promise. There are, in my opinion, three glaring deficiencies in this Steelers team through four weeks of play that have exposed major issues. Are they fixable? I’m honestly not sure.

First, we’ve heard that the Steelers have five new starters on the offensive line, including two rookies. We’ve heard that there would be a learning curve. At this point, though, even I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of consistency from one week to the next. At least one sack that Roethlisberger took (see photo above) was due to Dan Moore getting sacked into his own quarterback. You read that correctly. Moore was mauled.

It wasn’t the first time that the left side of the Steelers’ offensive line has gotten driven so far into the offensive backfield that Roethlisberger had no time to go through all available check-downs. The offensive line is the biggest liability this Steelers team has and looks to continue to be, despite my early optimism, unless some hard coaching decisions are made.

Second, regardless of what Matt Canada’s scheme is, there is an obvious problem with routes that are not allowing receivers to get separation from defenders. Did Roethlisberger miss some targets that could have given the Steelers nice gains, or even touchdowns? Absolutely. If you go back and watch the film of the game, Roethlisberger – and it’s not the first game this has occurred in – was unable to find the open guy or he could not place the ball where an open receiver could get to it. Case in point, at least two passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster; just out of reach or on the wrong side of the body to allow the receiver to twist and haul in the ball.

I am not putting 100 percent of the blame on the offense, however. There is plenty of finger-pointing that should be aimed at Canada’s choice of scheme, what appears like an inability to either be creative enough or adding too much complexity, and poor overall decisions in playcalling.

We’ve witnessed the obnoxious and obvious throw to the flat that opposing defenders have easily read on third-and-long or, even worse, fourth-and-whatever that has led to turning the ball over on downs or a need to punt the ball away. That play needs to be pulled from the playbook unless there is an RPO put into it to create some indecision for opposing defenses. I say trash it altogether and look for an alternative.

Third, the Steelers have to do better defensively about not allowing opposing receivers to cross in front of them on a route and making an in-stride catch for a big gain. That means dropping the inside linebackers they have on the roster into coverage as much as Pittsburgh has been costing them.

When you’re getting appropriate pressure up front, defensively, to make a nice stop and a linebacker – like Joe Schobert or Robert Spillane – is being asked to track a guy like Randall Cobb on a slant route across the entire center of the field and make a play, you’re killing any opportunity to get the ball back to the offense. You’re also exhausting the guys along the defensive line and outside rush.

Now to the fans…

I’m going to refrain from using names because the “who” is not nearly as big of a deal as the “what.”

I completely understand the frustration. As a long-time Steelers fan (we’re talking over 40 years of ups and downs), I’m not holding a rose and unicorns parade over how Pittsburgh has looked this season.

The level of fan negativity, however, has elevated to the point of being nauseating. Examples of ridiculous statements yesterday on social media included these gems: “Devin Bush is a bust,” “Never let Ben Roethlisberger touch another snap,” “Najee Harris was a wasted pick,” “Cam Heyward is trash,” and “T.J. Watt wasn’t worth what he got paid.” Seriously?

Aaron Rodgers and Mike Tomlin didn’t smile and nod at each other during the game because they’re “flirting” over Rodgers coming to Pittsburgh. The two played a move in chess and respected that they happened to be aware of it at the same moment. That’s gamesmanship, folks, not secret code for “come on over.” Time to put that GIF in the dumpster. It’s ridiculous.

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