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Saunders: Steelers Flawed Offseason Strategy, Failure to Fix Offensive Line Looming Large



There are two really big problems with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense through three weeks of the 2021 season.

The first problem is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not the player he used to be. Roethlisberger showed in 2020 a lack of mobility that has persisted into 2021, and while he still gets plenty on his throws, Roethlisberger’s accuracy does not seem to be at the same level it was a year ago. Furthermore, his decision-making in a new offense does not seem as crisp as it has been in the past.

Roethlisberger’s decline was predictable in that 39-year-olds don’t typically get better, only worse, and the team installed a wholly new offense for him for the first time in a decade. As he gains familiarity with the offense, he’ll probably get better, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll get through the season healthy, either. That seemed to be the case last season, when Roethlisberger became much less efficient after a knee injury suffered at Dallas in the midst of the team’s 11-0 start.

The second problem is that the team’s offensive line, which struggled mightily to make room in the running game in 2020, suddenly can’t protect the quarterback, either.

The Steelers replaced four of their five starters from last season, and made an attempt to go five-for-five before that was stymied by Zach Banner’s apparent knee setback. But they didn’t exactly break the bank in that effort.

The plan was to use Banner at right tackle, put 2020 right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who lost a preseason battle to Banner two years in a row, at the more difficult left tackle position, roll with David DeCastro at one guard spot and go with second-year former fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson at the other, with third-round rookie Kendrick Green and one-time AAF lineman J.C. Hassenauer as the only viable options at center.

Then DeCastro retired, Banner didn’t get healthy and the team has been left with scrap-heap free agent signing Trai Turner at right guard and fourth-round rookie Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle, with Okorafor back on the right.

Roethlisberger took a $5 million pay cut to come back to the Steelers for 2021 and agreed to push most of his salary out to 2022 to give the team much-needed space to work with in a pandemic-reduced salary cap environment this season. They could not have secured any other quarterback for what they’re paying Roethlisberger, let alone a good one.

While his decline was predictable, he also represented the best realistic outcome the team had at that position this offseason.

That can’t be the said for the offensive line. The Steelers chose to use their first two draft picks at running back and tight end, needs to be sure but not on the same level as linemen. They also spent $8 million on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, $4 million on outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, a combined $5 million on defensive linemen Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley. They traded a sixth-round pick for Joe Schobert. They traded a fifth-round pick for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who is currently a healthy scratch, and a fourth-round pick to get end Isaiahh Loudermilk.

Young linemen Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr. are not without potential, but expecting them to step in and play well from the start was folly. The Steelers didn’t have a better option that coming into the season with a 39-year-old quarterback well into his decline. They had the option to find a better way to protect him than what they did.

Instead, they went out and tried to focus on improving the running game by drafting Najee Harris with their first-round pick. Harris is a stellar player, but the back was not the issue with Pittsburgh’s running game.

Through three games, Harris has averaged 3.1 yards per carry, nearly a full yard worse than James Conner’s worst season of his three as starter in Pittsburgh. He’s also doing no better in the receiving game on average, though he has secured an impressive amount of volume.

The Steelers went into the offseason with a mandate from president Art Rooney II to fix the running game. They change coordinators and got a great running back, ignoring that the line is the primary driver of success in that area. The same investment in the line would have better helped protect the team’s aging starting quarterback.

Instead, Harris has a total, yes total, of 12 yards rushing before contact through three games. Roethlisberger has been sacked eight times and hit another 14. The team is 28th in scoring, and dead last in rushing. The next-to-last team running the ball? The Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers, Rams, Raiders and Chargers, all in current playoff position, are also in the bottom 10.

Running the ball is less important than it ever has been in the NFL. Yet the Steelers made it their misguided priority this offseason, then went about improving in that area in all the wrong ways.

That’s how you waste the last years of a franchise icon at quarterback and slam shut a window of competition.

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