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Steelers Offensive Offseason Requirements

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The 2022 offseason will be transformational in Pittsburgh.

Five possessions, five punts… sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about the wildcard punt-off against the Chiefs when the Steelers punted seven times in the first half, I’m looking back to week one on the road against the Bills.

The story of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense (ranked 23rd out of 32) is a familiar one. With the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, and with an ultimately disappointing season behind the team; big changes are needed in a number of areas.

After three years of Randy Fichtner and one year of Matt Canada both having coordinated ineffectual offenses, one has to look at the common denominator which was an aging HOF quarterback.

It is a tough criticism of this offense but the Steelers’ best chance of an explosive play was often due to a flag. Too often are they faced with third and long after two ineffective downs.

Quarterback – It’s the End of an Era

KANSAS CITY, MO – JANUARY 16: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is surrounded by the media as he walks off the field after an AFC wild-card playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs on Jan 16, 2022, at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Big Ben’s lap of honor at the end of the Browns game, he left Heinz field (certainly as a player) for the last time. Emotion aside, and clinically looking at the offense, Ben’s retirement has been needed for some time. Ben’s lack of trust in his own arm as he scanned sometimes up to three progressions all behind the LOS was worrying. The lack of time bought by the O-line is accountable to some extent but one has to look at the lack of intention by the quarterback to throw the ball vertically, which has extremely limited the Steelers offense in the last three seasons. When Ben did target a receiver deep on 3rd and long, it was all too obvious for the opposing team’s safety; leading to double coverage and a turnover-worthy play.

There are three options for the Steelers as it stands; a trade, free agency, or the draft. Each has positives and negatives for the franchise and will be examined further in a forthcoming article.

Running Back – In Najee We Trust

Najee Harris selection, with pick 24 of the 2021 NFL draft was expected but subject to great conjecture at the time. The need for reinforcement in the O-Line was well noted, but this article aims to look purely at Harris’ performances in the 2022 season.

The rookie’s seven TD, 1,200 yards, fumble-free season was impressive. He has demonstrated that when he has a crease to work with he can single headedly gain first downs, unfortunately, given Pittsburgh’s O-Line he had to physically fight for each of those yards across 307 rushing attempts averaging 3.9 yards per carry – consider the number of times he was ‘stuffed in the backfield’ and this 3.9-yard average is a credit to the young man. Harris’ game against the Browns at home was a demonstration of what he can achieve when the O-Line gives him room, no coincidence that this was a game with JC Hassenauer rather than Kendrick Green at center.

Tight End – ‘Muuuuuuuuth!

Pat Freiermuth has quickly become a fan favorite at Heinz Field, his first reception in the NFL was an explosive 21 yard gain with about half of that being YAC. Just what you want to see from your Penn State rookie tight end. 497 yards and 60 receptions already, two touchdowns against the Chicago Bears, and a big fourth quarter two-point conversion in the massive divisional game against Baltimore in Week 13 which ultimately won the game showed his clutch abilities and ultimately drove the Steelers towards their playoff birth.

Friermuth is likely to improve on his blocking ability and has already cemented himself as a key piece in Pittsburgh.

O Line – The Steelers Biggest Headache

The 2021 O-line was unable to consistently create room on run plays and protect Ben on pass plays.

Against the blitz, the Steelers O-Line looked like a ‘deer in headlights’. Time and again, they froze and were unable to handle significant pressure leaving opponents a route straight to Ben; watch how many times Jerry Hughes and Jordan Poyer had opportunities in the Bills game.  The Hoyer sack was followed by a particularly insightful play call with a hand-off to Harris on 2nd and 20 for zero gain by the way! Dan Moore Jr’s introduction to the NFL was a testing one.

The connection between OL and TE needs improvement, the OL can tend to bunch very tightly, allowing opponent DEs to take wider angles to either QB or RB.

Against the Raiders in week two, Maxx Crosby applied pressure after leaving Chuks Okorafor for dead, resulting in a pressured Ben launching the ball downfield for an INT by Mullen.

The O-Line can be fixed this off-season, in particular, if you consider that Dan Moore Jr was only a 4th round pick in the 2021 draft; he is a more than serviceable offensive tackle and no doubt will be part of the Steelers plans for the 2022 O-Line and years to come. The Steelers need either a starting center, a starting guard (this depends on what happens with Kendrick Green), and a right tackle. Okorafor is all too often guilty of causing a flag.

Wide Receiver – Re-Sign Juju at All Costs

Juju Smith Schuster was a significant miss for the Steelers following his supposedly season-ending shoulder injury. The Steelers simply have to re-sign Juju. His ability to extend plays and fight for additional yards he really shouldn’t be entitled to was demonstrated early in the season. He extends drives by gaining first downs, something which the Steelers have really struggled to do this year consecutively. Curl routes were particularly effective. Latest reports suggest he could be headed to Kansas City, particularly given the Steelers quarterback room uncertainties.

Diontae Johnson showed improvement in ball retention after his drops had been obvious in the 2020 season, albeit towards the end of 2021 they reared their ugly head again, potentially at the worst possible time when the Steelers were fighting towards playoff contention.

Chase Claypool has become somewhat of a ‘one-trick pony’ with outside go routes and contested catches. He wins a number of these due to his size and reach and gains from defensive PI calls. Matt Canada’s use of Claypool on a Jet Sweep is one effective play call – expect to see more of that in 2022 especially as the new QB will be able to run his scheme more effectively than Ben could in 2021.

Najee Harris had a tough start as a receiving option but will become a key piece if the Matt Canada offense is able to do what the OC intends.

The Steelers will likely draft another WR this year, Washington will likely find work elsewhere.

KANSAS CITY, MO – JANUARY 16: Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward (35) gets low to tackle Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) in the third quarter of an AFC wild-card playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs on Jan 16, 2022, at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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