Ahhhh, the moment yinz have all been waiting for, the 2021 season opener! The 2020 season didn’t end how we all wanted it to, but a new season means a fresh start and another campaign to climb the stairway to seven! The Pittsburgh Steelers have faced an off-season with some highs and lows. There are several new faces in several positions due to retirements, free agency losses and additions, and several rookies looking to contribute early in the season. Tomorrow at 1pm ET, the Steelers kickoff their 2021 campaign in Orchard Park, New York against the Buffalo Bills!
Let’s take a look at 3 things we should watch for in the season opener matchup:
1) New Faces: Will the running game show improvement?
The Steelers have had a lot of new faces come in and pretty much have a brand new offensive line this season. Even though the five starters that will start the season will not be the projected starters a lot of us had in mind at the beginning of training camp, one thing is for sure, and that is that this group can be a group of maulers! In 2020, the Steelers ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing yards. It’s only logical that the team can only go up from there! The Steelers added rookie RB Najee Harris with their first round pick during this year’s NFL Draft. As electric and pro-ready as the running back is; he cannot do it by himself. Insert rookie LT Dan Moore Jr., who showed a lot of promise during camp and in preseason action, LG Kevin Dotson, who played extremely well last season and proved to be a people-mover, C Kendrick Green, another rookie, who exhibits toughness and aggressiveness that is needed on that offensive line, RG Trai Turner ( 5x Pro Bowler), who provides savvy veteran leadership on a very young offensive line and knows how to get the job done, and RT Chukwuma Okorafor, who spent the majority of last season at RT for the Steelers as well. There are a lot of unknowns with this group, but only time will tell if they can get the job done. It can be argued, that after last season’s struggles in the running game, new faces were needed. The Bills’ defense will be without DT Star Lotulelei, which can be a big loss in the middle of their defense. Hopefully, the Steelers can get this running game going tomorrow!
2) Ben Roethlisberger: Is 39 the new 29, especially under new OC Matt Canada?
Despite playing pretty well last season, finishing the year throwing for 3,800 yards on a 66% completion percentage, 33 TDs and 10 interceptions, the Steelers’ future first ballot Hall of Fame QB, Ben Roethlisberger, has a lot to prove to the naysayers this season. For some reason, a lot of the national media has expressed that Roethlisberger doesn’t have anything left in the tank. Honestly, that narrative probably comes from the disastrous playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns last season, in which Roethlisberger threw 4 interceptions. The quarterback also threw for 500 yards and 4 TDs in that disastrous overall performance by the Steelers. That’s an argument that could spring an entire article! The Steelers made some coaching changes and fulfilled the offensive coordinator coaching position with last season’s QB Coach, Matt Canada. Canada will be bringing a more modern day look to the Steelers’ offense with more pre-snap motion and much more creativity than what the Steelers offense has exhibited over the past several seasons. This should cut down on the predictability of the Steelers’ offense and open up more opportunities for the Steelers to help out Roethlisberger with the running game and provide more opportunity for the quarterback to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. The Steelers offense does NOT lack playmakers! The offense will display playmakers like Harris, TEs Eric Ebron and rookie TE Pat Freiermuth, and stacked WR room that includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington. I’m excited to see this new scheme put the Steelers’ playmakers in the best position possible to make plays tomorrow and the rest of the season.
3) Will the defense be able to contain the electric Josh Allen-Stefon Diggs connection?
In last season’s matchup against the Bills, the Steelers struggled to cover Stefon Diggs, who lit up an undermanned Steelers’ defense for 10 receptions, 130 yards, and a touchdown. It seemed that Diggs was able to get open anywhere on the field, but especially because of the middle of the field always seemed to be open. The Steelers made a trade in the preseason to acquire LB Joe Schobert, who has been a proven coverage linebacker during his career. This trade should help the Steelers’ defense with coverage issues in the middle of the field. The Steelers have some new faces playing at cornerback and they have kept it pretty low key about who the starting outside corners will be against the Bills, especially after removing the slot corner position from the depth chart. Other than Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, the Steelers have several unproven guys at the position. Newly-acquired CB Ahkello Witherspoon, Justin Layne, James Pierre, and even Sutton could all see time at CB2 tomorrow afternoon. Sutton’s ability to play well in the slot corner position opens up the door for others to see time at the corner position opposite Haden. Whatever combination of corners, the Steelers’ defense will have a plan to contain Diggs. Steelers’ DC, Keith Butler spoke to the media on Thursday and stated,
“I’m very ambiguous because I want to be. I’m not going to tell them what we’re doing.” He continued, “He’s a good player. He’s one of their best players. He should be an All-Pro. That’s what he should be,” referring to Diggs. “We have a plan for him. There’s different things we’re going to do against him and against the quarterback also, so I’d rather wait and let them see it for the first time instead of hearing it from me.”