By Jeremy Hritz
The Steelers have yet to even take a snap in the 2021 season, yet there are some emerging themes surrounding the team that will tell their story as they battle through a 17-game schedule: uncertainty, consistency, and adversity. While not uplifting or inspiring terms, they are the current reality for this team and will go a long way in determining whether or not the season is a success.
More than other time in recent memory, the Steelers are faced with myriad questions that at this time are unanswerable. Unfortunately, these questions will not be able to be answered until well into the 2021 season. Maurkice Pouncey retired and vacated the center position, which probably will be filled by Kendrick Green. We think. David DeCastro was cut and was replaced by a veteran guard in Trai Turner, who has played well in previous years before being injured. He should be able to rebound, right? A host of free agents who were longtime starters departed such as Alejandro Villanueva and Bud Dupree, forcing depth into new starting roles. But the Steelers know how to prepare their talent for moments like these…
See the pattern?
With rampant roster turnover, including Steven Nelson being cut, the Steelers now have to turn to younger players with unproven track records to not only fill those spots, but to do so in a way that maintains the standard of the team. And while historically the Steelers have been excellent at developing their talent, with this occurring at so many positions, it is easy to understand why everything, is well, so uncertain.
The remedy? Quality play from the new starters. But can that be guaranteed consistently?
While the new, motivated players in their new starting roles are exciting and intriguing to envision, it is established that younger, inexperienced players struggle with consistency, and that type of unevenness at so many positions could be harmful to the season outcome.
The pressure that is currently on the rookie class is immense, and fans are expecting massive production from Najee Harris, and Kendrick Green. Pat Freiermuth is also being expected to make contributions as the #2 tight end. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these players are rookies in a new location, acclimating to a new job, organization, culture, people, learning a professional-level playbook, and putting it all together mentally and physically in the heat of battle at 100 mph. It’s not just plug and play, though that’s how it can be perceived.
Even though some of the players have starting experience, many have not been the established starter for a full season. Players like Zach Banner, Cam Sutton, Alex Highsmith are still learning the nuances of the game that can only come through the experience of starting a full season. And what this can translate into is lack of consistency. Without consistency in terms of performance and production from all 11 players on a unit, results could be discrepant, and the Steelers will need their new faces to be fast-learners and adapters as to minimize error and inconsistency.
Typically, the adversity comes via the games, but the Steelers have had their share of it since the conclusion of the abysmal playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Questions about Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities and whether or not he can still play at a high-level, and whether or not he would even return for another season. Salary cap challenges and an inability to hold on to outstanding players, and unfortunately losing them in free agency. The heavy-reliance on inexperienced players/rookies to contribute and help the team contend. Inane behaviors off-the-field keeping alive the lazy narrative of a lack of discipline on the team. An absolutely brutal schedule. Couple all of that with an AFC North led by rising, athletic quarterbacks, and the pressure isn’t just on the rookies, it’s on the entire Steelers organization.
Mike Tomlin has always been a fan of adversity and how it can help teams grow and develop. Adversity can also reveal the guts of a unit, and if it in fact has the wherewithal to overcome and be successful in the face of difficulties. With the reality-based adversity combined with the media’s fatalistic take on the 2021 Steelers, the team now has to respond, and if Tomlin’s history has taught us anything, it’s to never count out one of his teams.
That’s Why They Play The Game
The story of the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers is just starting to be written, and the first chapter is dark, depressing, and potentially ominous. But like any story, good or bad, the narrative shifts and follows a plot structure to where there is resolution to the questions, there is a falling action, and there is a reflection point on all that transpired.
Right now, it seems that everything is stacked against this team. And the odds don’t look very good.
But this is always how the tale of a hero begins. And how tragedies commence, too.