While Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert expressed some optimism about the team potentially having a bit of an advantage over many other teams because of their continuity and presence of veterans throughout the roster, he also acknowledged the glaring elephant in the room: this passing game hasn’t really worked together yet.
That is, mostly, because of Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury last year, which robbed him of experiencing much of any of Diontae Johnson’s rookie season, and James Washington’s second year in which he was beginning to develop. Add in the Covid-19 offseason and the limited opportunities he’s had to work with the new pieces in Chase Claypool and free agent tight end Eric Ebron.
In espousing the continuity on the roster, Colbert admitted to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, “the only real difference is that Ben has not played a lot with some of our young skill talent. Once he gets caught up and starts to play more with that group, I think it could be interesting as they continue to develop”
“A guy like Eric Ebron coming from the outside, it’s important for Ben and he to get on the same page. I think there will be some timing issues”, he added. “There’s some different learning that has to go on offensively from a cohesiveness standpoint. But it could be very productive once they get on the same page”.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner and Vance McDonald are the only skill position players on the roster with whom Roethlisberger has worked reasonably extensively and with a rapport. While Washington did log a good number of snaps during his rookie season in 2018, he was sparsely-targeted, and the connection between the two was pretty poor overall.
But the building blocks of Smith-Schuster, Conner, and McDonald can go a long way in getting things up and running on the offense at the outset of the 2020 season. Roethlisberger has had a great connection with Smith-Schuster from the word go, and Conner has been a pleasant surprise as a receiving back, while McDonald had a career year the last time he had his quarterback.
I also believe that Johnson will be successful in getting up to speed with Roethlisberger in very short order. After all, he was the favored receiver for both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges last year, which resulted in him leading the team in both receptions and receiving touchdowns. If he can work with them, he can work with the big man.
The others, such as Claypool and Ebron, may take some time to develop. Even Ebron admitted that he expects the whole league to be sloppy from the outset. But the Steelers aren’t the only team in the same boat. Nobody’s even had a preseason. There will be growing pains all around. It just comes down to who can withstand them better. And the continuity the team does have on offense will have to play a central role in that.