The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Ben Roethlisberger will average fewer than 35 pass attempts per game during the 2021 season.
Explanation: The Steelers have been not just a pass-first, but a pass-heavy offense for a number of years now. Their recent offensive coordinators have actively described short passes as ‘run game extension’ plays. But more than they have in a long time, they are committing in principle to running the ball better, and thus more often. The league average of passing attempts per game last season was 35.2, and 34.9 in 2019, so 35 is a good barometer figure. The range tends to be within one attempt of that number.
While it’s a major ask for the offensive line, I think the Steelers’ rededication to the running game will pay dividends. The offensive line is quite different, but so is their philosophy. They will be trained to be physical and aggressive. Former Steeler Alejandro Villanueva even suggested at one point after signing with the Ravens that they didn’t even practice running the ball much. That won’t be the case this year.
Oh, and Najee Harris? He’s a star. He’s the kind of running back who will be able to create his own offense. He will make a difference in every aspect, including in the short-yardage situations that have been such a burden in recent years.
Matt Canada is the key here. While we’re still very much learning about him, the common theme has been his ideas about putting players in position to succeed, and setting up plays. The run game is clearly in much better hands with him than with Randy Fichtner, who multiple times over the past three seasons basically acknowledged that he sometimes didn’t know what to do with it.
It’s the same old story. Good intentions don’t lead to good results. I’m sure the Steelers would love to hold Roethlisberger to fewer than 35 passes per game, but they won’t find that they can win with that formula.
Not because Harris doesn’t have enough talent to shoulder that load, or that they have enough depth at the running back position to support it, but because the offensive line is just too far behind from where it would need to be to be consistently effective on the ground.
As for Canada, he is a complete unknown variable. We have no idea if his play-calling style will be effective or not. I’m sure he’ll try to limit Roethlisberger’s passes, but there will come the point in games when he has to air the ball out to try to win. As happens every year. Roethlisberger hasn’t averaged fewer than 35 pass attempts per game since 2012.