Though Ben Roethlisberger and a loaded receiving corps returns in Pittsburgh for the 2021 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are leaning heavily into rebuilding the league’s worst rushing attack.
Pittsburgh drafted running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, and center Kendrick Green, re-signed Zach Banner, and added Trai Turner after the surprising release of David Decastro, all in hopes of improving the league’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack that played a significant factor in the decline of the team’s chances in 2020 down the stretch.
All that should play a huge role in the Steelers’ offensive foundation changing, according to NFL analyst and senior producer at NFL Films Greg Cosell, who appeared on the Ross Tucker Podcast June 30.
Previewing the AFC North with Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman from 2001-2007, Cosell said that the Steelers cannot ask Roethlisberger to drop back to pass 40+ times a game and not utilize Harris properly.
“You just cannot ask Ben Roethlisberger, at this point in his career, behind this totally unproven offensive line, and they did draft two guys in the third and fourth round who I both like their tape a lot, but they’re rookies, we don’t know. But you just cannot ask Roethlisberger to drop back 40, 45 times by choice,” Cosell said. “They did that a lot last year. I mean, you don’t draft Najee Harris, in my opinion, to give him the ball nine times a game. He’s not that kind of back. He’s a foundation, feature back. He’s a grinder. He wears people out. He’s 230 pounds. I’ve actually met him and he is a big dude. And you draft him to give him the football. So, I would think that the foundation of this offense will change.”
When Art Rooney II comes out and says the Steelers must be able to run the football better, and both Mike Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada also emphasize the importance of the run game all offseason — which was backed up by the drafting of Harris, Freiermuth and Green — there’s very little chance the Steelers all of a sudden ask Roethlisberger to throw the football 40+ times a game again in 2021, unless they are in comeback mode.
Harris will be used properly as the bell cow running back that he is. He should easily average 20-25 carries a game on top of touches out of the backfield as a receiver as the Steelers look to take a lot of the workload off of Roethlisberger’s right arm.
Though the offensive line remains a question mark when it comes to the ability to run the football and protect Roethlisberger, Cosell was quick to tamp down some of the negativity regarding the group on paper.
“Well, that’s going to be interesting because the o-line right now is, everybody’s going to say it’s no good,” Cosell said. “But we don’t know that it’s no good, it’s a work in progress and we don’t know where it’ll end up. That’s the point [of a rebuild].”
The Steelers should be able to get out of the gate fast in the run game, thanks to facing three of the NFL’s 10 worst run defenses in the league in 2020 (Raiders, Bengals and Broncos) in the first five weeks of the season.