In the Pittsburgh Steelers' third preseason game, we saw a small sample of what their offense can do in 2021.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took live reps in new offensive coordinator Matt Canada's offense and looked regular-season ready. Through three drives, he completed eight of 10 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-20 win against the Detroit Lions on Saturday.
On his second drive, Roethlisberger tossed a deep ball to wideout Diontae Johnson, who hauled it in for 43 yards. Though the 39-year-old signal-caller told reporters he "put too much air" on his deep strike, Steelers fans should be excited to see him take an early shot downfield.
Last year, the Steelers relied on the short passing game after Roethlisberger underwent a "total reconstruction" on his elbow during the offseason. He averaged just 6.9 air yards per pass attempt, which ranked toward the bottom of the league among starting quarterbacks.
After last week's preseason game, Roethlisberger compared the current condition of his arm to how it felt during the 2020 offseason.
"My arm feels pretty good compared to last year," Roethlisberger said. "I felt good, but I didn't know how it should feel. It feels pretty good right now."
Last offseason, Roethlisberger went through a rigorous regimen to strengthen his arm after surgery. Back in June, he talked about the change in his preparation leading up to the 2020 term, which may have caused early fatigue, per The Athletic's Ed Bouchette.
"Last year, I threw thousands of balls in the offseason because we were rehabbing. This year, it has gone back to the normal routine of throwing here, doing a little bit at home with the trainer. But mostly taking time off. I took a lot of time off from throwing, so I hope and think and really believe it will pay dividends this year."
Roethlisberger didn't play in the Steelers' first two preseason games, but he immediately established some rhythm in the new system following a normal offseason workload, which bodes well for the offense. In the process, the 18-year veteran hooked up with a new weapon, tight end Pat Freiermuth, for two touchdowns.
Roethlisberger hinted that Freiermuth reminds him of former Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who had two Pro Bowl years with the club and served as a reliable big-bodied target in the passing game. He watched film of the now-retired tight end with the rookie, and it seemed to translate to the field in their last outing.
On Roethlisberger's final drive, he tossed a short pass to Najee Harris, who cut across the field and advanced the ball 46 yards deep into Lions territory.
Up until that point, Harris had an uneventful preseason in terms of big plays, but Roethlisberger praised the rookie running back's versatility, per Bouchette.
"I'm excited to see Najee’s catch and run. I was trying to catch the Jumbotron. It looked like it was pretty cool. To see what he was able to do tonight—I don’t know what his rushing numbers were, I don’t think it was great, but we didn’t need it. We got to see him do other things. I thought that was pretty special, not just running the ball."
Projected as Pittsburgh's workhorse back, Harris should see plenty of touches for the 2021 season. The Steelers selected the Alabama product in the first round of the draft, and they need him to elevate their ground attack, which ranked last in yards for the 2020 campaign.
Over his last two collegiate terms, Harris recorded 460 carries for 2,690 yards and 39 touchdowns. Opposing teams will load the box against him if he's effective right out of the gate.
As a result, Canada can use play-action designs to open up passing lanes. Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool could have plenty of opportunities to make big plays. Despite the Steelers' conservative offense, all three wideouts eclipsed 830 receiving yards and combined for 25 total touchdowns last season.
Most importantly, the Steelers' revamped offensive line must click in order to find any consistency on the ground or through the air. That unit will feature four new starters. Chukwuma Okorafor, the lone carryover from last year's group, will transition from right to left tackle, which clears a spot for Zach Banner, who is coming off a torn ACL after one start in 2020.
Pittsburgh's inexperienced group could go through some rough patches. Guard Kevin Dotson (four starts) and rookie Kendrick Green, who could start over J.C. Hassenauer, have looked solid through the preseason, though the latter needs to tighten up in pass protection.
Following guard David DeCastro's release because of an ankle issue that may lead to his retirement, the Steelers signed Trai Turner, who brings vital experience to the offensive line with 89 career starts. He needs to avoid injuries though. Since 2017, the five-time Pro Bowler has missed 16 outings.
Rookie fourth-rounder Dan Moore Jr. has put together impressive preseason performances at both tackle spots. According to Pro Football Focus, he's played the most pass-blocking snaps (62) this preseason without allowing a quarterback pressure.
If something goes wrong at either tackle spot, Moore could possibly step in and hold his own against starters. Unless Hassenauer wins the job at center, he and Rashaad Coward would serve as solid depth on the interior.
The Steelers' front line can lay the foundation for a rejuvenated offensive attack.
With solid pass protection, Roethlisberger can gash defenses with a talent-rich three-receiver set or focus on a weak linebacker or safety group with Eric Ebron and Freiermuth in two-tight-end packages. If Harris finds running lanes behind a relatively young line that can maul defenders, Pittsburgh will force its opponents to pick their poison all season long.