On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns’ take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. To help preview a few topics from the Steelers’ perspective, we reached out to Jeff Hartman from Behind the Steel Curtain and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: “Ben Roethlisberger did not look very sharp down the stretch in 2020. How has he played in 2021, particularly over the past couple of weeks?”
Jeff: “It is difficult to compare the 2020 Roethlisberger and the 2021 Roethlisberger based on the fact he is playing behind an almost completely new offensive line. Early in the season the line was dreadful, having Roethlisberger getting sacked and hit regularly. This equated to Roethlisberger not having time to throw, and even when he did he was hesitant to trust the blocking up front. In the last two games, both wins, the line has done a tremendous job keeping the pass rush off Roethlisberger. They still have a ways to go, in regards to becoming an efficient offensive front, but they have slowly started to become more balanced. In the running game, in the Steelers’ last two games they have averaged 133 yards on the ground. A huge uptick for this team, and not putting the game solely on Roethlisberger’s shoulders is the ticket for keeping him upright and playing efficient football.”
Chris: “Through the first six games, Pittsburgh’s defense has taken a step back statistically on defense. What would you say has been the biggest liability on defense this year?”
Jeff: “The issue on the Steelers’ defense hasn’t been their playmakers, it’s been their defensive line. With Stephon Tuitt on Injured Reserve, and Tyson Alualu out for the year with a broken ankle, the Steelers depth on their defensive line is being tested. When you have 2nd and 3rd string players playing regularly, you give up a lot to the opposition. Opposing offensive linemen are regularly getting to the second level, and taking Joe Schobert and/or Devin Bush out of the play. This is the biggest concern facing Cleveland considering how well they run the football. The Steelers will have to scheme a way to slow down the running game, because they can’t just throw their base 3-4 defense out there and get the job done...they are too undermanned.”
Chris: “Two former Browns have prominent roles on the Steelers’ defense: Joe Schobert and Joe Haden. How have they been this season?”
Jeff: “Schobert, despite spending most of training camp in Pittsburgh, has been slow to acclimate to the new system. However, he has been playing much better in the past few games, so the hope is he is beginning to get more comfortable in his new surroundings. Not to repeat what I just said, but Schobert is a player who is better when he is able to read and react, but when linemen are getting to him he is easily taken out of the play. He is doing a good job, and has been a welcome addition after Vince Williams retired prior to the start of training camp. As for Haden, even at his age he continues to be a top tier cornerback in the league. He is a leader in the locker room, and there is no way a Steelers fan can say they could ask for anything more out of Haden. He is consummate professional, and hopefully the Steelers find a way to keep him after this season.”
Chris: “Rookie RB Najee Harris is seeing a ton of touches each week as a rusher and a receiver. Tell us more about the eye test with Harris, though, and how he’s performed from your perspective.”
Jeff: “Harris has been as advertised for the Steelers throughout the early portions of the regular season. He is a dynamic runner, and the Steelers are just now starting to use him more as a receiver. Earlier in the season, all of Harris’ receptions were as checkdowns, but now they are starting to utilize him more like they did Le’Veon Bell in his prime as a receiver. This change has created some tremendous mismatches for the Steelers, and helped Roethlisberger have an outlet if protection breaks down. Harris isn’t perfect, and the biggest issue with him as a rookie has been in blitz pick up. I can’t complain about anything else Harris has done to date, other than failing to read the pressure correctly on some plays, and making the tough stop when it matters the most. Otherwise, Harris is a tremendous running back who has had to overcome some extremely poor offensive line play early in the season to make positive plays.”
Chris: “Tell us about one player who Browns fans may not have heard of, but who could have an impact on this Sunday’s game.”
Jeff: “This is almost a weekly question when doing these for the opposing team site, and I keep coming back to the same player on offense. Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth has drawn comparisons to Travis Kelce, and while I think that is a bit over-reaching at this point, he certainly is brimming with potential. In Week 6 vs. Seattle, before the bye week, Freiermuth had 7 receptions on 7 targets. Doesn’t seem like a big deal to most, but for the Steelers it is a big deal. Getting the rookie involved will help open up the offense and not allow the defense to load the box with 8-9 defenders. If the Steelers build off that Week 6 performance, Freiermuth could be a big contributor in the game Sunday in Cleveland.”
Thanks again to Jeff for taking the time to answer my questions.