Film study: Three reasons why Steelers could win AFC North

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After the Pittsburgh Steelers started the season 1-3, the sky seemed to be falling in the eyes of observers and fans.

There were whispers that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is finished, and head coach Mike Tomlin has lost his touch with the offense. There was reason for criticism, but blaming a defensive coach for offensive struggles isn’t practical. On top of that, there is a new offensive coordinator in the room: Matt Canada. So it makes sense that it would take some time for this new offense to come around.

Entering Week 9, the Steelers are 4-3 and sit in third place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh just beat the Cleveland Browns despite only scoring 15 points but there is still positivity in the air despite the relatively low number of downfield passes.

Here are three reasons why the Steelers’ offensive outlook is brighter than many pundits suggest:

Running game

Najee Harris is outperforming expectations and gradually becoming a bigger part of the offense. The rookie tailback and former Alabama Crimson Tide star has played in 84% of all snaps and has received at least 25 touches in each of the past three games. Harris has been a staple in the receiving game, and he’s starting to put the offense on his back with his consistency in the run game.

What makes Harris so special, apart from taking a handoff, are his ball skills after the catch. He has the ability to get square immediately after the catch and get upfield quickly. In the clips below, he does this perfectly:

Harris ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts and second in the league in total touches. When taking a handoff, his specialty is running between the tackles in a power blocking scheme.

In this situation below, the tight end comes across the line of scrimmage to pick up the first defender who gets penetration. Harris then just trusts his eyes to get him into the end zone.

Other impactful rookies

In addition to Harris, two other rookies are making an impact on offense. Starting left tackle Dan Moore Jr., who was drafted in the fourth round out of Texas A&M this year, allowed one sack against Myles Garrett on Sunday but held his own for the most part against Cleveland’s star pass-rusher. Another offensive weapon who is making an impact is Pat Freiermuth, the rookie tight end from Penn State.

Freiermuth made an incredible fourth-down touchdown catch to put the Steelers ahead for good early in the fourth quarter. (See clip below.)

Freiermuth is averaging 9.2 yards per reception through so far this season, with two touchdown catches. The chemistry between him and Roethlisberger is flourishing, and there have even been comparisons to Steelers legend Heath Miller.

Just check out the skills after the catch:

New offensive coordinator

A notable difference between last season and this season is the amount of time from snap to throw. Canada doesn’t use much pre-snap motion, which allows the Steelers to use up-tempo sets.

Roethlisberger is attempting more high-percentage throws and taking fewer shots downfield this season

It seems as though there have been issues with Roethlisberger connecting with his receivers downfield. But there likely will be some miscommunication with a new offensive coordinator calling plays and little time between snaps. These throws are mere inches from being receptions. Expect these to become completions as the season progresses.

Even at age 39, Roethlisberger is willing to step up in the pocket and even run it in for a touchdown in order to take over a game.

With an underrated supporting case, Roethlisberger can now delegate a lot of the heavy lifting. Don’t forget that the Steelers went 12-4 last year. Count them out at your own risk.

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