The NFL is one of the best professional sports leagues, because things can change so quickly from one year to the next.
You’ll always have your Tom Brady’s making deep playoff runs, but there are just as many teams at the bottom of the league one year shocking everybody by leaping all the way to a contender the next. There are also just as many team who have been contenders for years that fall off a cliff.
Joe Burrow took the field at Bengals workouts on Tuesday. That’s all I needed to see. Burrow will hit the ground running with old LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase. This connection was special in that 2019 national championship run — I can’t wait to see these two make sweet music together once again. And the Bengals’ band of playmakers runs deep. Burrow already showed a fine rapport with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, while Joe Mixon has the all-around skill set to bounce back in a major way from last year’s injury-riddled campaign. Like colleague Gregg Rosenthal said, the offensive line looks better on paper than you think. Lou Anarumo’s defense remains a big question mark — with a bunch of notable losses and gains in free agency — but the offense has the kind of firepower to win some shootouts. All in all, I think the arrow is pointing up in Cincy. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh ...
The Steelers still have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but he’s not Benjamin Button. Now 39 years old, Big Ben clearly hit a wall down the stretch last year. So did Pittsburgh. From 11-0 to first-round playoff exit. And I don’t see the trend reversing for the better in 2021. While first-round pick Najee Harris is a stud runner, the offensive line remains problematic. The defense lost Bud Dupree (who’d become a fabulous edge-rushing complement to T.J. Watt) and Mike Hilton (the stud slot corner who just so happened to relocate to Cincy). And it sure doesn’t help that the aging Steelers drew the NFL’s toughest strength of schedule.
The thing in the NFL is the quarterback is such an important piece to the team. Of course one man can’t do it all, but there is a reason the teams that seem to always be contending have the best quarterbacks.
At the root of Schein’s argument is Ben Roethlisberger is over the hill while Joe Burrow is ascending. That is pretty easily shown by how terribly Pittsburgh’s 2020 season fell apart on the shoulders of Roethlisberger, which included an upset via the Bengals led by Ryan Finley on Monday Night Football.
There was a time where the Steelers seemed untouchable, but this past season showed that their seemingly endless factory of talent is running a bit dry. JuJu Smith-Schuster failed to step in and replace Antonio Brown’s production, which sent a ripple effect across the offense. Suddenly, these receivers weren’t only facing single coverage, and Roethlisberger’s job got that much harder.
Meanwhile, you could see Burrow and this offense starting to click. We even saw Tee Higgins finish the season with some strong performances with Brandon Allen taking snaps.
Now with Ja’Marr Chase coming in to fix on of the Bengals biggest issues from last season (the deep passing game), the only real limit is how quickly he and former college teammate Burrow pick back up that connection.
It also helps that the Steelers didn’t have a strong offseason. They saw key players walk away, and they didn’t really go out and replace them. They also didn’t help rebuild their offensive line that was a major issue in 2020. Najee Harris seems like a great guy, but Bengals fans know what it is like to watch a good running back try and create behind a struggling offensive line that can’t open holes.
It is exciting to see another national writer speak out in support of the Bengals, which seems to becoming more of a popular thing to do. The day will come soon that this won’t be seen as a bold prediction, and it will just become the expectation with Burrow leading the way.
My bold statement would be that if Burrow wasn’t coming off a major knee injury that people wouldn’t even think this was a bold take by Schein.