The Steelers literally outlasted the Bengals, 23-20, in the 2022 regular-season opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday in one of the most exciting, dramatic and blunder-filled games in recent history.
The game had everything. It was a defensive slugfest between two AFC North foes–one, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions; the other, the Steelers, the team that once owned Cincinnati, as well as aspirations for AFC and NFL dominance.
The action was so crazy, that it required overtime and every last second of it before a winner was finally declared, thanks to Chris Boswell‘s 53-yard field goal at the gun.
When it comes to defensive efforts by the Steelers, it will be hard to top what the unit did on Sunday. Not a bad debut for Teryl Austin, the team’s new defensive coordinator.
The defense, led by stars Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, kept fighting, hitting, tackling, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and taking the football away from him despite being on the field for over 43 minutes of game action.
When the defense did wilt, like at the very end of regulation when Burrow connected with receiver Ja’Marr Chase on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, a defensive star showed up on special teams and saved the day; I’m talking about Fitzpatrick and his blocked extra point that sent the game into overtime.
Yes, sir, the Steelers’ 2022 start should be a reason to celebrate and get you excited about what lies ahead over the next 16 games.
- If only Sunday’s Week 1 win didn’t look alarmingly like 2021’s Week 1 win when a putrid offense had to be propped up all game long by the defense.
That’s right, despite a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, a very mobile man who was signed in part because the Steelers wanted someone with great athletic skills to be the field general of Matt Canada’s motion-influenced offense, the play calling during Sunday’s game looked just like what we witnessed in the last days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career when he was extremely immobile and seemingly unwilling to adapt to Canada’s philosophy.
I’m talking about a horrible running game, quick and short passes to the sidelines, an unwillingness to stretch out the passing game even a little bit, and treating the middle of the field like it was radioactive.
It didn’t seem all that surprising or frustrating when the Steelers’ offensive performance played out the exact same way during the upset win in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After all, it was Canada’s first game as offensive coordinator, and the marriage between his philosophy and that of Roethlisberger’s figured to take some time to gel. Throw in a totally revamped offensive line, and you just knew there would be some growing pains with the offense over the course of the season.
But while the pain persisted all throughout the 2021 regular season, no growing ever took place.
- What you saw in Week 1 against the Bills was what you saw all season long.
Back to 2022.
I wasn’t expecting the Steelers offense to look like a well-oiled machine in Cincinnati on Sunday. In fact, I expected more growing pains, especially with an offensive line that not only experienced more changes in the offseason but struggled mightily all throughout training camp and the preseason.
- I did expect to see a different offensive approach, however.
Instead, we watched the Steelers offense, one that Washington’s Chase Young claimed had been exposed as far back as 2020, try the same game plan it had been utilizing since Roethlisberger came back from the elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2019.
I realize that Sunday’s win would have been bittersweet no matter what, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding T.J. Watt and his pectoral injury. But even with a healthy Watt, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ defense being as dominant over the course of the regular season as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.
The defense will be great, no doubt, maybe even with Watt on the shelf for an extended period of time, but you’ll never see as dominant of a performance as what you got in Week 1.
And what did it amount to? A game that would have been a loss if not for some luck and blunders by the Bengals.
- The Steelers’ defense did all that it could do, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
- Why? Because the offense was as bad as it was all of last season and in much the same way.
While I can’t imagine the Steelers’ defense ever looking as good as it did on Sunday, I can certainly picture the offense continuing to look horrible all throughout the 2022 regular season.
That’s a frightening thing to imagine.