Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:
- A dominating defensive performance
- A “team win”
Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.
For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off
For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:
Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year
- These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.
Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.
Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”
Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.
Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.
Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite
The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.
- It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.
That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.
- And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.
Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.
- But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.
Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.
- The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.
How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.
Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.
Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.
Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status
Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.
- Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
- Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
- Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
- Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
- Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.
All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.
But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.
But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.
- Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.
After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.
The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”
But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.