Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.
- In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.
And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:
- Decisions made before the game
- Decisions made on draft day
- Decisions made during the game
Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.
Pre Game Decision
22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:
- Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.
Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:
That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.
In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.
A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.
On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.
- But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
- Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.
So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.
So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.
- It was a savvy coaching move, taken straight out of Bill Cowher’s 2005 Steelers playbook.
But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”
Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition
Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:
Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%
Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.
Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.
Game Day Decision Making Delivers
Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.
- The Steelers are hardly immune.
Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.
And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.
So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.
- Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.
Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.
And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.
- Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.
Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.
- This time Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith stopped him for no gain.
But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.
And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.
Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again
Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.
While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:
- Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.
But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:
Tight copy view on Kenny Pickett’s TD pass to Najee Harris.
Pickett is making the throws in critical game situations. We saw it last week, too. pic.twitter.com/gxR3EOPCup
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 2, 2023
That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.
- Kenny Pickett has “It.”
And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.