Trap Game or Truth Game? Texans Humiliate Steelers 30-6 in Houston

The Pittsburgh Steelers flew to Houston and dropped a 30-6 loss to the Texans. The humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston wasn’t as bad as the score suggests.

It was far worse.

Prior to the game NPR’s Jeremy Scott quizzed Jim Wexell on whether this matchup had “…all the ingredients of a trap game.”

Wexell’s response? “Absolutely.”

It is tempting to credit the Steel City Insider scribe for being clairvoyant. But is that what’s called for here? Because the question this scribe is asking today is this: Was this really a “trap game?” Or does this defeat expose the painful truth about this football team?

Let’s try to find an answer.

Jaylen Warren, Jaylen Pitre, Steelers vs Texans

Jaylen Pitre knocks ball loose from Jaylen Warren. AP via Tribune Review.

Did History Reverse Itself in Houston?

You can often peg the outcomes of football games, even blowouts, on a pivotal series or play. The Steelers loss to the Texans is no exception.

After logging the one of the worst first haves in recent franchise memory, the Steelers flirted with respectability to start the 2nd half.

Sure, the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, but the defense forced a 3 and out, and then offense was right at it again, getting back to the Red Zone in just four plays. There they had to settle for another field goal. But that narrowed the score to ten, and the defense delivered on its next series.

It started off promising, with Najee Harris exploding for a 23 yard run. Kenny Pickett and Darnell Washington hooked up, giving the rookie his first NFL catch for 10 yards. Things bogged down after a catch by George Pickens on third and 18 netted 17 yards.

  • This brought up a make or break 4th and 1 situation.

Seeing the Steelers lining up in the shotgun immediately brought me back to the Steelers 2008 trip to Houston. That was the very first game Steel Curtain Rising covered, and on its first series on opening day, Houston coach Gary Kubiak went for it on 4th down. Here’s how it unfolded:

That was a bold move, worthy of an elite team, and rather brash, considering the pedigree of the Steelers run defense….

Perhaps someone should have reminded Kubiack of Bum Philip’s old dictum, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it. But just saying it don’t make it so…” because quarterback Matt Schaub, went for it, came up short, and Pittsburgh dominated thereafter.

Pretty ironic, isn’t it?

Given the game situation and field position, Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for it was pretty conventional. Now, had the Steelers converted that 4th down, right now we’d be praising Matt Canada’s play call as “bold.”

But instead we’re stick to a simple, objective observation:

  • Matt Canada’s play call was stupid.

Instead of trying to muscle out a single yard, Canada tried to outthink everyone, and we watched Jonathan Greenard push Broderick Jones aside to sack and injure Kenny Pickett.

  • For all intents and purposes, the game was over there.

The question is, did play just end the game for the Steelers? Or did it close the door to bigger and better things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers?

Down on the Defense?

The headline of this article leads with “Trap game or Truth Game?” To answer that, we’ll define a “trap game” as “A game where a good team under performs and loses against a team with inferior talent.”

The thinking going into 2023 were that the Pittsburgh Steelers were a team that might establish it as a contender whereas the Houston Texas were a club looking for respectability. In other words, to suffer a trap game a team needs to be good in the first place.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers really didn’t look a “good” team today and haven’t all season. Have they?

But appearances can deceive. The defensive side of the ball is perhaps illustrative here. The Houston Texans were playing a second sting offensive line against a Steelers defense that has terrorized quarterbacks all season long.

Yet, neither T.J. Watt nor Alex Highsmith got a sack, and the duo barley laid a glove on C.J. Stroud. Neither did any of the Steelers defensive lineman. While that’s concerning, there’s no reason to think that this is indicative of what to expect for the rest of the season.

And while the Steelers run defense didn’t give up a long run, it suffered death by a thousand cuts from Dameon Pierce. Stroud made some nice throws, but was basically a 50/50 passer.

  • But at the end of the day, there’s still hope for the Steelers defense.

That isn’t to say the Steelers defense will rebound to dominate the way they did in Cleveland, but they will rebound.

The irony is, the Houston Texans offense did what Matt Canada’s couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t

Is Canada’s Offense A “Couldn’t” Or a “Wouldn’t”

This morning in Steelers Nation you won’t have to look far to find calls to Fire Matt Canada. And that’s been true most Monday mornings since Canada took over.

Yours truly has declined to lean into such sentiment, at the expense of page views, because the Steelers offensive coordinator has been the most hated figure in Pittsburgh sports since George Herbert Walker Bush sat in the White House. And, taken in context, the struggles of Canada’s first two offenses were understandable.

  • But the Texans game is trying even my patience

During the first half the Steelers offense managed one interception and three punts. It failed to enter Texan territory. Exchange those for even a pair of field goal drives, maintain the two field goal drives that the Steelers opened the second half with, and you don’t find yourself in a do-or-die 4th down conversion situation with 3 minutes left in the third quarter.

But that was the situation. And instead of letting the offense try to impose its will, Canada got cute. And it blew up in his face.

  • And that’s been the story of the Steelers offense this season.

It does well for a few drives or parts of drives. Then it falls on its face at critical moments. Taken literally, and offensive coordinator’s job is to coordinate things so that the opposite occurs. Matt Canada is failing at his job.

Does Canada fail to grasp the value of physical football? Or does he ignore it because, like his predecessors Joe Walton and Kevin Gilbride, he wants to show the rest of the NFL he’s a genius? Or Canada actually doing the best he can with substandard offensive line and quarterback that we all overestimated?  Mike Tomlin, Hell Yeah, There's Going to be Changes

I don’t know, but Mike Tomlin needs to find the answer, quickly.

Trap Game or Truth Game Question Answered

Mathematically the loss brings the Steelers to 2-2, which is an OK place to be after week 4 in the NFL. But this is one case where the way the Steelers lost this tells us more than the outcome itself.

  • The Steelers failed the eye test today.

They didn’t look like a contender descending into “Any Given Sunday” territory against a lesser team. No. They looked like a team will be lucky to flirt with .500 – and that’s without knowing the severity of the injuries suffered by Dan Moore, Pat Freiermuth, DeMarvin Leal and Kenny Pickett.

When asked after the game if changers were coming, Mike Tomlin snapped, “Hell yeah. There’s going to be changes.”

Good. Because many things must change for 20/20 hindsight to transform this loss into a trap game.

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T.J. Watt Is Already the Pittsburgh Steelers Sack Leader – Let that Sink In

The Steelers victory over the Browns on Monday Night Football was the essence of an “ugly win.” Anytime your defense scores more touchdowns than your offense, you know it ain’t pretty.

  • But Steelers History passed a critical milestone at Acrisure Stadium.

T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns MNF, Steelers vs Browns, T.J. Watt Steelers all time sack leader

T.J. Watt sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP via San Diego Tribune-Review

Let’s repeat: T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re not talking about the Houston Texas, or the Los Angeles-Anaheim-St. Louis-Los Angles Rams.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the franchise that has defined defensive excellence for three generations. This is the franchise that gave us the Steel Curtain and a generation later gave is Blitzburgh. This same franchise who had a member of their defense set the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history.

The Steelers were the first, and only, football team to have its defensive line featured on the cover of Time Magazine, back when that meant something.

Effective defense in the NFL goes way beyond getting after the quarterback, but you’d be wise to start there.

So just how does T.J. Watt’s accomplishment stack up in terms of the Steelers larger legacy? Let’s take a look:

Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Sack Leaders

Before diving into the stat sheet above, let’s offer a big shout out to my friend and staff writer Tony Defeo. When the Steelers cut Woodley, Defeo put his accomplishments in context by calling out how Woodley had led the Steelers in sacks per game.

The totals above include Woodley’s full body of work, but if you look at Woodley’s career from his debut to the 2011 win against the Patriots, he averaged 0.8 sacks per game.

  • That was an incredible accomplishment, but Watt is beating him by a mile.

Kevin Greene, a Hall of Famer, is next. After that you get Joey Porter, Bud Dupree and the original Steel Curtain makes an appearance with Ernie Holmes.

What else can we learn from this?

First, the numbers reveal how the modern game has evolved. While each member of the original Steel Curtain makes this list, only Holmes is in the top half. Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene are in the middle. Jack Lambert and Jack Ham aren’t anywhere to be seen, with Andy Russell only eking his way in at the bottom.

Bud Carson and George Perles’ defense didn’t need to blitz often because the NFL didn’t handcuff its defensive backs before the Mel Blount Rule.

Second, you can see the difference between great Steelers pass rushers and those who were truly special. The great ones sacked the quarterback somewhere between 40 and 50% of the games. Get beyond that, and you’re truly at an elite level.

Fourth, there’s an additional metric for differentiating players on this list, and that’s players with forced fumbles. Sacking the quarterback is critical, but so much more meaningful if you can knock the ball out while doing it. (Just ask Alex Highsmith and Deshaun Watson.)

Unfortunately data isn’t available for members of the original Steel Curtain or 1980’s stalwart Keith Willis. But it does show us that players like Jason Gildon and even Lamarr Woodley weren’t as dynamic, while driving home the fact that guys like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison had innate playmaking ability.

Finally, and not surprisingly, T.J. Watt leads the field here too – by a mile. This guy sacks the quarterback in almost every game and causes a forced fumble in just under 1/3 of his games.

My take away? Man, I’m glad T.J. Watt is a Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Browns: No All Nighters for This Teacher Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is late with his marks because he refused to pull an all nighter, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 win over the Browns on Monday Night Football.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Browns,

George Pickens scores the Steelers lone offensive touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 15-30-1-1 for 222 yards. On the surface that look “OK.” Although Pickett made completed a few nice throws within tight windows, he didn’t look comfortable out there. Worse yet he didn’t improve as the game progressed. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 43 yards on 10 carries. Jaylen Warren had 20 yards on 6, while adding 66 more through the air. The running backs didn’t have much room to run but made the best with what they had. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught one pass for 2 yards on one target. The other two tight ends were invisible. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens took it to the house on a 71 yard pass from Pickett. He also caught 3 other passes for a 4 of ten targets. Allen Robinson caught 2 passes while Calvin Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Myles Boykin each caught 1 pass. Pickett checked down early and often. Was that because guys weren’t open or he was just more comfortable close to home? Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns had 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Worse yet, the line failed to move bodies when it counted the most, such as on the failed 2-point conversion effort. Deeply disappointing. Grade: F

Defensive Line
DeMarvin Leal got a sack, Montravius Adams forced a fumble, Keeanu Benton had two tackles while Armon Watts showed he belonged. Grade B

Linebackers
Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are tied as the Steelers number 2 scorers thus far this season. Both men authored All Pro worth performances as Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the week while Watt simply became the Pittsburgh Steelers all time sack leader. Cole Holcomb forced a fumble, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts looked stout against the run. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped the pass that Highsmith intercepted and was one of the leading tacklers despite leaving early with an injury. Joey Porter Jr. had limited snaps, but defensed two passes just the same. Patrick Peterson batted away one pass. For the second straight week Levi Wallace came up short in run defense and it cost the Steelers. Again. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, hitting 52 and 50 yards – the Steelers need both. Calvin Austin had a punt return for 14 yards. Pressley Harvin banged off some really impressive punts and pinned the Browns down inside their 20 four times. Gunner Olszewski fielded a kick he should have let go out of bounds. Grade: B

Coaching
We will pull no punches here: Something is rotten in the State of Pennsylvania and the odor makes it clear that it is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

2 weeks into the season and the Steelers are once again charter members of the “One touchdown per game” club. In the second half of 2022, they would move the ball, control the clock but settle for field goals. Now they’re not even doing that, averaging 10 points per game.

When the Steelers don’t sputter out of the gate and put the onus on Pickett to convert third and longs, they play physical football and set up third and shorts only to watch plays implode at the snap.

Is it Matt Canada’s fault? Isaac Seumalo the next Ladarius Green? Did Pat Meyer create a mirage with the rest of the offensive line late last season? I don’t know.

  • But I do know this: Nothing is going right.

In contrast the Steelers defense rebounded against the Browns. No they unit was not perfect. And yes the story may have been very different had Nick Chubb not gotten hurt. But Teryl Austin’s unit proved itself of capable of making a big play when it counted.

The Steelers showed up against the Browns with fire. That’s not a surprise, but its also not a given as opening day disappointments can have a spiral effect. But Mike Tomlin’s team have a history of bouncing back from big losses, and they added to that against the Browns. Grade: C-

Larry Ogunjobi, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns

Larry Ogunjobi sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
With Cam Heyward out someone on the defensive line was going to need to step up. And they were going to need to do it early to prove to the Browns that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be pushed around. This player did it, stepping up and sacking Deshaun Watson after Kenny Pickett’s gift wrapped interception. He later recovered his fumble and stopped him stone cold on another run – all in the first half. And for that Larry Ogunjobi wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Defense Creates Its Own Destiny in Steelers 26-22 Win over Browns on MNF

It wasn’t pretty.

At times it was actually butt ugly.

It confirmed more doubts that it dispelled, at least on one side of the ball.

What the Steelers 26-22 win over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football means for the rest of their season remains very much an open question.

But there’s one thing we do know now: Pittsburgh won because they prevailed in the game’s critical “Reality Football” football moments.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Stats Don’t Win Games, Players Do

“A Most betraying box score,” was the first headline I saw the morning after the game. It was in an email from The Athletic. And let’s agree: the stats don’t paint a pretty picture for Pittsburgh. Consider:

  • The Browns outgained the Steelers 411 to 258 yards
  • Cleveland logged 21 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 9
  • The men from the Mistake by the Lake dominated time of possession 35:28 to 24:32

And no, I won’t go to “So and So made their Fantasy Football owners happy BUT…” again, because it would be flat out wrong. That’s because Jerome Ford, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb both delivered for their team in multiple key moments.

But the Steelers defense came up bigger in the game’s critical moments. Before we dive into that, let’s discuss the Nick Chubb situation.

Yeah, But What About Chubb, Watson and the Penalties Etc…

First, Godspeed and good luck to Nick Chubb in his recovery whose injury is almost as gruesome as gruesome Joe Theismann’s was.

As it relates to the game, many are saying “The Steelers wouldn’t have won had Chubb not been hurt.” They’re probably right. So are those who argue “Had Deshaun Watson not self-destructed, the Browns would have won.” Or “Cleveland killed itself with penalties.”

All of that is irrelevant.

The Steelers 1-1 record doesn’t come with an asterisk today. Nor will Roger Goodell add one at the end of the season, just as Pete Rozelle never added an asterisk to Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record because Rocky and Franco both got hurt in the 1976 AFC Championship game.

Injuries and errors are both a part of football, and winners are ones who can capitalize on them.

Steelers D Dominates on Weighty Downs

Anytime a defense outscores an offense in football, we tend to describe the defense as “dominant.” Yet, the Steelers defense gave up runs of 69 and 20 yards and passes of 23 and 29 yards. And frankly, Cleveland made it look easy. Just think back to Deshaun Watson converting a 3rd and 13th while standing on his own 3. He made it look so easy Troy Aikman was left in disbelief.

  • Indeed, that was a key moment of “situational football” that the Browns offense won.
  • And it likely would have been a critical moment had the Steelers defense not created bigger moments.
Joey Porter Jr., Elijah Moore, Steelers vs Browns

Joey Porter Jr. tips a pass away from Elijah Moore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith set the tone by picking off a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected and taking it to the house on the game’s very first play. Ten plays later Joey Porter did it again, by batting away a pass and forcing a field goal.

  • The defense didn’t get to rest much.

Kenny Pickett almost gave the Browns a layup, throwing an interception with his third pass of the night on Pittsburgh’s 16. Larry Ogunjobi sacked Watson on the next play. His next pass went for one yard. Ogunjobi got credited for defending a pass on the ensuring third down. Then the Browns missed a field goal.

And that was the story of the night:

  • When the Browns went for it on 4th, Montravius Adams stripped Watson, as Ogunjobi recovered
  • With Cleveland threating to score to close the first half, T.J. Watt forced a field goal by sacking sacked Watson.
  • Cole Holcomb forced another fumble in late in the third quarter
  • Alex Highsmith answered Moore’s third down conversion with a strip sack, that Watt recovered and scored on.

And Joey Porter closed the game the way he opened it, by batting away a ball on 4th down. While it still has its warts, the Steelers defense showed it can create its own destiny.

The Steelers Offense: From Reality Football to a Reality Check

While the Steelers defense made a statement following their awful performance against the Browns, their offense did the opposite.

Sure, Kenny Pickett had a nice connection with George Pickens. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped off a handful of authoritative plays. Calvin Austin came down with a very nice third down converting pass, catching a bullet that Pickett tucked into a tight coverage window.

  • Those were all excellent, highlight-worthy plays.

The problem is they were the only positive plays Pittsburgh’s offense made all night. Thank God the Steelers defense scored on their first and last turnovers. Because the other two resulted in a total of 4 plays that led to a fumble and a punt.

  • How bad was the Steelers offense?

Going into the 4th quarter it needed 2 points to take the lead. Not only did the offense need the defense to score those points, but Kenny Pickett and company actually netted negative 5 yards.

All of the progress the offensive line appeared to make last season seems like a mirage. For once, Matt Canada doesn’t look as bad as his critics say he is. He looks worse. And Kenny Pickett looks lost.

Time for Less Work, More Progress

Against the Browns the Steelers defense showed itself as a unit capable of creating its own destiny. As for the offense? Bob Labriola, fully admitting to being charitable, remains a work in progress.

Fair enough. But next week against the Raider the offense had better start proving it is capable of making that progress.

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Cam Heyward Goes on IR – Can the Steelers D Repeat the 2016 Rebound?

The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.

This one hurts.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and/or “The Killer Bees,” Cam Heyward has been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade.

Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.

Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.

  • Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.

And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.

When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”

  • The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
  • The season truly seemed be lost.

Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.

Can the Steelers flip the script again?

Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound

As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.

Yes 2023’s Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams are steps down from Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave of 2016.

But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.

DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts and rookie Keeanu Benton look like studs by comparison, although the group lacks experience.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.

  • With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.

By the middle of 2016 Ryan Shazier was coming into his own, and Vince Williams had established himself as a steady, physical presence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.

So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.

Interesting Insider Insight

The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.

As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”

  • That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.

Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced their initial 53-man roster today as Omar Khan continued to wheel and deal.

Over the weekend Khan dealt Kevin Dotson to the Los Angeles Rams, getting a fourth round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, swapping 5th round picks and sending a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft to LA. But Kahn has already traded back into the 6th round when he dealt Kendrick Green to the Houston Texans for their 6th round pick in 2025.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

The Steelers cuts included some surprises. Veterans Zach Gentry and Tre Norwood got visits from The Turk, as did free agent signees Breiden Fehoko and Nick Kwiatkoski who played nose tackle an inside linebacker respectively. Quincy Roche’s second go around with the Steelers will also come to an end.

Here’s a look at who made the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 initial roster. There is at least one more move to come as you’ll see at the bottom.

Quarterbacks – 3
Kenny Pickett
Mitchell Trubisky
Mason Rudolph
– No surprises here. Pittsburgh has perhaps the deepest quarterback room in the NFL

Running Backs – 3
Najee Harris
Jaylen Warren
Anthony McFarland
– Common Sense Attack: A running back depth chart that’s three backs deep for the 2nd straight year.

Wide Receivers – 6
Diontae Johnson
George Pickens
Allen Robinson
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
– Gunner Olszewksi showed a lot of heart in preseason. The coaches took notice.

Tight Ends – 3
Pat Freiermuth
Darnell Washington
Connor Heyward
– The deepest Steelers tight end room since 1991?

Offensive Line – 9
Dan Moore
Isaac Seumalo
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chuks Okorafor
Broderick Jones
Nate Herbig
Spencer Anderson
Dylan Cook
– Almost a complete rebuild since 2021.

Defensive Line – 7
Cam Heyward
Keeanu Benton
Larry Ogunjobi
DeMarvin Leal
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
Armon Watts
– A solid mix of veterans and youth.

Inside Linebackers – 4
Cole Holcomb
Elandon Roberts
Kwon Alexander
Mark Robinson
– Dare we hope this unit is finally finding post-Ryan Shazier stability?

Outside Linebacker – 4
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Markus Golden
Nick Herbig
– Steelers have good depth at this critical position. Knock on wood, they won’t need it.

Cornerback – 6
Patrick Peterson
Levi Wallace
Joey Porter Jr.
Chandon Sullivan
James Pierre
– Have the Steelers achieved the right balance between youth, speed and experience?

Safety – 5
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Damontae Kazee
Keanu Neal
Miles Killebrew
Elijah Riley
– Will health hold out?

Specialists – 4
Chris Boswell, kicker
Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper
Pressley Harvin, Punter
Braden Mann, Punter

Two punters? Not for long.

One way or another Omar Khan isn’t finished with his wheeling and dealing.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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Random Thoughts: A Shopping List, a Steelers Stub on Santonio Holmes & The Upcoming Season

How do we know when either a player and/or an entire football team has “Arrived?”

That can be a tricky question to answer.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers started the year in such uninspiring fashion that veteran sports writer Jim Wexell made sure to make it back to Pittsburgh cover an early season game in person because he thought a 1-16 team (and an ensuring book) might be in the offing.

  • But of course that didn’t happen.

The schedule got easier. Kenny Pickett stopped making mistakes. The offensive line matured. Najee Harris resumed running like first round pick. T.J. Watt returned from IR.

The Steelers finished 2022 with a bang. Kenny Pickett led dramatic, come from behind wins over the Raiders and the Ravens and authored a convincing closing performance against the Browns.

  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl sprinted out of the gate to start the off season.

Out went Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack. In came Patrick Peterson, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Keanu Neal.

Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes toe tap, Steelers vs Cardinals

Santonio Holmes Super Bowl XLIII toe tap touchdown. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Then came the 2023 NFL Draft. As Art Rooney Sr. reminded us “everybody’s a winner on draft day,” but the Steelers haul from Broderick Jones to Darnell Washington seemed to make even the most hardened members of the “Fire Everyone” chorus happy.

I too confess to sharing this spirit of optimism that is permeating Steelers Nation. The arrow is pointing up in Pittsburgh.

Yet, a while back I stumbled upon a word of caution, or potential caution at least, hiding in plain sight in Saturday morning shopping list.

Take a look for yourself:

A Steelers article stub and a Saturday Morning Shopping list. (For non-Spanish speakers, my wife tasked me with buying green, red & yellow peppers, grated cheese, sweet potatoes, bananas, green onion, onion, red onion and two pastries for vegetable pies.)

This Steelers article stub, turned piece of scrap-paper, turned shopping list carries no date, but it has to have been written during the Steelers 2009 off season. The writer too remains unknown. It resonates with the distinct echo of  the late, great Ivan Cole’s voice, but a Google search for those exact phrases and limited to BTSC returns no results.

But those unknowns are unimportant.

This anonymous Steelers stub is still telling us something important.

In the moment that this piece was published, the logic about Santonio Holmes seemed self-evident. ‘Tone, after a troubled start to his career and distracting his team just a few months earlier had turned an irrevocable corner with his Super Bowl XLIII toe-tap.

Except he hadn’t.

Santonio Holmes 2009 season was best remembered for the plays he failed to make. A troublesome off-season followed where he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That got him shipped to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

  • Might this message offer us a useful lesson for the upcoming 2023 season?

Even as they struggled through tough moments in 2021 and 2022, it became apparent that the Steelers had added several “foundational players.” Think Pat Freiermuth. Think Alex Highsmith. Think, perhaps at least, Connor Heyward. They’ve added more of those during the off season.

Andi Weidl has brought his “planet theory” of offensive line building to Pittsburgh, and that should cheer the hearts of true devotes of “Steelers Football.” The Steelers appear to be headed in the right direction.

But as the Santonio Holmes experience reminds us, actions and outcomes instead of appearances, will define the 2023 Steelers.

In many ways, Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny _ucking Pickett!” was the signature moment of the Steelers 2022 season just as ‘Tone’s toe tap was the signature moment of 2008.

But what Santino Holmes failed to understand was that his moment neither defined nor established his legacy, but rather opened the door to building himself into a true Steelers legend.

The same is true for Kenny Pickett. Let’s hope he realizes it.

All evidence suggests that he does. But it is something to keep in mind the Steelers descend on St. Vincents later this week.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker – Watt’s the Depth Behind T.J. & Highsmith?

Since the days of the Super Steelers ended there is no one position that has captured the imaginations of Steelers Nation the way outside linebackers have. Whether its been Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, James Harrison or Bud Dupree there’s nothing the ignites the passions of the Black and Gold faithful as an outside linebacker making a “Splash Play.”

In 2023 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded their best tandem of outside linebackers since the days when James Harrison and (a healthy) LaMarr Woodley played together. But does that mean Pittsburgh should or even forgo a blue chip outside linebacker should he fall to them in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Cart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

Just how good is T.J. Watt? Well, he only registered 5.5 sacks in 2023 after missing seven games due to injury, but with him in the line up the Steelers were able to upset the defending AFC Champions at home. Without him they struggled and lost to teams like the Jets and the Browns.

Even if T.J. Watt took a good 4 or 5 games to regain his form after returning from his injury, he still forced other teams to account for him.

And thanks to that, Alex Highsmith registered 11 of his career high 13 sacks in games that T.J. Watt played. Highsmith didn’t simply improve his pass rushing, but he also did a better job of setting the edge and helping stuff the run.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind the T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith the Steelers have… no one?

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but on their own website they list Chapelle Russell, Emeke Egbule and Tae Crowder. All of whom are listed as “Linebacker.” Presumptively, at least one of those guys can move outside. Right?

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bud Dupree a one year deal and Bud said, “Thanks but no thanks” and took a two year deal from Atlanta. So its not much of a stretch to conclude that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin were counting on Bud Dupree’s return to Pittsburgh.

That hasn’t happened.

So as a consequence the Steelers now have a player bordering on being a generational talent and a player on the verge of being a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker backed up by… Guys who will be lucky to make practice squad come September.

In a nutshell, the Steelers certainly don’t need to draft an immediate starter, but they do need to find someone who can play quickly if injury should strike.

So, the Steelers need at outside linebacker heading into the into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Extreme.

 

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