Dyslexic Reversals: Why I’m Still Have Hope for Kenny Pickett

Super Bowl Sunday has arrived! And the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t playing in Super Bowl LVIII as has been the case since they losing to the Packers in in Super Bowl XLV.

  • While this isn’t surprising for most Steelers fans, it does reveal how quickly perceptions change.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Just one year ago today, several commenters on the Steel City Insider message board agreed that Kenny Picket’s arrival had opened the Super Bowl window for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mind you, these commenters are students in the game who are well-versed in the X’s and O’s. And while they’re devoted Steelers fans, none can be written off as a “homer” or a “fanboy.”

  • Today putting “Kenny Pickett” and “Super Bowl” into the same sentence almost seems laughable.

The Steelers 2023 season was the year to expect the unexpected. And one of the unexpected disappointments was that Kenny Pickett failed to make the proverbial “Second Year Leap.”

His performance was so uninspiring that many commentators both inside and outside Pittsburgh think that the franchise would be wise to cut their losses and move on.

They may be right.

But I’m still holding out hope for Kenny Pickett for some very personal reasons.

Pickett’s Disappointing Development

If you look you’ll find no shortage of statistics that paint a rather anemic picture of Kenny Pickett’s work as a passer. Instead of recounting them here, I’ll offer one of my own:

  • Through 12 games in 2023, Kenny Pickett threw a mere 6 touchdown passes.
  • In just 8 games in 2019, Devlin Hodges threw 5 touchdown passes
Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

That’s a sobering stat if there ever was one. Comb through Pickett’s numbers and you’ll be hard pressed to find any sort of silver lining….

…Except for when it comes to the fourth quarter.

And it is that part of Kenny Pickett that reminds me of my own. In many ways my own story of growing up with dyslexia reminds me what we’ve seen on Kenny Pickett’s NFL journey thus far.

Before diving in, in the (extremely) unlikely event this post goes viral, let me make an important clarification:

  • I don’t know whether Kenny Pickett has dyslexia or another learning disability
  • There’s nothing to suggest that his struggles are a symptom of dyslexia
  • And if he is dyslexic, I’m not suggesting it explains anything about his NFL career so far

But my own story makes it easier to understand what I’ve seen.

Why Kenny Pickett’s Career Arc Resonates with Me

As the middle class child of two college educated parents, one of whom was a teacher, I started with a lot of advantages. I also in a school system that had sterling, national reputation. Even before I started school I was impressing neighbors as a bright child.

Harmony Hills Elementary

Harmony Hills Elementary school at some point before 1998.

In the first grade Mrs. Gable gave me a book to take home and read. It was the kind of “Jack saw Mary and said, ‘Hi!’ Mary said, ‘Good morning Jack!’”

Every night I sat there at the dinner table with mom or dad every night trying to read it. I got the book in early October and was supposed to finish it in a week.

I finished it in May.

But then a funny thing happened. Mrs. Gable gave me another book to take home and bring back in a week. I finished it in two days. And I closed May by banging out several other books with just one or two night’s work.

  • The pattern continued throughout Elementary School and Junior High School

I’d start the year slowly. Although I was always raising my hand and answering questions, I never got considered for “Gifted and Talent” programs because I “took too long to finish” my work. Indeed, by the third grade spending 3-4 hours after school doing homework was quite common.

The first report card in seventh grade was pockmarked with several C’s, a B or two and one A (its completely possible that some of those C’s would have been D’s had my mom not been friends with several of my teachers.) On my last report card in 7th grade I got 5 A’s, 1 B and a C.

That prompted an observation from my dad who said, “You know, you’re like a runner, you start the school your slowly, but by the end of the year you’re running at full speed. We need to figure out a way to keep you going through the summer.”

  • The prospect of summer homework did not appeal to me. But dad was on to something.

Fortunately “summer homework” never materialized during July or August of 1985, but that fall I was diagnosed with dyslexia. And it was then that Dr. Levinson explained to my parents that slow starts followed by fast finishes were common for bright kids with dyslexia because it took us time to develop accommodation strategies.

Which brings me back to Kenny Pickett.

Kenny Pickett’s Splits Suggest More than “Clutch Gene”

Kenny Pickett’s been called “Mr. 4th quarter.” It’s been said that he has the “clutch gene.” With 7 4th quarter comebacks in just 24 starts, that’s understandable. But it oversimplifies things.

A quick look at Kenny Pickett’s 2nd year splits reveals why:

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett 2023 splits

Kenny Pickett’s 2023 Splits, via Pro Football Reference

As you can see, Kenny Pickett’s 4th quarter comebacks don’t come out of thin air. Kenny Pickett improves during the course of games. This is true across nearly every key metric, save for completion percentage with dips in the 2nd quarter, but rebounds after half time.

  • This makes Kenny Pickett unique.

Yes, you read that right. You’d think this tendency might be common among great comeback quarterbacks, particularly early in their careers. But it is not. In fact, the opposite is true.

Tom Brady is the leader in 4th quarter comebacks. Yet his Split numbers show a slightly worse passer rating in the 4th quarter but that difference is due to chance. This is true for both his entire career and his second year as a starter.

Ben Roethlisberger’s career 4th quarter passer rating is slightly better than other quarters, but again, its likely due to chance. In his second year his 4th quarter performance was markedly worse than other quarters. Peyton Manning sees quite a drop off in the 4th quarter career wise and a much stronger one in his second season.

A full accounting of all legendary comeback artists isn’t possible here. But you can see the same tendency in place for stalwarts like Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler and John Elway.

Kenny Picket, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers vs Bengals 2023 Paycor

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Yet here is Kenny Pickett steadily improving as the game progresses. How do we explain this? Well, there are three possibilities:

1. This is an aberration that will normalize over time.
2. Pickett’s playing from behind and has more freedom thanks to the hurry up offense
3. Kenny Pickett improves because during games he’s reading coverages better and throwing more accurately

Let’s concede that number 1 is a real possibly. Kenny Pickett’s 12 games from 2023 provide a small sample which is further skewed by him leaving 3 games due to injury. And this narrative falls apart if you look at his career splits, although those include his first few games, which included a lot of late interceptions which disappeared from his game afterwards.

Number 2 is basically a variant of “blame Matt Canada,” but if it is true, it speaks well of Pickett’s football IQ.

  • But for me? I’m holding out hope that the third explanation is the right one.

As someone who started out school years with great difficulty, absorbed tons of criticism about being “too slow” or “taking too long to finish your work” yet who always finished with a bang, my money’s on Kenny Pickett improving in real time as a game progresses.

Time (or injury) may prove me wrong, but count me as one Steelers fan who is glad that Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin are committed to giving Kenny Pickett a chance to prove me right.

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Hidden Risk? Do Art Rooney’s “Time to Get Some Playoff Wins” Comments Set the Bar Too Low?

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II gave his annual end-of-the year press conference this and there was one quote that landed as music in the ears of many citizens of Steelers Nation.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake, James Harrison 2nd retirement

Art Rooney II & James Harrison shake after the Steelers 2017 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When asked about the Steelers historic playoff drought, Rooney bluntly declared:

Yeah, I think there’s an urgency. I think everybody, myself, Mike, guys that have been on the team for a while, T.J., Cam, everybody, we’ve had enough of this. It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.

Art Rooney II seldom speaks to the press. When he does he says very little. But those words carry a tremendous impact – after all, after the 2004 season ended in another AFC Championship loss it was Rooney who declared it was time for a Super Bowl. And the 2005 Steelers brought the Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.

The response on social media was swift and decisive. Here’s one example:

And this is understandable.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not won a playoff game since Chris Boswell kicked them out of Kansas City and into the AFC Championship in January 2017. That’s a long time. To put that in context, even after the Super Steelers faded, Chuck Noll never went more than four years without a playoff win during the 1980s.

  • Yet here’s Mike Tomlin looking at 7 years and counting since his last playoff win.

So while it is good that the Steelers brass embraces the elephant in the room, there is a flaw in Rooney’s response. Notice that Rooney simply said, “It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.”

  • That risks setting the bar too low.

In 1992 when Bill Cowher returned to Pittsburgh to coach the Steelers, he offered a change of pace and he did so immediately by declaring that his goal for his rookie season was to win the Super Bowl.

Chuck Noll had started the 1990 and 1991 seasons saying similar things, talking about having “Championship caliber talent” with players like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Merril Hoge in mind. But Cowher delivered his remarks with a difference – he really believed it.

And that caused reporters openly snicker and rolled their eyes.

Yet Cowher’s 1992 Steelers took the league by storm and entered the playoffs as the AFC’s first seed. Those Steelers of course didn’t win the Super Bowl, and Bill Cowher faced a long road litter with AFC Championship losses to get to Super Bowl XL.

  • But his goal remained constant.

And setting winning the Super Bowl as the standard for success paid dividends in 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger arrived. Injuries to Tommy Maddox forced Ben Roethlisberger into the line up in week 2 and the franchise never looked back.

  • When the playoffs arrived, the Super Bowl was the goal and the expectation.

That left no room for a “We’re just glad to have won 14 straight games with a rookie quarterback and be in the AFC Championship” mentality. Winning a Super Bowl was the only success metric.

I’m sure if you asked Rooney a follow up question, he’d affirm that winning the Super Bowl is his goal and he was simply acknowledging that wining playoff games is a perquisite to a Lombardi.

  • So there’s no reason to overact here.

But Rooney and everyone else must be mindful that comments like “its time get some [playoff] wins” can carry unintended consequences.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

It started in a moment of triumph. Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny f___ing Pickett” after Pickett’s last-minute comeback against the Ravens on January 2nd started 2023 giving Steelers Nation permission to “Believe.”

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

Before the ’22 campaign even ended, Steel City Study’s Jeremy Hertz declared, “I can’t wait for training camp next summer!”

Then Omar Khan led the most aggressive free agency effort in franchise history. Next came the draft, where the Steelers 2023 draft class won universal praise, even from hardened skeptics.

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

Expectations skyrocketed after a sterling Steelers preseason. All of it remains understandable, even in 20/20 hindsight, but the story of the Steelers 2023 season is simple: Expect the unexpected.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ominous Opening Day Omen

In 2023, for the first time since 2014, the Steelers opened the season in Pittsburgh. Their opponent was the San Francisco 49ers, an NFC heavyweight and a Super Bowl favorite.

  • What a perfect opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers to prove themselves.
49ers fans Acrisure Stadium, Steelers vs 49ers

49ers fans invade Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: 49ers.com

Yet even before the opening kickoff, something was amiss: 49ers fans were taking over Acrisure Stadium. Steelers fans gloat when Steelers Nation invades stadiums on the road. It’s not so funny when the tables are turned. As Jack Lambert said, the Steelers should be the intimidators.

  • This phenomenon in the stands foreshadowed events on the field.

The Steelers were terrible. The offensive line got dominated like rag dolls by the 49ers. Kenny Pickett was tentative, inaccurate and ineffective. The Steelers defense appeared to play a speed slower than the 49ers offense.

The 49ers exposed Pittsburgh as pretenders not contenders. Worse yet, the Steelers saw Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and Cam Heyward fall to injuries.

But it fell to Anthony McFarland that set the tone for what was to come. McFarland was the only player who stood out that disappointing day. His arrow was pointing up. Or so it seemed. McFarland went on IR after the game and got cut before season’s end.

Yes, expectations were dangerous things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans.

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

When future generations browse the 2023 Steelers season on Pro Football Reference and glance at weeks 2-12 they’re think, “OK, the opener was bad and the Houston loss was ugly, but they won several close games against some decent teams. They must have improved.”

That’s the logical conclusion. It’s also the wrong one.

From week 2 to week 12 the Steelers validated legendary Washington DC radio journalist Ken Beatrice’s argument that “…Every Sunday in the NFL, very few teams win games. It is most often the case that the other team loses.” The Steelers didn’t win those games, they avoided losing them.

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

It quickly became apparent Mike Tomlin erred badly in retaining Matt Canada. He tried moving Canada to the sidelines. That didn’t work. But more than Canada ailed the offense.

The offensive line struggled. The progress and promise they showed in the second half of 2022 was a mirage. Najee Harris, when he wasn’t getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage, struggled to manage a couple-of-three yards in what Jim Wexell decried as “Sludge ball.” Jaylen Warren looked better, but he got fewer carries.

Kenny Pickett struggled, except during the 4th quarter, when his “clutch gene” kicked in. To be fair to Pickett, with Pat Friermuth and Dionte Johnson out, he had few weapons to target. George Pickens flashed, but struggled in double coverage. Allen Robinson was nice to have and Calvin Austin was little more than a place holder.

The Steelers defense struggled against the run without Cam Heyward, and at cornerback Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace left fans screaming for Joey Porter Jr. to start.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Yet the offense avoided turning over the ball, and the defense showed an uncanny knack for making big plays at the right time:

  • Week two vs Cleveland saw Minkah Fitzpatrick open with a tipped pass that Alex Highsmith turned into a pick six.
    Alex Highsmith closed with a strip sack by Highsmith that T.J. Watt returned for a TD
  • Next week, Levi Wallace closed a 23-18 game with an interception vs. Oakla.. er Las Vegas
  • Against Baltimore, Joey Porter, Jr. picked off a pass in the end zone with 4 minutes remaining
    Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt followed with another strip-sack, fumble-recovery combo
    T.J. Watt closed the game with a sack
  • Against Los Angeles, T.J. Watt opened the second half with an 24 yard interception return, setting up a touchdown, in a 24-17 win
  • Against the Titans, Kwon Alexander closed 20-16 game with an end zone interception.
  • Against Green Bay, Damontae Kazee closed a 23-19 game with an interception at the Packers’ 2.
  • In a 20-26 win over Cincinnati, Trenton Thompson ended the Bengals opening drive of the 2nd half with a Red Zone interception.

And this list of plays that saw the Steelers defense either score, set up scores and/or take certain points off the board for the opponent doesn’t include numerous other turnovers, key third down stops and/or sacks.

What’s makes this stretch of defensive fireworks all the more impressive starting in November, the Steelers practically lost a starting inside linebacker and/or a starting safety to injury each and every week.

No, they weren’t pretty, but the Black and Gold kept winning. Until they didn’t.

December Arrives. And Unpretty Winning Turns to Losing Ugly. Fast.

Firing coordinators during the season is something the Steelers never do. It just isn’t in their DNA.

Yet, Mike Tomlin opened Thanksgiving week by firing Matt Canada after an awful outing in Cleveland. Kenny Pickett and the offense perked up a bit that week against Cincinnati, but were struggling against the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals at home the following week.

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Shortly before halftime, on 3rd and 3 at the goal line, disaster struck as Kenny Pickett tried to run it in himself. Pickett didn’t score, but he did get injured. Najee Harris tried again on fourth down and failed.

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

What followed was perhaps the worst 10 quarter stretch of football in the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers lost the following week at home, against the 2-10 New England Patriots as Mitch Trubisky struggled.

A week later, the Steelers managed to play even worse against the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Trubisky’s struggles continue, Damontae Kazee got ejected and ultimately suspended. Worse yet, the Colts closed the game by ramming the ball down the middle against a Steelers defense that was powerless to stop it. It looked like they had quit.

When the NFL announced Damontae Kazee’s suspension, it was for the rest of 2023, including the playoffs. Kazee appealed. The NFL acquiesced, agreeing to allow Kazee’s return for the playoffs.

That seemed like a cruel joke. The Steelers had just dropped 3 straight and were looking worse with each passing week. The only thing standing in between Steelers ending 2023 on a 6 game losing streak was the chance that John Harbaugh might rest his starters in the season finale against Baltimore.

Rudolph to the Rescue

Mason Rudolph, once Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, toiled in obscurity for three years. Rudolph dove into free agency during the 2023 off season, but he returned to Pittsburgh because no one else wanted him. Rudolph mopped up at the ass-end of the Colts game and looked as bad as everyone else.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

So Mike Tomlin appeared to be desperate when he named Mason Rudolph as his starter for that Bengals game. Then a funny thing happened:

The Steelers not only won their next three games, they won convincingly. They even won in Seattle, and the Steelers NEVER win in Seattle. The offense came alive, and players like Eric Rowe and Myles Jack literally stepped off to couch to make game-changing plays on defense.

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

Mason Rudolph forced defenses to respect the deep ball. They couldn’t crowd the box. Opposing special teams coordinator didn’t automatically tell his punt return unit to get their helmets on each time the Steelers were in 3rd and 5 or more.

George Pickens – a candidate to be benched for the rest of the season after Indianapolis – exploded for 326 and 2 touchdowns in two games, and a delivered a devastating block in the season finale. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren romped. Defenders like Nick Herbig and Patrick Peterson made splash plays at critical moments.

And so it was that the Steelers went from being a 7-7 team looking at a near-certain 7-10 finish on December 16th in Indianapolis, to a 10-7 team that stood in Buffalo just 7 points away from tying the AFC’s number 2 seed with just 7:18 left in the game.

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

Kenny Pickett demonstrably failed to make the “2nd year leap” in 2023 as hopped. And the tempting take away would be that it is unreasonable for the Steelers to expect him to make that leap in 2024.

But perhaps Pickett will prove once again the lesson coming out of 2023 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to expect the unexpected.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Cardinals: James Connor Homecoming Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is focusing on the homecoming of a former student after a wet and ugly loss, here the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure.

James Conner, Steelers vs Cardinals

James Connor rushes for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett’s numbers of 7 of 10 for 70 yards are solid and he did start the game strong, but 2 of his three incompletions came on third down including one in the Red Zone. Mitch Trubisky was 11 of 17 for 117 yards and a garbage time touchdown, but the Steelers were still 4-11 on third downs. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 63 yards on 16 carries and Jaylen Warren ran for 59 on 9. Both enjoyed some long runs but neither man got into a rhythm. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 12 targets for 29 yards. Connor Heyward had zero catches on 2 yards. Darnell Washington didn’t get a target, but then again, the answer to what ails the Steelers offense clearly isn’t to force-feed the tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had a solid game with a deep catch to open things up and a few difficult ones on the sideline finishing the day at 4 for 86. Diontae Johnson also had 4 catches for 33 yards including a touchdown where he channeled his inner Bobby Shaw. Calvin Austin had 3 catches for 19 yards – so much for taking the top off the defense, while 3 catches for 19 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Mason Cole had at least 3 bad snaps, one of which helped scuttle a drive that started with promise another which caused a turnover. Unacceptable. Overall the Steelers run blocking wasn’t enough to take advantage of the Cardinals weak run defense. Nor was pass protection particularly tight. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Keeanu Benton had a tipped pass as did Larry Ogunjobi. The defensive began the day stuffing the run. That changed as the day progressed. Grade: D

Linebackers
Again, early in the day it looked like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were going to feast on Kyler Murray and the Cardinals running backs. However as the day wore on the opposite happened. Losing Elandon Roberts hurt. With Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson on the field the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string tight ends. But we don’t grade on a curve and the Cardinals carved up the middle of the Steelers defense. Grade: F

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a third and 8 incompletion. The Cardinals scored a touchdown. The Cardinals were 10 of 17 on third down conversions and Minkah Fitzpatrick still managed to lead the unit in tackles despite being out for part of the game due to a broken hand. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal. Miles Killebrew was flagged 3 times on punt returns, the last of which set up the Cardinals final touchdown. Calvin Austin did have an 11-yard punt return, but that’s not enough to bring this group’s grade up. Grade: F

Coaching
So firing Matt Canada in season wasn’t a panacea. To quote Myron Cope, “Whoever would have thunk?”

The Steelers offense got off to a good start, but then couldn’t finish in the Red Zone. When it couldn’t get into the end zone through the air the first time, it tried and failed again on the ground. Pass protection was weak, bone headed penalties cost the team a couple of first down conversions and the offense lacked “coordination” as it had under Canada.

The performance of Teryl Austin’s defense performed in direct proportion to the presence of Elandon Roberts on the field. With him they were good. Without him they were terrible.

  • Austin couldn’t make the adjustment.

One might say, “Oh, it’s too harsh to throw all that onto a coach who is down to his 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.” Yeah, right. Bill Belichick might be down, but you’d better believe he’s licking his chops thinking of ways he can jumpstart his offense by exploiting the middle of the field.

Trap games tripped up Mike Tomlin’s teams throughout the Ben Roethlisberger era. Some suggested, with some merit, that this was in part due to Roethlisberger being an “adrenaline junkie.” Well, Ben’s been gone for two years. Can’t blame this one on him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Deciding on an “Unsung Hero” after an awful, ugly game like this is a challenge. So today we think outside the box. Sunday’s lost might have been a bad day for the Steelers, but it was a good one for Pittsburgh football, as Western Pennsylvania native and Pitt Panthers alumni made his home coming to the Steel City to the tune 105 yards on 25 carries in an afternoon that saw him get better with each carry, and for that James Conner wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Progress @ Paycor? Steelers Beat Bengals 16-10 as Pickett Plays Complete Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paycor Stadium in a scene that was eerily similar to the one they faced last week:

  • They were in Ohio.
  • They were playing in the AFC North.
  • They were playing against a rookie quarterback starting only because of injury.
  • Their own quarterback, Kenny Pickett was gaining more doubters with each passing week.

Yet for all of those similarities going into the game, the key difference coming out was that Steelers left the Buckeye state with a 16-10 victory. And while Mike Tomlin would be the first to remind us that “style points don’t count” it was the way the Steelers won that offered real hope for the future.

Kenny Picket, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers vs Bengals 2023 Paycor

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

A Fitting Venue and Time for Pittsburgh to Pivot?

IN case you’ve been under a rock, prior to today’s game, the Pittsburgh Steelers have held a dubious distinction:

  • Cumulatively they had been outscored this season and their opponents had outgained them in each game.

Yet the Steelers defied statistical history and continued to win games, going into last week’s contest with Cleveland at 6-3. But their loss against Cleveland was particularly ugly. It felt like the offense had a moment similar to the Wile E. Coyote, who after walking on air without falling, looked down and crashed.

Mike Tomlin reached a similar conclusion and reacted by doing something the franchise hasn’t done since 1941:  firing a coach in season as he relived Matt Canada of his duties.

24 years ago Bill Cowher found himself at a similar crossroads at this same point in the season in a game against the Bengals no less. Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. The move the pleased fans but failed to alter the trajectory of either the game or the 1999 season.

Mike Tomlin’s decision also came going into a game against the Bengals, and one at Paycor Stadium a place the recent Steelers teams have defined their trajectories.

In 2020, at then Paul Brown Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger struggled so badly, I asked out loud if we had just witnessed the Steelers football equivalent of the 1980 Ali-Holmes Las Vegas fight.

In 2021, the Bengals and Joe Burrow’s domination of the Steelers confirmed that the AFC North had a new pecking order.

And even if the Steelers opened 2022 with a win at Paycor, the takeaway there was that the Steelers would need exceptional play on defense and special teams AND an injury to Joe Burrow to eke out wins against this Bengals team.

So the question as the Steelers arrived in Cincinnati was simple: Would Kenny Pickett respond positively to change?

Pickett Makes Progress

We can be certain that neither new Offensive Coordinator Eddie Faulkner nor Play Caller Mike Sullivan were aware of these Steelers-Bengals geographic or historical symmetries. But the duo clearly looked to make a statement by opening the game with a 24 yard strike down the middle of the field to Pat Freiermuth.

  • Kenny Pickett has avoided the middle of the field all season long like the plague.

Here he was taking chunk out of the middle of the field to start the game. Sure, two plays later that failed bubble screen looked to be vintage Canada, but had George Pickens not missed his block Diontae Johnson probably gets a first down.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bengals

Najee Harris stiff arms his way to more yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Pickett continued his aggressive ways on the next drive, hitting Pat Freiermuth for 29 yard yards down the middle again. Pickett should have had a touchdown pass on that, and a fumble ended that drive two plays later.

Yet on Pittsburgh’s next possession, Pickett hit Diontae Johnson deep for 39 yards in a drive that got the Steelers on the board for 3.

Kenny Pickett didn’t do it alone. He spread the ball out between 8 different receivers. More importantly, the Steelers committed to and succeeded in establishing the run game. Najee Harris had his best game of the season, running for 99 yards in a combination of short yardage grinds paired with double digit runs.

Jaylen Warren did his part with 49 yards on the ground and 13 more through the air.

Defense Makes Browning Look Like a Rookie

A week ago the story was that rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a 5th round pick no one had ever heard of, outplayed Kenny Pickett. Oh, Thompson-Robinson certainly looked like a rookie for most of the game, but he came up big down the stretch and put Cleveland in position to kick the game winner.

The Steelers made Bengals rookie Jake Browning look like a rookie, no asterisk required. To put that into perspective:

  • The Bengals lone touchdown drive came after a 49 yard kick return
  • When they reached the Red Zone next, Trenton Thompson picked off Browning
  • Nick Herbig broke off coverage to sack Browning on third down
  • T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward wrecked multiple drives with sacks
    [Note to Bengals: Maybe it is wise to block T.J. Watt on 3rd and 3 late in the 4th quarter.]
  • Led by Elandon Roberts, the Steelers run defense suffocated Joe Mixon

Credit Ja’Marr Chase for making two catches off of tipped passes. Where it not for those two heads up plays, it would have been a far longer afternoon for Browning.

Pickett Far from Perfect, Takes a Step Forward

Let’s be clear on something important: Kenny Pickett did not enjoy a “breakout” or a “statement” game at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers offense may have broken the 400 yard mark for the first time since week 2 of 2020, but it still only put 16 points on the board.

The fact that Steelers didn’t suffer a single three and out is a positive, but hardly cause for celebration. And if those deep and middle-of-the-field passes are legitimate positives, Pickett still stuck to short, safe passes.

But for the first time all season, the Steelers offense played as if it belonged in the NFL for an entire game. And for the first time all year, Kenny Pickett played kind of game we hoped to see coming out of preseason.

  • And that is an important step forward.

If Kenny Pickett can build off of that step, then hopefully we’ll look back and say that this time Paycor Stadium marked a positive pivot point for Pittsburgh.

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9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X

1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process

The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.

  • In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.

On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.

As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.

2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health

You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.

Yeah, bad idea.

Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.

Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)

But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.

In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.

  • The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.

The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.

After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.

Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.

But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.

That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.

It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.

So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.

During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.

During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.

Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.

In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Thanksgiving Honors: Chris Boswell

When the Steelers got the ball in Cleveland twice during the last five minutes in a tie game, did you ever have a doubt that Chris Boswell would boot it in if the offense could get him close enough?

No. Neither did I.

That’s because Chris Boswell has redefined what it means to be “Mr. Automatic.” And for that Chris Boswell wins 2023 Thanksgiving Honors.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Crisis Opens the Door to Opportunity

The NFL lexicon is littered with clichés. Not For Long. You’re hired to be fired (ask Matt Canada about that one.) Another is that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

  • In Chris Boswell’s case, 3 men’s misfortunes combined to open his door to opportunity.

The Steelers started the 2015 preseason thinking they were set at place kicker, behind the trusty leg of Shaun Suisham. But Suisham injured himself on the terrible truf in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio.

So the Steelers signed Garrett Hartley. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Rooney family is known for their Catholicism, because Garrett Hartley is kind of the Pope John Paul I in the Steelers kicking Parthenon. We never got to know him, because he got injured at the end of free agency.

Kevin Colbert sprung into action and traded for Josh Scobee. Scobee started out OK, but missed an extra point in week 2 against San Francisco. He was OK in week two, but in week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens he missed two field goals in the last 2 and half minutes of regulation of a tie game.

The Steeler won the toss in over time, but on 4th and 2 from the Ravens 39, Mike Tomlin opted to run it with Mike Vick. The Steelers got the ball back, but again on 4th and won Tomlin opted to let Vick try to hook up with Antonio Brown.

  • The two failed to connect and 8 plays later Justin Tucker won it for the Ravens.

The Steelers sign Chris Boswell a few days later, and haven’t looked back since.

Boswell Best in Long Line of Excellent Steelers Place Kickers

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was recently asked about Chris Boswell, and responded:

Its automatic. I’ve been really blessed here in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve been here a long time and essentially had three kickers. That continuity, that ability to deliver with a high level of consistency, we don’t talk about it enough, but its appreciated.

The only issue with Mike Tomlin’s statement is that it isn’t inclusive enough.

Gary Anderson, Harry Newsome, Steelers vs Oilers, 1989 Steelers overtime upset of Oilers at Astrodome

Gary Anderson splits the uprights in overtime at the Astrodome. Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been blessed with excellent place kickers since the 1980s. In his day, Gary Anderson was known as “Mr. Automatic,” and Jerry Glanville can tell you just what that means. Norm Johnson succeeded Anderson, and his role in Steelers place kicking lineage is under rated. After an interregnum covered by Kris Brown and Todd Peterson, Jeff Reed took the mantel in the middle of 2002 and remained with the team until the middle of 2010.

  • But if you compare the numbers it wouldn’t take long to see that Chris Boswell is best of all.

Bob Labriola provided the stats on the Steelers elite place kickers and Boswell just about leads them all almost every key metric. Suisham’s career field goal percentage is still a hair higher than Boswell’s, but Boswell has improved in the 3 weeks since Labriola published his numbers.

More importantly, Boswell’s been perfect in the playoffs. Indeed, he kicked the game winner on a ucky, rainy night in Cincinnati following some late game heroics from Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger. And it was Boswell’s boot that put the Steelers into the AFC Championship in 2016.

Yes, Steelers fans really should give thanks for Chris Boswell.

A Word on Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

“Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” is a home-grown award here at Steel Curtain Rising. The tradition began during 2009’s five game losing streak and the first award winner was Rashard Mendenhall, who’d picked himself up off the turf and ran nearly the length of the field to prevent an interception and a pick six.

And we’ve continued this each since. Here are previous winners:

2009 – Rashard Mendenhall
2010 – Marukice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Al Everest
2011 –  Antonio Brown
2012 – Keenan Lewis
2013 – Cam Heyward
2014 – Le’Veon Bell
2015 – “The Understudies” – Alejandro Villanueva, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace
2016 – Ryan Shazier
2017 – Ben Roethlisberger
2018 – JuJu Smith-Schuster
2019 – Kevin Colbert
2020 – T.J. Watt
2021 – Cam Heyward (second time)
2022 – Larry Ogunjobi

As always we close with a reminder that it is our hope that everyone reading this has many, many reasons to be thankful that have nothing to do with the Steelers or football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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4 Thoughts from the Steelers 24-17 Win Over the LA Rams

Steelers Beat Rams 24-17 in Los Angeles.” This headline makes it look so simple.

  • But was anything actually simple about this game?

The Steelers struggled — on both sides of the ball — for multiple quarters. They committed a series of boneheaded, drive scuttling penalties.

  • Yet, when it was all over, they came out on top.

The win gives the Steelers their first victory in Los Angles over the Rams since Super Bowl XIV. While no one should call this a Super Bowl team, perhaps that championship gives us a takeaway that applies to this team.

But there’s also a takeaway from their last win over the Rams in 2019 that applies. And that in turn takes us to the key to victory in this game: The ability to flip their once tried-and-true “throw to score, run to win” script.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Rams

Najee Harris takes off. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Leaning into the Words of John Facenda

NFL Films made the league into the behemoth it is today. In the age before cable TV, YouTube or social media Steve Sabol and company told stories about the National Football League in ways that transcended both time and culture — even Argentines who only discovered American football in the mid-1990s revere John Facenda as a legend.

  • NFL Films’ legacy remains vital to this day.

Our Twitterized (or Xized) communication infrastructure has reduced history to shorthand sprinkled with emojis. Viewed through that lense, the Super Steelers four Super Bowls in six years look inevitable.

  • But NFL Films threaded the needle of combining legend-making with context.

How many people remember that the 1979 Steelers began the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV trailing? Well, they did.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV

But they won anyway because, as John Facenda explained, “Great teams don’t have be great all of the time, just when they need to be.” This was his lead into Terry Bradshaw’s 73 yard go ahead bomb to John Stallworth.

  • Something similar seems to be true about these 2023 Steelers.

Are they a “great team?” Hardly. But they have some great players who have repeatedly proven that they can step up when the team needs them to.

T.J. Watt’s interception is the obvious example — the Rams had scored just before halftime and, could have iced the game by opening the second half with a touchdown.

But Watt intercepted Matthew Stafford’s first pass and, 3 plays later, Kenny Pickett and Chris Boswell  put the Steelers ahead 10-9.

  • What offers the best example, but he’s hardly the only example.

The Rams running backs Royce Freeman and Darrell Henderson Jr. ran frighteningly well at times. Both ripped off, multiple, double digit runs. Yet, at other times they got stuffed for little or no gain. Minkah Fitzpatrick helped turn that tide by coming up and making several plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Puka Nacua entered the third quarter with more yards receiving than the entire Steelers offense, yet Joey Porter Jr. played a huge role in shutting him down when it counted.

2. A Welcome Similarity from 2019 – to a Point

The Steelers last played the Rams in on November 2019 at Heinz Field. There are also several similarities to that game.

People likely remember that game for plays like Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 43 yard fumble return for a touchdown, a rhythm changer similar to Watt’s interception.

My lasting memory of that game is of Mason Rudolph. Statistically speaking, his best game that season was at home against the Ravens where he suffered a concussion. But against the Rams he really stepped up and, for the first time, really took charge of the offense.

Hopefully, that part of history won’t repeat itself, because against the Rams, Kenny Pickett made progress. Not only did he improve as the game moved on as he did against the Ravens, but he carried himself like someone in command in a way that he hadn’t done before.

And nowhere was that command more apparent than when it counted the most.

3. Flipping the “Throw to score, run to win” Script

When Bill Cowher interviewed Ron Erhardt for the 1992 offensive coordinator position, the ex-Parcells lieutenant described his offensive philosophy as “Throw to score, run to win.” Earnhart meant that while you might throw the ball to put points on the board, you beat the other team by running ball successfully, thereby keeping the other team from scoring.

And for a long time, that’s been the Steelers core offensive philosophy even if one could quibble that the Steelers went astray during the Roethlisberger Era.

And that’s the philosophy that Matt Canada used to right the ship during the 2nd half of 2022 following the bye week.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Rams

George Pickens catches one on Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

But ironically, the Steelers employed the opposite approach in coming back to beat the Rams. During the second half, Kenny Pickett 11-12 for 152 yards with zero touchdowns or interceptions.

Pickett hit George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and Connor Heyward for hook ups of 39, 18, 21, 11 and 11 yards on the Steelers two touchdown drives.

Yet, as they did after Watt’s interception, as soon as the Steelers reached the Red Zone, they muscled it in. First Jaylen Warren exploded for a 13 yard touchdown.

Next time, was Najee Harris who forced is way for a 3 yard touchdown, two plays after ripping of 10 and 5 yard runs.

4. Who Are the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers?

OK. Let’s agree that invoking John Facenda and Super Bowl XIV is a bit grandiose. After all, the Steelers started the 4th quarter with barely 100 yards of offense. But the win still reveals a few important things about this team:

  • This a defense doesn’t simply help its offense with splash plays, it adjusts as the game progresses
  • This is an offense takes advantage of opportunities that defense and special teams provide it
  • Kenny Pickett continues to clutch

Clearly the Steelers have to stop giving up so many yards so early in games and the offense needs to start scoring touchdowns before the second half. But the fact that they’re continuing to make in-game improvements suggests that they’re capable of doing it as the season goes on.

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Don’t Look Now: Steelers Put Pat Freiermuth on IR, Activate Diontae Johnson, Cut Gunner Olszewski

It was too good to be true. Coming out of the bye week the Steelers had reached full health with a clean injury to prove it. Then T.J. Watt’s name popped on to with a heel injury. (Breath easy, Watt will play vs. the Rams.)

But Pat Freiermuth wasn’t so lucky. On Thursday he reinjured his hamstring injury. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell described it this way “…when he re-injured it, he cussed loudly and walked off the field and you knew what happened had to be the hamstring.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers ruled him out for the Rams game on Friday and on Saturday morning they put him in injured reserve meaning Freriermuth will miss at least the next four games.

  • That’s bad news for the Steelers.

Pat Freiermuth’s been a reliable receiver with a knack for catching with clutch balls. He’s had a slow start to 2023 (but what player not named Jaylen Warren hasn’t for the Steelers offense) but by the end of 2022 he was developing similar rapport with Kenny Pickett to the one he enjoyed with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021.

  • The hope was that he’d continue that starting with the Rams game. His hamstring had other ideas.

Hamstring injures can be tricky. A non-athlete reading, “He pulled his hamstring” sounds mundane. I mean, who hasn’t pulled a muscle and gone about their day as usual? But hamstrings don’t work that way.

In 1995 Yancey Thigpen exploded to break John Stallworth’s single-season reception record with 85 catches (yes, it was different era.) Yet in 1996, a hamstring injury limited him to 6 games and 12 catches. 2 of those catches were for touchdowns, showing just how much the ’96 Steelers missed Thigpen. A few years later, a hamstring injury suffered in the 1999 Pro Bowl limited Dermontti Dawson to 7 games in 1999 and 9 games in 2000, ultimately forcing his retirement.

Hopefully Pat Freiermuth will fare better.

But his re-injury and trip to injured reserve reminds us that hamstrings heal on their own time and on their own terms.

Hot Rod Next Man Up, Gunner, King Gone, Rush Arrives

One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity in the NFL. With Freiermuth on injured reserve rookie Darnell Washington will get an extended look at tight end.

Friermuth’s misfortune is means that Rodney Williams roster spot is safe. Williams is a reserve tight end who transformed and impressive preseason into a practice squad spot. Against the Ravens, in his first game on the active roster he almost recovered Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt. But what came next was more impressive, as Williams willed himself to make a tackle and save a touchdown following Gunner Olszewski’s fumbled punt return.

The punt was ultimately the last straw for the Steelers on Olszewski, whose fumbling problems with the Patriots have followed him to Pittsburgh.

The extra roster spot does clear the way for the Steelers to activate Diontae Johnson, who is believed to have fully recovered from a hamstring he suffered in the opening day loss to the 49ers.

  • The Steelers also made one under the radar move on defense.

While Steelers Nation clamors for Joey Porter Jr. to start over Levi Wallace (or Patrick Peterson or perhaps both!), the Steelers parted ways with Desmond King, the former Houston Texans cornerback whom they signed following cut down day.

King came to Pittsburgh with almost 50 starts and the pickup was hailed as another “Khan Artist Coup.” Yet, he only appeared in 3 games returning 4 kicks in 15 special teams plays and logging a single defensive snap.

  • To replace King the Steelers signed Darius Rush from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

Rush was a highly rated cornerback prospect going into the 2023 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts took him in the 5th round but cut him at the end of summer. The Chiefs picked him up, put him on the active roster for a few games, but then put him back on the practice squad.

Now he’s with the Steelers and must remain on the active roster for at least 3 games.

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Looking Back @ Mike Tomlin Opening Day Blowout Losses & How Steelers Have Responded

Last Sunday the San Francisco 49ers kicked the Pittsburgh Steelers “in the teeth,” to borrow Mike Tomlin’s words. Perhaps a Pittsburgh loss to San Francisco wasn’t unexpected, but no one foresaw the Steelers suffering such a spanking.

But if the Steelers got knocked down in the first round of a 17 round fight, what does that first round performance tell us about their prospects for the other 16 rounds? After all, the Steelers are a franchise that lends itself to trends thanks to their stability.

Take the uncanny nature of opening day results during the Cowher Era.

For Bill Cowher teams, and an opening day ass kicking was basically a good omen. In contrast, opening day wins preceded difficult seasons (with the exceptions of 1992, 2004 and 2005.)

  • The loss San Francisco brought Mike Tomlin’s opening day record to 10-6-1.

Here we look back at those other opening day blowout to see what, if anything, we can gain from them. (The 2015 loss to the Patriots is excluded, as it wasn’t a blowout.)

Talaona Hufanga, Connor Heyward, Steelers vs 49ers

Talanoa Hufanga intercepts Kenny Pickett while Connor Heyward can only watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

2011 – The Blowout at Baltimore

September 11th 2011 @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 35, Pittsburgh 7

The Steelers entered this game as defending AFC Champions and holding a 7-3 edge over the Baltimore Ravens to start the Tomlin era, including two playoff victories. Everyone expected the good times to continue, perhaps even members of the Steelers organization.

  • The Ravens kicked the Steelers asses.

The 35 to 7 score makes this one look closer than it was. Baltimore dominated Pittsburgh in every phase of the game, prompting Warren Sapp to declare that the Steelers defense was “Old, slow and done.”

The Steelers responded the next week with a shutout of the Seattle Seahawks. The 2011 team struggled a bit after that against the Texans, but a mid-season win over the Patriots seemed to confirm that they were still contenders.

But injuries ravaged the Steelers by the time they reached the playoffs, and the loss to Tim Tebow slammed the Super Bowl window shut.

2012 – Peyton Manning Outfoxes Polamalu

September 9th @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver 31, Pittsburgh 19

The Steelers began the rebuilding process in the 2012 off season, but they still took what they felt was a strong team to Denver where Peyton Manning made his debut.

Looking back at this game, it is easy to forget that the Steelers actually held a 19-14 lead in early in the 4th quarter.

However, Peyton Manning had been engaged in a chess match all night with Troy Polamalu, and by the 4th quarter he maneuvered the Steelers defense into checkmate, leading two scoring drives for ten points while a Tracy Porter interception of Ben Roethlisberger added on another six.

  • This game, in many ways signaled the wired dynamic that defined the 2012 season.

For all that was made of the tension between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, the offense did fairly well in the first half of the season while the defense struggled. The defense found its footing by midseason, thanks largely to James Harrison returning to health, only to see the offense falter due to injuries to Roethlisberger and overall dysfunction.

2013 – The Titans Bring Opening Day Armageddon

September 8th 2013 @ Heinz Field
Tennessee 16, Pittsburgh 9

By the spring of 2013 the Steelers were in full rebuilding mode. They were also doing it with stuck in salary cap purgatory. Going into the game Bob Labriola described the Steelers situation at offensive line as walking a tight rope without a net (hold on to that one.)

Injuries had already taken their toll on their opening day roster as they started their number 3 and number 4 tight ends, their number 2 running back, Isaac Redman (who was already playing with a career-ending injury) and with their top backup at inside linebacker (Sean Spence) on IR.

Things got worse. Fast. Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season after about a half dozen plays. Inside linebacker Larry Foote would be lost for the season before too long. So would 3rd down back LaRod Stephens-Howling whose Steelers career would consist of 6 carries. Oh, and the Steelers also lost starting corner Cortez Allen during the game.

  • Despite the injuries, the Steelers were in it until the end.

But things got worse before they got better. The Steelers would lose their next 3 in route to a 2-6 start to the season. Nonetheless, they clawed their way back to respectability and an 8-8 finish and only missed the playoffs due to a blown call in another game.

2019 – Brady, Patriots Pulverize Steelers One Last Time

September 8th, 2019 @ Gillette Stadium
New England 33, Pittsburgh 3

In hindsight, we should have seen this coming. But we didn’t.

The Steelers defense had improved in 2018 enough make Tom Brady look mortal in an upset at Heinz Field. While this was the first game of the post “Killer Bees” era for the offense, but the unit had looked sharp in route to a 3-1 preseason record.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first games was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Regular season reality set in fast. Tom Brady led the Patriots to 20 unanswered first half points. The offense’s best play was a 2 yard dink from Ben Roethlisberger to Ryan Switzer. The lasting memory on defense is of substitute safety Kameron Kelly who seemingly forgot not only that he was supposed to try to stop the receiver from catching the ball, but also that he was supposed to chase and tackle him afterwards.

The Steelers followed this with losses to Seattle, where Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season, and San Francisco, where Mason Rudolph made his first start. Mike Tomlin coaxed a 1989-Steelersque like turn around that put Pittsburgh in contention for the playoffs.

But the rally fizzled down the stretch as the Steelers ended with three straight losses.

Take Aways from Tomlin’s Season-Opening Blowouts

The good news? In each case, Mike Tomlin’s teams improved following their season-opening blowouts.

  • The bad news? Only one of those teams made the playoffs.

And, with exception of the 2011 team, none of the teams authored dramatic, rebound wins. Instead, improvement came gradually, or in the case of the 2012 Steelers, unevenly. And the injuries suffered in those openers formed and important part of the backstories of each of those seasons.

Does that tell us something going into the Browns game at Acrisure Stadium on Monday Night Football?

Maybe. But as Mike Tomlin would retort, the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are writing their own story.

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