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.
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.
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.
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.