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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Bending Back with a Vengeance: Steelers Beat Backers 23-19 with Two 4th Quarter Interceptions

“Alright, that was easy,” proclaimed Mike Tomlin after the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-19 win over the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium.

  • The Steelers standard bearer was of course being uncharacteristically sarcastic.

Of course this wasn’t easy. Which is actually appropriate. The Steelers and Packers are two of the NFL’s most storied franchises. Many of their recent matchups have gone down to the wire, and this one lived up to the tradition.

While the caliber of football isn’t strong enough to earn this team any sort of legendary spot in NFL Films lore, it should be noted that Mike Tomlin’s team won because his offense returned to its roots and his defense delivered when the game was on the line. Again.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Najee Warren, Jaylen Harris Deliver 1-2 Punch on the Ground

There are some jobs in this world where 1 + 1 equals more than two. Think of making a queen-sized bed. Although it’s a bit counter-intuitive, ranking leaves is another, at least in my experience.

  • NFL rushing attacks are a bit harder to pin down.

For a generation, Chuck Noll’s offense dutifully divided carries between running backs. That changed when Bill Cowher arrived.

During the Steelers 1992 season reporters asked if Cowher might ease up on Barry Foster’s workload, Cowher quipped, “Not unless I see parts of his body falling off.” Mike Tomlin said something similar about Fast Willie Parker in 2007, and he’s stuck with his “bell cow” since.

The win over the Packers proves that the running back-by-mmittee trend has sustained itself. On the Steelers opening drive Najee Harris carried on four out of the Steelers 5 rushes. After Jaylen Warren ripped off a 12 yarder to reach the Red Zone, the Steelers went back to Harris, who found the end zone one the second of consecutive runs.

  • The next time Pittsburgh got the ball, Matt Canada and Eddie Faulkner flipped the script.

Warren saw most of the work, slogging out some and doing better on others, with Harris spelling him for a double-digit carry. Yet, the fact that Warren got dropped for a 1-yard loss after the Steelers reached the Red Zone didn’t prevent them from going back to him 2 plays later.

Warren rewarded the coaches’ faith, ripping off a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers touchdowns on their consecutive opening drives since… God knows when.

Is the fact that the Steelers affirmed their commitment to a two running back system and scored touchdowns on their first two drives for the first time in recent just a coincidence? You decide.

Defense Breaks, Early

The win against the Packers will not and should not be remembered as one of the great defensive performances of the post-Roethlisberger era, let alone anything larger. Jordan Love’s Green Bay Packers are not of the same pedigree as Brett Favre’s or Aaron Rodgers’.

  • Yet, Jordan Love and his offense hung 2 touchdowns on the Steelers defense in the first half.

Worse yet, they made it look easy. And for a time, in the first half, it looked like this game might turn into a score-for-score affair if not a shoot-out similar to the 2009 match up.

The game evolved differently. After breaking early, the Steelers got a second chance.

The Myth of the “Irrelevant Play” on Display

The extra point and the kickoff return are two of the most mundane plays in the modern NFL. A few years ago serious commentators even suggested eliminating the extra point. And the NFL is all but trying to legislate the kick return out of the game.

  • One might be tempted to conclude that both plays are irrelevant.

The win over the Packers gave Steelers fans a double edged reminder that there are no irrelevant plays in the NFL.

  • Patrick Peterson blocked the Packer’s extra point after their second touchdown.
  • Keisean Nixon set up two Green Bay scores with kick returns of 49 and 36 yards
  • Anthony McFarland set up the Steelers penultimate field goal with his own 36 yard kick return

Chuck Noll preached that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily. Both Green Bay and Pittsburgh leaned in on this last Sunday. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers leaned in a little further.

Steelers Defense Bends Back – with a Vengeance

Kenny Pickett started the game with a completion to George Pickens right out of the gate. While the Steelers running game deserves credit for the first two touchdown drives, Pickett was sharp on both.

Keanu Neal, Keanu Neal interception end zone, Steelers vs Packers

Keanu Neal with the Steelers 1st 4th quarter interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Had Pickett remained similarly sharp or had Diontae Johnson made a few clutch catches the defense’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary.

  • But necessary they were.

The first came with little more than three minutes remaining, immediately after the Steelers had retaken the lead. Green Bay drove the length of the field, reaching Pittsburgh’s 14. There Jordan Love fired a dart to Christian Watson in the end zone. Patrick Peterson tipped it, Keanu Neal intercepted and returned 39 yards.

The Steelers almost ran out the click, but Kenny Pickett was right on the money for a would be game-sealing pass to George Pickens that was negated by a (questionable) Calvin Austin pass interference penalty.

After six plays the Packers were back at Pittsburgh’s 16 – a field goal would do them no good thanks to Peterson’s blocked kick. Again Love targeted Watson:  This time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn to intercept the ball and return in 30 yards as time expired.

The Steelers defense may have broken early, but it bent back with a vengeance when the game was on the line. And that decided the game for Pittsburgh.

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Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

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Steelers Hire Bryan McClendon as Wide Receivers Coach

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’d be changes to his coaching staff at his post-season press conference, and while Tomlin took his time, he’s made good on his promise.

Bryan McClendon, Steelers hire Bryan McClendon

Steelers hire South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon as wide receiver’s coach. Photo Credit: Jamie Gilliam, Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers will hire Bryan McClendon as their wide receivers coach who replaces Ray Sherman who in turn, stepped in to the void when Daryl Drake passed away during training camp. Bryan McClendon was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina and prior to that he coached wide receivers and running backs at Georgia.

Given his past work with running backs, there has been speculation that McClendon’s responsibilities might extend to the running game. There’s certainly precedent for this in Pittsburgh, albeit an aged one; Tony Dungy spent most of his first season as assistant defensive backs coach working with the linebackers.

Any help that Bryan McClendon can provide towards mentoring Benny Snell and/or Kerrith Whyte will be welcome, but his main focus will be to guide the development of Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain, and James Washington while helping JuJu Smith-Schuster realize his potential as true number 1 wide receiver.

Mike Tomlin Goes Back to School Again

Bryan McClendon isn’t the first wide receivers coach that Mike Tomlin has plucked from the Carolina college ranks. After moving Randy Fichtner to from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach following the 2009 season, he hired Scottie Montgomery from Duke to replace him. Montgomery held that position from 2010 until 2012 when he returned to Duke.

  • Tomlin replaced Montgomery by coaxing retired NFL veteran coach Richard Mann out of retirement.

Since then, however, Mike Tomlin has shifted back towards hiring coaches from college ranks. Last year, Tomlin hired N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner for his first NFL position, and in 2018 previous year he hired longtime college assistant Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, while replacing John Mitchell with Karl Dunbar, who he hired from Alabama.

Earlier this off season, Mike Tomlin hired Matt Canada, another college coach with no NFL experience to work as quarterbacks coach where he’ll mentor Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges where helping to oversee Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback.

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Is Someone Listening in Pittsburgh? Steeler Draft Benny Snell, Running Back, Kentucky in 4th Round of 2019 Draft

Throughout much of the Tomlin era, and especially in over the past several seasons the Steelers, sometimes by chance and sometimes by choices, have skimped out on running back depth and it has cost them dearly in December.

  • Kevin Colbert took a step towards addressing that problem when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr., running back out of the University of Kentucky in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Although he scored 25 touchdowns, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and ran for just under 2,000 yards in two seasons for the Wildcats, Benny Snell performed poorly at the Combine, he had a 4.66 40 time, prompting some pre-draft analysts to take them off of their draft boards. Even his hometown paper concluded that Snell failed to help himself at the Combine.

Benny Snell Jr., Steelers 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell Jr.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. runs for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Bryan Woolston, AP via Yahoo! Sports

  • Clearly, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Randy Fichtner, new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner felt differently.

Here is a look at Benny Snell’s NCAA Highlight tape:

Clearly, Benny Snell likes to score touchdowns. In Pittsburgh Snell joins a backfield headed by James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, both of whom exceeded expectations in 2018. The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their roster, although Edmunds has never seen an NFL snap.

  • For the record, the Steelers also have Roosevelt Nix, who technically speaking is a running back, occupying the role of fullback.

During the 2018 season the Pittsburgh Steelers passed more than any other NFL team as Ben Roethlisberger threw 675 passes, far more than he’s ever thrown before.

While many commentators criticized Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner for abandoning the running, the imbalance in the Steelers offense began when it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would hold out for the entire season.

  • At that point the Steelers attempted to reduce James Conner’s workload in the hopes of avoiding injury.

That was the first sign that the Steelers brain trust realized that they take a differ approach to how they deployed their running backs. The decision to draft Benny Snell is a second sign and a step in the right direction.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Benny Snell Jr.

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