Steelers 2022 Season Review – Rebuilding the Right Way in Pickett’s Rookie Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season 9-8, just barely missing the playoffs but giving the franchise its 19th consecutive non-losing campaign since 2003. The quick take away?

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

2022 was a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh. Just don’t expect Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan or even Kevin Colbert to utter the word. In fact, expect them to reject the concept. To understand why go back to the words of Bill Cowher.

After consecutive losing seasons in 1998 in 1999, reporters asked Bill Cowher the Steelers were rebuilding in 2000. The Chin rejected the idea immediately, explaining, “Anytime you say you’re rebuilding, you’re giving yourself an excuse for losing.”

I don’t know if Mike Tomlin ever rejected rebuilding so eloquently, but his actions prove that he shares his predecessor’s philosophy.

But if Mike Tomlin will not, and should not say the Steelers were rebuilding in 2022, I can and I will. In 2022 the Steelers showed right way to rebuild. Let’s look at how and why.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

The secret to rebuilding the right way is as simple: Successfully rebuilding in the NFL means doing your best to field a winning team as quickly as possible in a way you can sustain in the future.

  • But if that’s easy to write, it’s hard to execute.

The NFL certainly doesn’t lack “Get rich quick” schemes. The wisest move of the Steelers brain trust was to avoid any of those temptations, as they declined to throw draft picks and guaranteed contracts to bring Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or even Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the Steelers focused their rare salary cap abundance on shoring up weaknesses at offensive line by bringing in Mason Cole, James Daniels and at inside linebacker with Myles Jack. And they remained true to the core franchise philosophy of building through the draft.

While the success or failure of their ’22 draft will hinge on Kenny Pickett’s development, the story of the 2022 phase of the rebuild belongs as much to the rest of the Steelers 2022 draft class as it does to Pickett.

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

Other commentators have described the Steelers 2022 season as “The Tale of Two Season: Before the Bye and After.” You can muster many statistics from both sides of the ball to show how bad the Steelers were before their bye week. You can point to Najee Harris playing injured, the offensive line’s slow development under Pat Meyer and/or T.J. Watt going on injured reserve.

Those are all valid points. But the simple explanation for the Steelers 2-6 is the best one: For the first time in 18 years, Pittsburgh was playing without a franchise quarterback.

Gunner Olszewski, Brenden Schooler, Steelers vs Patriots 2022 home opener

Gunner Olszewskimakes the tackle after muffing a punt. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Watching the Steelers try and fail to comeback against the Patriots in week 2, I had no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger, at least the 2021 edition of Big Ben, would have gotten Chris Boswell into position to tie the game. I’d argue that had Roethlisberger returned the Steelers would have won 2 of the three against the Jets, Browns, Dolphins.

Instead we saw Mitch Trubisky playing not to lose and the Kenny Pickett playing like a raw rookie. The defense  struggled without T.J. Watt; although new comers Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were improving it against the run, as foreshadowed in the upset of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

After the Bye – Coming Together, Growing Together, Winning Together

The conventional explanation ties the Steelers 2nd half turn around to Kenny Pickett’s development. And be clear about it, Pickett’s growth was critical.

Heyward first “appeared” when Tampa’s defense ‘forgot’ him and Mitch Trubisky found him in the middle of the field for a 49 yard gain that set up an insurance touchdown as the Steelers secured their second win. Next, Kenny Pickett found Heyward open in the middle against Atlanta, giving the Steelers their only touchdown in a game that improved their record to 5-7. Heyward’s next big play came with 25 seconds left against the Raiders where he took a toss 21 yards before wisely taking a knee, allowing the Steelers to kill the clock and improve their record to 8-8.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

Injuries forced him into the starting line up in the season finale, where he:

  • Converted a 3rd and 1 with a six yard scamper.
  • Caught 3 of 4 passes thrown on the game-closing touchdown drive
  • Those catches included a 27 yarder on 3rd and 8

Connor Heyward earns this extended shout out because his arc exemplifies the arc of so many on the team.

The offensive line gelled, allowing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to run smarter instead of just harder. Backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland did the same in Indy when injuries forced them into the game. George Pickens arrived in Pittsburgh making acrobatic catches – as the season progressed he started making them in clutch situations. Steven Sims made several clutch catches of his own down the stretch, while Diontae Johnson managed to break his nasty habit of running backwards after a catch. Pat Freiermuth played well from the get go, but continued to deliver even when limited by a knee injury late in the season.

  • On defense, the story is similar, but it revolves more around T.J. Watt’s return.

The Steelers lost T.J. Watt in the opening upset of Cincinnati, and struggled in his absence. Even if Watt wasn’t at wasn’t at full strength until December, he still forced defenses to account for him.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

And that’s why both veteran leaders like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as emerging leaders like Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton authored their biggest “splash plays” after Watt’s return.

  • But growth also fuels part of the 2022 Steelers defense’s story.

After getting embarrassed against the run at home against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin turned to rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, and the duo helped shut down several stout rushing attacks in late December.

Every player had a hand in the pile pushing the Steelers late season surge. And anatomical measurements aside, no player had a bigger hand than Kenny Pickett.

Pickett’s Progress

Drafting a first round quarterback in the NFL is pro sport’s ultimate risk-reward call. Consider this: between 1994 and 2021, Washington has drafted 5 first round quarterbacks and won 2 playoff games.

In the same timespan, the Steelers have drafted one first round quarterback and appeared in 9 conference championships and 4 Super Bowls. So the Steelers took a risk when they took Kenny Pickett.

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
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.

Even during Pickett’s interception-laden early appearances, the game never looked “too big” for Pickett the way it sometimes did for Mason Rudolph or say Kordell Stewart. After Mitch Tribuisky’s strong performances in relief of Pickett and after the trashing from Philly, there were calls for Mike Tomlin to “put Pickett on ice” for the rest of the season.

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

  • A come-from behind win against the Colts on Monday Night Football
  • A flawless two minute drive to comeback against the Raiders
  • An improvised throw on a broken play to clinch the comeback against the Ravens – on the road

Let’s be clear. Pickett has a lot to prove. He needs to play better earlier in games, use the middle of the field and improve his deep ball accuracy. But Pickett can learn those things. Pickett’s comebacks reveal traits that  quarterback’s cannot learn.

In 2021 thanks to the heroics of their aging franchise quarterback, the Steelers made the playoffs when they didn’t deserve to. In 2022 the Steelers came together as a team around their rookie quarterback and missed the playoffs even though the probably deserved to make it.

Missing out on competing for a Lombardi is always a disappointment, but that disappointment shouldn’t cloud the fact that the 2022 Steelers showed the NFL how to rebuild.

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Steelers Retain Matt Canada – No the Hindenburg Hasn’t Been Sent to Rescue the Titanic

It is official. Mike Tomlin has retained Matt Canada as the Steelers offensive coordinator for at least one more season. Predictably, Steelers Nation is acting like the Hindenburg has just been sent to rescue the Titanic.

It is not.

Steelers fans love to revile their offensive coordinator. It’s an annual pastime. Thanks to marriage of Madden and Fantasy Football, everyone seems to think that working an as offensive coordinator is easy.

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

I’ve railed against Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians. Yet, as the “FIRE MATT CANADA” cries reached a fever pitch, I’ve largely kept my silence, even when joining the chorus would have delivered plenty of clicks.

There are several reasons for this, reasons why Tomlin’s decision isn’t a disaster and might even be a good thing. Let’s look at why.

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

Steelers retaining Matt Canada ISN’T akin to sending the Hindenburg to rescue the Titanic.

“You Have to Have the Players.” – Dan Rooney

Dan Rooney routinely made this statement whenever he was asked to explain the Steelers continued success. The Steelers record, headlined by 6 Super Bowls, since he took control of the team from Art Rooney Sr. in the 60’s vindicates the late Chairman.

  • The Steelers offense under Matt Canada had hardly been the Greatest Show on turf.

In 2020 the Steelers posted a 9-7-1 record that featured 7 come from behind wins. The offense was at its best when Ben Roethlisberger was in the 2 minute drill, calling his own plays.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

Not exactly. Ben Roethlisberger was a bad fit for Canada’s offense. This old dog wasn’t going to learn any new tricks. And Roethlisberger was playing behind a make-shift offensive line, with a rookie running back and a rookie tight end.

  • During the first half of 2022 the Steelers offense regressed.

This isn’t opinion. Its fact. The Dr. de Acero commented to me, “Nunca habia visto un ofensa de los Steelers tan inepto” – I’ve never seen a more inept Steelers offense. And he was right. But we’ve also never seen such an inexperienced Steelers offense.

  • Who were the most experienced veterans on the Steelers offense?

Chuks Okorafor, Diontae Johnson and Zach Gentry (and Gentry missed most of 2019 and 2020 in IR.) Outside of those three and Derek Watt, no one had more than 2 years of experience with the Steelers.

Moreover, emerging leaders such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth were in their second years. George Pickens and Connor Heyward were rookies. Mitch Trubisky was in his first year with the team and Kenny Pickett was a rookie.

Assembling an offense on the field is a bit different that designating a week’s starters for Fantasy Football. It takes time for 11 guys to learn to play together. Even Joe Gibbs, who perhaps had the greatest offensive mind in the modern NFL, started in Washington going 1-6 before finishing 8-8.

(And Gibbs had veterans like Joe Theismann, John Riggins and future Hall of Famer rookie Art Monk to lean on.)

“Not Making Change for the Sake of Change” – Mike Tomlin

The quote above was Mike Tomlin’s to questions about whether he would fire Matt Canada midseason after the Steelers got pasted by the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin would be asked that question several other times during the course of the season.

Each time Tomlin would preach the virtues of a systematic as opposed to reactionary approach to coaching.

Tomlin’s philosophy prevailed is illustrated by Mike DeFabo tweet:

That turn around might not have led Fantasy Football owners to scramble to trade for Steelers skill players to add to their team, but those statistics added up to wins.

  • How did Matt Canada and the rest of the offensive staff pull off this turn around?

There’s no secret here. They didn’t execute any massive schematic change (although they did make some tweaks.) Instead, they eliminated the execution errors that had plagued the team earlier in the season and, once that happened, Canada’s system worked.

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

This is true. Canada’s offense does lack explosive or “chunk” plays. Even taking into account the turn around in the 2nd half of the season, under Matt Canada, the Steelers remain bottom feeders when it comes to passes longer than 20 yards.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But how much of this is by design and how much of this is Canada’s “fault?”

Perhaps a little of both. As Steel City Insider film reviewer D.I. Davis has pointed out since week 1, the Steelers might lack long passing gains, but the deep routes have been there and receivers have been open.

  • If you doubt that look no further than to George Pickens’s tantrum during the middle of the season.

Mitch Trubisky tried to get aggressive in relief of Pickett against the Ravens and his 3 interceptions likely kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. Pickett too stuck with the short passes, particularly early on. As the season progressed, he got a bit more adventurous downfield, albeit with mixed results.

  • On the flip side, Matt Canada’s offense clearly favors ball control.

That might not be exciting, but as the wins over Carolina and Cleveland proved, if you ball control combined with drives that end in touchdowns instead of field goals can be downright lethal.

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

As mentioned above, I too was a harsh critic of former Steelers offensive coordinators Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians.

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Walton’s tenure was a disaster and his last NFL job (although he did excel at Robert Morris). Ray Sherman’s was arguably worse, lasted one year and he only had one more season as an NFL coordinator.

I also defended Sherman’s predecessor, Chan Gailey for his aggressiveness in the 1997 AFC Championship loss to the Broncos. As the seasons and AFC Championships mounted between 1997 and 2005, I began to regret his decision to put the game in Kordell Stewart’s rather than Jerome Bettis’ hands.

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

A good chunk of this sites content during our first year in 2008 was directed at criticizing Arians. Then came the playoffs and Super Bowl XLIII where Arians’ offense excelled. And of course Arians enjoyed tremendous success since leaving Pittsburgh.

  • The moral of this stroll down memory lane is two-fold.

First, Matt Canada may not be Pittsburgh’s next Bruce Arians, but he has earned the chance to try. Second, Mike Tomlin is far more qualified to make that judgement than I am.

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Under the Radar: Steelers Sign Anthony McFarland, 16 Others to “Futures Contracts”

What does 30 yards on 6 carries and 11 yards on 2 catches earn you today?

  • Apparently a second shot at an NFL career.

As the first week of their 2023 off season closes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already signed 17 players to “futures” contracts and none more intriguing than Anthony McFarland. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland out of the University of Maryland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

McFarland was an enticing choice, a smaller faster back, the type of back which the Steelers had tried and failed to add in Chris Rainey in 2012 and Dri Archer in 2014. And for the next two years, McFarland followed in their footsteps.

As a rookie, McFarland appeared in 11 games and had 33 carries. He was a footnote in an offense that struggled to run the ball. That dropped to two games and 3 carries in 2021, the second of which consisted of mop up duty in a blowout loss to Cincinnati.

  • The Steelers cut him in 2022 but added him to the practice squad.

But an injury to Jaylen Warren got Anthony McFarland elevated from the practice squad for the Colts game, and an in-game injury to Najee Harris helped get McFarland on the field. And while his 41 all purpose yards on 8 touches hardly makes him a Fantasy Football star, for the first time Anthony McFarland looked like he belonged in the NFL.

Perhaps that’s fitting.

  • McFarland came out of Maryland as a sophomore, so in another generation 2022 would have been his rookie year.

NFL teams routinely sign and release players to and from futures contracts at this time of year, so there’s no assurance that McFarland will still hold a roster spot when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives, let alone with the Steelers start training camp at St. Vincents.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

But the Steelers decision to resign Anthony McFarland is and under that radar signal of their commitment to running the the ball will continue in 2023.

Mike Tomlin has been infamous for rushing his running backs “until the wheels come off” (see Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and to a lesser extent Rashard Mendenhall), yet refused to staff deep backfields behind his starter.

That changed in 2022. When injuries felled both Harris and Warren against the Colts, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland stepped in, providing the foundation that allowed Kenny Pickett to stage his first comeback. This is the first sign that the change will continue.

Other Futures Signings

Anthony McFarland was only 1 of 16 players to sign or resign with the Steelers. Ten of the players who’ve inked futures contracts spent all or part of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh on the practice squad:

Cody White, wide receiver
Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver
Rodney Williams, tight end
Master Teague, running back
Jason Huntley, running back
Emeke Egbule, linebacker
William Dunkle, guard
Duke Dawson, defensive back
Scott Nelson, defensive back
Ryan McCollum, center

The Steelers also welcome several new faces to Pittsburgh:

Dez Fitzpatrick, wide receiver
Madre Harper, defensive back
Kenny Robinson, defensive back
Chris Wilcox, defensive back

If nothing else, with Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all headed for free agency, the Steelers are adding quantity to their defensive backfield.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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Still Believe in Yesterday? 20th Anniversary of Tommy Maddox Playoff Rally Shows Need for Prudence with Pickett

January 5th certainly is a momentous day in Steelers history. Thanks to the magic of social media yesterday I was reminded that January 5th was:

  • Chuck Noll’s birthday (he’d have been 91 on January 5th 2023
  • The anniversary of Tommy Maddox‘s dramatic playoff comeback vs the Browns at Heinz Field in 2003
  • The day Bill Cowher resigned in 2007 after the Steelers 8-8 2006 season

All three events were important in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers as we know them today. All three are worthy of memory and celebration.

But one offers an important lesson for Steelers fans, if not the organization itself today in January 2023. And that is Tommy Maddox’s playoff rally.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Tommy Gun Story: Digest Version

For a full accounting of the Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” story click here to read Tony Defeo’s retrospective on the Steelers 2002 season. If you don’t have time, here’s the digest version:

  • Tommy Maddox was a first round pick in 1992, who’d washed out with the Broncos, Giants and Falcons
  • Maddox played the 2001 edition of the XFL and quarterbacked Los Angeles Xtreme to the championship
  • The Steelers signed Maddox in the summer of 2001, and Maddox won the backup job

Kordell Stewart had quarterbacked the 2001 Steelers to the AFC Championship game and won team MVP honors after stepping up following Jerome Bettis‘ midseason injury. So Kordell appeared set as the starter going into 2002.

However, the Steelers started 0-2, Kordell looked bad, and Bill Cowher opted to bench Stewart in favor of Maddox in week three in the name of giving the team a proverbial “spark.”

Maddox led the team to a win in overtime, Cowher opted to stick with a hot hand, and the 2002 Steelers won their final first AFC North crown, brining up a wild Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

Maddox’s Playoff Rally at Heinz

Bill Cowher’s Steelers defenses of the 1990’s had carried a reputation for their “shut down secondaries.” But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady opened the 2002 season exposing the Steelers secondary as a shell of its former self (hence Kevin Colbert trading up to get Troy Polamalu that next spring, but that’s another story.)

The Browns exploited that weakness to jump ahead 14-0 and kept it a two score game for the first 45 minutes of play. They opened the 4th quarter with a 27 to 14 lead, and held 33 to 21 lead with just over ten minute left.

Tommy Maddox went to work.

  • First he led a 14 play drive that ended with a Hines Ward touchdown
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out
  • Maddox led an 8 play drive where he completed 4 of 5 passes, setting up Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard touchdown

An Antwaan Randle El pass complete to Jerame Tuman completed the 2 point conversion, the Steelers defense held on for what Dan Rooney described as one  of the most exciting playoff wins in Steelers history.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And it was exciting. It also seemed to cement Tommy Maddox’s status as the Steelers franchise QB. Dan Rooney, per Bob Labriola, seed to have come to a similar conclusion, after spending much of the game “Making a list” which he balled up and threw away at after the Steelers beat the odds with their comeback win.

For my money, I thought the game proved that Tommy Maddox had the most important intangible quality a quarterback can have — mental toughness. Heck, according to urban legend, Maddox himself stood in the huddle, down two scores with 5:30 left to play and said, “Alright. We got ’em where we want ’em.”

Lesson? Remain Prudent with Pickett

But of course Tommy Maddox wasn’t the Steelers answer at quarterback. He had a rough go of it as the Steelers struggled throughout the 2003 season, leading Pittsburgh to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Kenny Pickett has had a tremendous rookie year. The poise and acumen he’s show in orchestrating game winning drives against the Colts, Raiders and most impressively the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium IS impressive.

  • Those drives show not only mental toughness, but an instinctive, innate playmaking ability that can’t be taught.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan should proceed into the 2023 off season with the assumption that the Steelers have found their franchise QB in Kenny Pickett. Fans should also keep that in mind whenever the Steelers decline to make some sort of inane trade with Green Bay should Aaron Rodgers throw one of his “I’m not sure I want to be a Packer anymore” tantrums.

But fans should also remember the lesson Tommy Maddox left us – the true test of a quarterback isn’t whether he can author on successful season but several.

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He’s Got “It”: Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Kenny Pickett’s Poise Carries Day

Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.

  • In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:

  • Decisions made before the game
  • Decisions made on draft day
  • Decisions made during the game

Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Pre Game Decision

22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:

  • Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.

Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.

A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.

  • But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
  • Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.
T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

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

So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.

So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.

But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”

Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition

Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:

Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%

Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.

Game Day Decision Making Delivers

Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.

  • The Steelers are hardly immune.

Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.

And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.

So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.

  • Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.

Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Najee Harris, James Daniels, Steelers vs Ravens

James Daniels blocks for Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.

  • Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.

Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.

But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.

And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.

Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again

Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.

While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:

  • Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.

But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:

That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.

  • Kenny Pickett has “It.”

And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.

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More than Meets the Eye: Steelers 13-10 over Raiders Reveals Greater Growth than Score Suggests

Final scores can be tricky things. They tell you who won but don’t explain why.

The record books tell us that 50 years ago the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first playoff game by defeating the Oakland Raiders 13-7. But that number tells us nothing of the Immaculate Reception, the greatest play in the history of football, where Franco Harris staked his first claim to greatness.

  • 50 years later, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Las Vegas Raiders 13-10.

While no one in the Black and Gold authored any monumental plays in this game, the Steelers prevailed because, in the words of Mike Tomlin “…it was a grow-up evening for us tonight.”

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.

The True Test of a Legacy

Sports writers, yours truly included, love to write about heritage or legacies left by those who came before. The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, sharing space occupied by teams led by the likes of Lambeau and Lombardi, Halases, Brown and Landry.

Mike Tomlin embraces this reality. As he declared during his opening statement:

We had a chance to be a part of Steeler history tonight and, man, we don’t take that lightly. We’re just so appreciative of the ground that’s been laid by those that have come before us, the men like this man’s jersey that I’m wearing right here.

But when it comes to organization building, the true test of a legacy isn’t whether those carrying on its mission today remember the legacy, but whether they can add to it.

The Oaklan… ur um, Las Vegas Raiders tested the Steelers faith to their legacy on both sides of the ball.

Steelers Defense Simple Special vs Raiders

Just two weeks ago the Baltimore Ravens flocked into Acrisure Stadium and committed the worst possible insult a divisional opponent can lay on the Pittsburgh Steelers: They made them look soft.

The Steelers rebounded against the Carolina Panthers, but the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher Josh Jacobs. Not only did the Raiders have Jacobs, but they also had a host of other weapons.

  • Simply stacking the box wasn’t going to be enough.

By the time 8 minutes and 22 seconds of the first quarter had expired, the Raiders had put 7 points on the board and Josh Jacobs had run for 26 yards on 5 carries – an average that would decimate the Steelers of he could sustain it.

Alex Highsmith, David Carr, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th Anniversary

Alex Highsmith sacks David Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • He did not. During the rest of the game, he only gained 18 yards on 10 carries.

The Steelers limited the Raiders to another field goal during the first half, but Chris Boswell missed on his first field goal attempt in the first half and while he made his second one, he missed on his first kick in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, Kenny Pickett threw an interception six plays into the third quarter – if the Steelers were going to win this game, the defense would have to be special. They were:

  • One play after Pickett’s interception, Arthur Maulet picked off David Carr
  • Five plays after Chris Boswell missed his next field goal, Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off another pass
  • Alex Highsmith got a sack on third and 12, ending another drive
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick blitzed Carr on 2 & 6, setting Cam Heyward‘s 10 yard sack and an unconvertable third down, forcing a punt
  • Heyward stuffed Jacobs on 2nd and 5 on the next drive, setting up another punt.

After the Steelers went ahead, Larry Ogunjobi pressured David Carr into throwing a pass a little too soon. So instead of hitting Hunter Renfrow deep, Cam Sutton jumped the route and intercepted Carr for the third time that evening.

After the Radiers opening touchdown, the Steelers defense limited them to: Punt, Punt, Field Goal, Interception, Interception, Punt, Punt, Punt and Interception. You can’t ask more of a defense in the National Football league.

Pickett’s Poise Carries Offense at the End

The knock on Matt Canada and the Steelers offense, at least since Kenny Pickett took the helm, has been that they can’t finish drives. While there’ve been times when the Steelers have teased they might change this – see last week’s effort against the Panthers – thus far the field goal has been their most consistent weapon.

  • That could have worked against the Raiders, except that Chris Boswell kept missing his field goals.

When Cam Heyward wrecked the Raiders 5th drive of the 2nd half with a 10 yard sack of David Carr, the Steelers responded to the ensuring punt…

…with a three play, nine yard drive, that featured 2 good runs by Najee Harris, followed by Kenny Pickett failing to convert a third and 1. Pickett’s play in those first 55 minutes of the game had been shaky at best. Although he’d only thrown one interception, he’d had enough other misfires to lead one to question whether the game was too big for him or at the very least might be hitting the proverbial “rookie wall.”

The Steelers defense stone walled the Raiders on the ensuring drive, giving Pickett and the offense one last chance.
Pickett’s poise carried the day for Pittsburgh. With 2:55 remaining, Pickett started by throwing 8 straight passes:

George Pickens, George Pickens touchdown, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

George Pickens scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • He hit Najee Harris for 5, 19 and 5 yards
  • He hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times as well, for 17, 10 and 4 yards
  • When that four yarder wasn’t enough, he converted a 4th and 1

After completing 6 of 8 passes Pickett saved his best for last, launching a 14 yard laser to George Pickens in the end zone to give the Steelers their first lead with 46 seconds left.

Thanks to some crafty pass defense by Levi Wallace, Sutton’s interception, and Connor Heyward’s 21 yard scamper that including him sliding while in bounds to keep the clock running, the Steelers held that 13-10 lead.

13-10 isn’t an impressive victory margin. But if Pickett and the rest of the offense can sustain the growing up that Mike Tomlin alluded to, the true margin of victory will be much greater.

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Strength of Will: Steelers Beat Panthers 24-16, Dominating both Lines of Scrimmage

On Sunday Argentina won its first World Cup since 1986 while Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 24-16, appearing intent on avoiding the fate of the ‘86 Steelers.

Cosmetically, the win improved Pittsburgh 6-8; their ’86 brethren finished 6-10, so the ’22 Steelers still have work to do to avoid reliving some infamous history.

  • But the way the Steelers beat de-clawed the Panthers offers hope that they can do it.

And the reasons for the Steelers success in Carolina are no mystery. Pittsburgh won because, as Mike Tomlin explained, “ We wanted to win the line of scrimmage on both sides. I thought we were effective in doing so.”

T.J. Watt, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi. Combine to make a critical stop. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Tomlin Drops the Gauntlet

You’ve got to admire Mike Tomlin. The man never lets fear drive his decisions. The Atlanta Falcons ran well against the Steelers in the 2nd half. Last week, the Baltimore Ravens, playing their third string quarterback, imposed their will.

It was embarrassing. More than one commentator described the Steelers failure to stop the Raven’s run on 3rd and 3 with the game on the line as “season defining.”

The Carolina Panthers haven’t done a lot of things well this season, but establishing a physical running attack certainly has been one of them. Mike Tomlin knew Carolina’s first objective would be to establish the run.

  • Yet, when Pittsburgh won the toss, the Steelers deferred, daring the Panthers to run against them.

Carolina tried. D’Onta Foreman took the first carry, hoping to power run off of the left tackle. Larry Ogunjobi dropped him for a 1 yard loss.

While Sam Darnold did lead the Panthers to a touchdown in their next drive, their next 3 drives of the first half netted 2, negative 9 and 6 yards. This was truly an impressive performance from a Steelers front 7 that had been manhandled during the previous 6 quarters.

The Beauty of 7 Instead of 3

Few may wish to admit it, but Matt Canada’s offense has improved over the last 2 month. As Kenny Pickett has grown more comfortable, the Steelers have protected and possessed the ball.

But that improvement hasn’t extended to the Red Zone.

Whether its been Chris Boswell or Matthew Wright the field goal has been Pittsburgh’s most potent weapon, which leads to a very weak offense.

As they have in previous weeks, Steelers started out feeding the ball to Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Both men ran effectively. When it was needed, Mitch Trubisky, starting in place of the concussed Kenny Pickett, hit Diontae Johnson and George Pickens to convert.

The difference was that when the Steelers reached the Red Zone, they remained committed to the run and, more importantly, they were successful. That led to two touchdowns, giving the Steelers a 14-7 lead at the half.

The dividends getting 7 twice instead of settling for three on either or both occasions would be clear 12 minutes into the 2nd half.

Diontae Johnson, Keith Taylor, Steelers vs Panthers

Diontae Johnson makes a stop against Keith Taylor. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Momentum – Revisited

Football writers, yours truly included, LOVE to talk about momentum. Particularly “momentum” changes such as blocked kicks, pick sixes, long runs and/or deep passes at unexpected times.

  • Those all make for games that are almost as exciting to write about as they are to watch.

Yet, there’s an underappreciated side of momentum that isn’t as exciting but is just as important. And that’s when a team executes a methodical game plan that sustains a drive. The Steelers did that to open the 2nd half, running 21 play 91 yard drive, where they converted 5 third downs with all hands in the pile.

  • Derek Watt converted another 3rd and short
  • Steven Sims converted a 3rd and 1 with a risky end around that went 22 yards
  • Diontae Johnson resisted his urge to run backwards and coverted a 3rd 10 with a 12 yard grab
  • Johnson also converted a 3rd and 6 with an 8 yard grab – although the Steelers lost 15 on his penalty

By the time Mitch Trubisky found the end zone on his second try, a mere 3 minutes and 17 seconds remained in the 3rd quarter and the Steelers had a two touchdown lead.

Defense Goes in Bend But Don’t Break Mode

A 14 point lead with 18 minutes left to play would a minor speed bump for a team like the Bengals, Chiefs or Bills. But the Panthers aren’t the type of team. In truth, the Steelers defense should have effectively ended the game when Cam Heyward sacked Sam Darnold to end the third quarter.

  • But thanks to Marcus Allen’s idiotic jawboning, the Panthers got another chance.

They advanced to Pittsburgh’s ten, before Heyward and Terrell Edmunds stuff out a Darnold draw. The Panthers again reached the Steelers 2, but Alex Highsmith forced a fumble followed by a T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sack that forced another field goal.

Carolina did get another field goal, hoping to set up for an on-sides kick, but as Pittsburgh fans know all too well, if you settle for field goals instead of touchdowns too often, you lose.

Take Away – Tomlin’s Team Will Fight to the End

At 6-8, the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers remain a team that plays well against bad teams, which is part of rebuilding. But losses like the one the Steelers suffered last week at the hands of the Ravens can often break a team.

But the physical nature of the Steelers win in Carolina shows that Mike Tomlin managed to use the loss as a vehicle for strengthen his team’s will instead of breaking it.

 

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Losing It In the Trenches: Steelers Lose to Ravens 16-14 as Baltimore Dominates Line of Scrimmage

The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Baltimore Ravens 16-14, losing out in the battle of the backup quarterbacks. The loss snapped the Steelers 2 game winning streak and the Ravens four game losing streak against Pittsburgh.

  • The reason for the change in trends?

As Mike Tomlin conceded during his press conference, there’s nothing mystical about it:  When you turn the ball over 4 times in the Red Zone, you’re going to lose. Even if that is true, and it is, the Steelers still had a chance to win. They didn’t because they fell short on another, more ominous fundamental.

Gus Edwards, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

It falls to Minkah Fitzpatrick to stop Gus Edwards. Not Good. Photo Credit: Joey Polney, BaltimoreRavens.com

Understanding Tomlin’s Patience with Pickett

The win over the Falcons provided an affirmative example of why Mike Tomlin has been smart to stick with Kenny Pickett, despite calls from outside the franchise to sit the rookie. The loss to the Ravens provides a negative one.

  • Pickett’s progress has been slow at times, painfully slow.

The offense has improved, outside the Red Zone at least, the improvement has flowed the way molasses drips down the side of a bottle. The positive is that the drip’s progress is sustainable – unless something acts on it from the outside.

Roquan Smith, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Roquan Smith sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • A reason for Pickett’s slow progress is that he’s been very, very careful with the ball.

That caution virtually eliminated turnovers from Pickett’s game, yet that caution came at the cost of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.

  • The Baltimore Ravens were the outside force that slowed the molasses of Pickett’s progress.

After just two series (and two punts), Pickett left the game in the concussion protocol, giving way to Mitch Trubisky. And Tribusky certainly provided the proverbial “spark” to the offense.

  • He wasted little time in finding Pat Freiermuth for 14 yards converting a 3rd and 9
  • He immediately struck downfield to George Pickens for 42 yards
  • He looked again to Pickens who drew a pass interference penalty

Najee Harris lunched himself into the end zone, cutting Baltimore’s lead to 3. The decisiveness, and the downfield aggressiveness that had been missing from the offense was back. I daresay the series reminded me of the tiempo pickup we saw when Joe Gibbs benched Jay Schroeder in favor of Doug Williams against the Lions back in ’87.

But Tribusky’s aggressiveness carried its own cost. His next two series ended with a Red Zone interception and another interception just outside the Red Zone. Instead of settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, the Steelers got nothing.

Worse yet, while Tribusky protected the ball better the next time the Steelers neared the Ravens Red Zone, Calais Campbell blocked Chris Boswell’s field goal….

Yet despite turning the ball over four times on three possessions which could reasonably have ended with Chris Boswell field goals, the Steelers were in the game till the very end.

Defense Fails @ Line of Scrimmage

Normally turning the ball over four times yet still having a chance to win amounts to a tiny silver lining. That’s not the case here.

The Steelers defense had a chance to win this game. And the Steelers salary cap decision tell us that this defense was built to win games just like this.

Those Splash plays were nice, but the Steelers defense came up short on bread and butter plays. Fitzpatrick’s hit on Huntley forced him from the game, bringing in Ravens 3rd string quarterback Anthony Brown.

Gus Edwards, Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Ravens

Gus Edwards stiff arms Alex Highsmith. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • All the Steelers needed to do was stop the Ravens running game.

The Steelers defense knew the run was coming. They tried to stop it. They failed. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards hung 186 yards on Pittsburgh.

Sure, the Steelers limited the Anthony Brown-led Ravens offense to one field goal. But the field goal drive saw the Ravens rip off runs of 5, 14, 6, 7 and 7 yards. Patrick Ricard also converted a 3rd and 1. Oh, and the Steelers had done a good job of taking Mark Andrews.

  • Except when Anthony Brown hit him for 7 yards on to convert a 3rd and 4 on the field goal drive.

The worst play for the Steelers run defense came last: Gus converted a 3rd and 3, gaining 6 yards thanks to a Minkah Fitzpatrick stop.

You know your run defense is “choto” (Argentine slang for… coming up short er um, anatomically , discussed here) when it is 3rd and 3 after the 2 minute warning where a stop gets you the ball back and your free safety makes the tackle.

  • And so it was.

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Falcons: Dark Tower Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher who is almost as pleased by the fact that he was able to work a Dark Tower reference into his analysis (see the link at the end) as he is about the Steelers back-to-back wins, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 road win over Atlanta.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 16 of 28 for 197 yards with one touchdown and for the fourth straight week – no interceptions. Steadily but surely, Pickett continues to improve. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 17 carries, followed by Benny Snell with 24 yards on 6 carries, Jaylen Warren with 15 yards on one carry and Derek Watt with 1 carry for 4 yards that converted a 3rd down. So the top 3 running backs plus the full backs get carries in consecutive games for the first time in memory. And the Steelers get their first consecutive wins of the season. Coincidence? I think not. Grade: A

Tight Ends
The stat sheet tells you with Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 76 yards on 5 targets and that Zach Gentry caught 1 for 8 yards on one target, and the Connor Heyward caught 1 pass on one target for 17 yards. Gentry’s catch set the Steelers up with a 2nd and 2 with 4:50 left in the game; teach of Freiermuth’s touchdowns converted a 3rd down, and Heyward scored the only touchdown. The Steelers tight ends showed just how much damage you can do with 5 catches. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the unit with 5 catches for 60 yards on 11 targets. But he dropped at least one critical catch and got gift call on a play that should have been a fumble. Steven Sims didn’t catch either of the passes thrown his way, but did look good on reverses. Gunner Olszewski had 2 reverses for 2 yards. George Pickens had one catch for two yards and made little secret of his unhappiness with getting targeted – this attitude must NOT continue. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was not sacked for the entire day and he only took 4 QB hits. Equally impressively, the Steelers offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage opening holes for the runners. This unit is coming along. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a difference making sack early in the game. Larry Ogunjobi decisively dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for a loss that forced a field goal. Expecting the pass the Steelers took Montravius Adams and the Falcons ran very well in the second half. The line shoulders some of that. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack led the unit with six tackles and Devin Bush and Robert Spillaine logging QB hits as pass rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith had quiet games. Grade: B-

Secondary
The Falcons were 3-10 on third downs. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit and the team in tackles, including one for a four yard loss that helped stall a drive, and of course he authored the interception that ended the game. The secondary did get a little squishy in the 2nd half, but went into “Bend but don’t Break” mode in the Red Zone. (Although Arthur Maulet should have been flagged for pass interference). Overall a strong afternoon for the secondary. Grade: B+

Special Teams
What a difference 1 week makes. Matthew Wright hit all four of his field goals and completely neutralized Cordarrelle Patterson on kick returns. Pressley Harvin did a spectacular job pinning the Falcons down, while Myles Boykin downed the ball deep Steven Sims shaky punt returns drops this grade, but special teams was a difference maker for the Steelers. Grade: A-

Coaching
Is it me or does Matt Canada’s play calling suddenly look smarter now that his rookie quarterback is maturing and his offensive line continues to jell? During the first half the Steelers executed their physical, ball control brand of offense to perfection outside of the 20s. They didn’t do quite as well in the 2nd half, but killed the clock when necessary.

  • Getting touchdowns instead of field goals and Red Zone performance must improve, but that should come.

One defense the Steelers completely unhinged the Falcons during the first half. During the second half the Falcons reverted to their roots, and ran the ball effectively. Some of that success likely can be laid to the feet of the Steelers moving away from their base defense.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Sutton keeps the Falcons from landing in the end zone. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review.

George Pickens temper tantrums are a cause for concern as is the coaches obvious attempt to pacify him with a cheap catch, which would only seek to encourage the temperamental rookie. With that said, it was the Steelers, and not the Falcons who were playing like a team 1/2 game out of first place, as Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to their road win since playing a road game on Monday Night Football. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Atlanta didn’t have a lot of luck through the air. But they did take their shots down field. And although he’s only credited with one pass defense, Cam Sutton played a huge role in keeping the Falcons from landing in the end zone on more than one occasion and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over Atlanta.

 

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