3 Lessons from My Second Steelers Sabbatical

As regular readers probably noticed, I recently took my second “Steelers Sabbatical.” Like the first one, this one yielded 3 important lessons which I’ll share

1. Ivan Cole Was Right. Again.

“Ivan was right. Again” That was my first thought after getting re-plugged into the comings and goings of Steelers Nation in early May. I’m talking about the late, great Ivan Cole, former Steelers blogger at Behind the Steel Curtain and then later the now dark Going Deep with the Steelers site.

  • Later in life Ivan got heavily involved in supporting efforts to combat human trafficking.

Those efforts took him away from writing and even following the Steelers in much detail for much of the 2016 off season. This was a drastic change for Ivan, who for years spent off seasons penning the weekly “Weekend Check Down” where he recapped the previous week’s Steelers news.

Acrisure Stadium

Acrisure Stadium, Photo Credit: AP via Post-Gazette

When Ivan got back into the swing of things closer to training camp he said something along the lines of “…And I was surprised to learn that very little had happened that I couldn’t quickly get back up to speed on.”

  • That’s exactly how I felt.

The Steelers started the off season with a bang, as Mitch Trubisky, Mason Cole, Chukwuma Okorafor and Patrick Peterson all got cut. They of course signed Russell Wilson for the league minimum, traded a song for Justin Fields and sent Kenny Pickett down the turnpike for the NFL equivalent of couch cushion change.

  • All of that had happened by the time my sabbatical started.

In the ensuring five weeks or so very little of substance happened. The oft anticipated trade or big ticket free agent signing never occurred. The 2024 NFL Draft came, and while the early reviews are positive, it featured none of the “Khan Artist” wheeling and dealing that so many expected.

2. Unable to Write = Unintended Consequences

Although I wasn’t able to write about the Steelers, I was able to follow.

The “Sabbatical” actually started during February. I had fully intended to do a full Free Agent Focus series that I’d done for several years past.

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

I did get articles up on Mason Rudolph and Miles Killebrew, but Kwon Alexander wasn’t so lucky. His got written, but never published. Not only did he not get a whiff of interest form the Steelers, he also never got his final 15 seconds of fame that this website has bestowed upon so many souls (L.T. Walton, this Bud’s for YOU.)

While the proverbial “Work to do and bills to pay” was one reason for why the no other Free Agent Focus pieces got written, the other is that, guys like Blake Martinez, Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley didn’t lend themselves to compelling stories.

By the time the Omar Khan and the Steelers got into action on the free agent front the volume of work had risen to the point where writing pieces on the arrives of the likes of Patrick Queen, DeShon Elliott or say Dean Lowry was out of the question.

And that fact has left me far less invested in their success, than I was for, say, Mewelde Moore back in 2008.

3. The NFL is Eroding Itself with Over Exposure

Mewelde Moore’s arrival as a Steelers free agent in 2008 offers a revealing contrast for how the media landscape has changed since then. As he happened to sign on the same day Ben Roethlisberger inked his first 100-million-dollar contract, the press took little note.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger at at press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review documented his signing with small stubs and then left it at that. None of the other major outlets paid much attention either.

And Steelers Nation basically forgot about him until injuries to Willie Parker and then Rashard Mendenhall led to his first start, where Moore exploded for just under 100 yards in the 2008 Steelers pivotal win at  Jacksonville.

  • It is metaphysically impossible to even imagine that happening today.

The Steelers closed spring practices by cutting Denzel Mims and Trenton Thompson. Google their Steelers Cut Denzel Mims and you’ll can scroll through 3 if not 4 full pages of Google results on his waiver before you find articles about his signing.

And that doesn’t count all of the WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and Podcasts dissecting how this move either enhances or dooms Mike Tomlin’s ability to win Lombardi Number Seven with Russell Wilson at the helm.

  • If all of this quantity resulted in a true diversity of analysis that would be one thing.

But most it is just “Content Aggregation.” In one sense the NFL’s digital eco system reminds me of commercial radio. As a commentator asked about Classic Rock stations back in the early 00’s, “Why is it that Classic Rock stations with decades worth of music to draw upon, still end up playing the same Pink Floyd songs over and over again.”

Translated into 2024 terms, how many articles, WhatsApp alerts or Tweets do we REALLY need to read about hypothetical scenarios about the Steelers trading for Brandon Aiyuk?

  • It doesn’t take long to lose interest.
  • In fact, it is easy to lose interest. Fast.

To be sure, this phenomena isn’t unique to the NFL or even pro sports. Nor did the NFL owners and their infinite greed create this digital dynamic.

  • But it also seems clear that they either don’t see it, don’t understand it or just don’t care about it.

The NFL just doesn’t seem dead set on going to an 18 game season (oh, but player safety is paramount). The NFL not only wants the season to extend into President’s Day weekend, but it also wants to stretch out free agency and the draft during the off season to make the sport into a true, 12 month a year sport.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

  • The law of diminishing returns is real. The NFL is not immune.

During my second sabbatical there have been times when I’ve had ideas that I wished I had time to write about. And it did feel good to get back on the saddle while wondering if the Steelers had the next Yancey Thigpen on their roster.

  • But part of the reason is precisely because time to write about the Steelers was scarce.

The first thing I learned about economics on the first day of class at Loyola’s famed Sellinger School was that scarcity creates demand.

It is a principle the NFL would be wise to remember. But I doubt they will.

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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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Ugly Afternoon @ Acrisure as Steelers Choke, Losing 24-10 to the Cardinals

After an ugly afternoon of football at Acrisure Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 24-10 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.

  • After the game Mike Tomlin declared “That was a horrible day at the office.”

Tomlin hit the nail on the head. The Cardinals arrived in Pittsburgh as a 2-10 team that hadn’t won on the road in close to a year. The Steelers were 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC North race.

Yet the Steelers suffered an ugly loss because they failed to heed the lessons that carried them through several ugly wins this season: Win the weighty downs, don’t turn over the ball and above all else, don’t lose the game.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

What Went Right (no, that’s not a misprint)

With the New England Patriots coming to town in just four days, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of self-pity. (They also may not have the luxury of letting injuries heal, but we’ll get to that later.) Nor should they seek comfort in silver linings.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Steelers started the game by doing a lot of things right.

In just three plays the Steelers were at the Arizona 11, and then there came a big “BUT.” But before we get to that “BUT” let’s move on to other things that went right.

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi opened by stuffing James Conner for no gain, setting up a quick three and out. On Arizona’s next possession it fell to Watt and Keeanu Benton to stuff Conner for no gain in a drive that saw the Cardianls settle for 51 yard field goal.

Arizona’s next possession ended with a three and out in large part to Alex Highsmith’s sack of Kyler Murray. After a Steelers three and out, it fell to Nick Herbig to stuff Connor and T.J. Watt to drop Murray for a loss.

The Steelers got the ball back and went on a 12 play, 79 yard drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of clock time. In truth this drive contained much of what had been missing on Matt Canada’s watch.

  • The Steelers made 4 first downs.
  • Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped of double-digit runs
  • They also made shorter runs to set up manageable 3rd downs
  • Pat Freiermuth converted one of those with George Pickens picking up another through the air.

The Arizona Cardinals 1 yards line lie at the end of those 79 yards, where the next big “BUT” reared its ugly head.

About Those “BUTS”

The success of the Steelers first three plays was almost uncanny. In the blink of an eye, Kenny Pickett and company was just 16 yards away from an opening drive touchdown. Once there Najee Harris ran for 5 only to see Pickett fail to connect on his next two passes, bring up a Chris Boswell field goal.

On that second, picture perfect drive, the Steelers tried four times to punch starting from the Arizona 7, but couldn’t make it into the end zone.

  • Pittsburgh left 11 points on the field on those two drives along.
  • Chris Boswell missed a field goal in the second half.
  • Make that 14 points the Steelers left on the field.

It is tempting to conclude “You can’t leave points on the field like that and expect to win in the National Football League.” Which is generally true. But we’ve seen the Steelers win in spite of their offense for most of the season. But against the Cardinals, something else was different.

Back to Ball Security

The Steelers defense opened the second half down 10 to 3 after having given up a 99 yard touchdown drive to close the first half. The Black and Gold’s response was to force an Arizona three and out.

Pittsburgh’s rebound was short-lived as 7 plays later Mason Cole wobbled a snap to Mitch Trubisky’s shoe laces and the Cardinals recovered. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona was able to convert in the Red Zone and put the Cardinals up 17 to 3.

Giving up that touchdown might not have ended it for the Steelers, but Boswell’s missed field goal came on Pittsburgh’s next possession and his miss effectively ended things.

Another Twist in a Long, Strange Season

Two weeks ago the Steelers loss of a winnable game in Cleveland carried ominous overtones. Mike Tomlin reacted by firing Matt Canada, and last week it felt like the team had turned a corner in Cincinnati. Instead they dropped a game, at home to one of the league’s worst teams.

What to make of it? Well, there are a couple of things:

  • This Steelers team really has no margin for error as it lacks the talent to overcome mistakes.
  • Injuries may not be an excuse, but they are an explanation.

Seriously.

The Steelers did everything they could give this game to the Cardinals, including 2 illegal formation penalties that negated first downs, a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a 3rd and 8 incompletion, in addition to twin personal fouls on punt returns and a too many men on the field — after a time out.

The Steelers defense started the game shutting down the Cardinals in stunning fashion but ended up unable to stop them at critical points. But by that point an inside linebacking corps that had lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander had also lost the services of Elandon Roberts, who’d arguably been the defense’s MVP over the last several games.

And on offense the Steelers lost Kenny Pickett and Isaac Seumalo just before half time. And Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand during the first half (but was able to return).

  • Yet, for all of that, had the Steelers not left 14 points on the field they’d have scored enough to tie the game.

This reality excuses nothing. But it reminds us that the Steelers stole a couple of wins early in the season by taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Now they’ve had one stolen from them in the same fashion.

Mike Tomlin and company have 3 days to figure out how to prevent the Patriots and Bill Belichick to be the next to benefit from the law of averages. They have their work cut out for them.

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Brown Out: Steelers Lose to Browns 13-10 as Offense, Kenny Pickett Stumbles Down Stretch

In so many ways the Steelers trip to Cleveland was like other games earlier in the season as it featured:

  • A slow start
  • A dramatic big play on offense
  • 2nd half defensive fireworks
  • A field goal coming on to the field to settle things as regulation expired

Yet, this one had a different result, as the Browns beat the Steelers 13 to 10 on a last minute Dustin Hopkins field goal. The reason this one was different for Pittsburgh is simple: Kenny Pickett not only failed to find his 4th quarter magic, his performance suggested that the previous examples were mere mirages.

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Browns Start Strong, Steelers Sputter

The 9 game the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers have been a historical aberration. They’ve been outgained in all of their games and collectively outscored. Yet they arrived in Cleveland after having passed the season’s half way mark with a 6-3 record.

  • Were they a bad team hiding behind a couple of three on Any Given Sundays?
  • Or where they a good team struggling to find themselves?

As staff writer Tony Defeo observed on X (formerly known as Twitter):

Could the Browns offer something of a real test?

After all, they’d lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season and were starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But the Steelers had lost Kwon Alexander, Kenau Neal and were already missing all Pro Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and forced to start practice squanders Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson at inside linebacker and safety.

Credit the Browns PR staff for selling the “Browns locker room rallies around the rookie story” as the CBS broadcast crew kept touching on threads tied to this story line every chance they got.

  • But credit Kevin Stefanski and his staff for breathing truth into this narrative.

No one would mistake Cleveland for an offensive juggernaut nor did its defense go into shut down mode, but they were clearly the better-prepared unit in the first half, as the Browns scored 10 points while the Steelers spent the first quarter burning time outs on both sides of the ball to avoid penalties.

And while the Steelers defense hung tough in the Red Zone late in the first half by forcing a field goal, with the Steelers offense completely AOWL, Pittsburgh was lucky to be down by only 10.

Meet the Steelers One Man Offense

The Steelers got to the ball to open the second half. On first down Najee Harris got the nod, and ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage, gaining one yard. Another 30 minutes of “Sludge Ball” seemed to be in order.

Warren ripped off a 74 yard run that was even more impressive than his cousin Fast Willie Parker’s 75 yard Super Bowl XL romp. In the blink of an eye, Warren had gained more yards than the entire Steelers offense had gained in the first half and he’d putt Pittsburgh to within three.

Jaylen Warren was literally the only thing about the Steelers offense that worked against the Browns. He followed his touchdown with a 14 yard catch, a 21 yard run and a 12 yard run. Would Warren have been able to “take over the game” had Matt Canada given him a chance?

It is hard to be sure.

But clearly he was out performing Najee Harris behind an offensive line whose run blocking was shaky enough. Hindsight’s 20/20, but the Steelers should have leaned on Warren more.

Defense Delivers 2nd Half Fireworks

Statistically speaking the Steelers 2023 defense ranks near the bottom both against the run and against the past. They’ve made a lot of fantasy football owners happy this season. But they’ve found a way to deliver when the game is on the line.

Sunday’s trip to Cleveland was no exception:

All of that was good enough for the Steelers defense to force punts on 5 punts the Browns six the second half possessions. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked like a frustrated, clueless rookie through much of it.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson was good enough to do something Kenny Pickett wasn’t able to do – get his team into field goal range inside the 2 minute warning.

Pickett Regresses

Kenny Pickett finished 2022 with a bang. He started 2023 with a thud. He looked terrible in blowouts to the 49ers and Texans and in the week 2 win over the Browns.

  • In his six wins his MO has been the same: Start slow, finish strong.

Narrative spinners in Steelers Nation have liked to talk about Pickett’s 4th quarter magic as if its been something he turns on at will during the game’s final 15 minutes. But the truth is that he’s gotten progressively better as games have worn on.

Others may disagree, but even in the loss to the Jaguars he seemed to be improving on the “eye test” before he got hurt. Last week’s win over the Packers was a little different. Pickett did get a little better as the game progressed, but his improvement was marginal.

  • Against the Browns it was next to non-existent.

Kenny Pickett converted just 2 of 11 third downs passing. After the Steelers tied the game with 7:44 remaining, Teryl Austin’s defense forced two punts and limited the Browns to just 10 plays. That gave Pickett and the Steelers offense 2 possessions to get 3 points in the game’s final minutes.

Yes, Pickett did start that stretch with a nice hook up to George Pickens. After that he threw 5 passes, completing only one of those. Those incompletions are damning enough, but if you really want to understand how Pickett has come up short look at his completion: A 2 yards pass to Jaylen Warren on third and 15.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Steelers haven’t seen such timid play at quarterback since Kordell Stewart and the dark days of the 1999 season.

For those of you who’ve forgotten or are too young to remember, the 1999 Steelers won just six games. Its no exaggeration to say that if Kenny Pickett doesn’t find a way to pick it up, the Steelers might finished 2023 with a similar total.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans: No Helmet Required Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is wondering if helmets should be optional here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Thursday Night Football win over the Titans at Acrisure.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans, T.J. Watt sack Will Levis no helmet

No helmet? No problem for T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett is unlike any previous Steelers quarterback. He started sharp. He followed that up by missing throws that Duck Hodges would have made. But he improved as the game progressed an authored a 4th quarter worthy of his predecessor. His 19-30-160 for one touchdown fail to impress the Fantasy Football owners, but they were good enough to win. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
THIS is the running game we’ve been waiting to see. Jaylen Warren exploded for 88 yards on 22 carries he set up a score with a 22 yard burst in the 4th quarter but ripped off runs of 15 and 14 yards. Najee Harris had a strong night too going 69 yards on 16 carries, including a run of 25 yards and another 10 yarder for a touchdown. The duo caught 5 passes through the air. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Connor Heyward had 2 catches for 16 yards. Darnell Washington got his first reception and although it was for a mere 7 yards, it sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson reminded everyone of why they missed him so dearly. His 7 catches for 90 yards might not be eye popping, but they were difference makers. Allen Robinson and Myles Boykin helped sustain drives with catches. Calvin Austin had one target that, had the ball been delivered well, would have been a touchdown. He had two reveses for positive yards. George Pickens stat line of the night is 2 passes for negative 1 yards. Had he been focused on getting his feet in bounds that line would read 3 passes for 11 yards and a touchdown. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Was Broderick Jones the shot in the arm this offensive line needed. Most of the focus has been on the improved quality of the run blocking which was self-evident on several plays. But Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked the entire night and only hit 2 times during the entire game. The line must sustain this improvement, but against the Titans they were an asset. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward made his presence known on the very first play and later snuffed out a screen on third down and he was the third leading tackler. Larry Ogunjobi was next. Keeanu Benton also saw time extended time. Derrick Henry was continued and it started with the defensive line. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt and Markus Golden both had sacks with Alex Highsmith notching two of his own in addition to multiple pressures. Elandon Roberts stepped up and stoned Derrick Henry on 2nd and 5 helping force a punt. Kwon Alexander sealed the game with an interception. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes, Joey Porter Jr. helped shut DeAndre Hopkins down. Yes, the Steelers continued to reduce their yards per pass average. But both Joey Porter and Patrick Peterson were flagged multiple times which helped keep Tennessee in the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect and Pressley Harvin boomed off some excellent punts. Godwin Igwebuike did respectable job of returning kicks as did Calvin Austin on punt returns. The Steelers did give up an overly long kick return. Grade: B-

Coaching
For Teryl Austin it must really feel like he’s in a “One step forward two steps back” situation. He get’s Cam Heyward back, but loses Minkah Fitzpatrick. His inside linebackers start to jell, and he loses Cole Holcomb.

The Steelers defense improved against the run and also against the pass, statistically speaking, and of course delivered with a splash play when the game was on the line.

Matt Canada’s offense was far from perfect. At times it was as frustrating as it has been all year. But the unit started fast, fielded their strongest rushing effort of the season and neither needed to rely on a turnover or a defensive score to ensure that the Steelers had more points on the board than their opponent at the final gun.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone 8 games without having gained more yards than their opponents and, for the first time since the 1930s, have a winning record to show for it. Credit Mike Tomlin for continuing to coax out wins. Grade: B

Mason Cole, Steelers vs Titans, James Daniels, Jeffery Simmons

Mason Cole. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Unsung Hero Award
The offensive line has been the most disappointing spot on the depth chart this season, and this man has been fingered often as its weakest link. As recently as the loss to the Jaguars, he failed the “Eye Test.” Yet, the Steelers finished their opening drive by scoring a touchdown and it all started with strong play in the center and for that Mason Cole is the Unsung Hero of the win over the Titans.

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“The Pickett Factor” Decisive in Steelers 20-16 Win Over Titans @ Acrisure

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans on 20-16 on Thursday Night Football at Acrisure Stadium. The game was as typical for the 2023 Steelers as its result was inscrutable.

  • Yes, it had an atypical beginning.

Everything else followed the script. In the middle things got ugly. The Steelers found new ways to flirt with self-destruction. Once again, their opponents gained more yards. Once again, the outcome remained in doubt until the contest’s final second.

But once again, the same two elements carried the day for the Steelers as they have all season long: Splash plays on defense and “The Pickett Factor.”

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Titans

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Expect the Unexpected

The loss to the Jaguars had been messy. Steelers Nation was in a tizzy. Thursday Night Football might be horrible for player’s health and safety. But in this case a Thursday night home game gave the Steelers just want they needed: A chance to get back on the horse.

Leading into the game, my friend Neal Coolong set the tone:

No, the Steelers didn’t break the 400 yard mark. But they did do something almost as uncharacteristic: They scored a touchdown on their opening drive. This was something they hadn’t done since beating the Carolina Panthers last December.

Touchdowns early in games have been pretty spare for these Steelers. And when they’ve come, they’ve usually been the product of big plays such as Alex Highsmith’s pick six to open the win over the Browns or the deep strike to Calvin Austin vs the Raiders.

  • But this one was different. It was refreshingly workman-like.

Jaylen Warren, Allen Robinson and Connor Heyward had runs and catches for nice gains. Diontae Johnson caught two passes, and Najee Harris ran it in from 10 yards out, behind a spectacular block throw by, of all people Mason Cole the offensive line’s whipping boy.

  • Best of all? Kenny Pickett, who has been a notoriously slow starter, went 5-7 for 62 yards.

Maybe Matt Canada standing on the sidelines fixed what ails this offense….
Maybe starting Broderick Jones gave the offensive line the shot in the arm it needed….
Maybe the Steelers really had turned a corner….

Defense Delivers Levis, Titans 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Chances

Derrick Henry is the kind of running back that dominates opposing defenses the way the Steelers hoped Najee Harris would when they drafted him. All of the sound and fury directed at Matt Canada has masked the fact that the Steelers have struggled to defend the run.

Maybe getting Cam Heyward back was what this defense needed to find consistency.

And maybe that was too much to expect.

Rookie Will Levis arrived in Pittsburgh with a single winning start under his belt that saw him throw four touchdown passes. Surly the Steelers vaunted defense would bring him down to earth?

Ultimately the Steelers defense did just that. But along the way Levis looked very sharp. He looked sharp on his own merits, but the Steelers defense gave him plenty of help.

On the Titans’ first drive alone, the Steelers defense gave Tennessee 4 first downs by penalties, including a conversion on third and eight. When a flag flew to after a helmetless T.J. Watt sacked Levis it seemed like a miracle that it wasn’t against Pittsburgh.

Later in the game, a 5-yard illegal contact Penalty on Patrick Peterson allowed Tennessee to covert another third down, keeping alive a drive that allowed them to take the lead with a field goal. An sportsman like conduct field gave the Titans a short field after the Steelers go-ahead touchdown.

Joey Porter, DeAndre Hopkins, Steelers vs Titans 2023

Joey Porter defends a pass targeted at DeAndre Hopkins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

And of course a defensive holding penalty on Joey Porter Jr. gave Tennessee fresh life on 4th and 7 with 53 seconds left to go.

After the game Mike Tomlin describe the penalties as “catastrophic.” That’s perhaps a little harsh, given that the Steelers did win. But his point was valid.

The Pickett Factor

Unfortunately Kenny Pickett’s sputtered following his strong start. He went 3-8 for 16 yards. Those are stark numbers. But what they don’t show is how routine the throws were that Pickett missed. He missed George Pickens on an out route. He was too low to connect with Allen Robinson in the end zone. He just wasn’t getting it done.

  • Watching Will Levis it was impossible not to make comparisons with Pickett.

Twice the Steelers had him backed up against his own end zone, and twice Levis moved his team out of danger with spectacular throws. Although Levis didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, he did connect with six different receivers for completions of 24, 29, 23, 21, 29, and 23 yards.

This left even the most patient Steelers fans with no choice but to ask, “Why can’t Pickett do that?”

It is a legitimate question. But Pickett brings something special to the table:

  • He consistently improves as games progress.

Pickett only threw 4 incomplete passes in the second half. One of those would have and should have gone for a touchdown had George Pickens focused more on getting both feet in bounds as opposed to focusing on how he was going to celebrate.

On the Steelers go-ahead touchdown drive, he went 3 of 4 for 41 yards. But again, numbers are far too bland to tell the story. On third and six with 5 minutes remaining he did this:

Four plays later, he was connecting with Diontae Johnson again to put Pittsburgh ahead.

Pickett’s 4th quarter poise is something you can’t put a price on. Contrast that with Will Levis’ play on his final drive:

  • His first pass should have been intercepted by Levi Wallace.
  • His first shot at the end zone should have been picked off by Darius Rush.
  • Kwon Alexander picked off his next and last shot at a comeback

For much of the night, Will Levis out performed his opposite number. But when it counted, “The Pickett Factor” put Pittsburgh over the top. Kenny Pickett’s ability to “turn it on” is unlike anything either the Steelers or the NFL has seen before.

Whether he or the Steelers can continue to win this way is unknown. But against the Titans it was again enough.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jaguars: No Mood for Excuses Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher in no mood to make excuses, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest home loss to the Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kenny Pickett after being injured. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Yahoo Sports.

Quarterbacks
To paraphrase the old Red Dog beer commercial (yeah, I just dated myself), “Don’t let the smooth stats fool you.” Kenny Pickett’s 10 of 16 for 73 with zero picks and no TD’s looks OK. But he was 2 of 6 on third downs and one of those completions went for negative yards. Another incompletion came when Diontae Johnson was open in the end zone. Mitch Trubisky’s 15 of 27 for 1 TD and 1 pick look respectable too. But he was not. When he wasn’t throwing into triple coverage he was gaining garbage time glory. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren had runs for 8 and 7 yards, but outside of that it was pure “Sludge Ball” for him and Najee Harris. The duo also caught 9 passes between the two of them during garbage time. The running backs didn’t get much help from their line, but the Steelers needed more. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Connor Heyward caught 5 passes on 6 targets but really didn’t make himself a factor in the passing game. Darnell Washington has been quiet in two starts. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
If Diontae Johnson catches that first pass, which was high but catchable, perhaps the dynamic of this game is dramatically different. But Diontae didn’t catch it. He caught several more really doing a remarkable job of getting open. George Pickens had a touchdown, but had he hurried to the line of scrimmage rather than strutting the Steelers could have had a long gain. Instead the Steelers had to punt. Calvin Austin had 2 catches in garbage time. He got stopped cold on one reverse and helped set up a field goal with a ten yard run on his other one. The receivers made a some plays, but they had chances to make a few more and the didn’t. And that cost the team. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs carried the ball 12 times. Sure there’s a bit of a chicken egg element to that statement. But “Sludge Ball” on first and second down leads to long third downs. And let’s remember that Kenny Pickett was sacked on the second play from scrimmage and ultimately knocked from the game. The Jaguars had 3 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers did a respectable job of containing Travis Etienne on the ground as Montravius Adams quietly starts to build a name for himself at nose tackle. Grade: C

Linebackers
The Steelers inside linebacking corps helped contain the Jaguars running game as Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander all authored some nice plays. Alex Highsmith had a half sack as did T.J. Watt who also got a hand on a pass. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers already started the game with a thin secondary and it got thinner fast as Minkah Fitzpatrick went down with a hamstring injury early in the game. In his absence, there was good and bad. The Steelers didn’t give up a 100 yard receiver for only the second time this year, and actually reduced their yards allowed per pass. Damontae Kazee took seven points off the board for Jacksonville and started a drive that ended in a field goal. Nonetheless, the miscommunication that led to Travis Etienne’s 56 yard pass put Pittsburgh in a deep hole that it never dug out from. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, but missing a 61 yarder in the rain at Acrisure Stadium after you’ve just made 56 yarder is understandable. Pressley Harvin had a mixed bag on punting. The Steelers gave up a little more return yardage than you’d like to see, but that was hardly the difference in the game. Grade: C

Coaching
Danny Smith’s special teams were “Above the line.” Teryl Austin’s defense forced 3 turnovers, 2 of which came when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone wrecked several other drives with sacks in critical situations.

  • Yet it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

Apparently the Steelers defense and special teams need to play pristine games and see their opponents miss kicks or otherwise leave points on the board to be competitive, because scoring more than one offensive touchdown is too much to ask.

  • 5 of the the Steelers first seven possessions ended in a three and out.
  • Their penultimate drive before scorning their weekly touchdown went for 5 yards
  • When the Steelers scored, the defense forced a punt only for the offense to turn the ball over 2 plays later

Yes, it is true. Matt Canada didn’t drop a deep bomb to open the game or miss an open wideout in the end zone. Neither did he throw the ball multiple times into triple coverage. But clearly Canada can’t get it done.

Nick Herbig, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Jaguars

Nick Herbig and T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin’s hands maybe be tied as the Steelers are a franchise which doesn’t believe in interims coaches (see Mike Nixon’s tenure), his job is to coax what he can out of Canada offense while he’s here. And right now, he’s getting next to nothing. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award

When a team caps a bad first half by failing to score immedatly before half time, the best way to start driving the nail into its coffin is to score on the opening drive of the second half. The Jaguars were doing just that, taking their opening kick off to Pittsburgh’s 35. Yet that drive stopped there, thanks to Nick Herbig’s playing through to the wistle as he forced Tank Bigsby’s fumble and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the (latest) loss to the Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium.

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Suffocated by “Sludge Ball,” Steelers Fall to Jaguars 20-10 at Acrisure

The Jacksonville Jaguars came to Acrisure Stadium and, as they did on their last 2 trips to Pittsburgh, they beat the Steelers, this time to the tune of 20-10. As former division rivals, the Steelers and Jaguars have a rich history. The signature games in their series always reveal something important about the Steelers.

This week’s lesson is more mundane but equally important: For the 2023 Steelers “Sludge Ball” simply won’t cut it.

Jaylen Warren, Foyesade Oluokun, Steelers vs Jaguars

Foyesade Oluokun stops Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Attrition Takes Its Toll

The 2023 Steelers way of winning games has been simple, ugly and taxing to the heart. Notice, the use of “way of winning games” as opposed to “formula,” because surely this is not how Mike Tomlin, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin have planned things. But the Steelers four wins have common elements:

  • Take advantage of opponents’ errors
  • Compensate for giving up big gains with splash plays on defense
  • Make a big play or two on offense early in the game
  • Come on strong in the 4th quarter on both sides of the ball
  • Above all, avoid catastrophic mistakes

This isn’t sustainable. One reason why its not sustainable is that you get into trouble when you star players get hurt. Early in the week Jim Wexell mused to Jeremy Hertz that Minkah Fitzpatrick was due to make a game changing play.

  • Fitzpatrick left in the 1st quarter with a hamstring injury.

This further depleted a secondary that saw Darius Rush and Luqman Barcoo get first team reps on Friday ahead of the game. Losing Fizpatrick was big, but losing Kenny Pickett before the half was bigger, as the 4th quarter would make painfully clear.

No, Don’t Blame the Officials

Following the game, daggers were drawn in Steelers Nation and pointed at the officials. Alan Saunders of SteelersNow perhaps said it best:

The non-call in Pickett’s injury was all the more galling considering that Keanu Neal has been penalized for a far more benign hit on Trevor Lawrence. And the penalty that negated a Chris Boswell field goal, was in Mike Tomlin’s words, the first of its kind that he’s seen in 17 years.

  • But you know what?

None of that mattered. The Steelers still had chances to win the game. They simply squandered them.

Big Plays Can’t Overcome “Sludge Ball”

The Jacksonville Jaguars offense put up some nice statistics against the Steelers defense. But, as it has throughout the season, the Steelers defense struck back with big plays:

  • The Steelers forced the Jaguars to settle for field goals with key 3rd down stops on their 1st two possessions.
  • The first time Jacksonville reached the Red Zone Kwon Alexander stripped the ball and Cole Holcomb recovered it
  • The next time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn, as he intercepted a pass in the end zone.
  • Nick Herbig ended the Jags’ first drive of the second half with a strip of Tank Bigsby
  • Elandon Roberts wrecked their next drive with a sack on first down
  • T.J. Watt and Armon Watts led a “gang sack” on third down to force another punt
Elandon Roberts, Alex Highsmith, Trevor Lawrence, Steelers vs Jaguars

Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith Sack Trevor Lawrence. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

That’s three turnovers for the Steelers and two sacks to scuttle drives. How many points did the Steelers score off of those “Splash” plays? Three.

Two weeks ago on his podcast, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell called out the Steelers offense for sticking to “sludge ball.” Wexell defines “Sludge ball” as insisting on handing the ball to Najee Harris on first and second down, setting up 3rd and 7 or 3rd and 8. Steelers then fail to convert those third downs, forcing punts.

  • Against the Rams last week, the Steelers inched away from “Sludge Ball.”

But sludge ball was back with a vengeance against the Jaguars. The Steelers first four drives amounted to 12 plays and 4 punts. Perhaps the team was working its way out of it before Pickett got hurt because they did score on their fifth possession and had another score taken away by penalty on their 6th.

But the offense under Mitch Trubisky opened the 2nd half with 8 plays and 2 punts. (I guess we can count that as improvement, right? NOT!) Diontae Johnson, Geroge Pickens and you could argue Connor Heyward and Jaylen Warren made some nice plays.

But the Steelers can’t expect to win many games when punter Pressley Harvin is a candidate for offensive MVP.

Mitch Lacks the Clutch Gene

Alas, Pressley Harvin was a candidate for offensive MVP, yet the Steelers still had a chance to win. But expecting Mitch Tribuisky to do what Kenny Pickett has done late in games simply isn’t realistic. Tribusky lacks the “clutch” gene.

  • Yes, Tribuskiy looked smart in leading the lone touchdown drive.

But he threw a horrible interception that basically sealed the game for Jacksonville, and he forced two more passes in to triple coverage that should have been picked off. Even after his interception, the Steelers had a shot at winning, on paper at least.

But Tribuskiy stuck with safe, 6 or 7 yard check down passes. One of the times he got away from that, he threw one of his “Should have been interceptions.”

  • IT was almost as if, even with the game lost, Tribusky was playing not to lose.

Given the circumstances, it was almost another form of “Sludge Ball.” And ironically, that was fitting.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Rebound Win over Ravens: Baby Steps and Big Plays Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is oscillating between baby steps and big plays here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 rebound win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

Quarterback
The stat sheet says Kenny Pickett went 18 of 32 for 224 yards and one touchdown. But those numbers fail to tell the story of how Pickett improved as the game wore on, who his accuracy got better, and how he made a key audible to burn the Ravens. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Here’s another case where the stat sheet simply isn’t sufficient to judge a player. Jaylen Warren only had 40 yards on the ground on 9 carries and 3 catches for another 39. But he imposed his will to earn those yards, setting up a score. Najee Harris had 14 carries for 37 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his first start and was targeted twice. Connor Heyward moved into the number 2 tight end role and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson but one converted a third down on the touchdown drive. Calvin Austin got one target in limited activity due to concussion concerns while Miles Boykin got a target. The real start of the unit was George Pickens. Everyone in the stadium knew that Pickett would target Pickens. He did it anyway. And Pickens came away with the ball every time it counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked 3 times and hit 5 other times while the Ravens made 3 tackles for losses. Overall the line play was a little better than it has been, but was still far from what the Steelers need it to be. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers were down two defensive lineman so this was a game where the Ravens likely expected to run well. And they started off running well. But the Steelers defensive line held its own as Keeanu Benton led the team in tackles and Larry Ogunjobi made a downfield tackle to force a fumble. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt helped stall a scoring drive with one sack, recovered Alex Highsmith’s strip sack which should have ended the game. When it didn’t Watt sacked Jackson on Baltimore’s final possession. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes. Baltimore dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone and another all but sure touchdown later in the day. But another scene that repeated itself several times during the game was Lamar Jackson slamming his helmet to the bench. And that’s because as the game wore on, Jackson had nowhere to pass leading to abortive runs. Damontae Kazee recovered a fumble, and of course Joey Porter, Jr. made his first career interception covering Odell Beckham in the end zone. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was again perfect, and Brad Wing kicked well enough to make people wonder why he’s been out of the league so long. The Steelers return coverage was solid. Gunner Olszewski made some nice returns, but almost cost Pittsburgh the game with yet another fumble. The real stars of the unit were Miles Killbrew who blocked a punt and Rodney Williams, who saved a touchdown after Olszewski’s fumble. Grade: A-

Coaching
It took 8 quarters, but Matt Canada’s offense finally scored a touchdown. But it looked good doing it. Seriously, Canada’s offense took some baby steps, those were evident in the field goal drive that followed the blocked punt.

Productivity on the Steelers offense remains the exception when it must become the rule. Baby steps are nice, but leaps beyond the occasional big passing play are in order.

If Matt Canada has been a lightning rod for criticism, Teryl Austin’s has gotten a pass, although his defense’s deficiencies have been on display. They were in display again in the first quarter, but his unit tightened down and held the Ravens scoreless for nearly 3 quarters.

  • Sure, the Ravens made some dumb decisions and dropped 2 if not 3 touchdowns.

But that’s how football works. You take advantage of mistakes and if possible you force them. Teryl Austin’s defense forced those – Lamar Jacksons’ frustration made that evident.

A loss as lopsided as the humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston can break the will of a football team. Fans and the press demanded dramatic changes. Tomlin made a few minor ones visible to the public and likely made more in private.

Elandon Roberts, Justice Hill, Steelers vs Ravens

Elandon Roberts stuffs Justice Hill late in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But most importantly, he kept his team on an even-keel and prepared them for a physical AFC North football and they prevailed. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The middle of the Steelers defense has been a mess. They’ve been flashes from this group of players, but too often the errors have outweighed them. Yet against the Ravens, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander stepped up to make several critical plays at critical junctures and for that Inside Linebackers win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Beat Ravens 17-10 as 4th Quarter Fireworks in All 3 Phases Fuel Comeback

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 at Acrisure Stadium to enter the 2023 bye week with the lead in the AFC North.

The 17-10 score suggests that this was yet another, hard-fought defensive battle in the iconic series between these two rivals.

  • Yet there was nothing simple in how the Steelers scored their 17 points.

And that’s fitting. There’s something about this young Steelers season that escapes the numbers. The Steelers have struggled for much of this year just as they struggled against the Ravens. Yet the takeaways from this latest rebound win against the Ravens suggests that maybe those struggles might be bearing fruit.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens after scoring a touchdown vs the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = More of the Same from the Steelers Offense

As an organization the Steelers seem to have an uncanny ability to tune out the noise from the peanut gallery. And that’s good because during the first half Matt Canada’s offense gave this critics plenty to crow about. While the Ravens were busy putting 10 points on the board, Brad Wing was busy staking his claim to NFL comeback player of the year by punting the ball away for Pittsburgh.

Canada’s offense only suffered one three and out and even put together one 10 play drive before sending Wing out. So theoretically, there was progress.  The Ravens might have only scored 10 points, but Baltimore receivers had dropped 2 passes in the end zone. A more lopsided result only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “IF.”

  • But like any good drama, this game’s first chapters foreshadowed things to come.

If the Steelers defense hadn’t been giving up points, it was keeping fantasy owners happy by giving up yards. Yet late in the third quarter Lamar Jackson hit Justice Hill for a 10 yard gain, he seemed to be destined for more only to have Larry Ogunjobi come up from behind an knock the ball loose.

Damontae Kazee picked it up and 7 plays later, Chris Boswell was getting the Steelers on the board. That did little to satisfy booing fans. But the attentive eye noticed that Kenny Pickett to George Pickens had accounted for 25 of the 26 yards the Steelers offense earned. Could this be the start of a trend….?

There wasn’t much time for back patting in Pittsburgh, because the Ravens marched down the field with authority. They reached the Steelers’ 23, until John Harbaugh overplayed his hand, going for it on 4th and 2 passing up an automatic field goal.

Alas, Lamar Jackson misfired in the end zone 2, burning Baltimore’s a chance to put points on the board. Could another trend be forming….? That’s why we play second halves.

3rd Quarter Uneventful – And that was Half Good

Peyton Manning recently tried to dispel the notion of “half time adjustments” and “Half time momentum.” The effort of the Steelers offense in the third quarter would seem to support that.

  • Brad Wing punted another three times.

The Steelers offense started with a three and out. Then they managed 8 plays for 27 yards on their next possession. And on their final possession of the third quarter they managed another 8 plays for 43 yards, including two more Pickett to Pickens hookups.

That did little to quite the “Fire Canada” chants, but punting aside, Kenny Pickett’s passing seemed to get more precise as the quarter progressed, didn’t it?

On defense the Steelers defense forced the Ravens to put twice. But perhaps more importantly, they were starting to get to Lamar Jackson. That was only the beginning.

Fourth Quarter Fireworks — for Everyone

Has there ever been a more exciting fourth quarter in Steelers history? Perhaps. But this one literally had fireworks on every side of the ball.

The staff at Acrisure Stadium got the 4th quarter started in style with Renegade. The Ravens tried to respond, but with Kwon Alexander stuffing Justice Hill for a losses, the Steelers secondary locking down Baltimore receivers, and Cole Holcomb to cutting off a Lamar Jackson run, forcing a punt.

  • Special teams coach Danny Smith decided to get aggressive.

Special teams captain Miles Killebrew soared through the wedge blocking Jordan Stout’s punt, with Rodney Williams barely missing a touchdown. So the Steelers had to settle for a safety.

The Steelers failed to take the lead, but Jaylen Warren almost single-handedly moved them 49 yards, setting up another field goal. Could the Steelers really turn this around?

The Steelers defense followed with another shut down led by Elandon Roberts making spectacular plays first in pass coverage, then in stuffing Justice Hill. The Ravens punted, but return man Gunner Olszewski, as he is wont to do, fumbled with only Rodney Williams’ tackle saving a touchdown.

  • Perched on the Steelers seven yard line, the Ravens were ready pounce and to put Pittsburgh away.

But Kwon Alexander tackled Mark Andrews for a loss, bringing up 3rd down on the Steelers five. Lamar Jackson fired for Odell Beckham Jr., but Joey Porter Jr. had other ideas, intercepting the ball in the end zone.

  • Kenny Pickett took over at the 20, a Steelers quarterback in command of his offense.

He wasn’t perfect, misfiring on his first two passes. But that didn’t phase him. On his next two he found Allen Robison and George Pickett to convert third downs moved to midfield. The Steelers only needed a field goal to win, but Pickett saw the Ravens line up in zero coverage, crowding the middle of the field. He called an audible went for all the marbles, launching at George Pickens for a 41 yard bomb and a touchdown.

  • Yet that was not the end.

A minute 17 is a lot of time to give Lamar Jackson. And Jackson hit Zack Flowers for 19 yards on his first try. On his next try Alex Highsmigh hit the ball out of Jackson’s arm and T.J. Watt scooped it up, returning it to the 18, seemingly sealing the win for the Steelers,

  • Yet that was still not the end.

A penalty prevented the Steelers from running out the clock, giving the Ravens the ball back with a chance to tie with 49 seconds.

Jackson made four drop backs. He hit Mark Andrews on one of them, but T.J. Watt hit him on his last.

Four Takeaways to Put the Steelers Rebound vs Ravens into Perspective

What to make of all of this? Suffice to say, the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken one of the strangest routes to 3-2 and a hold on the division lead in franchise history. The drama underlying this comeback win shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Steelers cannot allow their punter to audition for the offensive MVP award week in and week out.

And the Ravens dropped 2 touchdowns in the end zone and another in the open field that likely would have resulted in another touchdown. That won’t happen again.

But even taking that into account, there are 4 takeaways from this win:

  • Rookies, such as Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr. are finding their NFL footing
  • The re-made inside linebacking crops is starting to gell
  • Kenny Pickett finally seems to have recovered the poise he showed late last season
  • And Pickett seems to be developing a rapport with Pickens

If Mike Tomlin can find away to sustain these trends coming out of the bye week, the next 12 weeks could get interesting.

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