Persistence Pays Off: Steelers 20-10 Win over Saints Fueled by Dominating Defense, Patient Offense

Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:

  • Ugly
  • A dominating defensive performance
  • A “team win”

Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.

Jaylen Warren, Demario Davis, Steelers vs Saints

Jaylen Warren rips off 4th quarter run. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off

For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:

Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year

  • These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.

Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.

Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”

Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.

Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.

Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite

The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.

  • It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.

That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.

  • And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.

 

T.J. Watt, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Saints

T.J. Watt stuffs Jordan Howard. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.

  • But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.

Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.

  • The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.

How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.

Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.

Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.

Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status

Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.

  • Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
  • Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
  • Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
  • Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
  • Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.

All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.

But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.

  • Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.

After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.

The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”

But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Eagles: Fire & Fight Isn’t Enough Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher hoping fire and fight he saw in a losing effort isn’t fools gold, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Steven Simms, Steelers vs Eagles

Steven Simms returns a kick. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s road got rougher in his fourth start to the tune of 6 sacks and 11 total hits. Pickett protected the ball, until he didn’t in the 4th quarter. He did some nice things, used the middle of the field more, but the Steelers 1-12 third down conversion rate in 1 touchdown says it all. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren showed some fire and heart, but half of Harris’ 32 yards came on 1 run, while Warren had 6 carries for 50 yards. Harris added 6 catches for 26 yards while Warren had 3 for 25 yards. Derek Watt caught 2 passes including the only touchdown. The running backs weren’t a weak link, neither were they a strength. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with catches, but the fact that he clocked in at 4 should tell you what you need to know about the Steelers offense. Zach Gentry caught one pass for 3 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool had four catches and one pass for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 35 yards and probably should have drawn a pass interference penalty. George Pickens had three targets, he couldn’t come into bounds on one, got a ticky-tacky penalty on another and didn’t bring in a final catch. The Steelers needed more. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The slow, but steady progress the Steelers offensive line had been making came to a crashing halt in Philadelphia. Early on the Steelers running backs had no room to run, something that didn’t change until the draw plays started. Pass protection got worse as the game wore on. Even at its best it would have been rough sledding against the Eagles. The line was at it worst. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The line came up big late in the 2nd half when Carlos Davis and Cam Heyward logged sacks to force a Philly punt. But the line could not pressure Jalen Hurts for the rest of the afternoon, and gave up some rushing yardage late in the game when the Steelers still had a theoretical chance to win. Grade: C-

Linebackers
A quiet day for the unit Robert Spillane and Myles Jack led in tackles with Alex Highsmith rendered a non-factor. Grade: D

Secondary
The Stat sheet says that Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton defensed passes. Ahkello Witherspoon, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Edmunds got burned 3 times by A.J. Brown. James Pierre did well in relief, but that’s just window dressing. Grade: F

Special Teams
Replacement kicker Nick Sciba was perfect on his kicks, but his kickoffs left a lot to be desired. Pressley Harvin had a solid day punting and Steven Simms had a solid day returning. Return coverage was sound.

Gunner Olszewski made a gutsy play that showed a lot of spirit and the Steelers converted a fake punt thanks to Marcus Allen. Grade: B

Coaching
Ooh, this one was ugly.

But if you look at the 3 bombs the Steelers secondary gave up in the first half, Teryl Austin’s defensive backs were in the right places, they just didn’t make plays. Still, the inability to mount any semblance of a pass rush was part of what allowed Jalen Hurts make it look easy.

  • On offense the Steelers were a mess.

For yet another week, the unit only scored one touchdown, and if you credit Matt Canada’s creativity on the play, you also have to question why it was necessary, coming on 4th down by virtue of a penalty.

Malik Reed, Jalen Hurts, Steelers vs Eagles

Malik Reed disrupts a pass, saves a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It would be insincere to suggest that, absent the penalties, the Steelers offense could have given the Eagles a run for the money. That’s probably not true. But penalties continue to short-circuit drives week-in-and-week-out.

Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his guys burning with fire and fight until the better end, but that fire and fight didn’t make them competitive in this game, nor does it him on this Report Card. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Standing in as a replacement player for a generational talent is unforgiving. And for the most part, this player has been quiet, but against the Eagles Malik Reed had a sack and pressured and got a hand on a ball that would have been another touchdown, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 10th consecutive loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

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Hurts So Good: Steelers Lose to Eagles 35-13 as Jalen Hurts Scorches Secondary

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost 35-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles, extending their losing streak in the City of Brotherly Love to 10 games and 57 years.

When asked about his latest loss, Mike Tomlin cited Pittsburgh’s penchant for penalties, explaining that at times it was “Steelers vs. Steelers.” While conceding with respect Jalen Hurts 4 touchdown performance, Tomlin added “They were making those plays and we did not.”

  • Yes, they did. And then some.

You can slice and dice the loss to the Eagles in a number of ways, but it all boils down to one painful reality: The Eagles are an elite football team; the Steelers are not.

Still, with the Steelers sitting at a 2-6 record going into the bye week, it is fair to ask, “Are there positives Pittsburgh can pull out of this game?” Perhaps, but only if you keep the proper perspective.

Kenny Pickett, Haason Reddick, Steelers vs Eagles

Haason Reddick hits Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: John Geibeiler, Eagles.com

Varsity Offense Shames Steelers Defense

Three weeks ago the Steelers traveled to Buffalo and Josh Allen and the Bills hung 38 points on the Steelers defense in a game that was over by half time.

The Steelers defense answered by making Tom Brady look mortal, and then hung with Miami by effectively neutralizing Tua Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill’s fast-track offense for 3 quarters. The defense the Steelers a chance to win against Miami.

A.J. Brown, Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Eagles

A.J. Brown scores a touchdown over Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

So it was fair to ask, “Could the Steelers T.J. Wattless defense carry the team while Kenny Pickett and the offense found its footing?”

The answer revealed against the Eagles, and was a resounding, “No.”

  • Three times Jayen Hurts looked to A.J. Brown from 30 yards or more than out.
  • And three times Ahkello Witherspoon, Minkah Fitzpatrick and/or Terrell Edmunds was there.
  • And three times Jaylen Hurts placed the ball perfectly.
  • And three times Brown played the ball perfectly as the Steelers defenders didn’t.
  • And three times the Eagles torched the Steelers for deep touchdowns – all in the first half.

To requote Mike Tomlin, “They were making those plays and we did not.” Yes, the Steelers defense did do some nice things. Cam Heyward, Malik Reed and Carlos Davis came up with sacks which helped scuttle a few drives.

But the Steelers defense only really got to Hurts one other time. Terrell Edmunds broke up another would be touchdown pass and James Pierre helped contain Brown. But that was really just window dressing.

Eagles running back Miles Sanders also caught them with their pants down late in the game, when, theoretically, a score and a stop could have put Pittsburgh back in the game. The Steelers defense couldn’t deliver.

It was not to be.

When a team scores 4 touchdowns on you without sniffing the Red Zone, you’re getting burned plain and simple.

Canada’s Offense Continues to Sputter

Kenny Pickett had a rough day. The Eagles pass rush got better as the game wore on as Pickett was sacked six times, including a strip sack. Overall he was hit 11 times.

  • Eight weeks into 2022, it is hard to say what the Steelers offensive philosophy is.

Their 9 minute time of possession advantage would seem to suggest that its ball control, but for a ball control offense to work, you must to score. And the Steelers only managed to score 13 points, their lone touchdown coming on a trick play: A Chase Claypool pass to Derek Watt.

The Steelers did try to air it out more, but as George Pickens experience showed, they just couldn’t come down with the ball in bounds. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren both logged a few nice runs today, but unless they were running draw plays, they got bottled up at the line of scrimmage.

  • And whenever the Steelers started generating some momentum, penalties would push them back.

Scoring 13 points against an elite defense is better than being limited to 3 points as they were against the Bills, but clearly this unit isn’t getting it done.

Fire + Fight = Hope for the Future? Well See

One has to dig hard to find reasons for hope after a loss like this.

  • If they are there, they’re to be found in the fight the Steelers showed from start to finish.

If the Steelers 1 and 12 is as abysmal as it is – and it is – they were also 4-4 on fourth down attempts, including a fake punt that saw Marcus Allen gain 4 yards. Two of those 4th down conversions came on the Steelers lone 2nd half scoring drive.

Chase Claypool, Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren all fought and earned extra yards late in the game when hope was spare.

Gunner Olszewski also showed similar moxie when he tried to pick up a downed punt. One might question the wisdom of such a risky play, but you’ve got to admire his spirit. Likewise, working as both a returner and a receiver Steven Sims showed the he could perhaps develop into a weapon.

  • Can Mike Tomlin focus that fight and rebound out of the bye week with a few wins?

Time will tell. But for now the Steelers are 2-6, and the loss to the Eagles shows just how deep the hole is that they must dig themselves out of.

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Looking Back: Steelers Last Win in Philadelphia Gave Mike Nixon His 15 Minutes of Fame

Tomorrow Mike Tomlin will attempt something that neither Bill Austin, nor Chuck Noll nor Bill Cowher ever did:

  • Lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory on the road in Philadelphia.

While Philly fans are loyal, there’s no question that when it comes to Pennsylvania’s two football teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the Keystone State’s 800-pound gorilla. The Steelers lead the Lombardi count 6 to 1 and have appeared in the Super Bowl 8 times compared to 3.

And of course the Steelers lead the Eagles in other measures such as games won since the NFL-AFL merger, division titles, playoff appearances, wins etc. And the Steelers count on a nationwide, no, global fan base.

  • That’s great. But the Eagles OWN the Steelers when they play in Philly.

The last time the Steelers won a game in Philadelphia was at Franklin Field on Sunday, October 24, 1965 during Mike Nixon’s lone season as coach. 20,825 days have passed since the Steelers clocked that milestone, in case you really, really want to know. It isn’t just the the Steelers 57 year losing streak there:

  • Bad things happen when the Steelers play in Philly.

In 1997 alone, Philadelphia marked the end of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. Heck, the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown in Philly was when Kordell Stewart connected with Will Blackwell.

Much Has Changed Since the Steelers Last Win in Philly

A lot has changed since Steelers last win in the City of Brotherly Love.

Their last win came 360 days before my older sister was born (she’s a Ravens fan, but we still love her just the same) so suffice to say I have no memory. And although my parents were newlyweds living in Pittsburgh in 1965, they’re not much for sports so its no use asking them.

  • But thanks to the Magic of Google Newspaper Archives, we can glimpse of what it was like then.

In 1965, man on the moon was more fiction than science. In fact, the headline of October 25th Pittsburgh Press tells us that the Gemini Mission has been Scrubbed as Agenda Fails. The Post-Gazette led with Gemini story too. Except the Post-Gazette tells us Gemini Launching, Space Docking a ‘Go.’

The first Gemini Space rendezvous occurred later that December, but it was supposed to happen in October. (The lesson then, as it is now, is that you need to read beyond the headlines.)

Just below that story, the Post Gazette tells us that UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson is off to Rhodesia for talks with the white settler government who was vying for independence. “Rhodesia” is now best known (at least in Argentina) as a chocolate bar, and the country in question is Zimbabwe.

The Pittsburgh Press devotes about a 1/3 of its front page to Vietnam coverage, and talks about the record low 25- degree temperature Pittsburgh experienced that weekend. It also informs us that the Civic Arena turned its first profit for the first time since it opened in 1961.

Digging into the Post-Gazette you see that Giant Eagle is selling Roast Pork Butt for 49 cents per pound. The same add tells us that a 9 oz package of Scallops would set you back 89 cents.

Not to be out done, A&P is selling “Long Bologna” for 49 cents a pound and Jane Parker Large Apple Pie for 39 cents (normally it would have cost 49 cents, the ad assures us). In between the two adds, you learn that you could have bought a Polaroid Swinger Camera for $19.95.

Yes, times have changed. But has enough changed for the Steelers to recapture some of that 1965 magic?

Mikey Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Art Rooney Sr. was notoriously bad at hiring head coaches. Yet even he knew Mike Nixon wasn’t the man for the job. When Dan Rooney accepted/forced Buddy Parker’s resignation during the 1965 preseason, Art Rooney reportedly called Nixon, told him he was going to offer him the job but encouraged him to reject it because he wasn’t ready.

Nixon ignored The Chief’s advice, accepted the job and then preceded to lose his first five games as Steelers head coach. Game six brought the Steelers to Philly, and thus began Mike Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame.

  • The Steelers beat the Eagles that day, 20 to 14.
Jim Bradshaw,

1960’s Steelers safety Jim Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But by the look of the box score, it was an UGLY win. Quarterback Bill Nelsen went 6 of 16 for 79 yards. Running back Mike Lind also got 16 carries, managing 30 yards, but he did catch 2 passes for 11 yards including a touchdown.

The highlight of the day, and one would presume the season, came in the 2nd quarter when safety Jim Bradshaw returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown, which was one of 3 picks for a total of 101 yards.

The Steelers would win again the next week 22 to 13 over the Dallas Cowboys back at Pitt Stadium. So Mike Nixon can hang his hat on the fact that he’s one of the very few head coaches who went undefeated against Tom Landry during his career.

Alas, after beating Landry, Mike Nixon’s Steelers lost their next 7 games finishing the season 2-12, and Nixon got fired.

Nixon did enough to impress Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, who hired him as an assistant coach, giving Nixon three years of gainful employment before he faded into a footnote in Steelers history.

  • Can Mike Tomlin repeat Mike Nixon’s success in Philly?

It is doubtful. But I’ll wager that Kenny Pickett will pass for more than 79 yards and Najee Harris will run for more than 30 (well, he’d better.) Who knows? But even if Minkah Fitzpatrick has an 82 yard pick six, expect the Eagles to win and the Steelers to take a 2-6 record into the bye week.

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Growing Pains: Steelers 16-10 Loss to Dolphins, 2-5 Record Obscures Painful Progress

Frustrating. Disappointing. Unfortunate. These words come to mind after the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football.

Mike Tomlin labeled it a hard-fought defensive battle that slipped through their fingers, thanks to 4 dropped interceptions by Pittsburgh vs 3 that the Dolphins caught.

Fair enough. Indeed, at the game’s end the descriptor “Two interceptions too far” was tempting. But another explainer works better: Growing Pains.

There’s no sugar coating this. 2-6 sucks in the NFL. Pittsburgh is feeling the pain, but there were signs  that this pain signals future gain.

Kenny Pickett, Jaelan Phillips

Jalean Phillips tries to bring Kenny Pickett down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Defense Bends, But Doesn’t Break, Pushes Back

This one started ugly. Miami won the toss and Tua Tagovailoa carved the Steelers up with laser like efficiency and the Dolphins scored with clockwork precision. Clearly, the Steelers could hope to slow him down, let alone stop him as the Dolphins raced right back down to the Red Zone as soon as they got the ball back.

  • However, The Steelers defense bent, but it didn’t break.

Larry Ogunjobi snuffed out a run, Devin Bush stopped Tua Tagovailoa on a scramble, Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected a pass in the Red Zone and the Dolphins settled for 3. But it didn’t seem to matter. Kenny Pickett threw an interception two plays later, and 3 plays later Miami was again knocking on Pittsburgh’s door at the 23.

  • The Steelers defense forced Tua Tagovailoa into 3 misfires, and Miami was kicking again.
Devin Bush, Steelers vs Dolphins

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The real turn for the defense came in the Dolphins 1st possession of the third quarter. ON 3rd and 2 at the Steelers 14, Cam Heyward slammed Chase Edmonds back like a rag doll for a 1 yard loss. Mike McDaniel opted to go for it on 4th and 3 and Myles Jack stoned Edmonds for no gain.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t in “bend but don’t break” mold – it was pushing back.

The defense affirmed that after Jevon Holland intercepted Kenny Pickett with 3:06 left. The math was simple: A Miami first down wins the game. But the defense forced a quick three and out.

  • Can you ask more from the defense?

Yes, you can. Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace dropped interceptions that could have prevented two of the Dolphins field goals. Wallace and Terrell Edmunds dropped picks that could have given the Steelers a shorter field.

The defense couldn’t deliver victory, but they contested every single blade of grass during the game’s last fifty three minutes and forty five seconds and they did so with playoff-level intensity.

Yeah, Canada’s Offense Is Bad, but Still….

Matt Canada is the most hated man in Steelers Nation today. Even Ed Bouchette, who witnessed the darkest days of Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride, asserts he’s never seen a worse Steelers offense.

While tempted to disagree, I’ll lean back on Chuck Noll’s wisdom that, “When you lose, everything they say about you is true.” Measured by many metrics Matt Canada’s offense is either the worst or among the worst in the NFL.

So be it. There were still positive take aways from the Dolphins game:

No, no one will confuse this offensive line with those of Mike Munchak. But the unit is making progress under Pat Myer’s tutelage. This all is encouraging, but transforming these incremental improvement into points and victories depends on one man: Kenny Pickett

Pickett’s Charge

Evaluating quarterbacks in for the NFL is perilous. For every Peyton Manning there are two Ryan Leafs. Why is this? Well, perhaps because you can’t measure a quarterback’s greatest asset, his mental toughness.

An NFL quarterback needs to project where 11 guys will move in a single instant. He must know where a half dozen of his players will go once the ball is in motion. He’s got to process that information and fire off a piece of pigskin at over 55 miles per hour with NASA like precision hitting moving a window that’s the size of a lunch box. Oh, and he needs to do all of this in about 2 seconds with 4 or 5 300 pound guys trying to kill him.

Suffice to say, quarterbacks make mistakes. Even the best ones.

  • The critical question is: How does a quarterback respond when he makes a mistake?

You can’t test for that at the combine, nor does college necessarily offer a representative sample. Kenny Pickett shook off his first interception, intended for Chase Claypool, and led two scoring drives in the first half.

  • He didn’t do much in the second half – until the game was on the line.

Then he moved the team to the 15 yard line, where he converted a 3rd down only to have penalties push him back 15 yards. Then he threw an interception. It would have been easy to fold then, but the defense got the ball back.

Pickett didn’t fold. Instead he moved the team nearly 80 yards to the Dolphins 25, where a miscommunication with Diontae Johnson led to another interception.

I’ll let the X’s and O’s experts critique the technical parts of Pickett’s performance, but my take away is that those two drives suggest he has the mental toughness needed to be an NFL quarterback.

If that’s the case, these growing pains will result in something positive.

Let’s Keep It Real

Rolling your eyes and saying “The Steelers are 2-5 and this guy’s trying to push the positive…?” I am, but I’m also realistic. If you’re 2-5 in the NFL you, put eloquently, suck.

  • And guess what? Next up is the Eagles.

Not only are the Eagles the NFL’s last undefeated team, they’re playing in Philadelphia a city that the Steelers haven’t won in since 1965, when a man on the moon was more science fiction than fact, and in Pittsburgh the phrase “Nixon sucks” referred to Steelers coach Mike Nixon because Richard had assured us we didn’t have him to kick around anymore.

Nixon, however did earn one of his two victories at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, thereby accomplishing something that neither Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher nor Mike Tomlin have been able to do.

While the positives I saw against the Dolphins are real, expect things to get worse before they get better.

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Report Card For Steelers 24-20 Loss To Jets At Acrisure Stadium

Quarterbacks

Mitchell Trubisky‘s 2022 tenure as the Steelers’ starting quarterback seemed to be a doomed mission the moment Pittsburgh selected Kenny Pickett in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Trubisky’s less-than-stellar start to his Steelers career further cemented that sentiment. And if those two things weren’t enough, his failure to generate much offense against the Jets in the first half on Sunday seemed to seal his fate. True, Trubisky was the victim of some bad luck, namely when it came to receiver Diontae Johnson, who failed to come up with a slightly tipped pass that was instead intercepted early in the game. Trubisky hit Johnson in the back up the end zone with what appeared to be a touchdown pass later in the first half, only for it to be called incomplete thanks to Johnson’s left toe just barely grazing the out-of-bounds marker in the back of the end zone. After completing seven of 13 passes for 84 yards and an interception, Trubisky was replaced in the second half by Pickett, who seemed to energize both the home crowd and his teammates. Pickett completed 10 of 13 passes for 120 yards, zero passing touchdowns and three interceptions, but he did manage to score two rushing touchdowns and took the Steelers from a 10-6 deficit to a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Again, Pickett made mistakes, but neither of his first two interceptions were glaring rookie gaffes. As for his third pick? It was on a Hail Mary to close out the game. Pickett made two throws–a back-shoulder completion to George Pickens and a strike to Pat Freiermuth in the face of a fierce pass rush–that made you believe he could develop into something special. Grade: C+

Running Backs

Najee Harris appeared to be “this” close to breaking a few long runs. As it stood, however, he gained 74 yards on 18 carries. Not a bad day but certainly not the kind of workhorse afternoon an offensively-challenged team needs from its bell-cow running back. Rookie Jaylen Warren added 18 yards on just three carries. Grade: C

Tight Ends

Freiermuth had one of his finer days as a pro, catching seven passes for 85 yards. He’s looking more and more like a future star at his position and may just need the right quarterback to make this possible. It was a rather quiet day for Zach Gentry, who gained just two yards on a shovel pass. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Pickens finally had his breakout day, catching six passes for 102 yards. Unfortunately, the rest of the receiving corps was invisible. Johnson, who caught just two passes for 11 yards, could have had a much better day had he been able to complete some tougher catches. For example, the interception by Trubisky was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but big-time receivers make big-time catches. Big-time receivers also find a way to drag a toe in bounds to complete touchdown receptions in the back of the end zone. Chase Claypool had zero catches on the day and has been roundly criticized for his part in the deep pass from Pickett that was intercepted. Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The offensive line continued to get better at blocking for the run on Sunday, but the hogs did a poor job at pass protection in the first half, as Trubisky was sacked three times. There were also some key penalties at critical moments. Grade: C

Defensive Line

It was another quiet day for Cameron Heyward, who continued to be isolated and shut down in T.J. Watt‘s absence. Larry Ogunjobi had a decent day, but he has yet to truly make his presence known. Rookie DeMarvin Leal had a nice outing and continued to show the potential to be a disruptor up front. Grade: C

Linebackers

Malik Reed has been mostly invisible as a pass-rusher filling in for Watt. Reed also failed to diagnose the Philly Special that New York called in the first half and didn’t cover quarterback Zach Wilson, who managed to slip into the end zone untouched for an easy touchdown. Alex Highsmith recorded four tackles and Pittsburgh’s lone sack on the day. As for the inside linebackers, Myles Jack led the Steelers with eight tackles but also bit hard on some influence plays that resulted in huge gains by New York. Devin Bush posted six tackles but again didn’t do much to make a difference for a Steelers defense that is sorely missing playmakers without Watt in the lineup. It was a pretty quiet game for Robert Spillane, who recorded one tackle and struggled in pass coverage. Grade: C-

Secondary

Cornerback Cameron Sutton thwarted a potential scoring drive by intercepting a Wilson pass late in the first half. Meanwhile, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick set up the Steelers’ first touchdown of the day by intercepting a tipped pass in the third quarter and returning it to the New York two-yard line. These plays looked like they would help to decide the game in Pittsburgh’s favor, that is until the secondary melted in the final period and allowed several easy conversions during the Jets’ two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Grade: C-

Special Teams

Kicker Chris Boswell continued to be his awesome self, connecting on two field goals–including a 59-yarder on the final play of the first half, which set a new record for Acrisure Stadium (and tied his own personal record).

It wasn’t a great day for punter Pressley Harvin III, who averaged just 39.5 yards on four punts.

Return man Gunner Olszewski continued to struggle on punt returns and, if not for the herculean effort by James Pierre to retrieve the loose football, would have fumbled another one away in front of the home folks. Grade: C-

Coaching

Other than his decision to put Pickett in at the beginning of the second half, it’s hard to say what head coach Mike Tomlin did right in this game. His players came out uninspired in the first half, and his defense let yet another game slip away in the fourth quarter. Matt Canada’s offense was again ineffective to start the game. As for Teryl Austin? His defense just can’t seem to generate much of a pass rush in Watt’s absence. Grade: D

Unsung Hero

If Pierre doesn’t come up with the Olszewski fumble, Sunday’s game may not even have come down to the final seconds.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots: Reverting to Old Habits Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is dismayed to see his students revert to the poor study habits that doomed them last year, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 home opening loss to the Patriots.

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

Mac Jones evades Malik Reed. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky looked more comfortable back there, the Steelers improved on third down, and he was sharp at the goal line. But his decision making was poor, on the interception and on other critical throws as he continues to force the ball while other receivers are open. Worse yet, the Steelers went 3 and out twice late in the 4th quarter. Grade: D

Running Backs
The Steelers lead running backs averaged 3.8 and 3.3 yards per carry. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but a step in the right direction. Jaylen Warren looked good in his series and Derek Watt converted a 3rd and 1 with a 2 yard carry. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth only had 4 catches but one of those was for a touchdown. Zach Gentry didn’t have pass thrown his way. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to shine, making an excellent catch on the 2 point conversion. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and George Pickens added 1 for 23 yards. Gunner Olszewski 18 yard reverse helped set up a score. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The Patriots sacked Tribuisky 3 times and hit him two other times, but he generally had time to throw. There were also signs of life in the run blocking game. This unit has a long way to go, but it showed improvement. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Mac Jones had all day to throw. Worse yet, the Patriots ran at will in the 4th quarter when they had to kill the clock. That was eerily reminiscent of 2021. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers saw what life without T.J. Watt looked like, and this unit will have to step up. Alex Highsmith got a QB hit in on Mac Jones, as did Malik Reed. Robert Spillane led the unit in tackles. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception essentially erased Mitch Tribuisky’s own. Cam Sutton dropped an interception which indirectly set up the muffed punt. Beyond that, the Patriots moved the ball far too easily during their first half 2 minute drill and that touchdown came back to haunt the Steelers. Grade: D+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2-2 on Field Goals of 26 and 52 yards. Boomed off punts for a 51.8 yard average. Those were good. But New England logged several good kick returns as well as one nice punt return. Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that set up New England’s 2nd half touchdown. This was a special teams error in a game where the Steelers could ill afford one. Grade: F

Coaching
It would be hard to call Matt Canada’s offense a success – and we won’t do that here. But we will acknowledge that the Steelers showed some improvement on third down and there were signs, if however faint, of life from the running game.

  • But as the 2019 experience showed, you won’t beat many people with one offensive touchdown per game.

Nor will you win many games when you’re 3 points behind in the 4th quarter, your defense forces 2 punts, and all you can muster is 2 three and outs.

If the offense took/may have taken an infants crawl forward, the Steelers defense took a giant “Mother May I” step backwards. Without T.J. Watt the Steelers generated precisely zero pass rush. Worse yet, with the game on the line the Patriots offense rushed the ball at will, advancing down the field and killing the clock.

Did Bill Belichick see some sort of systematic weakness he could exploit? Or did the Steelers simply lose a series of 1-1 battles?

  • Regardless, the ease with which the Patriots ran the ball looked all too much like 2021.

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

    Najee Harris leaps Devin McCourty in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin, Karl Dunbar and Brian Flores had better answer that question – quickly. Because unlike last year, 4th quarter comeback look to be pretty spare. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He didn’t have the kind of game that will make fantasy football owners happy. Nor did he make any of those spectacular plays that fall off of fantasy football owner’s radars. But he scrapped and scraped and managed to make piles forward, giving the Steelers running game some semblance of life, and for that Najee Harris wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 opening day loss to the Patriots.

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Steelers Lose to Patriots 17-14 in 2022 Home Opener as 1 Bogger Begs to Have Been Wrong

The New England Patriots defeated the Steelers 17-14 at Acrisure Stadium, dealing Pittsburgh its 4 home opening loss in the last five years.

  • It was a close game that could have gone either way.

As Mike Tomlin stated, the game came down to a couple of “significant plays,” and one of those provided this writer an opportunity to regret being right.

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

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

Gunner’s Fumble Wounds Steelers at Precisely the Worst Moment

Gunner Olszewski made his NFL debut during the 2019 opener. That Steelers-Patriots game was to be the final Ben Roethlisberger-Tom Brady Matchup, which New England won 33-3.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Gunner Olszewski made the first critical mistake of the post Ben-Brady era.

The Steelers signing of Gunner Olszewski in the off season was a surprise. Gunner signed for close to half of what Ray-Ray McCloud had gotten to go to San Francisco, yet on balance his return numbers were a little better. And with only three years in the league, the kid had “upside” both as a returner but also as a receiver.

  • The move seemed like a minor steal.

Which begged the question, why would Bill Belichick let this kid walk? A closer look at his return numbers for the 2021 season offered a possible explanation – ball security. He fumbled the ball 3 times last season, all on returns.

Ray-Ray had his own issues with ball security, and numerically the risk Olszewski fumbling was only a smidge higher. On the whole however, it seemed like a wise cost-benefit move for the Steelers, given that Pittsburgh was saving over 6 million dollars. But that concussion came with a caveat:

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

As it was, Gunner’s came at the end of the 3rd quarter not in the 4th quarter, but it gave the Patriots an 11 point lead, which ultimately proved to be too much for the Steelers to overcome.

And let’s be fair to Gunner on one thing: He certainly didn’t “lose” this game for the Steelers. In fact he had plenty of help.

Some Good Before We Get to the Bad

As Jim Wexell predicted, it didn’t take long for the chorus at Acrisure Stadium to start chanting “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny” is of course former Pitt Panther and Steelers 2022 first round draft pick Kenny Pickett.

  • The chorus at Acrisure Stadium has lots of support on social media, if Twitter is to be trusted.

Mitch Trubisky did leave a lot to be desired today. But the offense he led also took some tentative crawls forward  which represented, dare we argue, progress at least compared to last week. Sound fishy? Then consider this:

  • The Steelers went 8-15 on third downs, as opposed to 5-15 last week
  • Pressley Harvin only punted 4 times as opposed to 8
  • Najee Harris ran with more authority, forced piles to fall forward and also did damage as a receiver
  • The Steelers gave Diontae Johnson a “Prove It” contract and he is proving it
  • Olszewski responded to his fumble with an 18 yard reverse that helped set up a score
  • Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown and the 2 point conversion that followed represented excellent goal line execution

Minkah Fitzpatrick pulled down his second interception in as many weeks, which didn’t have much impact in the game but was nice to see all the same.

Failing on Fundamentals

As Jim Wexell pointed out prophetically before the game, the “Patriots are 8-0 when they have the edge in turnovers” under Mac Jones. Today that record improved to 9-0.

If Mitch Trubisky’s interception was negated by Fitzpatrick’s, it only took New England 3 plays to take advantage of Gunner’s fumble. Cam Sutton dropped a sure interception which set up the punt that Gunner muffed. Instead of being a game changer for the Steelers, the sequence was a game changer for the Patriots.

  • Turnovers and ball security is an important fundamental, but it is hardly the only one the Steelers failed on.

If Trubiksy does deserve credit for improved third down performance, even casual observation reveals that he is honing in on one receiver at the expense of missing others. In the same vein, if the offensive line showed some signs of life in the run blocking game, this unit remains very, very far from dominating in the trenches.

But all of this talk of progress above remains academic until the Steelers offense can so that it can score more than one touchdown per game. Or manage more than two straight 3 and outs when three points behind late in the 3rd quarter.

If player’s post game comments are any indication, players are beginning to become frustrated by Matt Canada’s offense.

Cam Heyward, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers 2022 Home Opener

Mac Jones escapes Cam Heyward in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • The Steelers pass rush suffered miserably in T.J. Watt’s absence.

Malik Reed, Tyson Alualu, and Alex Highsmith may have landed a few QB hits, but Mac Jones was otherwise writing his diary back there.

Run Defense Collapse = Difference in the Game

For as valid as those criticisms are, when New England got the ball back with 6:33 left to play, it could be said that up until that point the Steelers defense had done enough to win the game. After all, they’d just forced 2 punts limiting the Patriots to 10 plays while trying to get the ball back in a 3 point game.

  • At that point, the worst of Steelers recent defensive history repeated itself: The run defense collapsed.

Bill Belichick started handing the ball to Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and the Steelers were powerless to stop either of them. They started slow, getting first 3 then 4 yards. But they improved, going for 6, 8, then 16 before finally settling in with a final 5 yarder that allowed New England to kill the clock.

The Steelers defense did a good job of limiting the run last week, and did a good job of doing it again for the game’s first 55 minutes and 22 seconds.

But the inability of the Steelers defense to slow, let alone stop the Patriots running game as the clock ticked away proved to be the difference in this game.

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Seen This Movie Before? The 2022 Steelers Looked Too Much Like ’21 Edition in the Opener

The Steelers literally outlasted the Bengals, 23-20, in the 2022 regular-season opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday in one of the most exciting, dramatic and blunder-filled games in recent history.

The game had everything. It was a defensive slugfest between two AFC North foes–one, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions; the other, the Steelers, the team that once owned Cincinnati, as well as aspirations for AFC and NFL dominance.

The action was so crazy, that it required overtime and every last second of it before a winner was finally declared, thanks to Chris Boswell‘s 53-yard field goal at the gun.

When it comes to defensive efforts by the Steelers, it will be hard to top what the unit did on Sunday. Not a bad debut for Teryl Austin, the team’s new defensive coordinator.

The defense, led by stars Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, kept fighting, hitting, tackling, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and taking the football away from him despite being on the field for over 43 minutes of game action.

When the defense did wilt, like at the very end of regulation when Burrow connected with receiver Ja’Marr Chase on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, a defensive star showed up on special teams and saved the day; I’m talking about Fitzpatrick and his blocked extra point that sent the game into overtime. 

Yes, sir, the Steelers’ 2022 start should be a reason to celebrate and get you excited about what lies ahead over the next 16 games.

  • If only Sunday’s Week 1 win didn’t look alarmingly like 2021’s Week 1 win when a putrid offense had to be propped up all game long by the defense.

That’s right, despite a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, a very mobile man who was signed in part because the Steelers wanted someone with great athletic skills to be the field general of Matt Canada’s motion-influenced offense, the play calling during Sunday’s game looked just like what we witnessed in the last days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career when he was extremely immobile and seemingly unwilling to adapt to Canada’s philosophy.

I’m talking about a horrible running game, quick and short passes to the sidelines, an unwillingness to stretch out the passing game even a little bit, and treating the middle of the field like it was radioactive.

It didn’t seem all that surprising or frustrating when the Steelers’ offensive performance played out the exact same way during the upset win in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After all, it was Canada’s first game as offensive coordinator, and the marriage between his philosophy and that of Roethlisberger’s figured to take some time to gel. Throw in a totally revamped offensive line, and you just knew there would be some growing pains with the offense over the course of the season.

But while the pain persisted all throughout the 2021 regular season, no growing ever took place.

Back to 2022.

I wasn’t expecting the Steelers offense to look like a well-oiled machine in Cincinnati on Sunday. In fact, I expected more growing pains, especially with an offensive line that not only experienced more changes in the offseason but struggled mightily all throughout training camp and the preseason.

  • I did expect to see a different offensive approach, however.

Instead, we watched the Steelers offense, one that Washington’s Chase Young claimed had been exposed as far back as 2020, try the same game plan it had been utilizing since Roethlisberger came back from the elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2019.

I realize that Sunday’s win would have been bittersweet no matter what, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding T.J. Watt and his pectoral injury. But even with a healthy Watt, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ defense being as dominant over the course of the regular season as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.

The defense will be great, no doubt, maybe even with Watt on the shelf for an extended period of time, but you’ll never see as dominant of a performance as what you got in Week 1.

And what did it amount to? A game that would have been a loss if not for some luck and blunders by the Bengals.

  • The Steelers’ defense did all that it could do, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
  • Why? Because the offense was as bad as it was all of last season and in much the same way.

While I can’t imagine the Steelers’ defense ever looking as good as it did on Sunday, I can certainly picture the offense continuing to look horrible all throughout the 2022 regular season.

That’s a frightening thing to imagine.

 

 

 

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