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

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

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

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

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pickett’s Progress

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

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

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

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

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not.

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

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

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

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

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

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

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

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

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

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

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

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

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

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomlin Drops the Gauntlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beauty of 7 Instead of 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diontae Johnson, Keith Taylor, Steelers vs Panthers

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

Momentum – Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

Defense Goes in Bend But Don’t Break Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

  • The reason for the change in trends?

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

Gus Edwards, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Understanding Tomlin’s Patience with Pickett

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

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

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

Roquan Smith, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense Fails @ Line of Scrimmage

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

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

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

Gus Edwards, Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • And so it was.

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

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Stack ’em: Steelers Beat Falcons 19-16 as They “Remember the Faces of Their Fathers”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 at Georgia’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The win came in their second road game on a Monday Night Football shortened week giving them their first consecutive victories of the 2022 season.

  • Just how and why were the Steelers able to accomplish this modest yet important milestone?

The Steelers won in Atlanta because, to borrow the words of Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “They remembered the faces of their fathers.”

Connor Heyward, Connor Heyward 1st touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Connor Heyward scores his first touchdown. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Remember the Faces of Their Fathers

Roland Deschain is the Dark Tower’s protagonist acting as a sort of mythical knight in the form of an old Western gunslinger (Clint Eastwood’s character in Pale Rider is a good metaphor). A fully summary of an 8 book a 4,250 pages’ series is impossible here, but whenever Roland implores something critical to his katet or posse, he does so by reminding them to “Remember the face of your father.”

Roland Deschain

Roland Deschain

“Remembering the face of your father” serves as a fitting motif for a game that saw Cam and Connor Heyward step with big plays in honor of their father, the late great Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, but that’s part of the motive driving this motif.

After the Steelers 2009 season, Art Rooney II called out his team’s inability to rely on the run in critical situations, describing rushing the football as one of the franchise’s foundations.

A week ago, the Steelers defeated the Colts because they were able to lean on backfield depth after losing their top two backs to injury.

And both players played well. But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada didn’t hesitate to rotate in Benny Snell when necessary. They even continued to rely on Derek Watt who converted yet again in short yardage situations.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Falcons

Najee Harris looked like a first round pick vs Falcons. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Najee Harris’ 86 yards on 17 carries were impressive as were Benny Snell’s 24 yards on 6 carries. Jaylen Warren’s 5 yard carry was more economical, but it converted a third down on a field goal drive.

  • Statistics paint an incomplete picture, however.

The Steelers running backs hit holes with authority and ran decisively. On several occasions Najee Harris stiff armed his way to additional yards and as a group, the Steelers running backs forced piles to fall forward.

Pittsburgh’s running game wasn’t perfect. Matthew Wright’s 4 field goals show that the Steelers are still struggling in the Red Zone, but by relying on an effective running game, the Steelers gave themselves a chance to win.

Pickett Continues to Progress

Even since Mitch Trubisky came off the bench and sealed the win over Tampa Bay, plenty of outsiders have called on Mike Tomlin to bench Pickett and allow the rookie to learn from the sidelines.

After the Philadelphia disaster, Bill Cowher suggested Tomlin was putting Pickett’s confidence in jeopardy. Following the beating from the Bengals, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed to other rookies who’ve been shown the bench around the league suggesting the Steelers follow suit.

  • But Mike Tomlin has kept his own counsel and during these last two weeks we’re seeing why.

A week ago, Kenny Pickett stepped up and put a tough throw trhough a tight window to George Pickens on third down in what would be the game winning touchdown drive. Against the Falcons Kenny Pickett hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times on third down, converting each one.

And with Pittsburgh holding a 3 point lead and sitting on 5 minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers alternated effective running with passes to Zach Gentry and Diontae Johnson, both of which converted third downs.

  • Beyond that, Pickett’s game-IQ continues to improve.

This goes beyond not throwing an interception.  He’s also tucked and run with it when it’s been wise to do so and otherwise thrown it away rather than force a dangerous pass.

And as the read he made on Connor Heyward’s touchdown catch shows, Pickett is doing far more than just driving without denting the back bumper.

Defense Dominates, Slips, Then Stiffens

Taking a 16-6 lead into half time isn’t normally an occasion for saying that the leading team is stomping on its opponent, but that was indeed the case with the Steelers defense in the first half.

Cam Hewyward, Marcus Mariota, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

There weren’t a lot of fireworks, save for Cam Heyward’s sack of Marcus Mariota, but the Falcons could get nothing going. Indeed, had the Steelers been able to trade one of Matthew Wright’s field goals into touchdowns, they very well may have put the game away at the half.

  • But in the 2nd half it was time for the Falcons to remember something.

They remembered that they had the trio of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley who could run the ball. And Atlanta began letting them run the ball, daring the Steelers to stop them.

  • For much of the 2nd half, the Steelers struggled to do that.

As Atlanta played Smash Mouth football to work its way down to the Steelers 10 yard line with 7 minutes left to go, it looked like the lead to this article was going to be that the Steelers had forgotten the faces of their fathers.

But thanks to stout play by the two Cams, Cam Heyward and Cam Sutton, the Steelers defense forced a field goal. But two more players were to step up before this was over.

Harvin Hits It on a Dime, Setting Up some Minkah Magic

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Chargers 2015

Cam Heyward honoring his father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward on MNF. Photo Credit: Twitter

After forcing a field goal the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away, but thanks to the smart play by Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris and Benny Snell mentioned above, they burned off four minutes and 45 seconds off of the clock – including all of Atlanta’s time outs.

  • Pressley Harvin boomed off a 38 yard punt that Myles Bokin downed at Atlanta’s 2.

Marcus Mariota had 42 seconds to get the Falcons into field goal range with no timeouts. He wasted little time in taking a deep shot to Drake London and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted even less time in jumping the route, intercepting his pass and returning in 16 yards before running out of bounds.

With the game on the line, Harvin and Fitzpatrick made big, smart plays – truly remembering the faces of their fathers.

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The Trubisky Temptation: Why Tomlin Is Right to Stick with Kenny Pickett

Ron Jaworski? You never have to worry about me jerking you.” – Dick Vermeil, in a 1970’s NFL Films segment.

My introduction to the concept of “bench the quarterback” came on a random 1970’s Saturday afternoon while watching that NFL Films piece. My reaction? I asked my older brother – who while not knowing everything the way my father did, knew quite a lot – “What does ‘Jerking you’ mean?” “He means taking you out for another quarterback,” my he explained.

Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Seahawks

Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky during preseason. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY

At my tender age, the concept wasn’t just abstract, it was downright strange. In my elementary school eyes, Terry Bradshaw was, had always been and always would be the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Why would any coach need much less want to change?

Ah, the innocence of youth.

I’m sure that a social media listening platform would reveal “Bench the quarterback” running neck-in-neck with “Fire the coach” for the two most popular phrases on Sunday afternoons.

Choosing a starting quarterback is the most consequential decision an NFL head coach makes. Having a “difficult choice” isn’t always a “good problem to have.”

  • But of course teams do change their starting quarterbacks either due to injury or benching.

Thanks to Kenny Pickett’s concussion Mike Tomlin had to make his 2nd quarterback change in three weeks. Mitch Trubisky came off the bench. He played without fear. He was exceptional, leading a touchdown drive and killing the clock with multiple 3rd down conversions.

  • The press wasted little time and calling for a quarterback controversy.

Mike Tomlin threw cold water on that idea quickly, affirming that Kenny Pickett will play against the Miami Dolphins if he clears the concussion protocol.

  • Pickett has cleared the protocol and it says here that Mike Tomlin is right to resist the Trubisky temptation.

He’s right for two reasons. One having to do with Tribuisky, the other having to do with Pickett.

Resist the Trubisky Temptation

Mitch Tribusky earned every bit of praise he’s getting for closing the Buccaneers game with a win. He was accurate with his arm, nimble on his feet. And he was decisive.

  • In other words, he was everything he hadn’t been in his first four starts.
Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart in action against the Jaguars Photo Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe is one of those quarterbacks who is better coming in off the bench. That may sound oxymoronic, but it is not unprecedented. Think of Kordell Stewart.

In the game he entered after Tommy Maddox’s spinal contusion, Stewart earned a passer rating of 135.2 while throwing 17 passes. The next week he notched a 117.3 rating.

While I can’t prove it, this lends credibility to the notion that Kordell played best as a backup, or at least without the the pressure of being a starter.

Be that as it may, the counter argument would run, Tribusky has the proverbial “hot hand,” so the Steelers should stick with him. Had the off season seen the Steelers depth chart evolve differently and say, had Tomlin benched Tribusky in favor of Mason Rudolph, and Rudolph had exited the game with a concussion then going with the hot hand might be a wise option.

But that’s not the situation.

Right to Pick Pickett

“Going with the hot hand” only makes sense if you don’t have or think you have your long-term answer at quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers picked have Kenny Pickett in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, ergo they see him as their long term answer at quarterback.

  • Once you make a decision to start your rookie first round pick, there’s (almost) no walking it back.

Mike Tomlin left himself some wiggle room after the Jets game. He could have come back the following Tuesday and announced:

Regarding last Sunday’s game relative to this Sunday’s game at the quarterback position, last Sunday I was looking for a spark, so I turned to Kenny. I felt that by in large he provided us with that spark and did some good things. But this week, with the Buffalo Bills coming up, on the road, I’m looking for stability so, Mitch  Tribusky returns to his role as starter, where he will stay. Any questions.

No one would have thought anything of it.

  • But Tomlin didn’t go that route.

He named Pickett his starter, and Pickett needs to know that Tomlin’s behind him. Switching back to Tribusky after just one strong quarter of football would send the opposite signal.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Buccaneers – 2nd String Upsets Tom Brady Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is ecstatic that his students refused to be defined by low expectations of others, here is the Steelers Report Card for the upset win over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Alex Highsmith strip sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, HJ News.com

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett stepped and did something that no Steelers quarterback had done in 13 games – lead an opening drive for a touchdown. And if the rest of Pickett’s afternoon was workman like, he did keep drives moving and the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. Mitch Trubisky came off of the bench and played decisively, leading a scoring drive and killing the clock with 3 critical 3rd down conversions. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris only had 42 yards plus to catches for 7 yards, but he ran hard, forced piles to fall forward and transformed some would-be losses into positive gains. Jaylen Warren only had 2 carries for 2 yards – but one of them was on 4th and 1. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Zach Gentry had 1 catch for 4 yards, but it was Connor Heyward who made the most of his elevated role, who had two catches but set up the Steelers 4th quarter touchdown with a 45 yard catch and run. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 28 yards and two runs for 8. George Pickens had 3 catches for 27 yards and one run for one yard. Chase Claypool had what should be a breakout game, catching 7 of 7 passes, including 2 that converted 3rd downs on the final possession, the second of which would have made Lynn Swann proud. Claypool also had 1 run for 8 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Steelers quarterbacks were only sacked twice and hit two other times. Moreover, the offensive line did manage to move people on critical downs. Grade: B

Defensive Line
This is where the magic started. Cam Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, one for a loss, a sack and two QB hits. Chris Wormley had a key tackle for a loss on third down. Larry Ogunjobi had a tackle for a loss in the Red Zone and two QB hit. Leonard Fournette has given Pittsburgh nighmares before, but the Steelers held him in check. Grade: A

Linebackers
Miles Jack, Malik Reed, Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith were all credit with passes defensed. Devin Bush wasn’t, but his was perhaps the most important play of the game as it negaited a 2 point conversion. Highsmith had a sack, and Reed had an uncredited hit on Tom Brady. Grade: A

Secondary
Perhaps one benefit to four starters being out of the lineup was that Terrell Edmunds contributions got to shine. As the only active starter, Edmunds kept everyone coordinated while, leading the team in tackles, including for a loss. Edmunds provided a critical source of stability, as he has done since arriving in Pittsburgh. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect kicking, although his 55 yarder was close. Pressley Harvin punted the ball smartly, including knocking off several long ones when the Steelers were deep in their own territory.

The reals star of special teams was Steven Sims, who in his first regular season action logged a 24 yard punt return and a 89 yard kickoff return to start the second half. Grade: A

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Bucanneers

Steve Simms breaks open a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Matt Canada has taken a lot of grief and some of it has been justified. And while his offense only put up 20 point – while failing to convert a gift-wrapped Red Zone situation following Simms return, it opened the game with a touchdown, scored another touchdown on its penultimate drive converted 3 third downs burning 4:38 seconds off the clock.

  • Canada wasn’t perfect, but his offense delivered when it had to.

The Steelers defense entered this game with a pre-cooked excuse for failure. The defense has struggled mightily in T.J. Watt’s absence, and it was now missing four of its top 5 defensive backs.

Yet Teryl Austin and Brian Flores saw that circumstance as a challenge, not an excuse. The duo designed a game plan that got just enough pressure on Tom Brady to make him uncomfortable, while keeping his receivers covered. Most importantly, they got the players to buy and execute to perfection.

  • It all starts at the top.

The Steelers have gotten worse with each loss. Mike Tomlin acknowledged that, but resisted any urge to make a knee jerk reaction and rejected calls to change for the sake of change. Instead, Tomlin leaned into a systemic approach to improvement, while getting his players to believe in themselves. That attitude was evident from start to finish. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
As a teenager in DC, I remember listening to the Monday Night Football on the radio during the 1987 season when Washington’s all-scab team beat a Dallas Cowboys team filled with veterans. To this day, fans in the DC area still boast about the night “Our scabs beat the Dallas starters!”

  • Yet, how many people can name more than one of those “scabs?”

Steelers Nation will long remember the day the Steelers 2nd string secondary upset Tom Brady, and while they may not remember their names in the future, we will shout out James Pierre, Tre Norwood, Arthur Maulet, Josh Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Elijah Riley as the Unsung Heroes of the upset over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Upset! Short-Handed Steelers Beat Tom Brady, Buccaneers 20-18 as Trubisky Comes Off the Bench

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-18 at Acrisure Stadium in a game that embodies the concept of “Upset.”

Mike Tomlin’s Steelers hadn’t simply dropped four straight games since their opening day win over the Bengals: They got progressively worse with each loss. They arrived at the stadium today absent their number 1 tight end, their All Pro safety and their top three cornerbacks.

  • Worse yet, Tom Brady, the GOAT was their opponent.

Did anyone give the Steelers a chance? I know I didn’t. Craig Wolfley, the optimists’ optimist was none too positive in his pregame comments. Mike Tomlin, however, did give Pittsburgh a chance, and he made sure his players gave themselves a chance, and that attitude carried the Steelers from the very first play to the very last.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Upsets in Context

Special upsets occur not when a team wins a game that they “shouldn’t” win, but rather when they prevail when the consensus is that they “couldn’t” win.

I experienced my first special Steelers upset listening to Myron Cope on WTAE while on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as Chuck Noll’s 1989 Steelers, after losing their first two games 51-0 and 41-10, shocked the Minnesota Vikings, then a Super Bowl favorite, 27-14 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Eleven years later I stood in Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon, as Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers went down to Jacksonville, having had their starting quarterback injured late in practice on Friday, and pasted the then Super Bowl favorite Jaguars 24-13. The upset over the Jaguars set the tone for an entire decade.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Chuck Noll’s ’89 Steelers defied the odds because, after watching his team lose 92-10 in their first two outings, he boldly stood in the locker room and declared “I believe in this team,” and then outlined how they were going to address their short comings by “getting back to basics.”

Bill Cowher’s ’00 Steelers rebounded because new leaders like Aaron Smith, Joey Porter and Deshea Townsend while stalwarts like Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart reasserted themselves.

  • How did Mike Tomlin’s ’22 Steelers pull off their upset today?

Time will tell if he delved into his coaching craft to find something unique or if new leaders emerged, but today we can make one definitive observation: The Steelers beat Tampa Bay because they dominated in the Red Zone.

Steelers Dominate the Red Zone

Often times, in today’s Fantasy Football fueled football discussion exaggerates the importance of the Red Zone. But make no mistake about it, there is one undeniable truth about the Red Zone and that is this:

  • Play well in the Red Zone and you give yourself a chance to win.
  • Fail in the Red Zone, and you’ll likely loose.

Much will be made about Kenny Pickett’s difficulty in scoring points, but his scramble in the Red Zone set up a 4th and 1, and Jaylen Warren’s 1 yard run on 4th is what set up Pickett’s pass to Najee Harris – the Steelers first opening drive touchdown since last year’s tie vs Detroit.

  • That set the tone for what was to follow, on both sides of the ball.

Myles Jack and Tre Norwood broke up passes in the Red Zone on the next play, forcing field goals. Larry Ogunjobi and Terrell Edmunds made tackles for losses and Cam Heyward got a sack forcing field goals the next time Tampa Bay reached the Red Zone. On the Buccaneers next trip to the Red Zone, Tom Brady & company had five shots inside the Steelers ten. All of those came up short, despite a Steelers holding penalty. Again, Tampa settled for 3.

The real Red Zone fireworks came in the fourth quarter, as Mitch Trubisky rifled a six yard bullet to Chase Claypool to give Pittsburgh a 20-12 lead.

Tom Brady of course rallied the Buccaneers, as you’d expect him to do with nearly 10 minutes left to play. But while Tampa scored a touchdown, they missed the 2 point conversion thanks to Devin Bush deflecting the pass.

Steelers vs Buccaneers, Terrell Edmunds, Malik Reed, Cameron Heyward, Leonard Fournette

Steelers stop Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Defense Delivers, Special Teams Special

Those Red Zone performances were made relevant by the outstanding work done by the defense and special teams with a significant contribution by a workman-like offense.

One should not lose sight of this simple fact: The Steelers were starting practice squad cornerbacks against Tom Brady. And they won. They won in part by forcing 5 punts, as Tampa Bay went 4-14 on third downs.

Myles Jack, Robert Spillane, Alex Highsmith and Malik Reed all batted away passes. Highsmith registered a strip sack that help scuttle a drive. Chris Wormley made a critical tackle for a loss that closed the 3rd quarter by forcing a punt.

Steven Sims saw his first regular season action and responded by ripping off a 24 yard punt return and opening the 2nd half with an 89 yard kickoff return. And if the Steelers inability to turn that long return into a touchdown is frustrating, Chris Boswell delivered when called upon, tacking on 3 points in a game that was ultimately decided by two.

Mitch, Chase Connect to Close the Game

If you’d told me that the Steelers could hold a 2 point lead with 4:38 left in the 4th quarter, I’d have told you it was possible, but improbable. If you told me the Steelers held that lead despite Kenny Pickett leaving with a concussion I’d have rolled my eyes.

But if you’d told me that the Steelers would lose 13 yards on a bad snap after on their second play from scrimmage while defending that lead but still would win, I’d have said you were bat shit crazy.

Yet that is what happened, thanks to exceptional plays by Mitch Tribuisky and Chase Claypool, who teamed up on 3rd and 15 and 3rd and 11 to kill the clock.

Road from Here

After the game, Mike Tomlin, while praising his players was quick to remind everyone, “…where we are is more than one good day, one good plan, one good winning performance in terms of working our way back to respectability.”

Tomlin strikes exactly the right tone. After all, this still is a team that 2-4 so the Steelers locker room would do well to embrace Tomlin’s words.

But man, it does feel good beat Tom Brady.

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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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Report Card For Steelers 29-17 Loss To Browns on TNF

Quarterback

Mitchell Trubisky had his best game of the 2022 regular season against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday Night Football. Unfortunately, that might be damning Trubisky with faint praise. Yes, he did look much better in the first half while leading the offense to two scoring drives, including a one-yard run to give Pittsburgh a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter. But the offense was almost non-existent in the second half and was forced to punt on its first three possessions. All-in-all, Trubisky completed 20 of 32 passes for 207 yards and may have had a slightly better night had receiver Diontae Johnson been able to hold onto a pass down the right sideline late in the third quarter with the Browns leading, 16-14. Grade: C

Running Backs

Najee Harris had his best game of the young season, rushing for 56 yards and a five-yard touchdown on 15 carries. Meanwhile, rookie Jaylen Warren had a bit of a breakout game in his own right, rushing for 30 yards on four carries. Unfortunately for Warren–and Trubisky and his night–a short pass that resulted in a 35-yard catch and run by Warren early in the third quarter was wiped out by a penalty on right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and killed a promising Steelers drive that may have extended their one-point halftime lead. Grade: C+

Tight Ends

Pat Freiermuth didn’t catch any passes until the final moments when he reeled in two for 41 yards with the Steelers desperately trying to claw their way back from a 23-14 hole. Zach Gentry didn’t receive a single target all night. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

Rookie George Pickens made the catch of the year when, while falling backward, he reached out with his left hand to snag a pass from Trubisky for a 36-yard gain in the first half. Sadly, Pickens would go on to catch just two more passes for two more yards. Johnson had a decent night, catching eight passes for 84 yards. He may have had an even bigger night had he been able to pull in that aforementioned deep ball from Trubisky late in the third period. Yes, he was covered well on the play and would have had to make a one-handed grab, but he’s the big money man of the receiving corps now and could have helped his quarterback out at that point in a close game. Grade: C

Offensive Line

The line played its best game of the 2022 campaign. But even though Trubisky was only sacked once and hit twice, and even though the Steelers rushed for 104 yards on 22 carries for 4.7, the offense was so impotent in the second half that it’s hard to give the unit anything but an average grade. Throw in the critical penalty on Okorafor that wiped on a huge gain, and that hurts the unit’s cause even more. Grade: C

Defensive Line

To say this Steelers’ defense, the highest-paid in the NFL, is simply average without T.J. Watt would be an understatement, and that starts up front with the defensive line. Cameron Heyward has been invisible since Watt’s injury. Has he faced more double teams? Sure, but that should be freeing up other guys to make plays, and they really have not. Larry Ogunjobi did record half a sack, but the Browns also rushed for 171 yards on 38 carries. Grade: C-

Linebackers

Both Myles Jack and Devin Bush had productive nights at inside linebacker, tallying 12 and 11 tackles, respectively. As for the outside linebackers, Alex Highsmith had a really good night, registering eight tackles, two quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. Unfortunately, Highsmith’s counterparts on the other side–including Malik Reed and Jamir Jones–were sort of just there. Grade: B

Secondary

Not a good night for the secondary, as receiver Amari Cooper–seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown–and tight end David Njoku–nine receptions for 89 yards and a score–dominated the entire game. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had the game of his life in Week 1, failed to come close to that kind of performance for the second week in a row–and the Steelers need him to do that on a consistent basis with Watt out of action for some time. Grade: D

Special Teams

Kicker Chris Boswell proved that he wasn’t automatic from inside of 50 yards, by pulling a 49-yard attempt wide right early in the game. True, Boswell was kicking in windy conditions, but a successful try may have changed how the game unfolded down the stretch. Pressley Harvin III, 42.4 yards per punt on five boots, was solid if unspectacular. The return game was just there. Grade: C

Coaching

I hate to use a cliche and say that Mike Tomlin and Co. were outcoached over the final two periods after the Steelers played their best half to start the game, but it sure felt like it, didn’t it? Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is once again the subject of fan wrath thanks to an uninspired second-half showing. As for Teryl Austin, defensive guru Brian Flores and Tomlin, the brain trust of the defense, why haven’t they been able to scheme up any quarterback pressure in Watt’s absence? Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award

Left tackle Dan Moore Jr. held up quite well against Myles Garrett all night.

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