Steelers Report Card for Trashing @ Texans – Regression Regrets Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who regrets not paying closer attention when regression theory was covered in algebra, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss at the Texans.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Texans

Mike Tomlin, alone on an island. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Four games into 2023 finds Kenny Pickett not only not building on his late 2022 progress, but regressing. His overall numbers against the Texans of 15 for 23 for 114 for 1 interception are poor, and they fail to communicate his poor decision making and lack of moxie. Mitch Trubisky came in and went 3 of 5 but almost threw a terrible interception. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 3 of 4 target. One pass went for negative yards. He also was called for pass interference that transformed a 3rd and 4 to a 3rd and 15. Darnell Washington got his first catch and converted a third down. Connor Heyward was open twice on critical downs but didn’t get a target. The Steelers needed more. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
George Pickens was the leading receiver with three catches for 25 yards. Yes, you read that right. He could have gotten a yard more when the Steelers needed it setting up a critical 4th and 1.   Calvin Austin had 3 catches of 25 yards. Allen Robinson had one catch for 8 yards. Grade: F

Offensive Line
One offensive line was essentially starting its second team going against one of the NFL’s fiercest pass rushes. The other started first round first round draft picks and veterans on their second contract. Guess which one allowed 6 quarterback hits, 3 sacks and 7 tackles for losses? If you guessed the veteran one. You’re right. Unfortunately that also describes the Steelers. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Texans rushing didn’t road grade against the Steelers averaging 3.7 yards per carry. But in some ways it was worse. Because the Texans committed to the running game, they set up manageable third downs. Failure to stop the run starts up front. Grade: F

Linebackers
And the rest of the failure to stop the run rests with the linebackers. Elandon Roberts had a very nice tackle for a loss. Unfortunately, it was only one of three on a day when T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith only touched the quarterback a handful of times and were held sackless.  Grade: F

Secondary
C.J. Stroud may have only completed just over 50% of his passes. The problem is he completed the ones he needed to as 14 of his 16 completions resulted in first downs. The secondary missed tackles and gave up two touchdown passes. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was a perfect 2 for two on field goals. Brad Wing‘s encore as a punter went well. Desmond King did a respectable job as return man. Steelers coverage units gave up more than you’d like to see, but overall, they were OK. Grade: C

Coaching
Where to begin?

Let’s start with the defense. IT says here that Teryl Austin’s unit will have better days. The inside linebackers will learn to play better. Joey Porter Jr. is doing all that’s being asked of him as corner and will get more time improving the unit. Minkah will be Minkah.

But as of now the Steelers defense ranks last against the run and last in yards per throw. The Texans debacle only confirmed that tendency.

  • If there’s hope for improvement on defense the offense is a different story.

The Steelers offense is a unit that simply cannot get it together. Center Mason Cole described the Steelers offense perfectly “We will be running the ball well and one bad run will scare us away from it and you get in a bad situation.” Cole’s conclusion is perfect.

When the offense just borders on establishing a rhythm, it will give up a sack, someone will get tackled in the backfield, or the offensive coordinator will do something dumb, like calling a play out of the shotgun on 4th and 1.

  • Kenny Pickett isn’t getting better, he’s regressing.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Texans

Najee Harris rushes hard. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

A better offensive line and some semblance of consistency around him might help. But he isn’t getting that.

Mike Tomlin promised changes. Dramatic ones are unlikely, at least this week. But he must do something. Fast.

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers got trashed in Texas. But there were two players who stood out for the better. Both men played with yard, ran with fire and delivered with the ball in their hands. And for that Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren win the Unsung Hero Award for the humiliation in Houston.

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Trap Game or Truth Game? Texans Humiliate Steelers 30-6 in Houston

The Pittsburgh Steelers flew to Houston and dropped a 30-6 loss to the Texans. The humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston wasn’t as bad as the score suggests.

It was far worse.

Prior to the game NPR’s Jeremy Scott quizzed Jim Wexell on whether this matchup had “…all the ingredients of a trap game.”

Wexell’s response? “Absolutely.”

It is tempting to credit the Steel City Insider scribe for being clairvoyant. But is that what’s called for here? Because the question this scribe is asking today is this: Was this really a “trap game?” Or does this defeat expose the painful truth about this football team?

Let’s try to find an answer.

Jaylen Warren, Jaylen Pitre, Steelers vs Texans

Jaylen Pitre knocks ball loose from Jaylen Warren. AP via Tribune Review.

Did History Reverse Itself in Houston?

You can often peg the outcomes of football games, even blowouts, on a pivotal series or play. The Steelers loss to the Texans is no exception.

After logging the one of the worst first haves in recent franchise memory, the Steelers flirted with respectability to start the 2nd half.

Sure, the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, but the defense forced a 3 and out, and then offense was right at it again, getting back to the Red Zone in just four plays. There they had to settle for another field goal. But that narrowed the score to ten, and the defense delivered on its next series.

It started off promising, with Najee Harris exploding for a 23 yard run. Kenny Pickett and Darnell Washington hooked up, giving the rookie his first NFL catch for 10 yards. Things bogged down after a catch by George Pickens on third and 18 netted 17 yards.

  • This brought up a make or break 4th and 1 situation.

Seeing the Steelers lining up in the shotgun immediately brought me back to the Steelers 2008 trip to Houston. That was the very first game Steel Curtain Rising covered, and on its first series on opening day, Houston coach Gary Kubiak went for it on 4th down. Here’s how it unfolded:

That was a bold move, worthy of an elite team, and rather brash, considering the pedigree of the Steelers run defense….

Perhaps someone should have reminded Kubiack of Bum Philip’s old dictum, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it. But just saying it don’t make it so…” because quarterback Matt Schaub, went for it, came up short, and Pittsburgh dominated thereafter.

Pretty ironic, isn’t it?

Given the game situation and field position, Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for it was pretty conventional. Now, had the Steelers converted that 4th down, right now we’d be praising Matt Canada’s play call as “bold.”

But instead we’re stick to a simple, objective observation:

  • Matt Canada’s play call was stupid.

Instead of trying to muscle out a single yard, Canada tried to outthink everyone, and we watched Jonathan Greenard push Broderick Jones aside to sack and injure Kenny Pickett.

  • For all intents and purposes, the game was over there.

The question is, did play just end the game for the Steelers? Or did it close the door to bigger and better things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers?

Down on the Defense?

The headline of this article leads with “Trap game or Truth Game?” To answer that, we’ll define a “trap game” as “A game where a good team under performs and loses against a team with inferior talent.”

The thinking going into 2023 were that the Pittsburgh Steelers were a team that might establish it as a contender whereas the Houston Texas were a club looking for respectability. In other words, to suffer a trap game a team needs to be good in the first place.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers really didn’t look a “good” team today and haven’t all season. Have they?

But appearances can deceive. The defensive side of the ball is perhaps illustrative here. The Houston Texans were playing a second sting offensive line against a Steelers defense that has terrorized quarterbacks all season long.

Yet, neither T.J. Watt nor Alex Highsmith got a sack, and the duo barley laid a glove on C.J. Stroud. Neither did any of the Steelers defensive lineman. While that’s concerning, there’s no reason to think that this is indicative of what to expect for the rest of the season.

And while the Steelers run defense didn’t give up a long run, it suffered death by a thousand cuts from Dameon Pierce. Stroud made some nice throws, but was basically a 50/50 passer.

  • But at the end of the day, there’s still hope for the Steelers defense.

That isn’t to say the Steelers defense will rebound to dominate the way they did in Cleveland, but they will rebound.

The irony is, the Houston Texans offense did what Matt Canada’s couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t

Is Canada’s Offense A “Couldn’t” Or a “Wouldn’t”

This morning in Steelers Nation you won’t have to look far to find calls to Fire Matt Canada. And that’s been true most Monday mornings since Canada took over.

Yours truly has declined to lean into such sentiment, at the expense of page views, because the Steelers offensive coordinator has been the most hated figure in Pittsburgh sports since George Herbert Walker Bush sat in the White House. And, taken in context, the struggles of Canada’s first two offenses were understandable.

  • But the Texans game is trying even my patience

During the first half the Steelers offense managed one interception and three punts. It failed to enter Texan territory. Exchange those for even a pair of field goal drives, maintain the two field goal drives that the Steelers opened the second half with, and you don’t find yourself in a do-or-die 4th down conversion situation with 3 minutes left in the third quarter.

But that was the situation. And instead of letting the offense try to impose its will, Canada got cute. And it blew up in his face.

  • And that’s been the story of the Steelers offense this season.

It does well for a few drives or parts of drives. Then it falls on its face at critical moments. Taken literally, and offensive coordinator’s job is to coordinate things so that the opposite occurs. Matt Canada is failing at his job.

Does Canada fail to grasp the value of physical football? Or does he ignore it because, like his predecessors Joe Walton and Kevin Gilbride, he wants to show the rest of the NFL he’s a genius? Or Canada actually doing the best he can with substandard offensive line and quarterback that we all overestimated?  Mike Tomlin, Hell Yeah, There's Going to be Changes

I don’t know, but Mike Tomlin needs to find the answer, quickly.

Trap Game or Truth Game Question Answered

Mathematically the loss brings the Steelers to 2-2, which is an OK place to be after week 4 in the NFL. But this is one case where the way the Steelers lost this tells us more than the outcome itself.

  • The Steelers failed the eye test today.

They didn’t look like a contender descending into “Any Given Sunday” territory against a lesser team. No. They looked like a team will be lucky to flirt with .500 – and that’s without knowing the severity of the injuries suffered by Dan Moore, Pat Freiermuth, DeMarvin Leal and Kenny Pickett.

When asked after the game if changers were coming, Mike Tomlin snapped, “Hell yeah. There’s going to be changes.”

Good. Because many things must change for 20/20 hindsight to transform this loss into a trap game.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Glimpsing of Ron Erhardt’s Ghost Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is using “work to do and bills to pay” as an excuse for his late grade sheet and not the fact that he thinks he caught a glimpse of the late Ron Erhardt, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the road win vs the Raiders.

Cole Holcomb, Davante Adams, Steelers vs Raiders

Cole Holocomb throttles Davante Adams. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Pundits are parsing this as Kenny Pickett’s best game. Was it? Pickett threw 16-28 for 235 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was his first multi-touchdown pass game and the Steelers did lead in time of possession. Nonetheless, their 6-15 third down conversion rate must improve. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris earned a gritty 65 yards on 19 carries, with a long run of 17 on the Steelers touchdown drive, showing that it was rough sledding up front for most of the night. Connor Heyward got his first carry of the season for zero yards. ON the night, Steelers running backs rushed for 94 yards, a season high which, while still too low represents and improvement. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 41 yards including a perfectly executed play action pass during the Steelers first trip into the Red Zone. That play was set up in no small part by a 14 yarder that he caught two plays before. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
This week it was Calvin Austin’s turn to get open deep in the middle of the field. And Austin delivered by burning the Raiders secondary for a quick six points. George Pickens only had 4 catches but they went for 75 yards and either converted third downs or otherwise set up scores. Allen Robinson had 4 catches, including a third down converter that iced the game. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once. But don’t let that stat deceive you, he took some vicious hits after the pass. And while the running game did enjoy more success this week, the Raiders still recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Not good enough. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Josh Jacobs looked normal, rushing for just 62 yards and a long of only 10 – much better than what we saw the last two weeks. Overall the line authored a strong game, Keeanu Benton breaking through to make a phenomenal sack which saved a touchdown. Grade: B

Linebackers
A glance at the stat sheet suggests “off night” for T.J. Watt, who only had 2 sacks and 3 other QB hits. But those sacks wrecked drives. Kwon Alexander led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cole Holcomb delivered a thunderous hit on Davante Adams that scuttled the Raider’s opening drive of the second half. Marcus Golden also got a sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
No the plus side, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson both came down with interceptions. On the flip side, the secondary got caught on a deep route on 3rd and 1 and was again fooled on a two- point conversion. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 for field goals of 42, 43 and 57 yards. Pressley Harvin averaged 53.8 on 6 punts, pinning the Raiders inside their own 20 on 3 occasions, although his penultimate punt was a short 41 yarder that had terrible hang time. The Steelers return coverage was solid, although they did give up a penalty on a field goal. Grade: B

Coaching
We have a mixed bag on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers defense was sound. It took away the ball 3 times, sacked Jimmy Garoppolo 4 times, contained Josh Jacobs, limited the Raiders to 4 of 15 on third down and opened the 4th quarter by forcing a turnover on downs.

But the unit got caught with its pants down twice on running plays, and the Raiders moved the ball far too easily on their 2 fourth quarter scoring drives. Yes, you can say Minkah Fitzpatrick’s roughing the passer call was bogus. But the Steelers defense had 2 chances to make a stop and failed then allowed a 2 point conversion.

Matt Canada certainly succeeded at one thing in the season’s first two weeks: He got Steelers Nation to forget Randy Fitchner and Todd Haley.

And for much of the game against the Raiders, he did little to jog their memories. As the Steelers offense vacillated between three and outs and field goal drives with one quick strike sprinkled it to keep things interesting.

But at two points in the game, it was almost as if Ron Erhardt’s Force Ghost* appeared to Matt Canada and the entire Steelers offense instructing, “Use the Force.” Seriously. The Steelers third quarter touchdown drive couldn’t have been scripted with better precision. And if the unit followed that with 2 back-to-back three and outs, it responded at the very end to kill the clock.

Mike Tomlin saw to it that the horrific performance against the 49ers had no ripple effect. After the Cleveland win he kept the team focused on a short week, ensuring that it didn’t go to their heads. Grade: C

Jaylen Warren, Robert Spillane, Steelers vs Raiders

Former Friends: Robert Spillane tries to tackle Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

*Truthfully, on that series the Steelers looked more like a Ken Whisenhunt offense than an Erhardt one, but Whiz is still with us and God willing will be for a long time.

Unsung Hero Award
A week ago this player missed his block, causing a sack on third down. This week the same player met Maxx Crosby head on and bought his quarterback time setting up a deep strike. He also ripped of a number of long runs and pass receptions to set up scores and for that Jaylen Warren wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

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Dice Don’t Decide Football Games: Steelers Beat Raiders 23-18 as Josh McDaniels Loses Gamble

The Steelers 24-18 win over the Las Vegas Raiders improved Pittsburgh’s record to 2-1 and gave the franchise its first road win against the Raiders since 1995.

While nothing is set in stone this early in an NFL season, week 3 is the moment where tendencies emerge, when players establish consistency (or not) and when a team’s collective positives start outweighing its collective negatives or vice a versa.

  • Going into the game the “bad” had far outweighed the “good” for the Steelers offense.

Matt Canada’s offense improved against the Raiders, but it didn’t improve enough to even the scales to the point where anyone would fear them. However, if the Steelers offense can sustain the progress it revealed in the second half, they’ll be on the road to earning respect from their peers.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Raiders

Kenny Pickett evades pressure. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Steelers First Half Journey All Too Familiar

Mel Blount once shared in an NFL Films clip that Chuck Noll motivated the Super Steelers by reminding them, “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.” The Emperor’s wisdom is as sound today as it was then.

But the 2023 Steelers offense can be forgiven for wanting to focus on the arrival part, because their journey has not been a pleasant one. Sure, San Francisco might have the NFL’s best defense and Cleveland’s defense is also tough. But Pittsburgh’s offense proved it didn’t belong on the same field.

  • And for much of the first half the offense looked like it might stick to the same script.

Yes, Kenny Pickett and Calvin Austin hooked up deep pass followed by a long catch and run that ended in the end zone. In fact, Pickett and George Pickens had done something similar just 6 days before. And that’s the problem. Because just like the week before the offense could only manage field goals 44 and 54 yard field goals.

The other, non-scoring drives of the first half lasted all of 9 plays and ended with Pressley Harvin punts. The Steelers were splitting carries between Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, but neither man was effective.

The stat sheet shows that Pickett didn’t throw an interception. Which is good. What the stat sheet hides is that Pickett hit Marcus Peters right in the numbers for an easy Pick Six that Peters dropped. Which is bad.

  • The Steelers defense was also following a similar script to the one they’d written vs Cleveland.

No, the outside linebackers weren’t scoring touchdowns, but T.J. Watt was wrecking drives, almost single handedly. Going into the half it looked like the Steelers might need their defense to win this one again.

That wasn’t what anyone wanted, but maybe it would be needed.

Canada Channels His… Inner Shanahan in 2nd Half…?

The opening of the second half also had a familiar feel to it, but finally, familiarity felt friendly.

The Steelers defense forced a quick three and out thanks to a heads up play made by deep downfield by Cole Holcomb. The Steelers offense got the ball and kicked another field goal. And although this one was another 52-yarder, it was different. The 54 yarder that preceded it had followed an 11 play drive. This one came on the heels of a-9 play drive.

And this was part of the formula that carried the Steelers to 7 wins in their last 9 games of 2022: Ball control offenses that settle for three but survive thanks to superior defense. This wasn’t what we expected or hoped to see in this new season, but in hindsight everyone would have welcomed something similar against San Francisco.

The real teachable moment came 5 plays later after Patrick Peterson picked off Jimmy Garoppolo 2nd interception of the night.

If you’ve watched the Steelers offense all season, what came next almost seemed like something out of a one of those comedies where the clumsy, bumbling character gets hypnotized or touched by an angle and is suddenly deft, dexterous and intelligent. It seemed like that’s what happened to the Steelers offense.

For six plays, the Steelers executed with the type of precision you’d expect to see from a Kyle Shanahan led unit. Here’s how the action unfolded:

  • 17-yards Pickett to Pickens on a play action pass
  • 4 yard run by Jaylen Warren
  • 16-yard screen pass to Jaylen Warren
  • 14-yard pass up the middle to Pat Freiermuth
  • 17-yard run by Najee Harris, taking Pittsburgh into the Red Zone for the first time in 2023
  • Play action resulting in a 13 yard touchdown to Pat Freiermuth

The Steelers defense stopped the Oakland Los Angeles Oakland Las Vegas on 4th down, giving the Steelers a 23-7 lead with 13:13 left in the 4th quarter.

The game seemed to be over. But then, just as it would in a sitcom, the hypnosis or the angel’s touch disappeared in a blink, as the Steelers offense bumbled their way to two straight three and outs that netted a total of 10 yards, failing to milk even two minutes from the clock.

That Shanahanesque drive may not have been a mirage, but it looked an awful lot like it the law of averages working its will.

That’s certainly the conclusion Raiders Coach Josh McDaniels reached.

Jaylen Warren, Nate Hobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Nate Hobbs tackles Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Canada Makes Raiders Regret Their Lack of Respect

During an on-line chat, the Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac once assured me that, for all the animosity felt on the field, Steelers legends like Jack Lambert held a deep respect for the Raiders of the ‘70s.

  • The same cannot be said for head coach Josh McDaniels.

After the Steelers first three and out of the 4th quarter, the Raiders answered with a touchdown. On their next drive they reached the Red Zone, where Josh McDaniels opted to kick a field goal at 4th and 4 on the Steelers 8. That reduced the Raiders deficit to 5, but meant they had just 2 minutes and 22 seconds to get the ball back and score a touchdown.

Pundits are struggling to understand Daniels’ decision, but it really is easy to explain: He feared the Steelers defense and disrespected their offense.

Daniels’ bet that the Steelers offense couldn’t earn a first down. He represents Las Vegas, and the smart money was on his side.

  • But dice don’t have memories. Matt Canada apparently does.

He ran twice to Jaylen Warren, forcing the Raiders to burn two time outs. Then on third and 2, he lined up in a formation the Steelers had run from previously, and motioned Pickett to his left, who found Allen Robinson for 6 yards and the first down.

The Steelers offense couldn’t get another first down, but they burned the Raiders’ last time out and enough time off the clock to give the ball back to Jimmy Garoppolo with 24 seconds left.

Garoppolo only needed 7 of those to throw an interception right to Levi Wallace, allowing Kenny Pickett to line up in the victory formation.

Dice don’t decide football games football games, players do.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Browns: No All Nighters for This Teacher Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is late with his marks because he refused to pull an all nighter, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 win over the Browns on Monday Night Football.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Browns,

George Pickens scores the Steelers lone offensive touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 15-30-1-1 for 222 yards. On the surface that look “OK.” Although Pickett made completed a few nice throws within tight windows, he didn’t look comfortable out there. Worse yet he didn’t improve as the game progressed. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 43 yards on 10 carries. Jaylen Warren had 20 yards on 6, while adding 66 more through the air. The running backs didn’t have much room to run but made the best with what they had. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught one pass for 2 yards on one target. The other two tight ends were invisible. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens took it to the house on a 71 yard pass from Pickett. He also caught 3 other passes for a 4 of ten targets. Allen Robinson caught 2 passes while Calvin Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Myles Boykin each caught 1 pass. Pickett checked down early and often. Was that because guys weren’t open or he was just more comfortable close to home? Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns had 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Worse yet, the line failed to move bodies when it counted the most, such as on the failed 2-point conversion effort. Deeply disappointing. Grade: F

Defensive Line
DeMarvin Leal got a sack, Montravius Adams forced a fumble, Keeanu Benton had two tackles while Armon Watts showed he belonged. Grade B

Linebackers
Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are tied as the Steelers number 2 scorers thus far this season. Both men authored All Pro worth performances as Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the week while Watt simply became the Pittsburgh Steelers all time sack leader. Cole Holcomb forced a fumble, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts looked stout against the run. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped the pass that Highsmith intercepted and was one of the leading tacklers despite leaving early with an injury. Joey Porter Jr. had limited snaps, but defensed two passes just the same. Patrick Peterson batted away one pass. For the second straight week Levi Wallace came up short in run defense and it cost the Steelers. Again. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, hitting 52 and 50 yards – the Steelers need both. Calvin Austin had a punt return for 14 yards. Pressley Harvin banged off some really impressive punts and pinned the Browns down inside their 20 four times. Gunner Olszewski fielded a kick he should have let go out of bounds. Grade: B

Coaching
We will pull no punches here: Something is rotten in the State of Pennsylvania and the odor makes it clear that it is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

2 weeks into the season and the Steelers are once again charter members of the “One touchdown per game” club. In the second half of 2022, they would move the ball, control the clock but settle for field goals. Now they’re not even doing that, averaging 10 points per game.

When the Steelers don’t sputter out of the gate and put the onus on Pickett to convert third and longs, they play physical football and set up third and shorts only to watch plays implode at the snap.

Is it Matt Canada’s fault? Isaac Seumalo the next Ladarius Green? Did Pat Meyer create a mirage with the rest of the offensive line late last season? I don’t know.

  • But I do know this: Nothing is going right.

In contrast the Steelers defense rebounded against the Browns. No they unit was not perfect. And yes the story may have been very different had Nick Chubb not gotten hurt. But Teryl Austin’s unit proved itself of capable of making a big play when it counted.

The Steelers showed up against the Browns with fire. That’s not a surprise, but its also not a given as opening day disappointments can have a spiral effect. But Mike Tomlin’s team have a history of bouncing back from big losses, and they added to that against the Browns. Grade: C-

Larry Ogunjobi, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns

Larry Ogunjobi sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
With Cam Heyward out someone on the defensive line was going to need to step up. And they were going to need to do it early to prove to the Browns that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be pushed around. This player did it, stepping up and sacking Deshaun Watson after Kenny Pickett’s gift wrapped interception. He later recovered his fumble and stopped him stone cold on another run – all in the first half. And for that Larry Ogunjobi wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – Teeth Kicked in Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose students aced the practice test only kicked in the teeth on the real exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 opening day to the 49ers.

Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs 49ers

Javon Hargrave celebrates with an air kick after sacking Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterback
On the face of it 31-46-232 for 1 TD and 2 interceptions might seem respectable. But it was not. Kenny Pickett was off every time it counted. He didn’t shy away from the center of the field but that’s where he threw his worst interception (OK he had a far uglier almost interception.) Pickett can still make the 2nd year leap – at this point he can only go up. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Take away Najee Harris’ 24 yard scamper at the end of the 2nd half and he and Jaylen Warren totaled 13 yards rushing. The duo added 14 more through the air. Unacceptable by any measure. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught the only touchdown but missed a key block on a shove jet sweep on the second play of the game. Connor Heyward caught 2 passes. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson II had a respectable day and Calvin Austin caught 6 passes for a total of 37 yards – this is the kid who is supposed to spread the defense? Diontae Johnson contributed to Pickett’s first pick, and he and Pickett failed to connect on what should have been an easy touchdown pass. George Pickens had 5 catches for 36 yards. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs averaged 1.6 yards per carry if you control for Harris’ long run. 49er defenders recorded 8 tackles for losses. Kenny Pickett was sacked 5 times and hit a total of 9 times. It’s as if the second half of 2022 never occurred. Grade: F

Defensive Line
San Francisco 49ers average 5.5 yards rushing. And that’s including two kneel downs. That isn’t entirely on the defensive line’s shoulders, but it starts there. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was a man on fire. The rest of the unit got burned. This was the first time the inside linebacking group played together in a game that counted and it looked like it. Both Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith authored some good places, but as a whole the unit was below the line. Grade: D

Secondary
Brandon Aiyuk had his third best outing in terms of catches and his best one measured by yards. Patrick Peterson defended a few passes nicely, but he was on coverage for some of those plays against Aiyuk. Levi Wallace took a poor angle and missed a tackle on Christian McCaffrey’s 65 yard run. Minkah Fitzpatrick took a poor angle on a key blitz. Brock Prudy very well may prove that he’s the next Tom Brady on his own merits. But even if he doesn’t, the Steelers certainly made him look like Brady. Grade: F

Special Teams
After an awful opening three and out, Pressley Harvin shanked a 34 yard punt, setting up the 49er’s first score. Later on, long snapper Christian Kuntz got called for a face mask, tacking on a 15 yard penalty and setting up another score. Ex Steeler Ray-Ray McCloud III set the 49ers up other scores with solid punt returns. Chris Boswell made his only PAT. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers knew they had to limit the 49ers yards after catch. They knew they couldn’t let Christian McCaffrey reach the second level. On offense the Steelers understood that the 49ers were the tough to run on and would need to win the battle in the trenches.

  • We know that because Mike Tomlin told us.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs 49ers

Anthony McFarland was a bright spot for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

We have every reason to take him at his word that he, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin did their damndest to prepare their units for the 49ers. Whatever they did, it didn’t work. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
How to you find a hero after an awful game like that one?

Well, one easy way is to avoid mentioning a highlighting his key contribution to his unit and mention him here. Against the 49ers Anthony McFarland returned kicks for 25, 32 and 34 yards and for that McFarland wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 opening day win over the 49ers.

 

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

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

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Steelers Trade of Kendrick Green Highlights the Danger and Unavoidability of Drafting for Need

The Steelers decision to ship Kendrick Green off to the Houston Texans for a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft is a pure admission of failure on the part of the front office.

  • Third round picks are supposed to grow into starters.
Kendrick Green, Kendrick Green Fullback

Steelers guard/center takes reps at fullback. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Kendrick Green’s trajectory with the Steelers went in the opposite direction. He started immediately, got benched late in his first year, stood in street clothes his second year, and was dealt at fire sale prices in his third year.

  • NFL teams don’t give up on third round picks so easily. The Steelers offer no exception.

The Steelers gave the boot to just one year Bruce Davis after drafting him third in the 2008 NFL Draft. Two Septembers, they also cut rookie Kraig Urbik, but that move was a miscalculation on their part, forced by the need to carry Charlie Batch on the 2010 roster.

As the stories of Curtis Brown, Sean Spence and Senquez Golson reveal, the Steelers normally bend over backwards to give a third round second, third and fourth chances to make the team.

And in a sense, the Steelers did that with Green. They moved him to guard in 2022, sort of giving him a Redshirt year as he was inactive for all 17 games. In 2023 they gave him work at both center and guard and even repped him at fullback.

Mike Tomlin singled him out after the Bills game, making no bones about the fact that his errant snaps to Mason Rudolph were unacceptable. Green saw action at both center and guard in the win over the Falcons, and in this observer’s opinion he did pretty well.

  • Pat Meyer, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin reached a different conclusion.

Thus ends the Kendrick Green experiment, after over a little over two years and 15 games. For a franchise that boasts a lineage at center that begins in the ‘60s with Ray Mansfield, dominates the 70’s with Mike Webster, continues into throughout the 1990’s with Dermontti Dawson and extends into the 21st century with Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey, Kendrick Green represents a tremendous disappointment.

But if Kendrick Green’s footnote in the Definitive History of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be short, his story leaves a lasting lesson:

  • Drafting for need is dangerous. But sometimes its unavoidable.

Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement hit the Steelers at the worst possible time. Neither the coaches nor the front office were expecting it, particularly since Ben Roethlisberger returned for one more go.

Not only did the Steelers need to find a center, COVID-19 had plunged Pittsburgh into salary cap hell, cutting off free agency as a means to signing a new center. That left the draft. The Steelers tried to stick to their board picking Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth in the 1st and 2nd rounds (cue the arguments that the Steelers should have taken Creed Humphrey before Najee Harris) but their hand was essentially forced by the third round, when they took Green.

You can argue that they were in the same position in the 4th round, and were essentially forced to pick Dan Moore. More, like Green struggled on, but he starts his third year by keeping 2023’s first round pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

So sometimes you can get away with drafting for need. But as The Wire’s Omar Little reminded us, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Yep, the Steelers missed on Kendrick Green.

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Pinch Yourself? After Steelers Dominating 27-12 Preseason Win over Bills Fans Ask, “Is it OK to Believe?”

The Pittsburgh Steelers 27-15 win over the Buffalo Bills at Acrisure Stadium offered a reminder of the existential struggle that every fan of the Black and Gold faces: The temptation to believe.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise that measures success in Lombardi Trophies.
Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Bills 2023 preseason

Jaylen Warren runs for 62 yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

During the 70’s Jimmy Pol’s “Western Pennsylvania Polka” accurately told us that “Winning’s a habit, not only a dream.” Generation X Steelers fans grew up assuming that the team had always been good. But the growing pains we experienced as the 70’s shifted to the 80’s was learning that Super Bowl windows don’t stay open forever.

  • And once they’re closed, convincing yourself that they’ll ever reopen remains a challenge.

I can remember watching Jepoardy at some point in the mid-80’s when a Pittsburgh resident was a guest. Alex Triebec asked him if he was one of those Steelers fans who “recorded each game and watched it over and over again.”

The response? “Yes, but only when we’re in the Super Bowl. And that’s not going to happen for another 20 years.” Although Chuck Noll’s Steelers squads in the 80’s authored some stunning playoff upsets, it took the arrival of Cowher Power in 1992 for the faithful in Steelers Nation to really believe that the season might end in a Lombardi Trophy presentation.

And even then we had to wait 14 years for The Chin to make good on his promise to Dan Rooney.

Yeah. True Steelers fans stick by the Black and Gold through thick and thin, but if pressed, we’ll admit that it is difficult to let ourselves believe.

Which brings us to 2023’s preseason game number 3, and the Buffalo Bills visit to Acrisure Stadium

Steelers Domination of the Bills in Preseason Is Down Right Scary

The Steelers 27-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers featured a lot of impressive moments. But the first string only played for one series. And the Buccaneers aren’t expected to be very good. And several of their defensive starters were out. And who really needs cautioned against jumping to conclusions after the first preseason game?

  • The second preseason game is different. It is a dress rehearsal.

It only took 6 plays – two Najee Harris runs, two Kenny Pickett passes to George Pickens and then Allen Robinson to set up Jaylen Warren’s 64 yard touchdown run. Any 62 yard run is impressive. But its the way this play unfolded that tantalizes Steelers faithful towards that temptation to believe:

You don’t need to be an X’s and O’s genius to single out the elements that signal something special:

  • Dan Moore turns his man’s back to the sideline
  • Isaac Seumalo also turns his man’s back to the opposing sideline
  • Warren sees a hole he could drive a truck through and heads for it
  • Diontae Johnson delivers a downfield block
  • Warren after he reaches the second level turns the jets on

Yes, this is “Only preseason” but these are pros executing solid fundamentals in concert.

The Bills opened their next drive with an 8 yard gain. On 2nd and 2 an NFL offense is in position to dictate to a defense. But thanks to Levi Wallace and T.J. Watt, the Bills were punting 2 plays later.

Then Calvin Austin and Danny Smith’s special teams got into the act, as Austin romped 54 yards on his first NFL punt return. The next stat line reads: K.Pickett pass deep middle to P.Freiermuth for 25 yards, TOUCHDOWN

And if all you did was read the box score, it be easy to chalk that up to preseason luck.

But Pickett not only hit Pat Freiermuth in the middle of the field – and area he avoided last season, he threaded the needle placing the ball perfectly, in triple coverage where only Mooth could get it.

Another reason to believe.

There were many more. Connor Heyward, Nick Herbig, Cole Holcomb and Tanner Muse all came up with big plays, while Chandon Sullivan, Elijah Riley and Joey Porter Jr. made interceptions. All reasons to believe.

Calvin Austin’s punt return wasn’t a one note Johnny for the Steelers special teams. Gunner Olszewski had a nice 15 yard return of his own. Danny Smith’s coverage units were strong while Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. All good signs.

  • No, Pittsburgh wasn’t perfect against the Bills.

The Steelers rushed the ball 33 times, but running backs not named Jaylen Warren looked average – at best and they didn’t have the benefit of quality run blocking. (To be fair, Anthony McFarland looked good catching the ball.) Kendrick Green mis-timed a snap to Mason Rudolph setting up Buffalo’s first touchdown.

But even of those are all things to bear in mind, the fact remains: The way the Steelers dominated the Bills is making it very hard for fans to resist the temptation to believe.

A Word about DAZN’s GamePass

Last week I skewered the viewing experience DAZN’s NFL GamePass International. This week I followed their advice and downloaded their app on to my SmartTV.

  • The results were much better.

True, my first attempt to watch the replay was unsuccessful. However, that looked to be a problem my internet connection. Image quality was a little shaky on the full replay, and I was disappointed to see that they hadn’t edited out commercials (why? If ever there would be a “Hello McFly!!!” principle of showing replays of NFL games, you’d figure editing out commercials would be one of them.)

Their Game in 40 presentation was excellent, nothing compared to the last week’s experience on the desk top. Not only was the image quality good, but they took just a little more time in between plays, and salted in some replays so that you got the flavor of the game.

 

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Random Thoughts: A Shopping List, a Steelers Stub on Santonio Holmes & The Upcoming Season

How do we know when either a player and/or an entire football team has “Arrived?”

That can be a tricky question to answer.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers started the year in such uninspiring fashion that veteran sports writer Jim Wexell made sure to make it back to Pittsburgh cover an early season game in person because he thought a 1-16 team (and an ensuring book) might be in the offing.

  • But of course that didn’t happen.

The schedule got easier. Kenny Pickett stopped making mistakes. The offensive line matured. Najee Harris resumed running like first round pick. T.J. Watt returned from IR.

The Steelers finished 2022 with a bang. Kenny Pickett led dramatic, come from behind wins over the Raiders and the Ravens and authored a convincing closing performance against the Browns.

  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl sprinted out of the gate to start the off season.

Out went Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack. In came Patrick Peterson, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Keanu Neal.

Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes toe tap, Steelers vs Cardinals

Santonio Holmes Super Bowl XLIII toe tap touchdown. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Then came the 2023 NFL Draft. As Art Rooney Sr. reminded us “everybody’s a winner on draft day,” but the Steelers haul from Broderick Jones to Darnell Washington seemed to make even the most hardened members of the “Fire Everyone” chorus happy.

I too confess to sharing this spirit of optimism that is permeating Steelers Nation. The arrow is pointing up in Pittsburgh.

Yet, a while back I stumbled upon a word of caution, or potential caution at least, hiding in plain sight in Saturday morning shopping list.

Take a look for yourself:

A Steelers article stub and a Saturday Morning Shopping list. (For non-Spanish speakers, my wife tasked me with buying green, red & yellow peppers, grated cheese, sweet potatoes, bananas, green onion, onion, red onion and two pastries for vegetable pies.)

This Steelers article stub, turned piece of scrap-paper, turned shopping list carries no date, but it has to have been written during the Steelers 2009 off season. The writer too remains unknown. It resonates with the distinct echo of  the late, great Ivan Cole’s voice, but a Google search for those exact phrases and limited to BTSC returns no results.

But those unknowns are unimportant.

This anonymous Steelers stub is still telling us something important.

In the moment that this piece was published, the logic about Santonio Holmes seemed self-evident. ‘Tone, after a troubled start to his career and distracting his team just a few months earlier had turned an irrevocable corner with his Super Bowl XLIII toe-tap.

Except he hadn’t.

Santonio Holmes 2009 season was best remembered for the plays he failed to make. A troublesome off-season followed where he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That got him shipped to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

  • Might this message offer us a useful lesson for the upcoming 2023 season?

Even as they struggled through tough moments in 2021 and 2022, it became apparent that the Steelers had added several “foundational players.” Think Pat Freiermuth. Think Alex Highsmith. Think, perhaps at least, Connor Heyward. They’ve added more of those during the off season.

Andi Weidl has brought his “planet theory” of offensive line building to Pittsburgh, and that should cheer the hearts of true devotes of “Steelers Football.” The Steelers appear to be headed in the right direction.

But as the Santonio Holmes experience reminds us, actions and outcomes instead of appearances, will define the 2023 Steelers.

In many ways, Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny _ucking Pickett!” was the signature moment of the Steelers 2022 season just as ‘Tone’s toe tap was the signature moment of 2008.

But what Santino Holmes failed to understand was that his moment neither defined nor established his legacy, but rather opened the door to building himself into a true Steelers legend.

The same is true for Kenny Pickett. Let’s hope he realizes it.

All evidence suggests that he does. But it is something to keep in mind the Steelers descend on St. Vincents later this week.

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