3 Lessons from My Second Steelers Sabbatical

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

1. Ivan Cole Was Right. Again.

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

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

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

Acrisure Stadium

Acrisure Stadium, Photo Credit: AP via Post-Gazette

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

  • That’s exactly how I felt.

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

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

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

2. Unable to Write = Unintended Consequences

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

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

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

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

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

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

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

3. The NFL is Eroding Itself with Over Exposure

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

Ben Roethlisberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

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

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

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

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

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

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Agree or Disagree, the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton is No Surprise

After a one season hiatus, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense will again feature two Cams, as the team came to terms with cornerback Cam Sutton on a one year deal. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

He missed the first 12 games of his rookie year with a hamstring injury, but saw his first action on the road against Cincinnati on the same night of Ryan Shazier’s injury. Over the next six years Sutton would appear in 84 games and make 39 starts.

Sutton’s career arch serves as a caution against giving in to knee-jerk reactions to label a player “a bust” if he doesn’t produce immediately.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

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

Sutton largely flew under the radar in 2018 and 2019 working in mostly in the slot and on special teams while the Steelers experienced difficulty in staffing the cornerback slot opposite of Joe Haden (yes, you’d forgotten about the Coty Sensabaugh experiment, hadn’t you?)

Yet, when the Steelers were facing Salary Cap Armageddon in the spring of 2021 thanks to COVID, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin opted to cut Steven Nelson and extend Cam Sutton. Sutton started 31 games over the next 2 seasons, hauling in 5 interceptions and batting away 21 passes.

Alas, to get Sutton signed under such trying circumstances, the Steelers added a voidable year to his contract, making him a free agent in the spring of 2023. Resigning Sutton seemed like a no-brainer, for the Steelers, but Omar Kahn let him walk, and Sutton departed for Detroit.

AT the time it was thought that, while the Steelers wanted to keep him, Detroit offered beyond their number. And that is probably the case. Detroit did over pay, giving Sutton CB Number 1 money. But last October, Dejan Kovacevic added this piece of insight to the story:

I’m told that Sutton’s primary motivation was that his girlfriend had moved there, along with his two very young daughters, Luna and Eye’Lah. He’d spoken with pride in the past of being a “girl dad” of his love for those two. Family came first.

Talk about an ironic factoid.

The Steelers were able to sign Sutton because the Detroit Lions cut him after he was arrested on a warrant for domestic violence. The fact that he’s been welcomed back to Pittsburgh has ignited a furious debate among the faithful in Steelers Nation.

“…But that’s NOT the Steelers Way.” Or Is It?

For many, the Steelers decision to resign a player who has just been arrested for domestic violence offers yet more evidence that “The Steelers Way” as we know it is no more.

That sentiment is understandable. To a point. the Steelers have shown less tolerance than some other teams for players with off the field issues.

  • But like it or not, the reality is that welcoming back Cam Sutton into the fold isn’t that much out of character.

As this site pointed out when Michael Vick arrived in 2015, the Steelers not only kept James Harrison despite his own domestic violence incident, they offered him one of the largest contracts in team history a little over a year afterwards.

Steelers vs Ravens, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, James Harrison, #Shalieve50

Cam Heyward and James Harrison enter Heinz Field carrying Ryan Shazier’s Jersey. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

While Ben Roethlisberger was never arrested or criminally charged, the Steelers also gave him a second chance despite the allegations against him from his conduct in Midgeville.

And look further back to the 1970’s and you’ll find the story of Ernie Holmes going on a rampage on the Ohio Turnpike that include him shooting out of a car and aiming a gun and pulling the trigger at a police officer only to have it mercifully misfire. Holmes went on to win two Super Bowls playing next to Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.

One can agree or disagree with Art Rooney II’s decision here, but both his father Dan Rooney and his grandfather Art Rooney Sr. made similar choices to give second chances to players who’d broken the law.

Football Impact of Sutton’s Return

The Steelers have been aggressive this off season in remaking their team. But Jim Wexell’s count they’ve turned over 15 of the top 30 slots on a roster that made the playoffs but wasn’t good enough to win.

  • Yet the third or slot cornerback along with wide receiver has been a glaring need.

Before making this move the Steelers had Joey Porter Jr., Donte Jackson, several question marks and Patrick Peterson’s number on speed dial at cornerback. With Cam Sutton signed, the Steelers now have three legit cornerbacks and can develop depth behind them without needing to force someone into the line up.

Final Analysis

Let’s repeat something stated here when the Steelers opted to keep James Harrison after cutting Cedrick Wilson back in 2008:

  • There is no excuse for domestic violence.
  • Domestic violence is wrong. Period.
  • Those who are convicted of domestic violence must be punished.

Cam Sutton was initially charged with an ugly felony and evaded the law for several days. Since then he has turned himself in, entered a pre-trial derivation program and, after reviewing the evidence, prosecutors have reduced the charges against him. That neither absolves nor excuses Sutton, but suggests whatever transpired may not have been as severe as first suggested.

In addition to working through his current legal situation, Sutton will likely face a suspension from the league. This isn’t the first time the Steelers have had to make a difficult decision in a case like this. In the Tomlin era alone the Steelers opted to give James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger second chances, while opting to part ways with Wilson and Chris Rainey almost immediately.

The record, both on and off the field, shows that the Steelers made the right decision in all four cases. Let’s hope their choice on Sutton proves to be a fifth.

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Let the Competition Begin! Steelers to Sign Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both ESPN and the NFL Network are reporting this, while Wilson himself indicated this in a tweet.

Russell Wilson, Devin Bush Jr., Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Seahawks

Russell Wilson at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Dawgs by Nature

The conventional wisdom as recently as the NFL Combine was that the Steelers were not interested in bringing any of the big name quarterbacks available to Pittsburgh to provide competition for Kenny Pickett. However, late last week Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Russell Wilson was visiting with the Steelers and that the interest was mutual.

Unlike the various social media “experts” who claimed that Kirk Cousins or Justin Fields to the Steelers was “a done deal” no one rushed to debunk this rumor. Wilson showed up in Pittsburgh as advertised, had a long meeting but left without signing. Even then, other commentators (including this one) floated the possibility that Omar Khan was entertaining Wilson in Pittsburgh to pressure Mason Rudolph into signing.

Then on Sunday night Russell Wilson issued this tweet:

Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl Championship in 2013 in just his second season in the league. Seattle returned the following year, but lost in part due to a goal line interception that Wilson threw scuttling a comeback effort.

Since then Wilson had been a consistent winner in Seattle, but as the 2000 teens came to an end, there were rumblings that he was not happy. Wilson and the team said all of the right things and Wilson had a reasonably strong season in 2021, but the Seahawks traded him to the Broncos.

  • This first season in Denver was a disaster, leading to the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Under Sean Peyton Wilson’s play improved, but he did play a few very bad games. Peyton benched him late in the the season opening speculation that Wilson would leave by trade or release. The Broncos plan to release Wilson when the league year begins on Wednesday March 11th. The Broncos are on the hook for 38 million to Wilson this season, so conceivably the Steelers could sign him for as little as 1.2 million.

No Risk? + No Rudolph?

On one level this deal is a no brainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed their confidence in Kenny Pickett, each man has also said the Steelers would bring him competition.

December and January of last season revealed two things about the Steelers:

1. This team is still a ways away with playing on the level of any of the teams in the conference championships
2. However, competent quarterback play brings them is much closer than anyone would have thought possible on say, December 20th 2023.

So, if the Steelers can land a Super Bowl winning quarterback at the veteran minimum that would almost be a no-brainer. Almost. At age 36 Russell Wilson may “still have something left in the tank,” but he also doesn’t have much “upside.”

That means if neither Pickett nor Wilson pans out in 2024 then the frachise will be starting from zero at quarterback in 2024 because the Steelers signing Wilson almost certainly ends Mason Rudolph’s time in Pittsburgh.

Even before Wilson’s arrival it was clear that Rudolph would return as QB No. 2 with nothing more than a promise that he’d have a shot at moving up the depth chart. Given limitations on training camp practices and the current 3 schedule of 3 preseason games holding a 3-way competition for the starting quarterback slot simply isn’t realistic.

While bringing Wilson to Pittsburgh carries little “risk” conventional risk for the Steelers, the opportunity this presents could also be smaller than meets the eye.

Mike Tomlin’s flirtation with aging athletes in the twilight of their careers – think Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Joey Galloway and perhaps even Patrick Peterson hasn’t yielded much fruit. And if Tommy Maddox did deliver one year of “Tommy Gun” in 2002, previous franchise quarterback reclamation projects with David Woodley, Todd Blackledge and Kent Graham failed.

  • But none of those men wore Super Bowl rings.

Russell Wilson does. Welcome Steelers Nation.

 

 

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Steelers Cut Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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Steelers Report Card for the 2023 Season – Glad the Grading is Over Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is glad to be done with grading for a while, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 season.

T.J. Watt, Jake Browning, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jake Browning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Both Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky disappointed. Kenny Pickett not only failed to make the “second year leap” he posted some historically anemic passing numbers. Trubisky had multiple chances both as a reliever and a starter to show why he belongs in this game, and he squandered them. The difference is Trubisky turned over the ball, Pickett did not. Mason Rudolph in contrast, elevated the entire offense. IT was a different unit with him on the field. And his performance pulls the group’s grade up. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren entered uncharted territory for the franchise this year, becoming the only 2 running backs to get a carry (although Anthony McFarland did catch 2 passes in the opener.) Both men earned over 1000 yards from scrimmage, with Najee Harris rushing for 1035 yards – his third consecutive 1000 yard season. We saw as the season progressed, the running backs were capable when they had the blocking. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth got hurt in the opener and then played through injuries for the first several weeks until missing several games in the middle of the season. His effectiveness was limited, but he did come on late. Darnell Washington did a respectable job for a rookie. Connor Heyward was a quality role player and his presence as a blocker was notable late in the season. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wideouts had their ups and downs. George Pickens flashed early in the season, but struggled in the number one role. His attitude came into question, but he closed the year with a bang. Diontae Johnson was injured early in the season, and took some time to find his stride. Calvin Austin flashed on a few plays, but otherwise was a non-factor. Allen Robinson served as a serviceable slot receiver. Myles Boykin didn’t see much action outside of special teams. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This unit was easily the biggest disappointment for the first half of the season. Pass blocking was poor and run blocking appeared to be non-existent at times. The change began when Broderick Jones entered the starting lineup. However, the rest of the line improve, particularly as Isaac Seumalo got his legs under him. The improvement was important, but the difficulty the Steelers had running the ball against Buffalo shows that this group has a long way to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
This group got a taste of what life could be like after Cam Heyward, and at times that was pretty scary. Early in the year it looked as if the Steelers run defense might revert to 2021 form. However, the unit improved as Keeanu Benton worked his way into the line up. Still, it would be nice to call out a few other up and comers. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored another Defensive Player of the year worthy performance. Watt proved time and time again he is a generational talent capable of altering the course of a game by himself. Alex Highsmith’s numbers were down a bit from his previous year, but Highsmith delivered, as did outside linebacking backups Markus Golden and Nick Herbig. At inside linebacker, it took a while to jell, but the Steelers had quite a troika there in Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Then of course Holcomb and Alexander got hurt, as did Roberts, forcing the Steelers to look to the street for replacements. Those guys did well enough, but the absence of the starters was significant. Grade: B+

Secondary
When the Steelers opened against San Francisco, Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace were the starting corners, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee and safety Keanu Neal formed a troika while Eric Rowe sat on the Carolina Panthers practice squad. When the Steelers closed at Baltimore, Joey Porter Jr. was a starting corner, Levi Wallace was back as a starter as Patrick Peterson was playing safety alongside Eric Rowe. Yes, this unit weathered a lot of adversity. And while their numbers might not have been flashy, they had as big a part of keeping the Steelers in games as did any other unit on the defense. Grade: B

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Miles Killebrew was a one man wrecking crew blocking 2 punts during the season. Calvin Austin may not have done much as a receiver, but he proved to be a good punt returner. Godwin Igwebuike proved to be a solid kick returner with “upside.” Steelers kick coverage could have been better at times, but it was never a liability. Pressley Harvin’s punting was inconsistent, and that brings the group’s grade down. Grade: B+

Coaching
The Steelers coaches’ score card for 2023 contains ugly, bad and good.

The ugly stems from the ill-fated decision to retain Matt Canada. None of the progress evident during the final half of the 2022 season was evident in 2023. Instead, the Steelers fielded one of the most anemic offensive efforts franchise history. Three and outs became the norm. The Steelers failed to establish the running game and Kenny Pickett did not progress.

For as disappointing as Kenny Pickett’s failure to make the “second year leap” was, the Steelers worst stretch of the season came when Kenny Pickett was out. Mitch Trubisky showed a lot of leadership, looked in command on the field, but he ultimately failed to rally the team in relief of Pickett and floundered in his first two starts.

  • Mike Tomlin had treated Mason Rudolph as a “nice to have” and he should have given him stronger consideration sooner.

The Steelers defense had its struggles early on too. But as the troika of inside linebackers found their stride, the unit perked up. Then they started to get hurt. Many Steelers fans question why Mike Tomlin extended Teryl Austin for two more years.

They should not. Austin’s defense may never have broached shut down level, but it displayed an uncanny knack for delivering big plays at critical moments. This continued throughout the season, despite the fact that Austin had to rebuild the middle of his defense, almost on a weekly basis.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

If Mike Tomlin deserves criticism for retaining Canada and the horrid 10 quarter stretch that followed Pickett’s injury – and he does – he also earns credit. When the bottom falls out on and NFL team late in the season like that, free fall generally ensues.

Mike Tomlin made sure the opposite happened, defying the odds and landing his team in the playoffs, where they made a spirited run at a Super Bowl favorite. Grade: C+

Front Office
The improvement of the Steelers in 2023 can be tied, in many respects, directly to integration of its rookie class into the starting line ups. Omar Khan and Andy Wedil’s first draft won accolades.

That was nice, but the Steelers 2023 draft class helped the team win games, which is far more important.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

The front offense proved to be quick on its feet, as the Steelers found themselves cycling through street free agents at safety and inside linebacker. Likewise the free agents Khan brought to Pittsburgh also accounted itself well. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offense had trouble scoring for most of the year. At times it had difficulty doing anything right. But there was one player who could be counted on to score when his number was called, and he delivered 56 times out of 59 and for that Mr. Automatic Chris Boswell wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2023 season.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

It started in a moment of triumph. Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny f___ing Pickett” after Pickett’s last-minute comeback against the Ravens on January 2nd started 2023 giving Steelers Nation permission to “Believe.”

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

Before the ’22 campaign even ended, Steel City Study’s Jeremy Hertz declared, “I can’t wait for training camp next summer!”

Then Omar Khan led the most aggressive free agency effort in franchise history. Next came the draft, where the Steelers 2023 draft class won universal praise, even from hardened skeptics.

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

Expectations skyrocketed after a sterling Steelers preseason. All of it remains understandable, even in 20/20 hindsight, but the story of the Steelers 2023 season is simple: Expect the unexpected.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ominous Opening Day Omen

In 2023, for the first time since 2014, the Steelers opened the season in Pittsburgh. Their opponent was the San Francisco 49ers, an NFC heavyweight and a Super Bowl favorite.

  • What a perfect opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers to prove themselves.
49ers fans Acrisure Stadium, Steelers vs 49ers

49ers fans invade Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: 49ers.com

Yet even before the opening kickoff, something was amiss: 49ers fans were taking over Acrisure Stadium. Steelers fans gloat when Steelers Nation invades stadiums on the road. It’s not so funny when the tables are turned. As Jack Lambert said, the Steelers should be the intimidators.

  • This phenomenon in the stands foreshadowed events on the field.

The Steelers were terrible. The offensive line got dominated like rag dolls by the 49ers. Kenny Pickett was tentative, inaccurate and ineffective. The Steelers defense appeared to play a speed slower than the 49ers offense.

The 49ers exposed Pittsburgh as pretenders not contenders. Worse yet, the Steelers saw Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and Cam Heyward fall to injuries.

But it fell to Anthony McFarland that set the tone for what was to come. McFarland was the only player who stood out that disappointing day. His arrow was pointing up. Or so it seemed. McFarland went on IR after the game and got cut before season’s end.

Yes, expectations were dangerous things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans.

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

When future generations browse the 2023 Steelers season on Pro Football Reference and glance at weeks 2-12 they’re think, “OK, the opener was bad and the Houston loss was ugly, but they won several close games against some decent teams. They must have improved.”

That’s the logical conclusion. It’s also the wrong one.

From week 2 to week 12 the Steelers validated legendary Washington DC radio journalist Ken Beatrice’s argument that “…Every Sunday in the NFL, very few teams win games. It is most often the case that the other team loses.” The Steelers didn’t win those games, they avoided losing them.

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

It quickly became apparent Mike Tomlin erred badly in retaining Matt Canada. He tried moving Canada to the sidelines. That didn’t work. But more than Canada ailed the offense.

The offensive line struggled. The progress and promise they showed in the second half of 2022 was a mirage. Najee Harris, when he wasn’t getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage, struggled to manage a couple-of-three yards in what Jim Wexell decried as “Sludge ball.” Jaylen Warren looked better, but he got fewer carries.

Kenny Pickett struggled, except during the 4th quarter, when his “clutch gene” kicked in. To be fair to Pickett, with Pat Friermuth and Dionte Johnson out, he had few weapons to target. George Pickens flashed, but struggled in double coverage. Allen Robinson was nice to have and Calvin Austin was little more than a place holder.

The Steelers defense struggled against the run without Cam Heyward, and at cornerback Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace left fans screaming for Joey Porter Jr. to start.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

Yet the offense avoided turning over the ball, and the defense showed an uncanny knack for making big plays at the right time:

  • Week two vs Cleveland saw Minkah Fitzpatrick open with a tipped pass that Alex Highsmith turned into a pick six.
    Alex Highsmith closed with a strip sack by Highsmith that T.J. Watt returned for a TD
  • Next week, Levi Wallace closed a 23-18 game with an interception vs. Oakla.. er Las Vegas
  • Against Baltimore, Joey Porter, Jr. picked off a pass in the end zone with 4 minutes remaining
    Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt followed with another strip-sack, fumble-recovery combo
    T.J. Watt closed the game with a sack
  • Against Los Angeles, T.J. Watt opened the second half with an 24 yard interception return, setting up a touchdown, in a 24-17 win
  • Against the Titans, Kwon Alexander closed 20-16 game with an end zone interception.
  • Against Green Bay, Damontae Kazee closed a 23-19 game with an interception at the Packers’ 2.
  • In a 20-26 win over Cincinnati, Trenton Thompson ended the Bengals opening drive of the 2nd half with a Red Zone interception.

And this list of plays that saw the Steelers defense either score, set up scores and/or take certain points off the board for the opponent doesn’t include numerous other turnovers, key third down stops and/or sacks.

What’s makes this stretch of defensive fireworks all the more impressive starting in November, the Steelers practically lost a starting inside linebacker and/or a starting safety to injury each and every week.

No, they weren’t pretty, but the Black and Gold kept winning. Until they didn’t.

December Arrives. And Unpretty Winning Turns to Losing Ugly. Fast.

Firing coordinators during the season is something the Steelers never do. It just isn’t in their DNA.

Yet, Mike Tomlin opened Thanksgiving week by firing Matt Canada after an awful outing in Cleveland. Kenny Pickett and the offense perked up a bit that week against Cincinnati, but were struggling against the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals at home the following week.

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Shortly before halftime, on 3rd and 3 at the goal line, disaster struck as Kenny Pickett tried to run it in himself. Pickett didn’t score, but he did get injured. Najee Harris tried again on fourth down and failed.

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

What followed was perhaps the worst 10 quarter stretch of football in the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers lost the following week at home, against the 2-10 New England Patriots as Mitch Trubisky struggled.

A week later, the Steelers managed to play even worse against the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Trubisky’s struggles continue, Damontae Kazee got ejected and ultimately suspended. Worse yet, the Colts closed the game by ramming the ball down the middle against a Steelers defense that was powerless to stop it. It looked like they had quit.

When the NFL announced Damontae Kazee’s suspension, it was for the rest of 2023, including the playoffs. Kazee appealed. The NFL acquiesced, agreeing to allow Kazee’s return for the playoffs.

That seemed like a cruel joke. The Steelers had just dropped 3 straight and were looking worse with each passing week. The only thing standing in between Steelers ending 2023 on a 6 game losing streak was the chance that John Harbaugh might rest his starters in the season finale against Baltimore.

Rudolph to the Rescue

Mason Rudolph, once Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, toiled in obscurity for three years. Rudolph dove into free agency during the 2023 off season, but he returned to Pittsburgh because no one else wanted him. Rudolph mopped up at the ass-end of the Colts game and looked as bad as everyone else.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

So Mike Tomlin appeared to be desperate when he named Mason Rudolph as his starter for that Bengals game. Then a funny thing happened:

The Steelers not only won their next three games, they won convincingly. They even won in Seattle, and the Steelers NEVER win in Seattle. The offense came alive, and players like Eric Rowe and Myles Jack literally stepped off to couch to make game-changing plays on defense.

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

Mason Rudolph forced defenses to respect the deep ball. They couldn’t crowd the box. Opposing special teams coordinator didn’t automatically tell his punt return unit to get their helmets on each time the Steelers were in 3rd and 5 or more.

George Pickens – a candidate to be benched for the rest of the season after Indianapolis – exploded for 326 and 2 touchdowns in two games, and a delivered a devastating block in the season finale. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren romped. Defenders like Nick Herbig and Patrick Peterson made splash plays at critical moments.

And so it was that the Steelers went from being a 7-7 team looking at a near-certain 7-10 finish on December 16th in Indianapolis, to a 10-7 team that stood in Buffalo just 7 points away from tying the AFC’s number 2 seed with just 7:18 left in the game.

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

Kenny Pickett demonstrably failed to make the “2nd year leap” in 2023 as hopped. And the tempting take away would be that it is unreasonable for the Steelers to expect him to make that leap in 2024.

But perhaps Pickett will prove once again the lesson coming out of 2023 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to expect the unexpected.

 

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Steelers Report Card for AFC Wildcard Loss to Bills: Effort Isn’t Enough Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students learned that “effort isn’t enough,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Wildcard loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Khalil Shakir, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills AFC Wildcard 2023

It looks like Minkah Fitzpatrick has Khalil Shakir. But he doesn’t. (Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph went 22 of 39 for 229 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. That interception was costly, as it took at least three points off the board for the Steelers. But Rudolph showed poise in keeping the Steelers in the game, passing for 14 first downs. Overall Rudolph’s first playoff start was “good” but the Steelers needed him to be mistake free. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
This is one instance were the “Eye test” fails. Once the Steelers offense got going, it seemed like both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren ran pretty well. Their numbers suggest something a little different as neither man cracked 40 yards, although Warren’s 4.8 average was impressive. Both men had two catches, helping in the passing game. Still, the Steelers needed more from their running backs. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with 5 receptions but he escaped disaster with a fumble that was ruled out of bounds. Connor Heyward had 1 catch for 5 yards. Darnell Washington was targeted once but did not have a catch, and committed two false start penalties when the Steelers could ill afford them. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 5 catches for 50 yards and Diontae Johnson was close behind with 5 for 48 and a touchdown. Allen Robinson had 2 catches for 12 yards. Calvin Austin had 1 catch for 7 yards, but it was a touchdown. The wide receivers deserve credit for getting the Steelers back in the game, but George Pickens’ fumble helped put the Steelers in a deep hole. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The offensive line did an nice job of keeping Mason Rudolph upright, as he only suffered one sack and was hit just three other times. However, the run blocking lagged. Certainly it was better than what we saw early in the season, but it wasn’t playoff caliber. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Bills ran the ball efficiently, and they were very effecint when Cam Heyward was out of the lineup. Keeanu Benton is going to be a very good player for the Steelers one day, but he wasn’t a difference maker in his first playoff game. Grade: D

Linebackers
It wasn’t the same unit without T.J. Watt. Sure, Alex Highsmith and Markus Golden had sacks, but overall Josh Allen had time to throw. And the Bills tight ends tormented the Steelers during the first half. Myles Jack’s penalties hurt the Steelers at the worst possible time. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick provided a bit of a boost early in the game, but he missed on Khalil Shakir’s touchdown (so did several others.) The game was more about plays the secondary didn’t make. Patrick Peterson didn’t sack Josh Allen, he got close. Eric Rowe didn’t get an interception that could have changed the game, instead he only got close. Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee didn’t tackle Josh Allen on his touchdown scrable, they got close. See a trend? Close isn’t good enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, kicking in difficult conditions. Nick Herbig recovered a blocked field goal that got the Steelers into the game. Calvin Austin had a good punt return that set up a field goal. But Pressley Harvin’s punts were pathetic. That hardly spelled the difference in this game, but the Steelers needed every edge they could get and their punting game didn’t deliver. Grade: B-

Coaching
This is a bit of a glass-half full or glass-half empty situation.

The Bills were ready for the Steelers at the start of the game. For much of the first half, the Steelers offense looked as inept as it has all year long. On defense Buffalo’s tight ends terrorized the Steelers.

But the offense put 17 points on the board and should have had at least three more, and the defense held their own, keeping it close until the deep into the fourth quarter.

The Steelers could have folded at any number of points, but they never blinked. Mike Tomlin’s players fought for every blade of grass, even if they lost a few too many of those fights. Grade: C

Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills 2023 AFC wildcard

The Bills attempt a field goal. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
It was the biggest play of the game for the Steelers. Easily. Yet, after it happened its author got zero air time nor is there memory of the commentators even mention his name. No one, not even the Steelers team photographer got a picture of the moment, let alone its star. You have to dig deeply into the stat sheet to found out how did it, but did it he do, and for that Montravius Adams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Wildcard loss to the Buffalo Bills.

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Steelers Lose to Bills 31-17 in AFC Wildcard as They Fail to Execute Familiar Formula

It was a hard fought game. Much harder than the final score indicates. But the end result saw the Steelers lose to the Bills 31-17 in the AFC wildcard ending their 2023 season at Highmark Stadium, in Orchard Park, New York.

Mike Tomlin was right on the money when opened his press conference declaring, “I appreciate the efforts of our guys in there and I just told the guys that, but efforts don’t get it done.”

He is right. The Steelers effort showed. As did their desire.

But in their season ended in Buffalo for two simple reasons: The Bills have more talent, and the Steelers failed to execute a formula that had served them so well for so much of the season.

Josh Allen, Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills wildcard

Josh Allen romps for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Earn “A” for Effort, for What It Is Worth…

Give the Steelers and “A” for effort.

Mason Rudolph, starting his first playoff game got off to a shaky start, but rebounded to bring the team to within 7 points in the 4th quarter.

His confidence could have wavered. It did not.

Mason Rudolph spread the ball around. Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson combined for 14 passes. Pickens run once for 15 yards. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris both had pass receptions for 10 plus yards. Calvin Austin even got a touchdown.

If someone had told you the stat sheet would look like that going into the game, you’d may have very well thought the Steelers were going to win.

  • But they didn’t. None of the three top pass catchers sniffed 100 yards receiving.

On the ground both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran hard, moved bodies and seemed to fall forward. At least that’s the way it felt watching the game – after the offense got moving. But numbers don’t lie. Both backs might have ripped off carries for double digits, but together they didn’t even break the 80 yard number.

The Steelers had effort was enough to deliver quantity on offense; the Bills had enough talent to prevent the Steelers from transforming quantity into enough quality.

On defense the stat sheet isn’t quite as generous, but if I’d told you that Markus Golden and Alex Highsmith both sacked Josh Allen, you’d have taken that as a good sign.

  • Special Teams tells a similar tale.

Chris Boswell was perfect. When the Steelers had to kickoff at a 15 yard disadvantage Danny Smith’s coverage unit stopped Buffalo at the 30-yard line. And if I told you that Montravius Adams blocked a field goal with Nick Herbig flipping the field to recover at the Bills 33-yard line you’d have also thought that was a good sign.

Yet Pressley Harvin averaged just 38.5 yards punting, consistently giving the Bills strong field position.

The Steelers never lacked for effort in this game. They “proverbially ‘left it all on the field.’” But in the end effort proved to be an insufficient substitute for talent.

Talent Trumps Effort

The Buffalo Bills are a good football team. They may have faltered a bit earlier in the season, but at Highmark Stadium you could see they are legitimate be Super Bowl contenders.

James Cook didn’t dominate the Steelers, but he was far more effective than either of Pittsburgh’s running backs. The Steelers have struggled against tight ends all season long. Dalton Kincaid “only” had 3 catches, but he averaged 19.9 on those grabs and one of them was for a touchdown.

Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin made adjustments to limit him later in the game, but the damage had been done. Talent trumps coaching.

The Buffalo Bills demonstrated their superior talent at several moments during the game, but three stick out to this scribe:

1. Early in the game Patrick Peterson had Josh Allen dead to rights for a sack. Allen wiggled out and ran for 8 yards.

2. Late in the game Allen hit Khalil Shakir for what looked like a short gain. Minkah Fitzpatrick was on him, but couldn’t quite bring him down. Here’s what happened next.

At least four other Steelers had a shot at him in close quarters. Only Cam Heyward got a hand on him and it wasn’t enough.

3. Midway through the second quarter on third and 8 the Steelers were about to collapse the pocket around Josh Allen. You can see what happens next.

Both Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee tried and missed on tackles and he flat out outran Patrick Peterson.

A fourth, bonus example would be Alex Highsmith wrapping Ty Johnson in the backfield late in the game, only to have him evade his grasp and, if memory serves, earn a first down if not make his 11 yard gain.

Be crystal clear on one thing: In many of the above examples the Steelers had very talented players involved on the wrong side of those plays; Buffalo’s players were simply more talented.

Steelers Forget the Lesson that Got Them There in the First Place

Superior talent doesn’t always triumph in the NFL. The formula for beating a more talented team is hides in plain sight:

Limit turnovers
Create turnovers
Capitalize those turnovers
Avoid costly mistakes

With the Steelers already down by 7 on their second possession, George Pickens coughed up the ball. It took one pass to Dalton Kincaid to make put Pittsburgh down 14 to zero with four minutes left in the first quarter.

Two possessions later, Mason Rudolph had led the team on an 88 yard drive before throwing a bad ball to Diontae Johnson that Kaiir Elam picked off in the end zone. That took at least 3 points off the board – and those extra 3 points would have made a comeback much more manageable – and set up Allen’s touchdown run.

  • The Steelers of course got a turnover of their own and capitalized on that.

But when they were in comeback mode trying to get the ball back only down 17 to 24, Myles Jack committed not one, but two defensive penalties gifting the Bills 20 yards and two first downs. Shakir scored his touchdown two plays after Jack’s unnecessary roughness call. Those costly mistakes came when the Steelers could ill afford them.

  • It says here that the 2023 Buffalo Bills are a better team than the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers.

But it also says that the Steelers could have found a way to win, but didn’t. And that’s a reality filled with irony, because for the better part of the season’s first 12 weeks, the Steelers put on a clinic for rest of the NFL in executing the formula for beating more talented teams.

Alas, so ends the Steelers 2023 season.

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If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Big: Steelers 21-18 Loss to Patriots Leaves Lessons

The hits keep coming. Thursday Night Football saw the New England Patriots waltz into Acrisure Stadium with a 2-10 record and leave with a 3-10 mark after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.

  • This one stings. And so it should.

The Steelers have just dropped back-to-back home games against twin 2-10 teams. Ouch. But losses leave lessons to be learned. In fact, there’s a saying in business “Fail quickly.” The 2023 Steelers looked like they might be taking that route in the season opening stinker vs San Francisco.

Instead they rallied, stitched together 7 wins, a few of which were ugly while some others resembled respectability. Now they’ve lost two games to weak teams after seemingly turning a corner in Cincinnati.

And the reason why is clear: Having lost the ability to fail quickly, Mike Tomlin’s decision-making in both games shows he’s willing to Fail Big, even though he clearly desires a different outcome.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Belichick Still the Boss

Last season, week two, brought the Patriots to Pittsburgh, and yours truly savored at the chance to see the Steelers go up against Bill Belichick sans Tom Brady. The hope was for a return to the pre-Brady days when the Steelers owed Belichick.

At first glance the 6-3 Steelers should have had every advantage against the Patriots. Pittsburgh was playing at home on a short week against one of the few teams in the NFL that has a worse offense than theirs. But this overlooks a few inconvenient facts:

  • The Patriots have an excellent run defense
  • The ground game is the only thing that has sort of worked for the Steelers’ offense
  • The Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string linebackers

That last part is a bit of a fib. Although Elandon Roberts had left the game against the Cardinals with a groin injury, he did play 81% of the snaps against the Patriots. But the injury clearly impacted him. And the truth is that his counterpart, Mykal Walter was in between practice squad gigs just 38 days ago.

  • Bill Belichick took note and mercilessly attacked the middle of the Steelers’ defense.

And for the game’s first 20 minutes or so, Bailey Zappe channeled his inner Tom Brady. Seriously. By the 7:38 mark of the second quarter, he’d thrown 3 touchdown passes on the Steelers’ defense – or half as many as Kenny Pickett has thrown all year.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Patriots

Mitch Trubisky hit. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Patriots dominated just as thoroughly on the other side of the ball.

  • Steelers tried to run and failed
  • The Patriots’ pass rush collapsed the pocket around Mitch Trubisky
  • And when it didn’t, their coverage confused him

The best plays on the Steelers first scoring drive were Tribuiky’s 15-yard scramble and the pass interference penalty that negated his first interception. But Trubisky had no such luck on his second interception, which set up an easy score (shout out to Connor Heyward for crossing the field to prevent a pick six.)

Credit Trubisky for showing a lot of mental toughness for ignoring the boos and chants for Mason Rudolph that were raining down from Acrisure Stadium throughout the first half. He closed the first half with a solid drive that saw the offense mix it up with a successful reverse to Calvin Austin, solid runs by Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris, and a 25-yard touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson.

Being down 21-10 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 21-3.

…The NFL Will Seldom Note and Quickly Forget

Professional football is a pass-fail endeavor. There are no “A’s for effort.” That’s the way it should be. But let’s also acknowledge something here which few elsewhere note:

  • The Steelers’ defense performed a 180 degree adjustment against the Patriots’ offense.

It began at the tail end of the first half. New England had time to score, but sacks by Elandon Roberts and tackles for losses by Minkah Fitzpatrick stifled those hopes. Cam Heyward got into the act in the 2nd half, sacking Bailey Zappe on third down and forcing a punt.

Mykal Walker, who’d been exploited for most of the first half got an interception, killing the next drive. T.J. Watt, Patrick Peterson, and Heyward stepped up to make critical stops.

  • The Steelers opened the second half down 21-10.

The defense did its part, in the final two quarters, forcing 5 punts, securing a turnover, and not allowing the Patriots to even sniff a score. It wasn’t enough to redeem the 21 points so easily allowed it in the first half, but the effort gave the offense a chance to either succeed or fail.

Failing Big

Mike Tomlin signaled his intentions at the end of the first half to either go for it all and win or fail big by trying. The Patriots got the ball back with 2:50 remaining, and after two good plays by the defense, Tomlin called a time out. Ultimately the Steelers didn’t get a chance to score before half time, but Tomlin had set the tone.

Against the Cardinals, the Steelers reached the Red Zone, and on 4th and 1, after losing Kenny Pickett to injury, Mike Tomlin went for it. The Steelers didn’t make it, and the bottom fell out.

Take Tomlin at his word when he said he had no regrets because he did the same thing against the Patriots. Mykal Walker’s interception gave the Steelers the ball at the 10 yard line.

The Steelers called 3 plays, none of which worked, although Tribuisky salvaged one with a 7-yard scramble. Mike Tomlin didn’t blink. He went for it on fourth, but the pass protection broke down and an ugly dump off to Jaylen Warren netted just 1 yard. The Steelers needed 2.

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Miles Killebrew blocked a punt to give the Steelers a second chance, and this time the Steelers scored. Tomlin went for 2, and Pat Freiermuth got the 2-point conversion, making it a 3-point game. The mathematicians will note that had Tomlin kicked a field goal instead of going for it on 4th, the Steelers could have tied the game.

  • Tomlin wasn’t interested in a tie: He wanted a win.

The Steelers had the ball twice after narrowing the gap on the scoreboard to 3 – they managed 35 yards on 13 plays, going for it on 4th twice, succeeding once and failing the next time. Tomlin played to win but ended of failing. But at least he failed big.

Benefits of Failing Big

Mike Tomlin is in the middle of one of the toughest moments of his coaching career. But the temptation to treat this as a unique experience is a false one. Mike Tomlin is doing what he’s always done, put the game in the hands of his players at critical moments. Tomlin’s decision to go for it on fourth isn’t any different than:

The difference in the last two weeks is that the Steelers have failed big whereas in two out of the three cases above, they succeeded. Failing big stings. But it does offer a dose of reality therapy, bringing home various painful truths:

  • The offensive line is average at best, with at least two starters that need replaced.
  • Ditto the wide receivers. Johnson and Pickett have talent but attitude issues.
  • As for Austin and Allen Robinson? They’re placeholders.
  • Firing Matt Canada was no panacea, as the answers certainly aren’t to be found in house.

The downside is that there’s really not many ways to apply that insight this late in the season. So Mike Tomlin should continue to play to win while being prepared to fail big.

If nothing else, we’ll find out who is mentally tough on this team.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Browns: Nightmares Like its 1999 Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher worrying that he hasn’t seen a quarterbacking nightmare like this since 1999, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 road loss to the Browns.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Too high! Diontae Johnson reaches for a poorly thrown pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 15 of 28 for 106 yards. In this case “…at least he didn’t turn over the ball eh” does not apply. Pickett inaccurate and especially so on third downs. The lion’s share of his 15 completions were safe, check down route. The Steelers haven’t seen type of timid, 3 yard passing plays since the days for Kordell Stewart in 1999. Grade: Fsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren ran for 129 yards, and while the biggest chunk of that came on his 74 yard explosion, he had several other good runs. Najee Harris had 35 yards on 12 carries, with half of that coming on one carry. The Steelers could not afford “Sludge Ball” when Harris was carrying, but that’s what they got. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth’s much ballyhooed return resulted in one catch for 7 yards. Darnell Washington had a catch for 8. It wasn’t that the tight ends were necessarily bad, but they weren’t an asset. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens led the team with 4 catches for 38 yards. Again this is not a misprint of a Charles Lockett stat line from the 1980s. Allen Robinson was next with 3 catches for 20 yards. Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 16 yards and was misaligned with Pickett on another play. He’s now claiming on social media that he ran the right route and openly griping in the locker room. Ouch. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked 3 times, but the first one set the tone for the game (and should have been a safety) the second one came on third down, and the final one helped force a field goal when a touchdown would have given the Steelers the lead. He was only hit 4 other times, but he was under pressure for much of the game. The run blocking was good at times. Run blocking took a step back. Sometimes holes were there, other times both Warren and Harris were either getting hit behind the line of scrimmage or met walls when they got there. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers limited the Browns running backs to sludge ball of their own with Cam Heyward and Keeanu Benton making their presence known. More pressure on Dorian Thompson-Robinson would have been nice. Grade: B

Linebackers
Elandon Roberts stepped up in the absence of the other two members of the starting troika and led the team with 15 tackles including 2 for losses. T.J. Watt only had one sack but that helped get the ball back for the Steelers in a tie game. Mykal Walker didn’t stand out in his first start, which is good. Grade: B

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. and Patrick Peterson both had tipped passes while Chandon Sullivan had two with Sullivan coming down with a very difficult interception. Damontae Kazee looked solid. The Browns were 4-17 on third down conversions – worse than the Steelers, if you’ll believe. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, Calvin Austin was strong as a punt returner, Pressley Harvin had one bad one that went off the side of his foot, but other than that was strong. Punt coverage was a little leaky. Grade: B-

Coaching
The Steelers came into the week starting a raft of practice squanders on defense, and at times early in the game that was painfully obvious. However, once the Steelers defense settled down, they started making Dorian Thompson-Robinson look like a rookie.

One can criticize Teryl Austin’s group for giving up the final field goal drive, but with the game tied the defense delivered the ball to the offense twice in the game’s final six minutes.

  • The Steelers offense, outside of the play of Jaylen Warren, was an unmitigated disaster.

Pressley Harvin punted four times in the first half alone. And if the touchdown to open the second half was good, And although a touchdown to open the second half was nice, it is yet another case of Matt Canada’s offense being able to drop an random a pure big play into a bucket full of raw sewage.

If it is true that Kenny Pickett NEEDED to make some of those passes with the game on the line why wasn’t Jaylen Warren given a carry at clutch time when the Steelers needed to both move the ball and get a score?

Worse yet, sniping started almost immediately in the locker room after the game. Mike Tomlin needs to fix this. Fast. Grade: F

Trenton Thompson, Steelers vs Browns

Trenton Thompson bats away a pass on third down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Going into the game Mike Tomlin made a distinction between practice squad players who were “developmental” and “capable” with Mykal Walker falling into the latter category. However, it was it was the “developmental” guy who kept a lid on the top of the Steelers defense was stepping up twice to bat away passes, once in the Red Zone and once on third down and for that Trenton Thompson wins Unsung Hero Honors for the Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland.

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