Steelers Report Card for Win Over Falcons: Dark Tower Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher who is almost as pleased by the fact that he was able to work a Dark Tower reference into his analysis (see the link at the end) as he is about the Steelers back-to-back wins, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 road win over Atlanta.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 16 of 28 for 197 yards with one touchdown and for the fourth straight week – no interceptions. Steadily but surely, Pickett continues to improve. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 17 carries, followed by Benny Snell with 24 yards on 6 carries, Jaylen Warren with 15 yards on one carry and Derek Watt with 1 carry for 4 yards that converted a 3rd down. So the top 3 running backs plus the full backs get carries in consecutive games for the first time in memory. And the Steelers get their first consecutive wins of the season. Coincidence? I think not. Grade: A

Tight Ends
The stat sheet tells you with Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 76 yards on 5 targets and that Zach Gentry caught 1 for 8 yards on one target, and the Connor Heyward caught 1 pass on one target for 17 yards. Gentry’s catch set the Steelers up with a 2nd and 2 with 4:50 left in the game; teach of Freiermuth’s touchdowns converted a 3rd down, and Heyward scored the only touchdown. The Steelers tight ends showed just how much damage you can do with 5 catches. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the unit with 5 catches for 60 yards on 11 targets. But he dropped at least one critical catch and got gift call on a play that should have been a fumble. Steven Sims didn’t catch either of the passes thrown his way, but did look good on reverses. Gunner Olszewski had 2 reverses for 2 yards. George Pickens had one catch for two yards and made little secret of his unhappiness with getting targeted – this attitude must NOT continue. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was not sacked for the entire day and he only took 4 QB hits. Equally impressively, the Steelers offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage opening holes for the runners. This unit is coming along. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a difference making sack early in the game. Larry Ogunjobi decisively dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for a loss that forced a field goal. Expecting the pass the Steelers took Montravius Adams and the Falcons ran very well in the second half. The line shoulders some of that. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack led the unit with six tackles and Devin Bush and Robert Spillaine logging QB hits as pass rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith had quiet games. Grade: B-

Secondary
The Falcons were 3-10 on third downs. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit and the team in tackles, including one for a four yard loss that helped stall a drive, and of course he authored the interception that ended the game. The secondary did get a little squishy in the 2nd half, but went into “Bend but don’t Break” mode in the Red Zone. (Although Arthur Maulet should have been flagged for pass interference). Overall a strong afternoon for the secondary. Grade: B+

Special Teams
What a difference 1 week makes. Matthew Wright hit all four of his field goals and completely neutralized Cordarrelle Patterson on kick returns. Pressley Harvin did a spectacular job pinning the Falcons down, while Myles Boykin downed the ball deep Steven Sims shaky punt returns drops this grade, but special teams was a difference maker for the Steelers. Grade: A-

Coaching
Is it me or does Matt Canada’s play calling suddenly look smarter now that his rookie quarterback is maturing and his offensive line continues to jell? During the first half the Steelers executed their physical, ball control brand of offense to perfection outside of the 20s. They didn’t do quite as well in the 2nd half, but killed the clock when necessary.

  • Getting touchdowns instead of field goals and Red Zone performance must improve, but that should come.

One defense the Steelers completely unhinged the Falcons during the first half. During the second half the Falcons reverted to their roots, and ran the ball effectively. Some of that success likely can be laid to the feet of the Steelers moving away from their base defense.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

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

George Pickens temper tantrums are a cause for concern as is the coaches obvious attempt to pacify him with a cheap catch, which would only seek to encourage the temperamental rookie. With that said, it was the Steelers, and not the Falcons who were playing like a team 1/2 game out of first place, as Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to their road win since playing a road game on Monday Night Football. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Atlanta didn’t have a lot of luck through the air. But they did take their shots down field. And although he’s only credited with one pass defense, Cam Sutton played a huge role in keeping the Falcons from landing in the end zone on more than one occasion and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over Atlanta.

 

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Colts: Going Old School Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher pleased as punch to see his students go “Old School” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for win over the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Arthur Maulet, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Colts

Arthur Maulet sacks Matt Ryan in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett authored his first comeback win by going 20 of 28 for 174 yards and no interceptions. Pickett is making progress, but still needs to perform better on third downs and in the Red Zone. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris was off to a solid start with 35 yards on 10 runs and a touchdown before getting hurt. Benny Snell stepped in and reminded everyone of why he was on the team with 62 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. Anthony McFarland, looking like he belonged in the NFL for the first time, had 30 yards on six carries plus 2 catches for 11. Derek Watt converted a fourth down with a 4 yard run. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for 39 yards while Zach Gentry had one catch for 4 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
George Pickens made some nice catches and is developing a rapport with Pickett, but he still made some rookie mistakes. Diontae Johnson continues to disappoint. He had 5 catches but didn’t bring in a catchable ball in the end zone and ran backwards on a play where he could have gotten a first down. Steven Sims had 2 catches for 9 yards while Gunner Olszewski ran a reverse for 9. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett had better protection than he’s had of late, but still got sacked on a few critical third downs. But protection improved as the game wore on and The run blocking continues to improve. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi led the team in tackles while Montravius Adams came in second with three with Cam Heyward getting three hits on Matt Ryan. The Steelers contained Jonathan Taylor well enough and that started with the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and came up with a critical pass defense. Myles Jack came in second, and T.J. Watt had a quiet night, but did help deflect a pass. Alex Highsmith had the play of the night when he strip sacked Matt Ryan during the two minute drill, costing the Colts precious time. Grade: B

Secondary
James Pierre made an excellent interception to help set the tone for the night. Terrell Edmunds made a sack in the first quarter and Arthur Maulet logged one in the 4th. Outside of the pass he defensed Cam Sutton had a quiet night which was good for a cornerback. The Colts went 3-12 on third downs. Grade: B

Isaiah Rodgers, Matthew Wright, Steelers vs. Colts

Matthew Wright helps tackle Isaiah Rodgers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams

You know things are bad when the special teams section features a photo of a kicker making a tackle on a kick return that wasn’t the worst one of the night. Yet, that’s what happened. The Steelers gave up two a 45 yard return to Isaiah Rodgers that should have set up a score and an 89 yard one to Dallis Flowers that not only set up a score, but let Indianapolis.

Yes, the Steelers had a blocked field goal. Yes, Presley Harvin boomed off two punts of over 50 yards, the second of which pinned the Colts at the 7 to start their final drive. And Matthew Wright made all of his kicks. So that keeps this unit’s grade in passing territory. Barely. Grade: D

Coaching
While many if not most fans can’t or won’t see it, Matt Canada’s offense continues to improve. Yes, the Steelers still seldom pass deep, although it is clear there are down the field options. Yes, there are puzzling play calling decisions – such as the screen ton Gentry, but it is also clear that there are execution errors. And offensive penalties are down.

On defense Terryl Austin’s unit limited the Colts to on first half field goal and to two touchdowns in the second half. Is this unit dominating at the level one would expect it to given its star power? No, it isn’t.

  • But the defense continues to give the offense chances to win.

The Steelers entered the game 3-7. But if you look at the intensity that reserves Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell played with, you’d have thought Pittsburgh was contending for a playoff bye week. That’s the environment Mike Tomlin has established to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that fumble recoveries come down to luck. And a lot of times that’s true – sometimes the ball just bounces or doesn’t bounce, your way. But even when the bounce doesn’t come your way, a heads up player can turn a lose ball into an opportunity. So after the Colts had held the ball for nearly 8 minutes and gone 87 yards they looked poised to score again. But Matt Ryan could get the handoff right, the ball came out. He tried to dive on it, but Chris Wormley out muscled him and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 MNF win over the Colts.

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Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors: Larry Ogunjobi

Thanksgiving 2022 has arrived, so as we’ve done every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising is naming its 2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winner.

  • Our tradition began during the middle of the 2009 Steelers ugly 5 game losing streak.

The Steelers had just dropped a very winnable game in overtime against Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs. They’d just lost Ben Roethlisberger to a concussion. And Charlie Batch broke his wrist. Yet from the carnage of that ugly loss came a ray of hope.

Andy Studebaker had picked off a pass intended for Hines Ward. He was in his own end zone and had nothing but green in front of him. So he took off. He would have taken it the house, were it not for Rashard Mendenhall, picking himself off of the turf and coming from the complete opposite side to run 94 yards to bring him down.

If one can question the “what it” that Mendenhall displayed at other times during his Steelers career, no one can deny the heart he displayed on that play.

So Mendenhall earned our first Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, and it has been a tradition since.

2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winner Larryy Ogunjobi

This year’s honors begin with the brightest spot (thus far) of the otherwise disappointing Steelers 2022 season.

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had come to Pittsburgh. Kenny Pickett had driven the Steelers down the field and gotten them on the board with a touchdown pass to Najee Harris. But the Buccaneers had gotten a field goal, and as the second quarter opened, Brady had moved Tampa Bay 2nd and 1 on Pittsburgh’s 1 yard line.

  • The Steelers meager 4 point lead seemed destined to become a distant memory.

Leonard Fournette, a man who has tortured the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium, got the call. He thought he had a hole behind the left guard.

  • Instead he got dumped for a 3 yard loss.
Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Now, you might be thinking, “Last year you used a similar example when bestowing Steelers Thanksgiving honors on Cam Heyward, you’re giving it to Cam again?” We’re not talking about Cameron Heyward. Yes, Cam tackled Forunette for a 5 yard loss on 3rd down, but someone else made the play on 2nd down.

And we are giving Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors to Larry Ogunjobi precisely because last year Cam Heyward was the only Steelers defensive lineman capable of making those kinds of stops, and this year he has Ogunjobi to help him.

  • And after 10 games Larry Ogunjobi is showing just how much difference one man can make.

In that same game, Ogunjobi made several stops for little or no gain. And he’s done so throughout the rest of the year.

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense gave up an average of 5 yards per carry, and were the NFL’s worst run defense. The Steelers only saw 3 games were an opponent’s longest run was less than 20 yards. Opponents had long runs of over 40 yards in three games and long runs of over 30 yards in 3 more. Overall, the Steelers opponents’ longest run from scrimmage averaged at 26.5 yards.

  • The Steelers 2021 run defense was so bad, one wonders why anyone even tried to pass.

Yet in 2022 the Steelers are writing a different story. This year they’re giving up 3.9 yards per carry and that 1.1 yard difference improves them to 5th in the NFL. The longest run they’ve given up is 36 yards, and the average longest run given up is 19.5 yards.

Even Cincinnati, who rushed on the Steelers at will in 2021, struggled to run the ball in an otherwise lopsided win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

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

  • Does Larry Ogunjobi deserve all of the credit for this improvement?

Absolutely not. And that’s the point. Improved play from Devin Bush and Montravius Adams, the arrival of Myles Jack, the maturation of Alex Highsmith and Robert Spillane and the return of Tyson Alualu are all critical to this improvement.

But none of those men would be able to do their jobs as well as they are doing them, were it not for Larry Ogunjobi making plays on his own, tying blockers up or taking advantage of double laid on Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • Followers of our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors will note Larry Ogunjobi is a bit of an outlier.

And he is. Most past honors have gone to up and comers, think Antonio Brown in 2011 or Ryan Shazier in 2016, or an established presence in the franchise such as Ben Roethlisberger in 2017 or Kevin Colbert in 2019.

In contrast, Ogunjobi is with the Steelers on a one-year “prove it” deal and could easily be playing somewhere other than Pittsburgh in 2023.

But that’s one of the lessons that comes with this year’s choice – sometimes its best to be thankful for what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

As I “celebrate” my 21st Thanksgiving in Argentina, I’ll again express my hope that everyone reading this has reasons to be Thankful that go far beyond football.

So whether your spending Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh or welcoming friends and family from Pittsburgh as I did so often growing up and as a young adult or whether you’re just a Steelers fan with no ties to the Steel City, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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Steelers Report Card for ’22 Loss to Bengals @ Acrisure: 1 Step Forward 2 Steps Back Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but feel he just saw his students follow 1 step forward with 2 steps back, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Eli Apple, George Pickens, Steelers vs Bengals

Eli Apple deflects a pass aimed at George Pickens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett protected the ball and looked sharp enough on three first half scoring drives. But he was utterly ineffective in the second half, save for some garbage time glory. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran 20 times for 90 yards including a touchdown and added 4 catches for 26 yards. Jaylen Warren converted a third down with a 9 yard catch before leaving with a hamstring injury. Solid night from the running backs, but the Steelers needed a little more. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 8 catches for 79 yards including a tough one over the middle. He also had a drop and a holding call on a drive that saw the Steelers reach 3 and 25. Zach Gentry had 2 catches for 8 yards and frankly doesn’t look as promising as a number 2 tight end as he did a year ago. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 4 catches for 83 yards including a 33 yarder and a 24 yard touchdown. He also had a drop. Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 21 yards and looked nothing like a number 1 wide out. He had 1 yard on a jet sweep. Steven Sims didn’t have a catch, and lost 3 yards on his reverse. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Run blocking was OK and while Kenny Pickett was only sacked twice, the Bengals hit him seven times. Pickett has been taking too much punishment of late. Grade: D

Kenny Pickett, Cam Sample, Steelers vs Bengals

Pickett is taking too much punishment. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
The good news? The Steelers pretty much neutralized the Bengals running game. The bad news, Cincinnati didn’t need to run much. Cam Heyward had a sack and Montravius Adams had a nice stuff for a loss, but the Steelers needed more upfront. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had half a sack, intercepted a pass and got his hands on two more. Alex Highsmith also had half a sack. Individually the stats of the rest of the linebacking crops look good, with Myles Jack leading the team in tackles, Devin Bush coming in second, and with Robert Spillane logging a tackle for a loss and a deflected pass. But Joe Burrow moved the ball with ease, often in the middle of the field and was untouched for too many series. The linebackers also came up short in the Red Zone. Grade: D

Secondary
The Bengals were only 3 for 9 on third down. That’s in large part because they had 18 passing first downs. Arthur Maulet led the unit in tackles and Levi Wallace had a nice interception, but Joe Burrow threw 4 touchdown passes and led 3 other scoring drives. Grade: F

Special Teams
Steven Simms muffed a punt that help pin the Steelers back. That must not continue. Simms however was effective as a kick returner. The Steelers kick coverage gave up a long return which set up a Bengals score. Pressley Harvin had a solid night punting, while Matthew Wright redeemed himself kicking 3 field goals and making all of his extra point attempts. Grade: B

Coaching
During the first half Matt Canada’s offense was effective, scoring two touchdowns and running an efficient 2 minute drill. The second half told a different tale as the Steelers offense punted 5 times, turned over on downs once and could only muster a measly field goal after a turnover.

To be fair to Canada, there were obvious execution errors – he didn’t commit the penalties to push the Steelers back to 3rd and 25.

  • Still, some of his play calls were head scratchers.

Teryl Austin has a different problem. He’s got championship talent on his defense. His defense delivered several splash plays late in the 2nd half and during the 3rd quarter when they could have been difference makers.

But its too simplistic to say, “The defense did enough to win and didn’t get the help it needed from the offense.” The Bengals moved up and down the field with relative ease on all four of their touchdown drives. And the defense was horrendous in the Red Zone.

  • You simply do not win games in the NFL when you let that happen.
Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Bengals

Gunner Olszewski catches a batted ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Against the Bengals, the Steelers showed they are capable of playing wining football against varsity opponents. Mike Tomlin must find a way to make that happen consistently. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
While it’s hard to laud garbage time glory as heroics, this player made a heads up catch on a batted ball at the goal line that set up a face-saving touchdown, and for that Gunner Olszewski wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Busted! Steelers 37-30 Loss to Bengals Reveals a Rebuilding Team Struggling to Learn to Win

“Disappointing football game,” declared Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 37-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Tomlin is right. Especially when you consider the Steelers week one upset of the Bengals in the Queen City. That game featured:

  • T.J. Watt sacks and interceptions.
  • A Cam Heyward a sack at a critical moment.
  • The Steelers defense securing and taking advantage of turnovers.

The Steelers defense did all of the above in the return bout in Pittsburgh, yet it wasn’t enough.

  • Why? The reason is actually very simple.

For part of the game, the Steelers flashed the very best they could hope be at this point. For the rest of it they that proved they still have a lot of rebuilding to do.

Samaje Perine, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bengals

Samaje Perine scores one of his 3 touchdowns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Seeing a Mirage in First Half Flashes

The digest version of this game would explain how the Steelers looked sharp in the first half only to disintegrate in the second. That’s an efficient yet inaccurate way to tell the story.

The truth is that the Bengals closed the first quarter with a 10-3 lead over the Steelers. By itself, that’s hardly damning. What was distressing was that Cincinnati made it look so easy.

But after a Steven Simms kick return set the Steelers up with a short field, Kenny Pickett converted 2 third downs to set up Najee Harris’ 19 yard touchdown scamper. Unfortunately, the Bengals answered with a touchdown of their own, it the Steelers were again down by 7.

  • Just a few games ago, this might have doomed the Steelers.
George Pickens, Eli Apple, Steelers vs Bengals

George Pickens scores a 24 yard 2nd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Matt Canada’s offense has struggled to find the end zone more than once a game, so no one would expect them to match Cincinnati touchdown for touchdown. Yet, that’s just what they did, as Najee Harris, Kenny Pickett and Diontae Johnson nickled and dimed the Bengals for several short gains until Pickett hit George Pickens from 24 yards out to score a touchdown.

No, the Steelers offense wasn’t executing with the lethal efficiency of one of Ken Whisenhunt units, let alone did it look like look like “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But it was answering a touchdown from a high powered offense with one of its own, and that been an uncommon sight in Pittsburgh for a long time.

The defense took it cue from the offense, as Levi Wallace short-circuited the Joe Burrow’s 2 minute drill with an interception at midfield. Mike Tomlin declined to take a tie into the locker room at half time, and with four play including a 27 yard strike to Pat Freiermuth, set the Steelers up for a Matthew Wright field goal that gave them the lead at half time.

Unfortunately, that was the high water mark for the offense during the game.

Too Few Defensive Fireworks in Second Half

Cincinnati’s 20 second half points make it easy to assume that Pittsburgh’s defense mailed it in during the second half. But that’s actually not quite the case.

It was the second half that brought those dramatic sacks from Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt, the later of whom also had an amazing interception that looked like an exact replay of his week one pick of Joe Burrow.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers offense could do nothing when it counted in the second half.

They managed six yards after Watt’s interception and settled for another field goal. Two series later, the Steelers defense stoned Cincinnati’s offense for negative yards, bottling them up at Pittsburgh’s 7 and forcing a punt.

Najee Harris ripped off a 13 yard run to get the Steelers to Cincinnati’s 34. And then penalties pushed Pittsburgh back to the Bengals 49 yard line as the Steelers found themselves a 3rd and 25. Needless to say they failed to convert.

The Bengals marched 90 yards for a touchdown. Mike Tomlin described the two series as “a significant sequence in the game.” He was right. What followed was mere window dressing as the Bengals tacked on an insurance field goal while the Steelers scored a garbage time touchdown.

The Reality of the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

This is who the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers are. The offense took a few steps forward, but it feels like it took a few steps back in the 2nd half. Najee Harris ran reasonably well, but Kenny Pickett struggled on third down. At other times the offense self-destructed with penalizes or poor play calls and/or poor execution, particularly on first down.

  • The Steelers defense is a bit more disturbing.

This was the first time Teryl Austin’s unit was at full strength since the season opener, with Minkah Fitzpatrick playing after suffering an appendectomy just six days earlier. And while the defense did do some nice things, Joe Burrow hooked up with Tee Higgins, at will; the Bengals had 6 players make catches of over 20 yards, and in the Red Zone Samaje Perine was “Mr. Automatic for Cincinnati.”

  • Does this mean that all hope is lost on both sides of the ball?

No, it doesn’t. But when all was said and done, the Cincinnati Bengals looked like a team shaking off his Super Bowl hangover and angling to make another run, while exposing the Pittsburgh Steelers as a team struggling to learn how to win games.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Saints: Glass Half Full Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sees his students’ glass as half full, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card from the 2022 win over at Acrisure over the Saints.

Arthur Maulet, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints 2022

Arthur Maulet breaks up a pass for Crhis Olave. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 18 of 30 for 199 yards with no touchdowns, but most importantly, no interceptions. Pickett still looks like a rookie. He’s not seeing open receivers and his accuracy was off at times. Still, the Steelers converted 9 of 17 third downs. More importantly he got better as the game moved on. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers had their highest rushing totals since December 2016 when Le’Veon Bell broke the franchise rushing record. This time it was a team effort, with Najee Harris having his best day of the year, logging 99 yards while Jaylen Warren adding 37 more, the bulk of which came during when it was needed to kill the clock. Derek Watt had 2 runs for 5 yards, both of which converted 3rd and 4th downs. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches for 36 yards, but that stat doesn’t do justice to the one handed catch he made of a ball that Kenny Pickett gunned at him. Zach Gentry had one pass thrown his way which was deflected. Connor Heyward had two catches for 9 yards. Grade: B –

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 36 yards including a 36 yarder. George Pickens added 3 for 32 yards, but also contributed with a 22 yard end around. Gunner Olszewski had 1 catch for 4 yards, while Steven Sims and 1 catch for 15 yards and 2 carries for 2 yards, the second of which converted a third down on the final, clock killing drive. Grade: B –

Offensive Line
On the plus side, the offensive line’s progress in run blocking continued. While no one would mistake their efforts for Road Grading, Steelers running backs did have holes to run in. However, pass protection was weak, as Pickett suffered 6 more sacks. Not all of those are the line’s fault, but protection must improve. Grade: C

Defensive Line
No where to run. The Saints totaled 29 yards rushing. Or 7 less that Najee Harris’ longest run. Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams stat sheets won’t make any fantasy football owners happy. But measure in Reality Football this group played well. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt only had 4 tackles and one QB hit, but his presence was felt throughout, whether it was stopping guys at the line of scrimmage, snuffing out QB scrambles or drawing double teams…. And those double teams helped Alex Highsmith, who had two sacks, including a strip sack that helped end New Orleans final possession. Devin Bush quietly had another good game. Grade: A

Secondary
Wow. What a difference interceptions make. Damontae Kazee’s 4th quarter interception set up the Steelers final touchdown while Levi Wallace ended the Saints final possession. Arthur Maulet’s stat line reads 3 tackles 2 solos and 1 pass defensed. Nice, but it doesn’t do justice to the incredible play he made. The Saints were 3-12 on 3rd downs. Giving up a TD on a two minute drive brings this group’s grade down. A smidge. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Pressley Harvin punted 3 times, nailing the ball into the 20 twice and none of his punts were returnable. The Steelers kick coverage was sound, and Steven Simms looked good in his lone kick return.

Matthew Wright, however, missed two of his field goals and his kickoffs were short. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers entered the bye week as a 2-6 team that had gotten its tail kicked be a Super Bowl favorite. They exited it looking like a team that used its week off to get “back to basics.”

  • Tackles were crisp. Assignments were smart. Run blocking was physical. Penalties were minimized.

Matt Canada’s offense finally looked like an winning offense. Yes, the Red Zone remains an issue and a tendency to rely on trick plays is forming. But they scored twice at the goal line through smart execution.

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Teryl Austin’s defense put on the most complete performance of the season. Were it not for the late 2nd half hiccup, there’s a strong chance the Saints never see the end zone.

Through it all, Mike Tomlin has kept his eye on establishing sound fundamentals, and that focus paid off. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
This player led the team in tackles, the first two of which went for third down stops. He also made several other stops for no gain, with the biggest coming against Andy Dalton on 4th down with 7:47 left to play and for that Robert Spillane is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Saints.

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Steelers Fans Should Embrace What Looks To Be A Rare Bad Season

I feel like a teenager all over again.

Why do I say that? I’ve been reminiscing about the 1980s, back when times seemed simpler and the world was full of possibilities. Maybe it’s because I turned 50 in May. Maybe it’s because I really miss the formative years of my life.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Or maybe it’s because the Steelers are oh-so awful in 2022, complete with a 2-6 record and a place near the bottom of many statistical categories, both offensively and defensively.

That’s right, the offense, one now led by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, is ranked 28th in total yards. As for the defense, one that was supposed to carry the team in 2022, it’s ranked 29th in total yards allowed. Yes, the unit has been without T.J. Watt since Week 1, but the defense was no bargain a year ago, even with Watt putting together a Defensive Player of the Year season.

The calls for head coach Mike Tomlin’s dismissal — calls that were always quite popular even during the good years — have been louder than ever.

Speaking of coaching dismissals, the Steelers have officially reached their bye week, and the only thing the fans are hanging their hats on at the moment is the possible firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Seriously, the fans are wishing for that like some fans wish for a championship.

The tide is low in 2022. In fact, it hasn’t felt this low since the late-1980s when 6-10 and even 5-11 campaigns became commonplace under the Emperor, Chuck Noll.

Yes, times were tough under Bill Cowher in the late-’90s, but this just “feels” different and more like the 1980s struggles when a turnaround wasn’t just a few moves away.

I guess that’s why I’ve been drawn to mid-to-late-’80s Steelers nostalgia as of late. Maybe that’s why I watched the NFL Films “highlights” from the 1986 campaign, one that ended with a 6-10 record, the franchise’s then-worst mark since 1969. That feature was narrated by Larry Richert, an unknown at the time but someone who would go on to become a Pittsburgh radio icon, as well as Dan Marino‘s brother-in-law.

  • Oh yeah, Richert is the PA announcer for every Steelers home game at Acrisure Stadium.

I’ve also been watching broadcasts from the Steelers’ 5-11 campaign in 1988, their now worst season since 1969. The Steelers started off even worse in ’88 than they did through seven games of the 2022 campaign–1-6–before stunning a slightly better Broncos team, one that was without the legendary John Elway, 39-21 at old Three Rivers Stadium.

I’ll never forget where I was — at my grandparents’ home in Pittsburgh — when Rodney Carter opened the game by galloping for a 64-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0. The late Sam Nover, a long-time sports broadcaster for WPXI, a local affiliate for NBC, was the play-by-play man that day for the Peacock Network and screamed as if Carter had just scored a touchdown in the AFC title game. Maybe that’s because Nover was quite close to the Steelers in those days and was often the locker room reporter who interviewed the players during The Fifth Quarter postgame show.

  • The Steelers actually jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead and looked about as dominant as they would all season.

Much like today, there was talk of Pittsburgh climbing out of its hole and making it to the postseason, but 2-6 eventually turned into 2-10.

The ’88 season was so forgettable that I was given a free ticket to a game against the Eagles at Three Rivers Stadium. It was my first-ever Steelers game, and I went with my uncle–he’s the same age as me, believe it or not. We were two teenagers who had a great time and were surrounded by many lunatics in the stands who supported both Pennsylvania teams, as well as the right to punch each other in the face.

It was fun, but it wasn’t a victory, as the Steelers fell, 27-26, when a 57-yard field goal attempt by Gary Anderson was blocked at the buzzer.

It wasn’t all bad for the Steelers in ’88. In fact, they pulled things together near the end of the season and finished with three wins in their final four games–including an exciting 37-34 victory over the Houston Oilers at the iconic Astrodome on Sunday Night Football.

I don’t know if this current Steelers team can pull itself out of the mess it’s in and avoid its first losing season since 2003. If Pittsburgh can’t, well, the streak had to come to an end sooner or later, right?

I guess it would be fitting for it to happen in 2022, the first one without Ben Roethlisberger as the face of the franchise in nearly two decades.

If the Steelers do actually finish with a losing record in 2022, not only will it be the first time in 19 years, but it would only be the fourth such occasion since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1992.

That’s pretty incredible, especially when you consider the fact that Pittsburgh finished with a losing record in four of the final seven seasons of Noll’s career.

  • If you’re a Steelers fan, you should embrace the pain. Experience it.

It’s not often you get to witness something like this around here.

 

 

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

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

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

  • Yes, they did. And then some.

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Haason Reddick, Steelers vs Eagles

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

Varsity Offense Shames Steelers Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not to be.

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

Canada’s Offense Continues to Sputter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire + Fight = Hope for the Future? Well See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Bucanneers

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

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

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

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

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

  • It all starts at the top.

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

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

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

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

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