No helmet? No problem for T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com
Quarterbacks Kenny Pickett is unlike any previous Steelers quarterback. He started sharp. He followed that up by missing throws that Duck Hodges would have made. But he improved as the game progressed an authored a 4th quarter worthy of his predecessor. His 19-30-160 for one touchdown fail to impress the Fantasy Football owners, but they were good enough to win. Grade: B
THIS is the running game we’ve been waiting to see. Jaylen Warren exploded for 88 yards on 22 carries he set up a score with a 22 yard burst in the 4th quarter but ripped off runs of 15 and 14 yards. Najee Harris had a strong night too going 69 yards on 16 carries, including a run of 25 yards and another 10 yarder for a touchdown. The duo caught 5 passes through the air. Grade: A-
Tight Ends Connor Heyward had 2 catches for 16 yards. Darnell Washington got his first reception and although it was for a mere 7 yards, it sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B-
Wide Receivers Diontae Johnson reminded everyone of why they missed him so dearly. His 7 catches for 90 yards might not be eye popping, but they were difference makers. Allen Robinson and Myles Boykin helped sustain drives with catches. Calvin Austin had one target that, had the ball been delivered well, would have been a touchdown. He had two reveses for positive yards. George Pickens stat line of the night is 2 passes for negative 1 yards. Had he been focused on getting his feet in bounds that line would read 3 passes for 11 yards and a touchdown. Grade: B-
Was Broderick Jones the shot in the arm this offensive line needed. Most of the focus has been on the improved quality of the run blocking which was self-evident on several plays. But Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked the entire night and only hit 2 times during the entire game. The line must sustain this improvement, but against the Titans they were an asset. Grade: B
Defensive Line Cameron Heyward made his presence known on the very first play and later snuffed out a screen on third down and he was the third leading tackler. Larry Ogunjobi was next. Keeanu Benton also saw time extended time. Derrick Henry was continued and it started with the defensive line. Grade: B
Yes, Joey Porter Jr. helped shut DeAndre Hopkins down. Yes, the Steelers continued to reduce their yards per pass average. But both Joey Porter and Patrick Peterson were flagged multiple times which helped keep Tennessee in the game. Grade: C-
Special Teams Chris Boswell was perfect and Pressley Harvin boomed off some excellent punts. Godwin Igwebuike did respectable job of returning kicks as did Calvin Austin on punt returns. The Steelers did give up an overly long kick return. Grade: B-
For Teryl Austin it must really feel like he’s in a “One step forward two steps back” situation. He get’s Cam Heyward back, but loses Minkah Fitzpatrick. His inside linebackers start to jell, and he loses Cole Holcomb.
The Steelers defense improved against the run and also against the pass, statistically speaking, and of course delivered with a splash play when the game was on the line.
Matt Canada’s offense was far from perfect. At times it was as frustrating as it has been all year. But the unit started fast, fielded their strongest rushing effort of the season and neither needed to rely on a turnover or a defensive score to ensure that the Steelers had more points on the board than their opponent at the final gun.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone 8 games without having gained more yards than their opponents and, for the first time since the 1930s, have a winning record to show for it. Credit Mike Tomlin for continuing to coax out wins. Grade: B
Mason Cole. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come
Unsung Hero Award
The offensive line has been the most disappointing spot on the depth chart this season, and this man has been fingered often as its weakest link. As recently as the loss to the Jaguars, he failed the “Eye Test.” Yet, the Steelers finished their opening drive by scoring a touchdown and it all started with strong play in the center and for that Mason Cole is the Unsung Hero of the win over the Titans.
After an ugly afternoon of football at Acrisure Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 24-10 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.
After the game Mike Tomlin declared “That was a horrible day at the office.”
Tomlin hit the nail on the head. The Cardinals arrived in Pittsburgh as a 2-10 team that hadn’t won on the road in close to a year. The Steelers were 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC North race.
Yet the Steelers suffered an ugly loss because they failed to heed the lessons that carried them through several ugly wins this season: Win the weighty downs, don’t turn over the ball and above all else, don’t lose the game.
Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
What Went Right (no, that’s not a misprint)
With the New England Patriots coming to town in just four days, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of self-pity. (They also may not have the luxury of letting injuries heal, but we’ll get to that later.) Nor should they seek comfort in silver linings.
But if that’s true, its also true that the Steelers started the game by doing a lot of things right.
Pickett followed that with a 39 yard strike to Pickens
In just three plays the Steelers were at the Arizona 11, and then there came a big “BUT.” But before we get to that “BUT” let’s move on to other things that went right.
T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi opened by stuffing James Conner for no gain, setting up a quick three and out. On Arizona’s next possession it fell to Watt and Keeanu Benton to stuff Conner for no gain in a drive that saw the Cardianls settle for 51 yard field goal.
Arizona’s next possession ended with a three and out in large part to Alex Highsmith’s sack of Kyler Murray. After a Steelers three and out, it fell to Nick Herbig to stuff Connor and T.J. Watt to drop Murray for a loss.
The Steelers got the ball back and went on a 12 play, 79 yard drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of clock time. In truth this drive contained much of what had been missing on Matt Canada’s watch.
They also made shorter runs to set up manageable 3rd downs
Pat Freiermuth converted one of those with George Pickens picking up another through the air.
The Arizona Cardinals 1 yards line lie at the end of those 79 yards, where the next big “BUT” reared its ugly head.
About Those “BUTS”
The success of the Steelers first three plays was almost uncanny. In the blink of an eye, Kenny Pickett and company was just 16 yards away from an opening drive touchdown. Once there Najee Harris ran for 5 only to see Pickett fail to connect on his next two passes, bring up a Chris Boswell field goal.
On that second, picture perfect drive, the Steelers tried four times to punch starting from the Arizona 7, but couldn’t make it into the end zone.
Pittsburgh left 11 points on the field on those two drives along.
Chris Boswell missed a field goal in the second half.
Make that 14 points the Steelers left on the field.
It is tempting to conclude “You can’t leave points on the field like that and expect to win in the National Football League.” Which is generally true. But we’ve seen the Steelers win in spite of their offense for most of the season. But against the Cardinals, something else was different.
Back to Ball Security
The Steelers defense opened the second half down 10 to 3 after having given up a 99 yard touchdown drive to close the first half. The Black and Gold’s response was to force an Arizona three and out.
Pittsburgh’s rebound was short-lived as 7 plays later Mason Cole wobbled a snap to Mitch Trubisky’s shoe laces and the Cardinals recovered. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona was able to convert in the Red Zone and put the Cardinals up 17 to 3.
Giving up that touchdown might not have ended it for the Steelers, but Boswell’s missed field goal came on Pittsburgh’s next possession and his miss effectively ended things.
The Steelers defense started the game shutting down the Cardinals in stunning fashion but ended up unable to stop them at critical points. But by that point an inside linebacking corps that had lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander had also lost the services of Elandon Roberts, who’d arguably been the defense’s MVP over the last several games.
And on offense the Steelers lost Kenny Pickett and Isaac Seumalo just before half time. And Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand during the first half (but was able to return).
Yet, for all of that, had the Steelers not left 14 points on the field they’d have scored enough to tie the game.
This reality excuses nothing. But it reminds us that the Steelers stole a couple of wins early in the season by taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Now they’ve had one stolen from them in the same fashion.
Mike Tomlin and company have 3 days to figure out how to prevent the Patriots and Bill Belichick to be the next to benefit from the law of averages. They have their work cut out for them.
This is the Kenny Pickett we’ve been waiting for. Pickett went 24-33-278 and was aggressive throwing the ball in the middle and downfield. Digging deeper he was 9-14 on third down and converted on 7 of those throws a stark difference from a week ago. Pickett certainly wasn’t perfect, but he showed real progress. Grade: B
Anyone wondering why Mike Tomlin continues to commit to keeping Najee Harris in the offense, even though Jaylen Warren has been the more dynamic player this season need only look his 20 yard gain in a rugby like maul. He also ripped of 22 and 13 yard runs late in the 4th quarter. Warren had a solid day as well, rushing for 49 yards on 13 carries while adding 13 more through the air on 3 catches. Grade: A
A week ago Pat Freiermuth returned and one had to wonder if he was anywhere near 100%. A week later and one has to wonder how the Steelers managed to win a game without him. Pat Freiermuth had 9 catches for 120 yards and was clearly a difference maker. Connor Heyward had 2 catches for 11 yards. Grade: A
Wide Receivers George Pickens had 3 catches for 58 yards and Diontae Johnson had 4 grabs for 50 yards and should have had a touchdown. Allen Robinson and Calvin Austin each added a catch. Myles Boykin negated another reception with an offensive pass interference call. A solid day for the wide outs, but Pickens’ non-block on the bubble screen and Diontae’s complete ghost after Jaylen Warren’s fumble were negatives. We’ll take Johnson at his word that he wasn’t aware Warren had fumbled – but he should have been. Grade: B-
The Bengals sacked Pickett twice and hit him four other times, but pass protection improved during the game. The Bengals lined up planning to stop the run. The Steelers offensive line didn’t road grade, but the Steelers were able to run when they needed to. Grade: B
Defensive Line Cam Heyward led the unit in tackles and made a sack. Keeanu Benton continues to give every Steelers fan reasons to be happy he’s in Pittsburgh. Larry Ogunjobi batted away a pass on the third play of the third quarter, setting the tone for the second half. Joe Mixo’s career average against the Steelers is 4.81 yards; on Sunday he averaged 2 yards per pop. Grade: B+
Linebackers T.J. Watt wrecked two drives with third down sacks and arguably should have had another half sack. Elandon Roberts led the team in tackles and continued to be a thumper against the run. Nick Herbig broke off coverage to get a sack on third down. Alex Highsmith didn’t have flashy numbers, but help collapse the pocket. Grade: B+
Secondary Joey Porter Jr. shadowed Ja’Marr Chase for much of the game, and while Chase had respectable numbers, he didn’t light up the Steelers the way other number 1s have. Damontae Kazee tipped a ball while Trenton Thompson stepped in front of a pass for an interception. Patrick Peterson was quiet which was a good thing. Grade: B+
The long kick return the Steelers gave up, which set up the Bengals only touchdown, started with a bad kick. The Steelers also had chances to down two punts which weren’t downed setting up shorter fields. However, Chris Boswell was 3-3 on his field goal attempts and the Steelers special teams defended the on sides kick perfect. Grade: C-
In their first week together it was immediately apparent that Eddie Faulkner managed to field a well-coordinated offense and Mike Sullivan called plays with a purpose. The Steelers aggressively attacked the center of the field with the Bengals went to split safeties, and then when they went single high they took advantage of 1-1s on the outside.
They also committed to running the ball with purpose.
The Steelers defense did what it was supposed to do – neutralize Joe Mixon to make the Bengals offense 1 dimensional and force a rookie quarterback to beat them. They did that, and the only touchdown the Steelers gave up all game was one on a long field.
Matt Canada has been a scapegoat for all that has ailed the Steelers offense.
And if some of the criticism lobbed his way has stretched from the unfair to the ridiculous (see the Ravens game) it was also clear he wasn’t the solution. But firing coordinators mid-season carries its own set of risk. Mike Tomlin took that gamble and for a week at least it paid off. Grade: B+
Darnell Washington catches a 10 yard pass. Photo Credit: Kareem Elgazzar, USA TODAY Sports
Unsung Hero Award
Muscle. That’s the word that comes to mind when thinking of this player’s performance. He made one catch. He took it for 10 yards. It required about 3 or 4 defenders to bring him down. On numerous other plays his muscle was clearly apparent in plays where the Steelers running backs moved the ball, including their only touchdown and for that Darnell Washington wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2023 win at Paycor Stadium.
The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paycor Stadium in a scene that was eerily similar to the one they faced last week:
They were in Ohio.
They were playing in the AFC North.
They were playing against a rookie quarterback starting only because of injury.
Their own quarterback, Kenny Pickett was gaining more doubters with each passing week.
Yet for all of those similarities going into the game, the key difference coming out was that Steelers left the Buckeye state with a 16-10 victory. And while Mike Tomlin would be the first to remind us that “style points don’t count” it was the way the Steelers won that offered real hope for the future.
Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come
A Fitting Venue and Time for Pittsburgh to Pivot?
IN case you’ve been under a rock, prior to today’s game, the Pittsburgh Steelers have held a dubious distinction:
Cumulatively they had been outscored this season and their opponents had outgained them in each game.
Yet the Steelers defied statistical history and continued to win games, going into last week’s contest with Cleveland at 6-3. But their loss against Cleveland was particularly ugly. It felt like the offense had a moment similar to the Wile E. Coyote, who after walking on air without falling, looked down and crashed.
Mike Tomlin reached a similar conclusion and reacted by doing something the franchise hasn’t done since 1941: firing a coach in season as he relived Matt Canada of his duties.
And even if the Steelers opened 2022 with a win at Paycor, the takeaway there was that the Steelers would need exceptional play on defense and special teams AND an injury to Joe Burrow to eke out wins against this Bengals team.
So the question as the Steelers arrived in Cincinnati was simple: Would Kenny Pickett respond positively to change?
Pickett Makes Progress
We can be certain that neither new Offensive Coordinator Eddie Faulkner nor Play Caller Mike Sullivan were aware of these Steelers-Bengals geographic or historical symmetries. But the duo clearly looked to make a statement by opening the game with a 24 yard strike down the middle of the field to Pat Freiermuth.
Kenny Pickett has avoided the middle of the field all season long like the plague.
Here he was taking chunk out of the middle of the field to start the game. Sure, two plays later that failed bubble screen looked to be vintage Canada, but had George Pickens not missed his block Diontae Johnson probably gets a first down.
Najee Harris stiff arms his way to more yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Pickett continued his aggressive ways on the next drive, hitting Pat Freiermuth for 29 yard yards down the middle again. Pickett should have had a touchdown pass on that, and a fumble ended that drive two plays later.
Yet on Pittsburgh’s next possession, Pickett hit Diontae Johnson deep for 39 yards in a drive that got the Steelers on the board for 3.
Kenny Pickett didn’t do it alone. He spread the ball out between 8 different receivers. More importantly, the Steelers committed to and succeeded in establishing the run game. Najee Harris had his best game of the season, running for 99 yards in a combination of short yardage grinds paired with double digit runs.
Jaylen Warren did his part with 49 yards on the ground and 13 more through the air.
Defense Makes Browning Look Like a Rookie
A week ago the story was that rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a 5th round pick no one had ever heard of, outplayed Kenny Pickett. Oh, Thompson-Robinson certainly looked like a rookie for most of the game, but he came up big down the stretch and put Cleveland in position to kick the game winner.
The Steelers made Bengals rookie Jake Browning look like a rookie, no asterisk required. To put that into perspective:
The Bengals lone touchdown drive came after a 49 yard kick return
The fact that Steelers didn’t suffer a single three and out is a positive, but hardly cause for celebration. And if those deep and middle-of-the-field passes are legitimate positives, Pickett still stuck to short, safe passes.
But for the first time all season, the Steelers offense played as if it belonged in the NFL for an entire game. And for the first time all year, Kenny Pickett played kind of game we hoped to see coming out of preseason.
And that is an important step forward.
If Kenny Pickett can build off of that step, then hopefully we’ll look back and say that this time Paycor Stadium marked a positive pivot point for Pittsburgh.
“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.
A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X
1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process
The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.
Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room
And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.
In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.
On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.
As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.
2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health
You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.
Yeah, bad idea.
Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.
3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton
Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com
At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.
Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”
This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)
But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.
In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.
5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh
Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com
Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.
The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.
The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.
After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.
The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.
Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.
But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.
When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.
That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.
It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.
8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner
My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.
Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.
And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.
9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022
Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.
So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.
During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.
During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.
Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.
(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris
This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.
In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.
That’s because Chris Boswell has redefined what it means to be “Mr. Automatic.” And for that Chris Boswell wins 2023 Thanksgiving Honors.
Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger
Crisis Opens the Door to Opportunity
The NFL lexicon is littered with clichés. Not For Long. You’re hired to be fired (ask Matt Canada about that one.) Another is that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.
In Chris Boswell’s case, 3 men’s misfortunes combined to open his door to opportunity.
The Steelers started the 2015 preseason thinking they were set at place kicker, behind the trusty leg of Shaun Suisham. But Suisham injured himself on the terrible truf in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio.
So the Steelers signed Garrett Hartley. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Rooney family is known for their Catholicism, because Garrett Hartley is kind of the Pope John Paul I in the Steelers kicking Parthenon. We never got to know him, because he got injured at the end of free agency.
Kevin Colbert sprung into action and traded for Josh Scobee. Scobee started out OK, but missed an extra point in week 2 against San Francisco. He was OK in week two, but in week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens he missed two field goals in the last 2 and half minutes of regulation of a tie game.
The Steeler won the toss in over time, but on 4th and 2 from the Ravens 39, Mike Tomlin opted to run it with Mike Vick. The Steelers got the ball back, but again on 4th and won Tomlin opted to let Vick try to hook up with Antonio Brown.
The two failed to connect and 8 plays later Justin Tucker won it for the Ravens.
The Steelers sign Chris Boswell a few days later, and haven’t looked back since.
Boswell Best in Long Line of Excellent Steelers Place Kickers
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was recently asked about Chris Boswell, and responded:
Its automatic. I’ve been really blessed here in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve been here a long time and essentially had three kickers. That continuity, that ability to deliver with a high level of consistency, we don’t talk about it enough, but its appreciated.
The only issue with Mike Tomlin’s statement is that it isn’t inclusive enough.
Gary Anderson splits the uprights in overtime at the Astrodome. Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
But if you compare the numbers it wouldn’t take long to see that Chris Boswell is best of all.
Bob Labriola provided the stats on the Steelers elite place kickers and Boswell just about leads them all almost every key metric. Suisham’s career field goal percentage is still a hair higher than Boswell’s, but Boswell has improved in the 3 weeks since Labriola published his numbers.
More importantly, Boswell’s been perfect in the playoffs. Indeed, he kicked the game winner on a ucky, rainy night in Cincinnati following some late game heroics from Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger. And it was Boswell’s boot that put the Steelers into the AFC Championship in 2016.
Yes, Steelers fans really should give thanks for Chris Boswell.
A Word on Steelers Thanksgiving Honors
“Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” is a home-grown award here at Steel Curtain Rising. The tradition began during 2009’s five game losing streak and the first award winner was Rashard Mendenhall, who’d picked himself up off the turf and ran nearly the length of the field to prevent an interception and a pick six.
And we’ve continued this each since. Here are previous winners:
Yesterday Mike Tomlin shattered franchise precedent by firing Matt Canada in season and in the process he gave Steelers fans what they’ve long wanted. Tomlin’s decision makes sense for a lot of reasons.
Sure, the Steelers are sitting on a 6-4 record, but each of those six wins has been ugly. And the last second loss to the Browns felt like the proverbial other foot had dropped. The Steelers offense has been lackluster for years, but it was poignantly pathetic in Cleveland. And it wasn’t going to get any better with Canada at the helm.
But with Matt Canada gone the focus now becomes more intense: What happens next?
As I watch Steelers Nation celebrate Canada’s dismissal on social media, I can’t help but think of a similar situation the Steeler found themselves in back in November 22, 1999. Indeed, as this current season has evolved, its resonance with the 1999 Steelers has grown stronger.
That season offers a clear lesson for today: While Matt Canada was part of the problem, there’s no assurance that firing him will work as a solution.
Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomlin in the late 1990s.
Nightmare Like Its 1999
You can take a deep dive on the 1999 Steelers here. This is the the backstory you need to know now:
Although the Steelers closed 1998 with 5 straight losses to finish 7-9, they began 1999 with hope. Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe confidently boasted to the media something along the lines of, “…No offense. But I like proving you wrong. I don’t think we’re that far off from being a contender again.”
Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal
The ’99 Steelers opened with a blowout over the expansion Cleveland Browns and a lack luster win against a weak Bears team. Three butt ugly losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars at home, and Doug Fluite and the Bills on the road followed.
If you asked any fan what the Steelers needed to do they’d have answered in unison: Bench Kordell!
But Bill Cowher stuck with Kordell Stewart, and the Steelers won 3 straight, then dropped a horrific home loss to the Browns, and an terrible loss to the Titans on the road.
That brought a home game against the Bengals. The Cincinnati Bengals of that era were the AFC Central’s doormat. Tom Donahoe, in a bit of candor you would never see in 2023, openly proclaimed Pittsburgh as the more talented team.
The Bengals scored a touchdown on their first possession. The Steelers answered with 4 plays followed by an interception. The Bengals responded with a second touchdown. The teams traded a couple of punts, Pittsburgh managed to get a field goal and Carlos Emmons even opened the second quarter with an interception of his own.
After a 1 yard run to Jerome Bettis, (“Sludge Ball” foreshadowed) Kordell fired off pass towards Jon Witman and Rodney Heath intercepted, returning it 58 yards for a pick six.
Bill Cowher had seen enough.
On the next series Mike Tomczak was under center at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The crowd at Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon cheered. The guy two bar stools down from me who’d spent the previous hour alternating between railing against “Queerdell!” and asking “You guy’s don’t think this makes me a racist, do you?” was elated.
Meanwhile, at Three Rivers Stadium where it actually counted, Mike Tomczak hit Troy Edwards for 4 yards. Jerome Bettis ran for 4 more. On third and 3 Richard Huntley ran for 3 more…
…before fumbling, with Takeo Spikes recovering. Corey Dillon ripped off runs of 20 and 12 yards and 6 plays later the Bengals were scoring again, leaving Pittsburgh down by 24-3 just 20 minutes into the game.
To be fair to Mike Tomczak and everyone else, the Steelers offense perked up, putting 17 points on the board in the next 25 minutes to enter the third quarter only down 24 to 20. But here’s how the 4th quarter unfolded for Pittsburgh:
Jerome Bettis being stopped for no gain on 3rd and 4th down
Tomczak tossing incompletes and then giving up 2 sacks
A Wayne Gandy penalty at Cincinnati’s 21, follow by 3 straight Tomczak incompletes
The Bengals scored another field goal along the way, winning the game 27 to 20.
1999’s Lessons for 2023
That home loss to the Bengals left the 1999 Steelers at 5-6, but Pittsburgh still had a shot at the playoffs if not the AFC Central crown. Bill Cowher stuck with Mike Tomczak as quarterback, but the Steelers only won one of its next 5 games.
Tomzack’s final quarterback rating was 75.8 compared to Stewart’s 64.9, but his completion percentage was 5 percentage points lower. Benching Kordell Stewart did spark the offense a bit, but here’s what it didn’t do:
Indeed, two weeks after Stewart’s benching, the Ravens came to town and earned their first victory in Pittsburgh on the back of a Qadry Ismail 258 yards receiving performance. As Scottie Brown, who was sort of the dean of the Purple Goose quipped after Ismail’s second 50 yard plus touchdown, “Its Kordell’s fault!”
And that’s something to keep in mind as the Steelers start life without Matt Canada.
As someone who defended the decision to bring Canada back after 2022’s strong finish, I have no problem eat my share of crow this morning. I was wrong. Clearly his offense lacked “coordination” and, well, that was his job.
But it’s also wise to remember isn’t the only thing that ails the 2023 Steelers. Canada’s absence won’t change the fact that the Steelers seem to be losing a safety and/or an inside linebacker to injured reserve per week.
When the calls to “Fire Canada” went viral in September, I’d have warned you that firing Canada wouldn’t have made any of the offensive lineman playing better. Fortunately offensive line play has improved.
Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
It is true that a bad offensive coordinator can stunt the development of a young quarterback (see Joe Walton and Bubby Brister, or Ray Sherman and/or Kevin Gilbride and Kordell Stewart). And when you invest a first round draft pick in a quarterback, you need to do all you can to make it work.
But the fact is that far more quarterbacks drafted in the first round fail than succeed and replacing one franchise quarterback with another is very difficult to do.
And firing Matt Canada isn’t going to change either of those realities.
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.
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: F
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
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
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-
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 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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In so many ways the Steelers trip to Cleveland was like other games earlier in the season as it featured:
A slow start
A dramatic big play on offense
2nd half defensive fireworks
A field goal coming on to the field to settle things as regulation expired
Yet, this one had a different result, as the Browns beat the Steelers 13 to 10 on a last minute Dustin Hopkins field goal. The reason this one was different for Pittsburgh is simple: Kenny Pickett not only failed to find his 4th quarter magic, his performance suggested that the previous examples were mere mirages.
Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Browns Start Strong, Steelers Sputter
The 9 game the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers have been a historical aberration. They’ve been outgained in all of their games and collectively outscored. Yet they arrived in Cleveland after having passed the season’s half way mark with a 6-3 record.
Were they a bad team hiding behind a couple of three on Any Given Sundays?
Or where they a good team struggling to find themselves?
As staff writer Tony Defeo observed on X (formerly known as Twitter):
You can't keep playing ugly football and hope to win. It doesn't work that way. Eventually, you have to look like a playoff team and not a bad team that just happens to have a winning record.
After all, they’d lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season and were starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But the Steelers had lost Kwon Alexander, Kenau Neal and were already missing all Pro Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and forced to start practice squanders Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson at inside linebacker and safety.
Credit the Browns PR staff for selling the “Browns locker room rallies around the rookie story” as the CBS broadcast crew kept touching on threads tied to this story line every chance they got.
But credit Kevin Stefanski and his staff for breathing truth into this narrative.
No one would mistake Cleveland for an offensive juggernaut nor did its defense go into shut down mode, but they were clearly the better-prepared unit in the first half, as the Browns scored 10 points while the Steelers spent the first quarter burning time outs on both sides of the ball to avoid penalties.
And while the Steelers defense hung tough in the Red Zone late in the first half by forcing a field goal, with the Steelers offense completely AOWL, Pittsburgh was lucky to be down by only 10.
Meet the Steelers One Man Offense
The Steelers got to the ball to open the second half. On first down Najee Harris got the nod, and ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage, gaining one yard. Another 30 minutes of “Sludge Ball” seemed to be in order.
Warren ripped off a 74 yard run that was even more impressive than his cousin Fast Willie Parker’s 75 yard Super Bowl XL romp. In the blink of an eye, Warren had gained more yards than the entire Steelers offense had gained in the first half and he’d putt Pittsburgh to within three.
Jaylen Warren was literally the only thing about the Steelers offense that worked against the Browns. He followed his touchdown with a 14 yard catch, a 21 yard run and a 12 yard run. Would Warren have been able to “take over the game” had Matt Canada given him a chance?
It is hard to be sure.
But clearly he was out performing Najee Harris behind an offensive line whose run blocking was shaky enough. Hindsight’s 20/20, but the Steelers should have leaned on Warren more.
Defense Delivers 2nd Half Fireworks
Statistically speaking the Steelers 2023 defense ranks near the bottom both against the run and against the past. They’ve made a lot of fantasy football owners happy this season. But they’ve found a way to deliver when the game is on the line.
All of that was good enough for the Steelers defense to force punts on 5 punts the Browns six the second half possessions. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked like a frustrated, clueless rookie through much of it.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson was good enough to do something Kenny Pickett wasn’t able to do – get his team into field goal range inside the 2 minute warning.
Kenny Pickett finished 2022 with a bang. He started 2023 with a thud. He looked terrible in blowouts to the 49ers and Texans and in the week 2 win over the Browns.
In his six wins his MO has been the same: Start slow, finish strong.
Narrative spinners in Steelers Nation have liked to talk about Pickett’s 4th quarter magic as if its been something he turns on at will during the game’s final 15 minutes. But the truth is that he’s gotten progressively better as games have worn on.
Others may disagree, but even in the loss to the Jaguars he seemed to be improving on the “eye test” before he got hurt. Last week’s win over the Packers was a little different. Pickett did get a little better as the game progressed, but his improvement was marginal.
Against the Browns it was next to non-existent.
Kenny Pickett converted just 2 of 11 third downs passing. After the Steelers tied the game with 7:44 remaining, Teryl Austin’s defense forced two punts and limited the Browns to just 10 plays. That gave Pickett and the Steelers offense 2 possessions to get 3 points in the game’s final minutes.
Yes, Pickett did start that stretch with a nice hook up to George Pickens. After that he threw 5 passes, completing only one of those. Those incompletions are damning enough, but if you really want to understand how Pickett has come up short look at his completion: A 2 yards pass to Jaylen Warren on third and 15.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Steelers haven’t seen such timid play at quarterback since Kordell Stewart and the dark days of the 1999 season.
For those of you who’ve forgotten or are too young to remember, the 1999 Steelers won just six games. Its no exaggeration to say that if Kenny Pickett doesn’t find a way to pick it up, the Steelers might finished 2023 with a similar total.
Jaylen Warren in route to his first 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Quarterback Kenny Pickett started sharp helping touchdown drives on the team’s opening two possessions. However, Pickett was shaky after that. He avoided the middle of the field and barely missed two turnovers. Pickett’s numbers 14-23-126 appear to be economical, but he was dreadful on third down. At his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin said he needs to “see more” from Pickett. He is right. Grade: D
Wow. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran with authority and determination. Both scored touchdowns and both ripped off multiple double-digit runs. Jaylen Warren had 101 yards on 15 carries while 82 yards on 16 carries. Excellent work for both. Grade: A
Tight Ends Darnell Washington logged another 6 yard catch while Connor Heyward caught 3 passes, tying him for the team lead, for 32 yards. Washington’s presence was evident in run blocking plays. Grade: C+
Wide Receivers George Pickens led the unit with 3 catches for 45 yards. No that’s not a misprint from some 1980’s newspaper. Diontae Johnson had 1 catch for 17 yards, losing a few combat caches. Calvin Austin had one catch for 3 yards and another reverse for 6. Green Bay was playing with a depleted secondary. But you’d never have known. Grade: D
Kenny Pickett was sacked once and hit 4 other times, a sign of progress. And the offensive line opened some incredibly wide holes for the running game. This offensive line still hasn’t earned the use of terms like “road grading” or “imposing their will” yet, but this represents a tremendous improvement. Grade: B+
The Steelers defensive line had a quiet day by some measures. Green Bay is known for its rushing attack, yet those running backs were largely neutered save for a 40 yard run. Take away that, and the Packers ground attack was pretty spare. That starts with the defensive line. Grade: B
With Kwon Alexander going down early, it fell to Elandon Roberts to carry the weight, and Roberts led linebackers in tackles. Mark Robinson saw his first action and had 3 tackles, but also over pursued on AJ Dillon’s 40 yard run. T.J. Watt led the team in tackles and recorded the team’s lone sack. Grade: B
On the downside, the secondary gave up two long touchdown passes. However, Joey Porter Jr. and Elijah Riley both had tackles for losses, while Patrick Peterson had a tippled ball that Keanu Neal intercepted in the end zone while Damontae Kazee sealed the win with an end zone interception of his own on a play called at the sidelines by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Grade: B
Special Teams Chris Boswell was perfect, again. Pressley Harvin punted well, including downing three punts inside the 20. The Packers had some nice returns, one of which set up a score, but Anthony McFarland set up a score with an above average return of his own. And Patrick Peterson’s blocked extra point dramatically altered the dynamic of the game. Grade: B
Has it been fear of Matt Canada on the sidelines or Broderick Jones slipping into the starting line up, but for two straight weeks the Steelers ground attack has been effective. The pass protection has been strong too.
The Steelers also scored a touchdown on their opening drive in the one that followed, showing that Canada’s scripting was smart. It was rough sledding after that, but given Kenny Pickett’s third down performance, it is hard to chalk that up to play calling.
It is easy to fault Teryl Austin’s defense for making lots of Fantasy Football owners who started Packers players happy. But the truth is that his unit contained Green Bay’s rushing attack, kept them out of the end zone in the second half, and secured 2 turn overs in the games final minutes.
Kennau Benton tackles Aaron Jones. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Which brings us to Mike Tomlin. This team fails “the eye test” in so many ways. However, his players “run to big moments” and that is to his credit. Grade: B
While the caliber of football isn’t strong enough to earn this team any sort of legendary spot in NFL Films lore, it should be noted that Mike Tomlin’s team won because his offense returned to its roots and his defense delivered when the game was on the line. Again.
Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.
Najee Warren, Jaylen Harris Deliver 1-2 Punch on the Ground
There are some jobs in this world where 1 + 1 equals more than two. Think of making a queen-sized bed. Although it’s a bit counter-intuitive, ranking leaves is another, at least in my experience.
NFL rushing attacks are a bit harder to pin down.
For a generation, Chuck Noll’s offense dutifully divided carries between running backs. That changed when Bill Cowher arrived.
During the Steelers 1992 season reporters asked if Cowher might ease up on Barry Foster’s workload, Cowher quipped, “Not unless I see parts of his body falling off.” Mike Tomlin said something similar about Fast Willie Parker in 2007, and he’s stuck with his “bell cow” since.
The win over the Packers proves that the running back-by-mmittee trend has sustained itself. On the Steelers opening drive Najee Harris carried on four out of the Steelers 5 rushes. After Jaylen Warren ripped off a 12 yarder to reach the Red Zone, the Steelers went back to Harris, who found the end zone one the second of consecutive runs.
The next time Pittsburgh got the ball, Matt Canada and Eddie Faulkner flipped the script.
Warren saw most of the work, slogging out some and doing better on others, with Harris spelling him for a double-digit carry. Yet, the fact that Warren got dropped for a 1-yard loss after the Steelers reached the Red Zone didn’t prevent them from going back to him 2 plays later.
Warren rewarded the coaches’ faith, ripping off a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers touchdowns on their consecutive opening drives since… God knows when.
Is the fact that the Steelers affirmed their commitment to a two running back system and scored touchdowns on their first two drives for the first time in recent just a coincidence? You decide.
Defense Breaks, Early
The win against the Packers will not and should not be remembered as one of the great defensive performances of the post-Roethlisberger era, let alone anything larger. Jordan Love’sGreen Bay Packers are not of the same pedigree as Brett Favre’s or Aaron Rodgers’.
Yet, Jordan Love and his offense hung 2 touchdowns on the Steelers defense in the first half.
Worse yet, they made it look easy. And for a time, in the first half, it looked like this game might turn into a score-for-score affair if not a shoot-out similar to the 2009 match up.
The game evolved differently. After breaking early, the Steelers got a second chance.
Keisean Nixon set up two Green Bay scores with kick returns of 49 and 36 yards
Anthony McFarland set up the Steelers penultimate field goal with his own 36 yard kick return
Chuck Noll preached that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily. Both Green Bay and Pittsburgh leaned in on this last Sunday. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers leaned in a little further.
Steelers Defense Bends Back – with a Vengeance
Kenny Pickett started the game with a completion to George Pickens right out of the gate. While the Steelers running game deserves credit for the first two touchdown drives, Pickett was sharp on both.
Keanu Neal with the Steelers 1st 4th quarter interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Had Pickett remained similarly sharp or had Diontae Johnson made a few clutch catches the defense’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary.
But necessary they were.
The first came with little more than three minutes remaining, immediately after the Steelers had retaken the lead. Green Bay drove the length of the field, reaching Pittsburgh’s 14. There Jordan Love fired a dart to Christian Watsonin the end zone. Patrick Peterson tipped it, Keanu Neal intercepted and returned 39 yards.
The Steelers almost ran out the click, but Kenny Pickett was right on the money for a would be game-sealing pass to George Pickens that was negated by a (questionable) Calvin Austin pass interference penalty.
After six plays the Packers were back at Pittsburgh’s 16 – a field goal would do them no good thanks to Peterson’s blocked kick. Again Love targeted Watson: This time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn to intercept the ball and return in 30 yards as time expired.
The Steelers defense may have broken early, but it bent back with a vengeance when the game was on the line. And that decided the game for Pittsburgh.