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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Looking Back: Steelers Last Win in Philadelphia Gave Mike Nixon His 15 Minutes of Fame

Tomorrow Mike Tomlin will attempt something that neither Bill Austin, nor Chuck Noll nor Bill Cowher ever did:

  • Lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory on the road in Philadelphia.

While Philly fans are loyal, there’s no question that when it comes to Pennsylvania’s two football teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the Keystone State’s 800-pound gorilla. The Steelers lead the Lombardi count 6 to 1 and have appeared in the Super Bowl 8 times compared to 3.

And of course the Steelers lead the Eagles in other measures such as games won since the NFL-AFL merger, division titles, playoff appearances, wins etc. And the Steelers count on a nationwide, no, global fan base.

  • That’s great. But the Eagles OWN the Steelers when they play in Philly.

The last time the Steelers won a game in Philadelphia was at Franklin Field on Sunday, October 24, 1965 during Mike Nixon’s lone season as coach. 20,825 days have passed since the Steelers clocked that milestone, in case you really, really want to know. It isn’t just the the Steelers 57 year losing streak there:

  • Bad things happen when the Steelers play in Philly.

In 1997 alone, Philadelphia marked the end of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. Heck, the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown in Philly was when Kordell Stewart connected with Will Blackwell.

Much Has Changed Since the Steelers Last Win in Philly

A lot has changed since Steelers last win in the City of Brotherly Love.

Their last win came 360 days before my older sister was born (she’s a Ravens fan, but we still love her just the same) so suffice to say I have no memory. And although my parents were newlyweds living in Pittsburgh in 1965, they’re not much for sports so its no use asking them.

  • But thanks to the Magic of Google Newspaper Archives, we can glimpse of what it was like then.

In 1965, man on the moon was more fiction than science. In fact, the headline of October 25th Pittsburgh Press tells us that the Gemini Mission has been Scrubbed as Agenda Fails. The Post-Gazette led with Gemini story too. Except the Post-Gazette tells us Gemini Launching, Space Docking a ‘Go.’

The first Gemini Space rendezvous occurred later that December, but it was supposed to happen in October. (The lesson then, as it is now, is that you need to read beyond the headlines.)

Just below that story, the Post Gazette tells us that UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson is off to Rhodesia for talks with the white settler government who was vying for independence. “Rhodesia” is now best known (at least in Argentina) as a chocolate bar, and the country in question is Zimbabwe.

The Pittsburgh Press devotes about a 1/3 of its front page to Vietnam coverage, and talks about the record low 25- degree temperature Pittsburgh experienced that weekend. It also informs us that the Civic Arena turned its first profit for the first time since it opened in 1961.

Digging into the Post-Gazette you see that Giant Eagle is selling Roast Pork Butt for 49 cents per pound. The same add tells us that a 9 oz package of Scallops would set you back 89 cents.

Not to be out done, A&P is selling “Long Bologna” for 49 cents a pound and Jane Parker Large Apple Pie for 39 cents (normally it would have cost 49 cents, the ad assures us). In between the two adds, you learn that you could have bought a Polaroid Swinger Camera for $19.95.

Yes, times have changed. But has enough changed for the Steelers to recapture some of that 1965 magic?

Mikey Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Art Rooney Sr. was notoriously bad at hiring head coaches. Yet even he knew Mike Nixon wasn’t the man for the job. When Dan Rooney accepted/forced Buddy Parker’s resignation during the 1965 preseason, Art Rooney reportedly called Nixon, told him he was going to offer him the job but encouraged him to reject it because he wasn’t ready.

Nixon ignored The Chief’s advice, accepted the job and then preceded to lose his first five games as Steelers head coach. Game six brought the Steelers to Philly, and thus began Mike Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame.

  • The Steelers beat the Eagles that day, 20 to 14.
Jim Bradshaw,

1960’s Steelers safety Jim Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But by the look of the box score, it was an UGLY win. Quarterback Bill Nelsen went 6 of 16 for 79 yards. Running back Mike Lind also got 16 carries, managing 30 yards, but he did catch 2 passes for 11 yards including a touchdown.

The highlight of the day, and one would presume the season, came in the 2nd quarter when safety Jim Bradshaw returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown, which was one of 3 picks for a total of 101 yards.

The Steelers would win again the next week 22 to 13 over the Dallas Cowboys back at Pitt Stadium. So Mike Nixon can hang his hat on the fact that he’s one of the very few head coaches who went undefeated against Tom Landry during his career.

Alas, after beating Landry, Mike Nixon’s Steelers lost their next 7 games finishing the season 2-12, and Nixon got fired.

Nixon did enough to impress Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, who hired him as an assistant coach, giving Nixon three years of gainful employment before he faded into a footnote in Steelers history.

  • Can Mike Tomlin repeat Mike Nixon’s success in Philly?

It is doubtful. But I’ll wager that Kenny Pickett will pass for more than 79 yards and Najee Harris will run for more than 30 (well, he’d better.) Who knows? But even if Minkah Fitzpatrick has an 82 yard pick six, expect the Eagles to win and the Steelers to take a 2-6 record into the bye week.

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Steelers Report Card for the Loss to the Dolphins: Misery in Miami Edition

From the grade book of a tardy teacher who nonetheless sees signs of progress in his students miserable performance here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Miami Dolphins.

George Pickens, Noah Igbinoghene, Steelers vs Dolphins

George Pickens with another Lynn Swann like catch. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Quarterback
In his second full start, Kenny Pickett did some nice things, leading a touchdown drive and putting the team in position to win late in the game, twice. Still, third down conversion was abysmal and the interceptions lethal.  Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris is improving, but still isn’t delivering the production on first and second downs that the team needs. Jaylen Warren converted another third down and was an asset in his passing game. Running back were OK. But the Steelers offense needs more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth was a bright spot on offense, catching 8 of 9 balls thrown to him for 75 yards. Zach Gentry caught both passes thrown his way but lost yards on one first down attempt. Worse yet a non-block on another questionable call led to another first down that lost yardage. These errors weren’t that consequential, but they are examples of how small mistakes are killing this offense. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Rookie George Pickens led the group with six catches on six tries with an incredible touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches on 10 targets but a miscommunication contributed to the last interception. Chase Claypool had 5 catches on 8 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit six more times. Running backs had a little more room to run, and the team converted on four down twice. The offensive line IS improving. But still has a ways to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi both came up big in short yardage situations again, and had the game ended differently, those could have been the plays of the game. Still, Raheem Mostert had some success running the ball and Tagovailoa went untouched the entire night. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack was all over the field and is emerging as a true team leader. This unit contributed as much as any to the 2nd half shut out. Still, no one got to Tagoviloa save for one hit by Malik Reed. Grade: B

Secondary
Yes, Levi Wallace, Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton let interceptions slip through their fingers. Any one of those could have been the difference in this game. Still, the unit contained Tyreek Hill while Miami went 4-14 on third downs, as the Steelers defense pitched a 2nd half shutout without a pass rush. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on his kicks, Gunner Olszewski had one nice punt return and kept the ball in his hands. Punt coverage was strong, kick coverage OK. Pressley Harvin was wildly inconsistent. His short punts alone were hardly a difference maker, but serve as yet another example of how the team can position itself to win by eliminating small mistakes. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Tua Tagovailoa, Steelers vs Dolphins

Alex Highsmith just can’t quite get to Tua Tagovailoa. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada is taking a lot of heat in Steelers Nation this week.

When your offense is near the bottom of every major statistical category and scoring a second touchdown would be considered an “improvement” that comes with the territory. Still, how much is really on the play calling and not the execution? Canada didn’t commit those penalties that preceded Pickett’s interception – nor did he throw that pick.

This isn’t to defend Canada per se, but it should dispel the idea that summarily firing him would provide Pittsburgh with a panacea.

One defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores quickly adjusted to Miami’s offense and forced them to settle for 3 points 3 times, before shutting them out completely in the second half.

You are your record. The Steelers are 2-5. That’s not good. So be it. Mike Tomlin’s players contested every blade of grass to the bitter end. Will they keep that up down the stretch? IF they do, will effort translate into victories? I don’t know.

But for now, they’re fighting. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
People have been down on him for a while. Some of it is warranted, some of it perhaps not. Against the Dolphins he batted a pass away, made a tackle for a loss, and a logged touchdown saving stop on a bootleg and for that Devin Bush wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Dolphins.

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Growing Pains: Steelers 16-10 Loss to Dolphins, 2-5 Record Obscures Painful Progress

Frustrating. Disappointing. Unfortunate. These words come to mind after the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football.

Mike Tomlin labeled it a hard-fought defensive battle that slipped through their fingers, thanks to 4 dropped interceptions by Pittsburgh vs 3 that the Dolphins caught.

Fair enough. Indeed, at the game’s end the descriptor “Two interceptions too far” was tempting. But another explainer works better: Growing Pains.

There’s no sugar coating this. 2-6 sucks in the NFL. Pittsburgh is feeling the pain, but there were signs  that this pain signals future gain.

Kenny Pickett, Jaelan Phillips

Jalean Phillips tries to bring Kenny Pickett down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Defense Bends, But Doesn’t Break, Pushes Back

This one started ugly. Miami won the toss and Tua Tagovailoa carved the Steelers up with laser like efficiency and the Dolphins scored with clockwork precision. Clearly, the Steelers could hope to slow him down, let alone stop him as the Dolphins raced right back down to the Red Zone as soon as they got the ball back.

  • However, The Steelers defense bent, but it didn’t break.

Larry Ogunjobi snuffed out a run, Devin Bush stopped Tua Tagovailoa on a scramble, Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected a pass in the Red Zone and the Dolphins settled for 3. But it didn’t seem to matter. Kenny Pickett threw an interception two plays later, and 3 plays later Miami was again knocking on Pittsburgh’s door at the 23.

  • The Steelers defense forced Tua Tagovailoa into 3 misfires, and Miami was kicking again.
Devin Bush, Steelers vs Dolphins

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The real turn for the defense came in the Dolphins 1st possession of the third quarter. ON 3rd and 2 at the Steelers 14, Cam Heyward slammed Chase Edmonds back like a rag doll for a 1 yard loss. Mike McDaniel opted to go for it on 4th and 3 and Myles Jack stoned Edmonds for no gain.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t in “bend but don’t break” mold – it was pushing back.

The defense affirmed that after Jevon Holland intercepted Kenny Pickett with 3:06 left. The math was simple: A Miami first down wins the game. But the defense forced a quick three and out.

  • Can you ask more from the defense?

Yes, you can. Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace dropped interceptions that could have prevented two of the Dolphins field goals. Wallace and Terrell Edmunds dropped picks that could have given the Steelers a shorter field.

The defense couldn’t deliver victory, but they contested every single blade of grass during the game’s last fifty three minutes and forty five seconds and they did so with playoff-level intensity.

Yeah, Canada’s Offense Is Bad, but Still….

Matt Canada is the most hated man in Steelers Nation today. Even Ed Bouchette, who witnessed the darkest days of Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride, asserts he’s never seen a worse Steelers offense.

While tempted to disagree, I’ll lean back on Chuck Noll’s wisdom that, “When you lose, everything they say about you is true.” Measured by many metrics Matt Canada’s offense is either the worst or among the worst in the NFL.

So be it. There were still positive take aways from the Dolphins game:

No, no one will confuse this offensive line with those of Mike Munchak. But the unit is making progress under Pat Myer’s tutelage. This all is encouraging, but transforming these incremental improvement into points and victories depends on one man: Kenny Pickett

Pickett’s Charge

Evaluating quarterbacks in for the NFL is perilous. For every Peyton Manning there are two Ryan Leafs. Why is this? Well, perhaps because you can’t measure a quarterback’s greatest asset, his mental toughness.

An NFL quarterback needs to project where 11 guys will move in a single instant. He must know where a half dozen of his players will go once the ball is in motion. He’s got to process that information and fire off a piece of pigskin at over 55 miles per hour with NASA like precision hitting moving a window that’s the size of a lunch box. Oh, and he needs to do all of this in about 2 seconds with 4 or 5 300 pound guys trying to kill him.

Suffice to say, quarterbacks make mistakes. Even the best ones.

  • The critical question is: How does a quarterback respond when he makes a mistake?

You can’t test for that at the combine, nor does college necessarily offer a representative sample. Kenny Pickett shook off his first interception, intended for Chase Claypool, and led two scoring drives in the first half.

  • He didn’t do much in the second half – until the game was on the line.

Then he moved the team to the 15 yard line, where he converted a 3rd down only to have penalties push him back 15 yards. Then he threw an interception. It would have been easy to fold then, but the defense got the ball back.

Pickett didn’t fold. Instead he moved the team nearly 80 yards to the Dolphins 25, where a miscommunication with Diontae Johnson led to another interception.

I’ll let the X’s and O’s experts critique the technical parts of Pickett’s performance, but my take away is that those two drives suggest he has the mental toughness needed to be an NFL quarterback.

If that’s the case, these growing pains will result in something positive.

Let’s Keep It Real

Rolling your eyes and saying “The Steelers are 2-5 and this guy’s trying to push the positive…?” I am, but I’m also realistic. If you’re 2-5 in the NFL you, put eloquently, suck.

  • And guess what? Next up is the Eagles.

Not only are the Eagles the NFL’s last undefeated team, they’re playing in Philadelphia a city that the Steelers haven’t won in since 1965, when a man on the moon was more science fiction than fact, and in Pittsburgh the phrase “Nixon sucks” referred to Steelers coach Mike Nixon because Richard had assured us we didn’t have him to kick around anymore.

Nixon, however did earn one of his two victories at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, thereby accomplishing something that neither Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher nor Mike Tomlin have been able to do.

While the positives I saw against the Dolphins are real, expect things to get worse before they get better.

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Seahawks

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

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

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

Ah, the innocence of youth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resist the Trubisky Temptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not the situation.

Right to Pick Pickett

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

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

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

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

No one would have thought anything of it.

  • But Tomlin didn’t go that route.

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Bucanneers

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

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

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

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

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

  • It all starts at the top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Buccaneers

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

Steelers Upsets in Context

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Dominate the Red Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense Delivers, Special Teams Special

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

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

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

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

Mitch, Chase Connect to Close the Game

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

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

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

Road from Here

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

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

But man, it does feel good beat Tom Brady.

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How Bubby Brister’s Words from ’88 Put Cam Heyward’s “Butt Retweet” into Perspective

ICYMI, Steelers team captain and defensive mainstay Cam Heyward is supposedly “in trouble.” Why? Well, its that (not so) old evil social media. After the Steelers shellacking at the hands of the Bills, Cam Heyward made the following retweet:

Heyward immediately clarified the situation, labeling it a butt retweet. When that didn’t appease  the peanut gallery, Cam doubled down:

But the “masses” in the Steelers Nation remain unmoved. Just Google “Cam Heyward butt retweet” and you’ll find no shortage of bloggers, social media general managers who insist this is all just a nod and a wink, and that the longest tenured Steeler really wishes to double cross Mike Tomlin.

What to make of all of this? Well, age has proven that in times like these, its best to lean into Sgt Hulka’s* wisdom:

The Steelers are 1-4. Tom Brady is coming to town. Injuries have knee-capped their defense. Pittsburgh stands poised to fall to 1-5. Or worse. This is when things get colorful in the NFL. But Cam’s retweet is anything but colorful.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

If you want to see colorful, take a long look back to the dark days of the 1988 Steelers. After the 1-6 Black and Gold lost their sixth straight, starting quarterback Bubby Brister proclaimed “…we may as well punt on first down and get it over with.”

Brister didn’t stop there. The Bubster assailed his own pass rush, calling for “Anybody who rushes the passer, call the stadium. We need help quick.” Although Brister praised Chuck Noll, confirming, “I think he’s a good coach,” the story went national, getting coverage in the Washington Post on WMAL with Ken Beatrice’s “Sports Call.”

But both Noll and Dan Rooney downplayed the comments, affirming that they shared his frustration. According to Ed Bouchete’s Dawn of a New Steel Age, Tom Moore, the Steelers offensive coordinator took Bubby out for a beer after practice and smoothed things over.

  • Yes, ‘Twas innocent the age that preceded social media.

(Today Twitter would probably be debating the size of the tip they left.)

The Steelers responded the next Sunday with a rousing 39-21 win over the Denver Broncos, that included a cult-hero status worthy performance by running back Rodney Carter, reverses by Louis Lipps, nearly 100 yards from Merril Hoge, six Gary Anderson field goals and interceptions by Rod Woodson and Cornell Gowdy (who?).

  • Alas, the midseason rally was not to be, as the ’88 Steelers lost their next 4 before winning 3 of their final 4.

Circling back to 2022, I’d be shocked if Kenny Pickett made similar comments, even if the Steelers reach 1-6 as they are likely to do. But something Bubby Brister said then rings true today, “With what he has to work with right now, he’s doing the best job he can. It’s going to take another two or three years to rebuild this thing, get young guys some experience…. We need a whole lot of stuff.”

With an injury report that contains Cam Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, Levi Wallace, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Montravius Adams, Larry Ogunjobi, Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, few should argue if Pickett made similar comments about Tomlin.

But the hemming and hawing over Cam Heyward’s butt retweet shows that many probably would.

*If you’re a male millennial Steelers fan who is unfamiliar with the Sgt. Hulka clip, find out where to stream Stripes or, if need be, buy the DVD on Amazon, convene your buddies for a “Men’s Night In,” and take in what was the ultimate “guy movie” for both Boomers and Generation X.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots: Reverting to Old Habits Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is dismayed to see his students revert to the poor study habits that doomed them last year, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 home opening loss to the Patriots.

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

Mac Jones evades Malik Reed. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky looked more comfortable back there, the Steelers improved on third down, and he was sharp at the goal line. But his decision making was poor, on the interception and on other critical throws as he continues to force the ball while other receivers are open. Worse yet, the Steelers went 3 and out twice late in the 4th quarter. Grade: D

Running Backs
The Steelers lead running backs averaged 3.8 and 3.3 yards per carry. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but a step in the right direction. Jaylen Warren looked good in his series and Derek Watt converted a 3rd and 1 with a 2 yard carry. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth only had 4 catches but one of those was for a touchdown. Zach Gentry didn’t have pass thrown his way. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to shine, making an excellent catch on the 2 point conversion. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and George Pickens added 1 for 23 yards. Gunner Olszewski 18 yard reverse helped set up a score. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The Patriots sacked Tribuisky 3 times and hit him two other times, but he generally had time to throw. There were also signs of life in the run blocking game. This unit has a long way to go, but it showed improvement. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Mac Jones had all day to throw. Worse yet, the Patriots ran at will in the 4th quarter when they had to kill the clock. That was eerily reminiscent of 2021. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers saw what life without T.J. Watt looked like, and this unit will have to step up. Alex Highsmith got a QB hit in on Mac Jones, as did Malik Reed. Robert Spillane led the unit in tackles. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception essentially erased Mitch Tribuisky’s own. Cam Sutton dropped an interception which indirectly set up the muffed punt. Beyond that, the Patriots moved the ball far too easily during their first half 2 minute drill and that touchdown came back to haunt the Steelers. Grade: D+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2-2 on Field Goals of 26 and 52 yards. Boomed off punts for a 51.8 yard average. Those were good. But New England logged several good kick returns as well as one nice punt return. Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that set up New England’s 2nd half touchdown. This was a special teams error in a game where the Steelers could ill afford one. Grade: F

Coaching
It would be hard to call Matt Canada’s offense a success – and we won’t do that here. But we will acknowledge that the Steelers showed some improvement on third down and there were signs, if however faint, of life from the running game.

  • But as the 2019 experience showed, you won’t beat many people with one offensive touchdown per game.

Nor will you win many games when you’re 3 points behind in the 4th quarter, your defense forces 2 punts, and all you can muster is 2 three and outs.

If the offense took/may have taken an infants crawl forward, the Steelers defense took a giant “Mother May I” step backwards. Without T.J. Watt the Steelers generated precisely zero pass rush. Worse yet, with the game on the line the Patriots offense rushed the ball at will, advancing down the field and killing the clock.

Did Bill Belichick see some sort of systematic weakness he could exploit? Or did the Steelers simply lose a series of 1-1 battles?

  • Regardless, the ease with which the Patriots ran the ball looked all too much like 2021.

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

    Najee Harris leaps Devin McCourty in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin, Karl Dunbar and Brian Flores had better answer that question – quickly. Because unlike last year, 4th quarter comeback look to be pretty spare. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He didn’t have the kind of game that will make fantasy football owners happy. Nor did he make any of those spectacular plays that fall off of fantasy football owner’s radars. But he scrapped and scraped and managed to make piles forward, giving the Steelers running game some semblance of life, and for that Najee Harris wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 opening day loss to the Patriots.

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Steelers Lose to Patriots 17-14 in 2022 Home Opener as 1 Bogger Begs to Have Been Wrong

The New England Patriots defeated the Steelers 17-14 at Acrisure Stadium, dealing Pittsburgh its 4 home opening loss in the last five years.

  • It was a close game that could have gone either way.

As Mike Tomlin stated, the game came down to a couple of “significant plays,” and one of those provided this writer an opportunity to regret being right.

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

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

Gunner’s Fumble Wounds Steelers at Precisely the Worst Moment

Gunner Olszewski made his NFL debut during the 2019 opener. That Steelers-Patriots game was to be the final Ben Roethlisberger-Tom Brady Matchup, which New England won 33-3.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Gunner Olszewski made the first critical mistake of the post Ben-Brady era.

The Steelers signing of Gunner Olszewski in the off season was a surprise. Gunner signed for close to half of what Ray-Ray McCloud had gotten to go to San Francisco, yet on balance his return numbers were a little better. And with only three years in the league, the kid had “upside” both as a returner but also as a receiver.

  • The move seemed like a minor steal.

Which begged the question, why would Bill Belichick let this kid walk? A closer look at his return numbers for the 2021 season offered a possible explanation – ball security. He fumbled the ball 3 times last season, all on returns.

Ray-Ray had his own issues with ball security, and numerically the risk Olszewski fumbling was only a smidge higher. On the whole however, it seemed like a wise cost-benefit move for the Steelers, given that Pittsburgh was saving over 6 million dollars. But that concussion came with a caveat:

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

As it was, Gunner’s came at the end of the 3rd quarter not in the 4th quarter, but it gave the Patriots an 11 point lead, which ultimately proved to be too much for the Steelers to overcome.

And let’s be fair to Gunner on one thing: He certainly didn’t “lose” this game for the Steelers. In fact he had plenty of help.

Some Good Before We Get to the Bad

As Jim Wexell predicted, it didn’t take long for the chorus at Acrisure Stadium to start chanting “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny” is of course former Pitt Panther and Steelers 2022 first round draft pick Kenny Pickett.

  • The chorus at Acrisure Stadium has lots of support on social media, if Twitter is to be trusted.

Mitch Trubisky did leave a lot to be desired today. But the offense he led also took some tentative crawls forward  which represented, dare we argue, progress at least compared to last week. Sound fishy? Then consider this:

  • The Steelers went 8-15 on third downs, as opposed to 5-15 last week
  • Pressley Harvin only punted 4 times as opposed to 8
  • Najee Harris ran with more authority, forced piles to fall forward and also did damage as a receiver
  • The Steelers gave Diontae Johnson a “Prove It” contract and he is proving it
  • Olszewski responded to his fumble with an 18 yard reverse that helped set up a score
  • Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown and the 2 point conversion that followed represented excellent goal line execution

Minkah Fitzpatrick pulled down his second interception in as many weeks, which didn’t have much impact in the game but was nice to see all the same.

Failing on Fundamentals

As Jim Wexell pointed out prophetically before the game, the “Patriots are 8-0 when they have the edge in turnovers” under Mac Jones. Today that record improved to 9-0.

If Mitch Trubisky’s interception was negated by Fitzpatrick’s, it only took New England 3 plays to take advantage of Gunner’s fumble. Cam Sutton dropped a sure interception which set up the punt that Gunner muffed. Instead of being a game changer for the Steelers, the sequence was a game changer for the Patriots.

  • Turnovers and ball security is an important fundamental, but it is hardly the only one the Steelers failed on.

If Trubiksy does deserve credit for improved third down performance, even casual observation reveals that he is honing in on one receiver at the expense of missing others. In the same vein, if the offensive line showed some signs of life in the run blocking game, this unit remains very, very far from dominating in the trenches.

But all of this talk of progress above remains academic until the Steelers offense can so that it can score more than one touchdown per game. Or manage more than two straight 3 and outs when three points behind late in the 3rd quarter.

If player’s post game comments are any indication, players are beginning to become frustrated by Matt Canada’s offense.

Cam Heyward, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers 2022 Home Opener

Mac Jones escapes Cam Heyward in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • The Steelers pass rush suffered miserably in T.J. Watt’s absence.

Malik Reed, Tyson Alualu, and Alex Highsmith may have landed a few QB hits, but Mac Jones was otherwise writing his diary back there.

Run Defense Collapse = Difference in the Game

For as valid as those criticisms are, when New England got the ball back with 6:33 left to play, it could be said that up until that point the Steelers defense had done enough to win the game. After all, they’d just forced 2 punts limiting the Patriots to 10 plays while trying to get the ball back in a 3 point game.

  • At that point, the worst of Steelers recent defensive history repeated itself: The run defense collapsed.

Bill Belichick started handing the ball to Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and the Steelers were powerless to stop either of them. They started slow, getting first 3 then 4 yards. But they improved, going for 6, 8, then 16 before finally settling in with a final 5 yarder that allowed New England to kill the clock.

The Steelers defense did a good job of limiting the run last week, and did a good job of doing it again for the game’s first 55 minutes and 22 seconds.

But the inability of the Steelers defense to slow, let alone stop the Patriots running game as the clock ticked away proved to be the difference in this game.

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