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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give the Steelers and “A” for effort.

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

His confidence could have wavered. It did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Special Teams tells a similar tale.

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

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

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

Talent Trumps Effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://twitter.com/sportingnews/status/1747025149809877135

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

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

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

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

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

Limit turnovers
Create turnovers
Capitalize those turnovers
Avoid costly mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, so ends the Steelers 2023 season.

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5 (Not So) Random Reflections on the Final 3 Weeks of the Steelers 2023 Season

Welcome back! Steel Curtain Rising has been dark since the s loss to the Colts before Christmas.

Although I was in the United States for the last three weeks of the regular season, I only caught ½ of a the Steelers last game. In another point of my life, that would have been unacceptable. But this time, it was OK. I’ll detail the reasons why at the end.

Of course I’ve followed the Steelers on a daily basis, watched highlights from each of their three victories, and the overall experience has left me with 5 insights to share.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

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

1. You Should Trust Your Instincts

Instinct informed me that things had taken a bad turn the moment Kenny Pickett got hurt against the Cardinals. And instinct held a lot of truth. The Steelers imploded on both sides of the ball following that failed 4th and one attempt.

  • Worse yet, they suffered a weather delay.

My guts screamed for me to do something else rather than wait out the storm until the game resumed. But I didn’t want to sacrifice time as I wanted to get my article written in time to publish Monday morning.

The Steelers of course found a way to lose against the Patriots. Just as Chuck Noll beat Bill Belichick in his retirement finale, Billy B. leaves the Patriots having owned the Steelers. The Steelers were playing the Colts 3 days before I was set to leave for the States.

My wife had wanted to pack on that Saturday (traveling light is not an art we’ve yet to master), but I begged off, wanting to watch the game in part to ensure I could get the post-game article written. I could have watched the game on delay and perhaps accomplished the same thing.

  • Alas I did not. (Yeah, hindsight is 20/20.)

And the Steelers posted one of their worst efforts of the Tomlin era. What a waste of time. (My wife would agree. Enthusiastically.)

2. You Should Trust Your Instincts. Until You Shouldn’t

The Steelers would play 3 games during the second Christmas I’d spend in the US since 2000. That last year I made a point of trekking to the legendary Purple Goose Saloon on Christmas Eve to watch the 2000 Steelers finale against the San Diego Chargers.

  • I made the right decision.

The Steelers won and then I got to watch Bubby Brister come in for Daunte Culpepper and, in his final game in the NFL, once again keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. But I knew I was headed to Argentina and visits to the Purple Goose would be spare after that (I got to the Goose two more times.) And I made it home in plenty of time for Midnight Mass, where the beloved Fr. Adam Kostic would deliver his final Christmas eve sermon.

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

In 2023, watching the Steelers wasn’t a priority. I’d planned to see the Bengals game. But COVID had other ideas. As I was sitting at the Dr.’s office Patient First in Aspin Hill, Maryland as the Steelers were taking the field against the Bengals.

I couldn’t see the game, but my WhatsApp exploded with commentaries from the Steelers Groups I’m in. It was obvious things were going well.

  • That was welcome. And surprising.

But only to a point. I’d thought back to the December 26th Steelers-Panthers match up, the penultimate game of the 1999 Steelers. The Steelers started slowly, then when the snow hit Jerome Bettis took over Three Rivers Stadium, and the Steelers dominated thereafter.

They lost next week – this was the games that saw Bobby Shaw’s Superman shirt and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell on an interception return. So I chalked the win over the Cincinnati Bengals up as a blip.

  • The Steelers New Year’s eve game against the Seahawks didn’t pose much of a quandary.

The Steelers never win in Seattle. I remember the 1993 Steelers post-Christmas game there, where Jon Vaughn (who? That’s the point) gouged a flu stricken, Greg Lloyd-less Steelers for 131 yards (John L. Williams tacked on 86 more, for good measure.)

I was better from COVID and my wife wanted to spend some time in downtown DC. So to the District of Columbia we went.

  • So I thought nothing of missing the game and, viola, the Steelers won.

I was in New York City for the regular season finale. The wife of my good friend from high school was the curator of an art exhibition in Jersey and invited us to the opening. Needless to say we went. We made it back to the hotel in time for me to catch most of the 2nd half against the Ravens.

I was impressed. The previous two weeks hadn’t been a mirage. I’m glad I caught Diontae Johnson’s interception, Eric Rowe’s forced fumble and Markus Golden’s sack.

3. Trust Mike Tomlin, Not the Pundits

Everyone knows that George Pickens had been a lighting rod for criticism. And for good reason. The guy mailed in when he wasn’t featured on a play. His failure to block for Jaylen Warren was inexcusable. His response was worse.

Listening to legends Ed Bouchette and Vic Ketchman on Jim Wexell’s podcast during COVID isolation, I fully agreed that the Steelers needed to cut their losses with Pickens. Indeed, I had the time but not the energy to write an article saying the Steelers should bench him for the balance of the season.

  • Once again, it is a good thing Mike Tomlin doesn’t listen to me.

Mike Tomlin has a way with young men. He’s far from infallible (see Martavis Bryant). But he can often shepherd them on the path to maturity. For now at least, he’s done it with George Pickens. Pickens burned the Bengals, singed the Seahawks, and then delivered some devastating blocks against the Ravens.

Yeah, Mike knew what he was doing.

4. The Steelers 3 Quarterback System Works

Self-styled NFL personnel experts argue that salary cap dynamics dictate that investing in a veteran backup quarterback is a waste. As for the third string quarterback? Most people will tell you he doesn’t matter.

  • Most people are wrong.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Omar Khan opened the 2023 off season saying that the Steelers had, “Left the door open for Mason Rudolph.” Few paid attention. Yet, when the Steelers resigned Mason Rudolph it was treated as a “surprise.”

And Rudolph looked to be nothing more than a clip board holder. Until he wasn’t. The NFL is all about stepping up when you get your opportunity. And Mason stepped up. For the first time since he arrived it Pittsburgh, you could see why Kevin Colbert had a first round grade on him.

Oh, and even before he came on gang busters in his first start since the tie vs the Lions in 2020, Mason Rudolph had already proved something else: The Mike Tomlin has ushered in the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks.

5. Take a Page for the Rooney’s: Focus on Family

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

If watching Steelers games wasn’t a high priority when I arrived in Maryland, it became an even lower one quickly. Between COVID, my sister-in-law’s father losing a brief battle with pneumonia (and Donald Hay was a great guy) and some other issues, it clear was that I should follow Dan Rooney’s lead: Focus on the family.

I distinctly remember one of his sons being interviewed, it may have been Dan Rooney Jr. but I can’t be sure, explaining that not only did Dan Rooney focus on academics rather than sports when it came to bringing up his children, he made time to speak to each of his 9 children about their day every evening during dinner.

The same child also mentioned that he didn’t even know what his father did for a living until he was in his pre-teen years. That’s because Dan Rooney, at his core, was a family man. Dan always put his family first.

  • I took that lesson to heart on this trip, focused on family and missed three Steelers wins because of it.

And I’m confident that, looking down from heaven, both Dan Rooney and his father Art Rooney Sr. would wholeheartedly agree with me that this was the best decision I could have made.

Go Steelers. Let’s upset the Bills 1989 style!

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Steelers Report Card for Meltdown vs Colts: Who DIDN’T Get an F Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is in no mood for mercy here is the Steelers Report Card for the meltdown loss to the Colts.

Mol Alie Cox, Mark Robinson, Steelers vs Colts

Mol Alie-Cox burns Mark Robinson for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Mitchell Trubisky was 16 of 23 for 169 yards with one touchdown and 2 interceptions. His first interception shifted the momentum to the Colts. His second one basically killed any chance the Steelers had of a comeback. How terrible was Tribusky? Mason Rudolph went 2 for 3 for 3 yards and a sack in mop up duty and he’s starting next week. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers totaled 74 yards on the ground with Jaylen Warren getting 40 of those while Najee Harris was held to 33. Harris’ fumble knocked the bottom out of the game for the Steelers. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for sixteen yards as the tight ends were inconsequential. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 62 yards to lead the team. George Pickens had 3 for 47 yards. Allen Robinson had 3 for 19. While those number read more like the type of stat line you’d expect from Louis Lipps, Dwight Stone and Drew Hill the real crime here was Pickens non-block on what should have been a Jaylen Warren touchdown. That’s part of the malaise that infects this offense. Grade: F

Offensive Line
The Colts registered 4 sacks and 9 QB hits. And Indianapolis, known for their terrible rushing defense, stoned Steelers running backs at regular intervals. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi had a nice sack to wreck a drive early, but the Colts ran on the Steelers at will when it counted – indeed a pair of practice squad running backs made it look like Marshall Faulk AND Eggrein James were both still playing in Indianapolis. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had two sacks, but Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson both go burned for touchdowns. Grade: F

Secondary
Damontae Kazee’s ejection and ultimate disqualification might be a little harsh, but it cost the Steelers dearly. As did Joey Porter’s pass interference call with 35 seconds left in the first half that gave the Colts the ball on Pittsburgh’s 14. Grade: F

Special Teams
Between Chris Boswell missing an extra point, Pressley Harvin erratic punting and leaky punt return coverage, the Steelers special teams weren’t very special. Grade: D

Coaching
So Matt Canada has been gone for over a month and the Steelers offense not only hasn’t gotten better, it has regressed. This is disappointing but not surprising.

The Steelers lack talent on offense. They lack coordination on offense. They lack motivation and leadership on offense.

  • The Steelers defense IS deeply depleted.

But what’s damning about their performance isn’t the 3 touchdown passes that they gave up, but rather than the Colts were one play shy of running the ball 13 straight times – and the Steelers defense lacked the ability, or worse the willpower to stop them.

Steelers vs Colts, Nick Herbig, Connor Heyward, blocked punt

Connor Heyward blocks a punt! Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

In the past, even through the earlier parts of this season, Mike Tomlin excelled at coaxing the most the talent he has at hand and getting his players to respond when their backs were to the wall.

This year the opposite is happening. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
They teamed up on what should have been a game-turning, blocked punt and recovery for the Steelers and for that Connor Heyward and Nick Herbig win Unsung Hero Award honors from the Steelers meltdown at Indianapolis.

 

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Meltdown in Indy: Steelers 30-13 Loss to Colts Is a Microcosm for Entire Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium was a debacle in every sense of the word.

And perhaps that is how it should be.

Because even with three games remaining on the schedule, the Steelers meltdown in Indy serves as a perfect microcosm for the 2023 season.

Zack Moss,

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

Strong Start Signals Sinkhole to Come

The Steelers had lost two ugly games against bad teams that had no business beating Pittsburgh, at home no less. Yet, Jim Wexell reported on WESA, that the Steelers had had a strong week of practice.

And as beat writers will tell you, performance in practice during the week is almost always indicative of performance on Sunday. And besides, Mike Tomlin always rallies the men when their backs are two the wall. Doesn’t he?

Mike Tomlin boldly elected to take the ball to open the second half, giving his offense a chance to grab the proverbial bull by the horns….

And, he was rewarded by a Najee Harris run for no gain (wasn’t the Colt’s rushing defense supposed to be weak?), a Mitch Trubisky sack (what was it about the Colts not blitzing), and a 4 yard pass to Jaylen Warren on 3rd and 14. Oh, and Pressley Harvin only managed 42 yards on his punt.

But T.J. Watt wrecked the Colt’s next possession with a sack, and Indy’s Matt Gay bounced a 56 yard field goal off of the crossbars. The Steelers had won several games earlier in the season by combining big plays on defense and capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes.

Might they be reverting to form. For the next 8 minutes or so, that seemed to be the case.

  • But as always is the case with the 2023 Steelers, there was a big “BUT” attached to it.

Mitch Trubisky moved the team effectively following the blocked field goal. Nothing spectacular. But the Steelers keeping the sticks moving. But even then there were danger signs, both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were getting stopped regularly.

After a one yard run by Harris, Trubisky moved the Steelers into the Red Zone with a 14 yard strike to George Pickens. Jaylen Warren followed by ripping off a 6 yard run on 1st and seven in a play that saw Pickens…

…Stand there and watch instead of blocking, costing Warren at least a yard if not a touchdown.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Two plays later, Mitch Trubisky’s second attempt to sneak the ball into the end zone succeeded, but only after replay ruled he had crossed the goal line before fumbling.

But all’s well that ends well, right?

  • Maybe not, because Chris Boswell’s extra point bounced off the cross bar.

Given the way the defense and special teams were playing it looked like Boswell’s missed extra point might be a mere footnote. Larry Ogunjobi wrecked the next drive with a sack and Connor Heyward blocked Rigoberto Sanchez with Nick Herbig recovering at the one.

Najee Harris 3 yard loss on first and goal at the one might have been ugly, but Mitch Trubisky hit Diontae Johnson for a touchdown one play later to put the Steelers up 13-0.

Barely a minute had elapsed in the 2nd quarter and the Steelers had already made it a 2 score game.

Anatomy of a Meltdown

How does a team go from starting a game 13-0 in the first 16 minutes to losing 30-13? Let’s count the ways:

1. Getting burned deep
The Steelers defense is hurting. But even before losing their two starting safeties, Gardner Minshew burned the Steelers for two deep strikes to Michael Pittman.

2. Being Soft in the Middle
There’s a reason why Mykal Walker was unemployed in October. The Cardinals and Patriots exploited him in the previous two weeks, and the Colts followed suit.

The Colts got their first touchdown courtesy of items number 1 and 2.

3. Turnovers I
The faults of the Steelers offense are legion. But one of the things they did not do was this: Turnover the ball.

That was early in the season. For the last 3 weeks? Not so much. Pittsburgh seemed primed to answer the Colts’ score, as both Harris and Warren had a couple of strong runs. Then Mitch Trubisky thought it was a good idea to target George Pickens in triple coverage. He almost pulled it off, but the ball was a bit high and napped by Nick Cross.

The Colts didn’t covert that turnover into a penalty, but did back the Steelers up to their own won.

4. Attrition I
The game of football has changed. Back on November 15th 1993 the Steelers were already leading the then-AFC Alpha male Buffalo Bills, Gary Jones laid this hit on Don Beebe:

Beebe left the game, there was no flag, no fine just Gary Jones getting his 15 minutes of Steelers history fame. Now compare this to the hit that Damontae Kazee laid on Michael Pittman.

There are some difference in the mechanics of each play, but the big difference is what came after, not only did Kazee get a 15 yard personal foul, he got thrown out of the game. That forced 4th string safety Trenton Thompson into the game.

On the next series Minkah Fitzpatrick got hurt and left the game, leaving the Steelers with Miles Killebrew to play.

5. Penalties
While still behind, Gardner Minshew hit D.J. Montgomery over the middle, for a 42 yard pickup. Joey Porter Jr. gave them another 26 yards on pass interference on Alec Pierce. Two plays later Minshew was connecting with Montogmery to put the Colts ahead. For good.

6. Turnovers II
It is easy to pinpoint where the bottom fell out for the Steelers in this game. The Colts got the ball to start the second half, but the short-handed Steelers forced a three and out.

Najee Harris fumbled the ball right back to them, and the Colts scored on the next play.

7. Penalties II
Steelers responded with a punt, the Colts got a field goal and on the next drive Pittsburgh held the ball for nearly six minutes. Good. They also suffered 3 holding penalties on that same drive. They reached Indy’s 39, but Mike Tomlin opted to punt rather than try a 57 yard field goal.

At this point it serves no narrative purpose to enumerate the Steelers breakdowns, because they simply repeated themselves. The Colts ran the ball down the Steelers throats, with Pittsburgh knowing it was coming an unable to stop.

Mitch Trubisky threw another ugly interception. The Steelers kept killing themselves with penalties. Mason Rudolph came in for mop up duty and managed to complete 2 passes, one for negative yards and get himself sacked.

For the record this game wasn’t the worst loss of the Mike Tomlin era – a couple of candidates from the 2009 5 game losing streak would top this – but it clearly makes any top 5 list.

Can the Steelers Recover from Shell Shock?

The Steelers offense lacks talent at some positions and desire at others (see wide receiver.) It lacks coordination. Despite some of the results of the last week, the defense is in much better shape, or at least it would be if it weren’t so deeply depleted.

  • But even that doesn’t account for Pittsburgh’s poor performance against the Colts.

This team is shell shocked. It is playing with zero confidence and self-destructing as a result of it to the extent that one would be surprised if they win another game this year.

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

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

  • This one stings. And so it should.

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

Belichick Still the Boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

…The NFL Will Seldom Note and Quickly Forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failing Big

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

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

Benefits of Failing Big

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Cardinals: James Connor Homecoming Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is focusing on the homecoming of a former student after a wet and ugly loss, here the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure.

James Conner, Steelers vs Cardinals

James Connor rushes for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett’s numbers of 7 of 10 for 70 yards are solid and he did start the game strong, but 2 of his three incompletions came on third down including one in the Red Zone. Mitch Trubisky was 11 of 17 for 117 yards and a garbage time touchdown, but the Steelers were still 4-11 on third downs. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 63 yards on 16 carries and Jaylen Warren ran for 59 on 9. Both enjoyed some long runs but neither man got into a rhythm. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 12 targets for 29 yards. Connor Heyward had zero catches on 2 yards. Darnell Washington didn’t get a target, but then again, the answer to what ails the Steelers offense clearly isn’t to force-feed the tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had a solid game with a deep catch to open things up and a few difficult ones on the sideline finishing the day at 4 for 86. Diontae Johnson also had 4 catches for 33 yards including a touchdown where he channeled his inner Bobby Shaw. Calvin Austin had 3 catches for 19 yards – so much for taking the top off the defense, while 3 catches for 19 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Mason Cole had at least 3 bad snaps, one of which helped scuttle a drive that started with promise another which caused a turnover. Unacceptable. Overall the Steelers run blocking wasn’t enough to take advantage of the Cardinals weak run defense. Nor was pass protection particularly tight. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Keeanu Benton had a tipped pass as did Larry Ogunjobi. The defensive began the day stuffing the run. That changed as the day progressed. Grade: D

Linebackers
Again, early in the day it looked like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were going to feast on Kyler Murray and the Cardinals running backs. However as the day wore on the opposite happened. Losing Elandon Roberts hurt. With Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson on the field the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string tight ends. But we don’t grade on a curve and the Cardinals carved up the middle of the Steelers defense. Grade: F

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a third and 8 incompletion. The Cardinals scored a touchdown. The Cardinals were 10 of 17 on third down conversions and Minkah Fitzpatrick still managed to lead the unit in tackles despite being out for part of the game due to a broken hand. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal. Miles Killebrew was flagged 3 times on punt returns, the last of which set up the Cardinals final touchdown. Calvin Austin did have an 11-yard punt return, but that’s not enough to bring this group’s grade up. Grade: F

Coaching
So firing Matt Canada in season wasn’t a panacea. To quote Myron Cope, “Whoever would have thunk?”

The Steelers offense got off to a good start, but then couldn’t finish in the Red Zone. When it couldn’t get into the end zone through the air the first time, it tried and failed again on the ground. Pass protection was weak, bone headed penalties cost the team a couple of first down conversions and the offense lacked “coordination” as it had under Canada.

The performance of Teryl Austin’s defense performed in direct proportion to the presence of Elandon Roberts on the field. With him they were good. Without him they were terrible.

  • Austin couldn’t make the adjustment.

One might say, “Oh, it’s too harsh to throw all that onto a coach who is down to his 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.” Yeah, right. Bill Belichick might be down, but you’d better believe he’s licking his chops thinking of ways he can jumpstart his offense by exploiting the middle of the field.

Trap games tripped up Mike Tomlin’s teams throughout the Ben Roethlisberger era. Some suggested, with some merit, that this was in part due to Roethlisberger being an “adrenaline junkie.” Well, Ben’s been gone for two years. Can’t blame this one on him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Deciding on an “Unsung Hero” after an awful, ugly game like this is a challenge. So today we think outside the box. Sunday’s lost might have been a bad day for the Steelers, but it was a good one for Pittsburgh football, as Western Pennsylvania native and Pitt Panthers alumni made his home coming to the Steel City to the tune 105 yards on 25 carries in an afternoon that saw him get better with each carry, and for that James Conner wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Ugly Afternoon @ Acrisure as Steelers Choke, Losing 24-10 to the Cardinals

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, Johnathan Ledbetter

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.

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.

  • The Steelers made 4 first downs.
  • Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped of double-digit runs
  • 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.

Another Twist in a Long, Strange Season

Two weeks ago the Steelers loss of a winnable game in Cleveland carried ominous overtones. Mike Tomlin reacted by firing Matt Canada, and last week it felt like the team had turned a corner in Cincinnati. Instead they dropped a game, at home to one of the league’s worst teams.

What to make of it? Well, there are a couple of things:

  • This Steelers team really has no margin for error as it lacks the talent to overcome mistakes.
  • Injuries may not be an excuse, but they are an explanation.

Seriously.

The Steelers did everything they could give this game to the Cardinals, including 2 illegal formation penalties that negated first downs, a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a 3rd and 8 incompletion, in addition to twin personal fouls on punt returns and a too many men on the field — after a time out.

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.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Bengals Pivot @ Paycor Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher who wonders if he’s seen a pivot at Paycor, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 road win over the Bengals.

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

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

Quarterback
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: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
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

Tight Ends
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-

Offensive Line
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+

Special Teams
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-

Coaching
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, Steelers vs Bengals.

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.

 

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Progress @ Paycor? Steelers Beat Bengals 16-10 as Pickett Plays Complete Game

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 Picket, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers vs Bengals 2023 Paycor

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.

24 years ago Bill Cowher found himself at a similar crossroads at this same point in the season in a game against the Bengals no less. Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. The move the pleased fans but failed to alter the trajectory of either the game or the 1999 season.

Mike Tomlin’s decision also came going into a game against the Bengals, and one at Paycor Stadium a place the recent Steelers teams have defined their trajectories.

In 2020, at then Paul Brown Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger struggled so badly, I asked out loud if we had just witnessed the Steelers football equivalent of the 1980 Ali-Holmes Las Vegas fight.

In 2021, the Bengals and Joe Burrow’s domination of the Steelers confirmed that the AFC North had a new pecking order.

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, Steelers vs Bengals

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
  • When they reached the Red Zone next, Trenton Thompson picked off Browning
  • Nick Herbig broke off coverage to sack Browning on third down
  • T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward wrecked multiple drives with sacks
    [Note to Bengals: Maybe it is wise to block T.J. Watt on 3rd and 3 late in the 4th quarter.]
  • Led by Elandon Roberts, the Steelers run defense suffocated Joe Mixon

Credit Ja’Marr Chase for making two catches off of tipped passes. Where it not for those two heads up plays, it would have been a far longer afternoon for Browning.

Pickett Far from Perfect, Takes a Step Forward

Let’s be clear on something important: Kenny Pickett did not enjoy a “breakout” or a “statement” game at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers offense may have broken the 400 yard mark for the first time since week 2 of 2020, but it still only put 16 points on the board.

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.

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9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“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.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

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.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

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.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

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, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

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.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

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, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

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 1995 opener. 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.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • 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.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • 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.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

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.

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