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

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

Eli Apple, George Pickens, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Cam Sample, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Maulet, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

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

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

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

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

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Persistence Pays Off: Steelers 20-10 Win over Saints Fueled by Dominating Defense, Patient Offense

Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:

  • Ugly
  • A dominating defensive performance
  • A “team win”

Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.

Jaylen Warren, Demario Davis, Steelers vs Saints

Jaylen Warren rips off 4th quarter run. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off

For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:

Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year

  • These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.

Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.

Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”

Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.

Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.

Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite

The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.

  • It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.

That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.

  • And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.

 

T.J. Watt, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Saints

T.J. Watt stuffs Jordan Howard. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.

  • But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.

Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.

  • The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.

How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.

Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.

Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.

Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status

Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.

  • Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
  • Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
  • Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
  • Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
  • Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.

All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.

But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.

  • Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.

After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.

The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”

But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.

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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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Steelers Report Card for the Upset Over the Bengals – Call It As You See It Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose summer assessment of his student’s strengths and weaknesses appears to be on target, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 overtime upset win over the Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

Ja'Marr Chase, Arthur Maulet, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers upend Ja’Marr Chase at the goal line. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky first start brought good, bad and ugly. The Ugly: The Steelers were 4-15 on third down and they punted 8 times, including FIVE three and outs. The Bad: Pittsburgh only had 113 yards in regulation and only scored one touchdown. The Good: Trubisky avoided turnovers and kept himself upright. More importantly, he put the offense in scoring position not once but twice in over time. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
You know your running game has issues when a wide receiver has more yards on the ground that RB 1 and RB 2. Combined. Najee Harris had one nice run, but otherwise had no where to go. Jaylen Warren had 7 yards on 3 carries…. It may not be their “fault” but the running game was “Below the line.” Grade: D

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry both set up touchdowns with long gains in the first half, with Freiermuth making not one but two key catches that set up the game winner in OT. Surely the tight ends shoulder some responsibility for the run blocking fiasco, but they delivered Trubisky looked their way. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler and one that should have set up the game winner in overtime. Chase Claypool did his damage with 4 catches and 3 runs. George Pickens had 1 catch for 3 yards. The receivers did their part. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Mitch Trubisky was sacked once, hit 5 other times and had to scramble 3 times. Not great, but a slight improvement over last year. The run blocking was atrocious. Pittsburgh was positively pathetic when trying to pound it in at the goal line. Nor did they get any push upfront at any point in the game. This. Must. Improve. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward’s opening sack was a tone setter for the entire game. His fumble recovery set up another score. Larry Ogunjobi had four tackles and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley had two. Joe Mixon was in check all day and just as Joe Burrow was under pressure. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith had 3 sacks while T.J. Watt had a sack, an interception and batted down two passes. Robert Spillane had a sack, and Devin Bush played aggressively. Myles Jack had a key pass defense and led the linebackers with 10 tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick dominated the Bengals. His pick six forced them to play catch-up from the get go. He led the team in tackles and, even after a bogus penalty in the end zone, he broke up a would-be touchdown on the next play. Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon both had interceptions while Levi Wallace had a key pass break up. Terrell Edmunds quietly put in a good game stuffing out a number of runners before they could reach the second level. Grade: A

Special Teams
Gunner Olszewski made his single returnable punt count by setting up a score with a 20 yards return. Pressley Harvin averaged over 48 yards on his 8 punts. Punt return coverage was strong. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s extra point block was the game’s second most important play after his pick six. Chris Boswell did miss a field goal in OT, and that brings this grade down, but he didn’t blink on his second chance. Grade: A-

Coaching
The Steelers defense came out swinging with a sack and an pick six on successive plays. They kept that up for the next 72 minutes. But Splash plays were nothing new compared to last year.

  • The run defense delivered the difference.

Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers defense last year. Twice. Sunday, aside from one long run, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores’ boys neutralized him.

  • The offense told a different story.

For 2 years debate has raged over “What a Matt Canada offense will really look like.” Well, now Canada has his quarterback, but against the Bengals it was more of the same:  Weak offensive line play, three-and-outs, lots of Chris Boswell field goals with just enough late fireworks to keep it interesting.

Canada might not have the personnel upfront and Tribuisky might not be a long-term signal caller, but he needs to find a way to make it work now.

Mike Tomlin welcomed many new faces to the fold this off season on all sides of the ball. Had you not known that you’d have thought this was a group of veterans who’d been together for 6 or 7 years based on their resiliency alone. Grade: B

Arthur Maulet, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals 2022

Arthur Maulet strip sacks Joe Burrow in overtime. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
This player embodies the principle that the Steelers care about what you can do, not where you come from. He arrived in Pittsburgh as a veteran minimum player during an off season where the Steelers were navigating salary cap Armageddon. He did enough to earn a second contract, and in Cincinnati his strip sack was enough to give Chris Boswell a second chance to win it in overtime. And for that Arthur Maulet wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 opening day overtime win over the Bengals.

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Surprise! Steelers Upset Bengals 23-20 in Overtime as Defense Dominates

The Pittsburgh Steelers launched the Mitch Tribisky era Sunday with a 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

  • The win came at a cost with several marquee players leaving the field early with injuries.

But an upset road win over a division rival and defending conference championship is always good. And the win confirmed a lot of what we thought we knew about these Pittsburgh Steelers, and that’s both good and bad.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Defense Still Wins Games

The old adage used to be, “Defense wins championships.” In this era of big gambling, Fantasy Football fueled football, the game has been legislated to tilt heavily towards the offense. Does defense still “win championships” in the National Football League?

Who knows?

Mike Tomlin and his players proved that defense can still win games for the Pittsburgh Steelers here in 2022. And they did this from the very beginning of the game.

Cam Heyward opened up the game, rag dolling Joe Burrow with a 5 yard sack. Minka Fitzpatrick struck next with a 31 yard pick six. Less that three and a half minutes had elapsed, the Steelers offense had punted once after earning just 8 yards.

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Heyward opens game by sacking Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

  • Yet, the Steelers were up 7-0.

Alex Highsmith struck next, sacking Burrow for a 7-yard loss on third down, although a record setting 59 yard field goal by Evan McPherson got Cincinnati on the board. Highsmith wasn’t done, because four plays later he strip sacked Burrow with Cam Heyward recovering. Pat Freiermuth did his part with a 31 yard reception.  But the Steelers offense sputtered at the goal line, settling for a Chris Boswell field goal.

Not that it really mattered, because T.J. Watt picked off Joe Burrow 8 plays later. This time Zach Gentry did the honors of getting the Steelers in position to score, and Najee Harris finally found the end zone on the team’s 5th shot from the goal line.

Lovers of defense only needed to wait for six more plays for Cam Sutton to short-circuit another promising Bengals drive with an interception.

And that was only the first half. In the second half Ahkello Witherspoon intercepted Burrow again while Arthur Maulet sacked him in overtime forcing a final punt. T.J. Watt and Robert Spillane added sacks of their own, Myles Jack stepping up with a critical pass defense, as did Cam Sutton in the end zone.

After the game, this was the word from Cincinnati:

Then this:

Anyone wonder why?

SOSO – Same Old Steelers Offense

If the Steelers defense played as well as optimist felt it could, their offense played as poorly as pessimists (or realists) feared it would. Here’s some harsh reality: Only 2 critical Cincinnati special teams errors separated the Steelers from losing a game in which they enjoyed a 5 point turnover differential.

  • You almost have to try to lose a game in which your defense secures 5 turnovers.

And the worst part about it? The Steelers offense wasn’t trying to lose the game, they were trying their best. And their best almost wasn’t good enough. Sure, both tight ends came up with big catches in the first half with Pat Freiermuth adding another in overtime.

  • Matt Canada employed some smoke and mirrors to get a running game going with Chase Claypool.

Diontae Johnson set up what should have been the game winning field goal in overtime with what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler.

But Steelers running backs managed 2.3 yards per carry behind an offensive line that had ZERO push. And Pressley Harvin punted 8 times. Mitch Trubisky made a few nice throws and his mobility limited his sack total to one.

But the Steelers offense was just as in effective as it has been since early 2020, scoring only 2 field goals without the help of turnovers.

Chase Claypool, Germaine Pratt, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool stiff arms Germaine Pratt. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review.

The Difference – Special Teams and the Run Defense

And the one field goal the Steelers did score was set up in part by Gunner Olszewski 20 yard punt return. The Steelers special teams also blocked an extra point and the Bengals missed a field goal in overtime. That’s four points special teams kept off the board and three more that they added. Subtract Boswell’s miss, and you still have a 1 point differential.

  • But what made all if it meaningful was the Steelers run defense.

Last year Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers, averaging 5.5 yards per carry against them, and making it look easy. That success loosened the defense and allowed Burrow to abuse the Steelers secondary at will.

Today the Steelers held him to 3.0 yards on 27 carries, and if you take out the one, ugly 31 yarder that the Steelers defense did allow, that average drops to almost 2 yards a carry.

Running the ball might be passé in today’s NFL, I’d argue it is not, but even if I’m wrong, being unable to stop the run is positively lethal. The Steelers defense stopped the run, giving their play makers a chance to do their damage, and that was the difference.

Keeping It in Perspective

This win, in all its ugliness, came with a cost. T.J. Watt is rumored to have torn a pec. If that’s true, he’s done for the year, and the Steelers defense will become decidedly mortal. Najee Harris reportedly left the stadium in a walking boot. Levi Wallace and Robert Spillane also left the game with injuries.

  • Even if the news on Watt is better than expected, the Steelers offense must improve. Period.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first game without Ben Roethlisberger demonstrating the same resilience that defined the Roethlisberger Era.

That alone is a sign of hope.

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Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

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Finishing Touches: Steelers Announce 2022 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

Mere minutes after announcing Chris Oladokun as their 2nd 7th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to terms with their 2022 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class. This will be Kevin Colbert’s final undrafted rookie free agent class, and as noted here before, he’s had an uncanny ability to pluck gems from players whose phones remained quite on draft day.

The Steelers 2022 undrafted rookie free agent class includes:

Jake Dixon, Offensive Tackle, Duquesne
Jordan Tucker, Offensive Tackle, North Carolina
Mataeo Durant, Running Back, Duke
Jaylen Warren, Running Back, Oklahoma State
Donovan Jeter, Defensive Lineman, Michigan
Tyree Johnson, Outside Linebacker, Texas A&M
T.D. Moultry, Outside Linebacker, Auburn
Chris Owens, Guard, Alabama
Chris Steele, Cornerback, Southern California
Bryce Watts, Cornerback, UMass

As expected, the group targets positions which the Steelers did not address in the draft, namely running back, offensive tackle and cornerback, although the inclusion of 2 outside linebackers is interesting.

  • Undrafted rookie free agents are kind of like the Rudy’s of the NFL.

They are mainly there to fill out training camp rosters, saving the wear and tear on the starters. That’s true around the NFL, but these young gentlemen are luck to have landed in Pittsburgh.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

As Mike Tomlin explained when asked about the pedigrees of several his draftees, “Arthur Maulet used to always make a joke last year during the season that he was a zero-star guy, and boy, you got respect for that, as well. I embraced the football justice component of it. It does not matter by what means you get here.”

The Steelers ended Chuck Noll’s policy of practicing without numbers so that coaches would evaluate all players objectively ended a long time ago. But the fundamental principle doesn’t change:

  • Once you make it to St. Vincents its not about where you came from, but what you can prove on the field.

Fans reared during the Ben Roethlisberger era will remember the Ramon Foster, Steve McLendon, Isaac Redman, Willie Parker and James Harrison all arrived at St. Vincents as undrafted rookie free agents and used that as a launching pad to transform themselves into regular starters, cult heroes or Super Bowl record holders.

Dwight Stone arrived in Latrobe as an nobody from Middle Tenn. St. in the summer of 1987 and finished in the year 2000 after played 216 games over 14 years in the NFL. And of course Donnie Shell was just a nameless undrafted rookie free agent defensive back running drills with the likes of Mike Wagner, Glen Edwards and Mel Blount and now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Gentleman, rest assured, you face long odds, but if you deliver while at St. Vincents, the Steelers will give you a fair shake.

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Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Were Fumbling Issues Why Steelers Could Sign Gunner Olszewski So Easily?

What price can you put on special teams ball security? I don’t have the answer. But the Pittsburgh Steelers decision to let Ray-Ray McCloud walk to San Francisco while replacing him with Gunner Olszewski will come to the difference between 0.25% and $6,200,000.

  • That might sound complicated, but it’s not.

Success in the salary cap era comes down to getting the biggest bang for your salary cap buck. Ray-Ray McCloud handled the Steelers return duties for the last two years. Ray-Ray did a good job, but he wasn’t going to remind Boomers and Generation Xers of the return men of yore.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Think of guys like Mel Gray, or to keep this Steelers centric, Rod Woodson or Dwight Stone. Actually, Stone’s return numbers with the Steelers weren’t that great, but as Tony Defeo reminded us, he deserves to be remembered for more than his “Hands of Stone.”

Actually, stony hands or lack thereof is what the Steelers decision between Ray-Ray McCloud and Gunner Olszewski comes down to.

  • If you look at their career kick and punting return averages, McCloud and Olszewski are pretty similar.

Ray-Ray McCloud has more reps in both categories, so his sample size is larger. McCloud has a 22.6 kickoff return average and a 9.5 yard punt return average. That ranks him well among his peers.

Gunner Olszewski, who began his career against the Steelers 2019 season-opening loss to the Patriots, has a 23.2 yard kick return average and an 12.6 yard punt return average. He also has more a punt returned for a touchdown, something McCloud hasn’t been able to do.

The San Francisco 49ers signed McCloud to a 2 year, 10.6-million dollar contract (good for you Ray-Ray, mange it wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life, even if you only play for one season.) The Steelers deal Olszewski with is also for 2 years, but for only 4.2 million dollars.

Taken at face value, Kevin Colbert appears to have gotten the same thing for 6.4 million less.

  • But there’s one number that just might make that 6.2 million worth it.

And that’s 0.25%. During his 2 years with the Steelers, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled 6 times on 130 returns. That gives him a fumble rate of 4.6%. In three years with the Patriots, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball 5 times on 107 returns, giving him a 4.85% fumble rate.

So the Steelers calculation is that 0.25% greater chance of a fumble is worth the 6.4 million dollars in salary cap savings. (This ignores Ray-Ray McCloud’s serviceable skills as a backup wide out – something that Gunner Olszewski has yet to prove.)

  • For my money that’s a prudent calculation for Pittsburgh.

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.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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