“The Pickett Factor” Decisive in Steelers 20-16 Win Over Titans @ Acrisure

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans on 20-16 on Thursday Night Football at Acrisure Stadium. The game was as typical for the 2023 Steelers as its result was inscrutable.

  • Yes, it had an atypical beginning.

Everything else followed the script. In the middle things got ugly. The Steelers found new ways to flirt with self-destruction. Once again, their opponents gained more yards. Once again, the outcome remained in doubt until the contest’s final second.

But once again, the same two elements carried the day for the Steelers as they have all season long: Splash plays on defense and “The Pickett Factor.”

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Titans

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Expect the Unexpected

The loss to the Jaguars had been messy. Steelers Nation was in a tizzy. Thursday Night Football might be horrible for player’s health and safety. But in this case a Thursday night home game gave the Steelers just want they needed: A chance to get back on the horse.

Leading into the game, my friend Neal Coolong set the tone:

No, the Steelers didn’t break the 400 yard mark. But they did do something almost as uncharacteristic: They scored a touchdown on their opening drive. This was something they hadn’t done since beating the Carolina Panthers last December.

Touchdowns early in games have been pretty spare for these Steelers. And when they’ve come, they’ve usually been the product of big plays such as Alex Highsmith’s pick six to open the win over the Browns or the deep strike to Calvin Austin vs the Raiders.

  • But this one was different. It was refreshingly workman-like.

Jaylen Warren, Allen Robinson and Connor Heyward had runs and catches for nice gains. Diontae Johnson caught two passes, and Najee Harris ran it in from 10 yards out, behind a spectacular block throw by, of all people Mason Cole the offensive line’s whipping boy.

  • Best of all? Kenny Pickett, who has been a notoriously slow starter, went 5-7 for 62 yards.

Maybe Matt Canada standing on the sidelines fixed what ails this offense….
Maybe starting Broderick Jones gave the offensive line the shot in the arm it needed….
Maybe the Steelers really had turned a corner….

Defense Delivers Levis, Titans 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Chances

Derrick Henry is the kind of running back that dominates opposing defenses the way the Steelers hoped Najee Harris would when they drafted him. All of the sound and fury directed at Matt Canada has masked the fact that the Steelers have struggled to defend the run.

Maybe getting Cam Heyward back was what this defense needed to find consistency.

And maybe that was too much to expect.

Rookie Will Levis arrived in Pittsburgh with a single winning start under his belt that saw him throw four touchdown passes. Surly the Steelers vaunted defense would bring him down to earth?

Ultimately the Steelers defense did just that. But along the way Levis looked very sharp. He looked sharp on his own merits, but the Steelers defense gave him plenty of help.

On the Titans’ first drive alone, the Steelers defense gave Tennessee 4 first downs by penalties, including a conversion on third and eight. When a flag flew to after a helmetless T.J. Watt sacked Levis it seemed like a miracle that it wasn’t against Pittsburgh.

Later in the game, a 5-yard illegal contact Penalty on Patrick Peterson allowed Tennessee to covert another third down, keeping alive a drive that allowed them to take the lead with a field goal. An sportsman like conduct field gave the Titans a short field after the Steelers go-ahead touchdown.

Joey Porter, DeAndre Hopkins, Steelers vs Titans 2023

Joey Porter defends a pass targeted at DeAndre Hopkins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

And of course a defensive holding penalty on Joey Porter Jr. gave Tennessee fresh life on 4th and 7 with 53 seconds left to go.

After the game Mike Tomlin describe the penalties as “catastrophic.” That’s perhaps a little harsh, given that the Steelers did win. But his point was valid.

The Pickett Factor

Unfortunately Kenny Pickett’s sputtered following his strong start. He went 3-8 for 16 yards. Those are stark numbers. But what they don’t show is how routine the throws were that Pickett missed. He missed George Pickens on an out route. He was too low to connect with Allen Robinson in the end zone. He just wasn’t getting it done.

  • Watching Will Levis it was impossible not to make comparisons with Pickett.

Twice the Steelers had him backed up against his own end zone, and twice Levis moved his team out of danger with spectacular throws. Although Levis didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, he did connect with six different receivers for completions of 24, 29, 23, 21, 29, and 23 yards.

This left even the most patient Steelers fans with no choice but to ask, “Why can’t Pickett do that?”

It is a legitimate question. But Pickett brings something special to the table:

  • He consistently improves as games progress.

Pickett only threw 4 incomplete passes in the second half. One of those would have and should have gone for a touchdown had George Pickens focused more on getting both feet in bounds as opposed to focusing on how he was going to celebrate.

On the Steelers go-ahead touchdown drive, he went 3 of 4 for 41 yards. But again, numbers are far too bland to tell the story. On third and six with 5 minutes remaining he did this:

Four plays later, he was connecting with Diontae Johnson again to put Pittsburgh ahead.

Pickett’s 4th quarter poise is something you can’t put a price on. Contrast that with Will Levis’ play on his final drive:

  • His first pass should have been intercepted by Levi Wallace.
  • His first shot at the end zone should have been picked off by Darius Rush.
  • Kwon Alexander picked off his next and last shot at a comeback

For much of the night, Will Levis out performed his opposite number. But when it counted, “The Pickett Factor” put Pittsburgh over the top. Kenny Pickett’s ability to “turn it on” is unlike anything either the Steelers or the NFL has seen before.

Whether he or the Steelers can continue to win this way is unknown. But against the Titans it was again enough.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jaguars: No Mood for Excuses Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher in no mood to make excuses, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest home loss to the Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kenny Pickett after being injured. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Yahoo Sports.

Quarterbacks
To paraphrase the old Red Dog beer commercial (yeah, I just dated myself), “Don’t let the smooth stats fool you.” Kenny Pickett’s 10 of 16 for 73 with zero picks and no TD’s looks OK. But he was 2 of 6 on third downs and one of those completions went for negative yards. Another incompletion came when Diontae Johnson was open in the end zone. Mitch Trubisky’s 15 of 27 for 1 TD and 1 pick look respectable too. But he was not. When he wasn’t throwing into triple coverage he was gaining garbage time glory. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren had runs for 8 and 7 yards, but outside of that it was pure “Sludge Ball” for him and Najee Harris. The duo also caught 9 passes between the two of them during garbage time. The running backs didn’t get much help from their line, but the Steelers needed more. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Connor Heyward caught 5 passes on 6 targets but really didn’t make himself a factor in the passing game. Darnell Washington has been quiet in two starts. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
If Diontae Johnson catches that first pass, which was high but catchable, perhaps the dynamic of this game is dramatically different. But Diontae didn’t catch it. He caught several more really doing a remarkable job of getting open. George Pickens had a touchdown, but had he hurried to the line of scrimmage rather than strutting the Steelers could have had a long gain. Instead the Steelers had to punt. Calvin Austin had 2 catches in garbage time. He got stopped cold on one reverse and helped set up a field goal with a ten yard run on his other one. The receivers made a some plays, but they had chances to make a few more and the didn’t. And that cost the team. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs carried the ball 12 times. Sure there’s a bit of a chicken egg element to that statement. But “Sludge Ball” on first and second down leads to long third downs. And let’s remember that Kenny Pickett was sacked on the second play from scrimmage and ultimately knocked from the game. The Jaguars had 3 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers did a respectable job of containing Travis Etienne on the ground as Montravius Adams quietly starts to build a name for himself at nose tackle. Grade: C

Linebackers
The Steelers inside linebacking corps helped contain the Jaguars running game as Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander all authored some nice plays. Alex Highsmith had a half sack as did T.J. Watt who also got a hand on a pass. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers already started the game with a thin secondary and it got thinner fast as Minkah Fitzpatrick went down with a hamstring injury early in the game. In his absence, there was good and bad. The Steelers didn’t give up a 100 yard receiver for only the second time this year, and actually reduced their yards allowed per pass. Damontae Kazee took seven points off the board for Jacksonville and started a drive that ended in a field goal. Nonetheless, the miscommunication that led to Travis Etienne’s 56 yard pass put Pittsburgh in a deep hole that it never dug out from. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, but missing a 61 yarder in the rain at Acrisure Stadium after you’ve just made 56 yarder is understandable. Pressley Harvin had a mixed bag on punting. The Steelers gave up a little more return yardage than you’d like to see, but that was hardly the difference in the game. Grade: C

Coaching
Danny Smith’s special teams were “Above the line.” Teryl Austin’s defense forced 3 turnovers, 2 of which came when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone wrecked several other drives with sacks in critical situations.

  • Yet it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

Apparently the Steelers defense and special teams need to play pristine games and see their opponents miss kicks or otherwise leave points on the board to be competitive, because scoring more than one offensive touchdown is too much to ask.

  • 5 of the the Steelers first seven possessions ended in a three and out.
  • Their penultimate drive before scorning their weekly touchdown went for 5 yards
  • When the Steelers scored, the defense forced a punt only for the offense to turn the ball over 2 plays later

Yes, it is true. Matt Canada didn’t drop a deep bomb to open the game or miss an open wideout in the end zone. Neither did he throw the ball multiple times into triple coverage. But clearly Canada can’t get it done.

Nick Herbig, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Jaguars

Nick Herbig and T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin’s hands maybe be tied as the Steelers are a franchise which doesn’t believe in interims coaches (see Mike Nixon’s tenure), his job is to coax what he can out of Canada offense while he’s here. And right now, he’s getting next to nothing. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award

When a team caps a bad first half by failing to score immedatly before half time, the best way to start driving the nail into its coffin is to score on the opening drive of the second half. The Jaguars were doing just that, taking their opening kick off to Pittsburgh’s 35. Yet that drive stopped there, thanks to Nick Herbig’s playing through to the wistle as he forced Tank Bigsby’s fumble and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the (latest) loss to the Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Rebound Win over Ravens: Baby Steps and Big Plays Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is oscillating between baby steps and big plays here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 rebound win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The stat sheet says Kenny Pickett went 18 of 32 for 224 yards and one touchdown. But those numbers fail to tell the story of how Pickett improved as the game wore on, who his accuracy got better, and how he made a key audible to burn the Ravens. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Here’s another case where the stat sheet simply isn’t sufficient to judge a player. Jaylen Warren only had 40 yards on the ground on 9 carries and 3 catches for another 39. But he imposed his will to earn those yards, setting up a score. Najee Harris had 14 carries for 37 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his first start and was targeted twice. Connor Heyward moved into the number 2 tight end role and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson but one converted a third down on the touchdown drive. Calvin Austin got one target in limited activity due to concussion concerns while Miles Boykin got a target. The real start of the unit was George Pickens. Everyone in the stadium knew that Pickett would target Pickens. He did it anyway. And Pickens came away with the ball every time it counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked 3 times and hit 5 other times while the Ravens made 3 tackles for losses. Overall the line play was a little better than it has been, but was still far from what the Steelers need it to be. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers were down two defensive lineman so this was a game where the Ravens likely expected to run well. And they started off running well. But the Steelers defensive line held its own as Keeanu Benton led the team in tackles and Larry Ogunjobi made a downfield tackle to force a fumble. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt helped stall a scoring drive with one sack, recovered Alex Highsmith’s strip sack which should have ended the game. When it didn’t Watt sacked Jackson on Baltimore’s final possession. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes. Baltimore dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone and another all but sure touchdown later in the day. But another scene that repeated itself several times during the game was Lamar Jackson slamming his helmet to the bench. And that’s because as the game wore on, Jackson had nowhere to pass leading to abortive runs. Damontae Kazee recovered a fumble, and of course Joey Porter, Jr. made his first career interception covering Odell Beckham in the end zone. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was again perfect, and Brad Wing kicked well enough to make people wonder why he’s been out of the league so long. The Steelers return coverage was solid. Gunner Olszewski made some nice returns, but almost cost Pittsburgh the game with yet another fumble. The real stars of the unit were Miles Killbrew who blocked a punt and Rodney Williams, who saved a touchdown after Olszewski’s fumble. Grade: A-

Coaching
It took 8 quarters, but Matt Canada’s offense finally scored a touchdown. But it looked good doing it. Seriously, Canada’s offense took some baby steps, those were evident in the field goal drive that followed the blocked punt.

Productivity on the Steelers offense remains the exception when it must become the rule. Baby steps are nice, but leaps beyond the occasional big passing play are in order.

If Matt Canada has been a lightning rod for criticism, Teryl Austin’s has gotten a pass, although his defense’s deficiencies have been on display. They were in display again in the first quarter, but his unit tightened down and held the Ravens scoreless for nearly 3 quarters.

  • Sure, the Ravens made some dumb decisions and dropped 2 if not 3 touchdowns.

But that’s how football works. You take advantage of mistakes and if possible you force them. Teryl Austin’s defense forced those – Lamar Jacksons’ frustration made that evident.

A loss as lopsided as the humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston can break the will of a football team. Fans and the press demanded dramatic changes. Tomlin made a few minor ones visible to the public and likely made more in private.

Elandon Roberts, Justice Hill, Steelers vs Ravens

Elandon Roberts stuffs Justice Hill late in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But most importantly, he kept his team on an even-keel and prepared them for a physical AFC North football and they prevailed. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The middle of the Steelers defense has been a mess. They’ve been flashes from this group of players, but too often the errors have outweighed them. Yet against the Ravens, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander stepped up to make several critical plays at critical junctures and for that Inside Linebackers win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

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Trap Game or Truth Game? Texans Humiliate Steelers 30-6 in Houston

The Pittsburgh Steelers flew to Houston and dropped a 30-6 loss to the Texans. The humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston wasn’t as bad as the score suggests.

It was far worse.

Prior to the game NPR’s Jeremy Scott quizzed Jim Wexell on whether this matchup had “…all the ingredients of a trap game.”

Wexell’s response? “Absolutely.”

It is tempting to credit the Steel City Insider scribe for being clairvoyant. But is that what’s called for here? Because the question this scribe is asking today is this: Was this really a “trap game?” Or does this defeat expose the painful truth about this football team?

Let’s try to find an answer.

Jaylen Warren, Jaylen Pitre, Steelers vs Texans

Jaylen Pitre knocks ball loose from Jaylen Warren. AP via Tribune Review.

Did History Reverse Itself in Houston?

You can often peg the outcomes of football games, even blowouts, on a pivotal series or play. The Steelers loss to the Texans is no exception.

After logging the one of the worst first haves in recent franchise memory, the Steelers flirted with respectability to start the 2nd half.

Sure, the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, but the defense forced a 3 and out, and then offense was right at it again, getting back to the Red Zone in just four plays. There they had to settle for another field goal. But that narrowed the score to ten, and the defense delivered on its next series.

It started off promising, with Najee Harris exploding for a 23 yard run. Kenny Pickett and Darnell Washington hooked up, giving the rookie his first NFL catch for 10 yards. Things bogged down after a catch by George Pickens on third and 18 netted 17 yards.

  • This brought up a make or break 4th and 1 situation.

Seeing the Steelers lining up in the shotgun immediately brought me back to the Steelers 2008 trip to Houston. That was the very first game Steel Curtain Rising covered, and on its first series on opening day, Houston coach Gary Kubiak went for it on 4th down. Here’s how it unfolded:

That was a bold move, worthy of an elite team, and rather brash, considering the pedigree of the Steelers run defense….

Perhaps someone should have reminded Kubiack of Bum Philip’s old dictum, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it. But just saying it don’t make it so…” because quarterback Matt Schaub, went for it, came up short, and Pittsburgh dominated thereafter.

Pretty ironic, isn’t it?

Given the game situation and field position, Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for it was pretty conventional. Now, had the Steelers converted that 4th down, right now we’d be praising Matt Canada’s play call as “bold.”

But instead we’re stick to a simple, objective observation:

  • Matt Canada’s play call was stupid.

Instead of trying to muscle out a single yard, Canada tried to outthink everyone, and we watched Jonathan Greenard push Broderick Jones aside to sack and injure Kenny Pickett.

  • For all intents and purposes, the game was over there.

The question is, did play just end the game for the Steelers? Or did it close the door to bigger and better things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers?

Down on the Defense?

The headline of this article leads with “Trap game or Truth Game?” To answer that, we’ll define a “trap game” as “A game where a good team under performs and loses against a team with inferior talent.”

The thinking going into 2023 were that the Pittsburgh Steelers were a team that might establish it as a contender whereas the Houston Texas were a club looking for respectability. In other words, to suffer a trap game a team needs to be good in the first place.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers really didn’t look a “good” team today and haven’t all season. Have they?

But appearances can deceive. The defensive side of the ball is perhaps illustrative here. The Houston Texans were playing a second sting offensive line against a Steelers defense that has terrorized quarterbacks all season long.

Yet, neither T.J. Watt nor Alex Highsmith got a sack, and the duo barley laid a glove on C.J. Stroud. Neither did any of the Steelers defensive lineman. While that’s concerning, there’s no reason to think that this is indicative of what to expect for the rest of the season.

And while the Steelers run defense didn’t give up a long run, it suffered death by a thousand cuts from Dameon Pierce. Stroud made some nice throws, but was basically a 50/50 passer.

  • But at the end of the day, there’s still hope for the Steelers defense.

That isn’t to say the Steelers defense will rebound to dominate the way they did in Cleveland, but they will rebound.

The irony is, the Houston Texans offense did what Matt Canada’s couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t

Is Canada’s Offense A “Couldn’t” Or a “Wouldn’t”

This morning in Steelers Nation you won’t have to look far to find calls to Fire Matt Canada. And that’s been true most Monday mornings since Canada took over.

Yours truly has declined to lean into such sentiment, at the expense of page views, because the Steelers offensive coordinator has been the most hated figure in Pittsburgh sports since George Herbert Walker Bush sat in the White House. And, taken in context, the struggles of Canada’s first two offenses were understandable.

  • But the Texans game is trying even my patience

During the first half the Steelers offense managed one interception and three punts. It failed to enter Texan territory. Exchange those for even a pair of field goal drives, maintain the two field goal drives that the Steelers opened the second half with, and you don’t find yourself in a do-or-die 4th down conversion situation with 3 minutes left in the third quarter.

But that was the situation. And instead of letting the offense try to impose its will, Canada got cute. And it blew up in his face.

  • And that’s been the story of the Steelers offense this season.

It does well for a few drives or parts of drives. Then it falls on its face at critical moments. Taken literally, and offensive coordinator’s job is to coordinate things so that the opposite occurs. Matt Canada is failing at his job.

Does Canada fail to grasp the value of physical football? Or does he ignore it because, like his predecessors Joe Walton and Kevin Gilbride, he wants to show the rest of the NFL he’s a genius? Or Canada actually doing the best he can with substandard offensive line and quarterback that we all overestimated?  Mike Tomlin, Hell Yeah, There's Going to be Changes

I don’t know, but Mike Tomlin needs to find the answer, quickly.

Trap Game or Truth Game Question Answered

Mathematically the loss brings the Steelers to 2-2, which is an OK place to be after week 4 in the NFL. But this is one case where the way the Steelers lost this tells us more than the outcome itself.

  • The Steelers failed the eye test today.

They didn’t look like a contender descending into “Any Given Sunday” territory against a lesser team. No. They looked like a team will be lucky to flirt with .500 – and that’s without knowing the severity of the injuries suffered by Dan Moore, Pat Freiermuth, DeMarvin Leal and Kenny Pickett.

When asked after the game if changers were coming, Mike Tomlin snapped, “Hell yeah. There’s going to be changes.”

Good. Because many things must change for 20/20 hindsight to transform this loss into a trap game.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Glimpsing of Ron Erhardt’s Ghost Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is using “work to do and bills to pay” as an excuse for his late grade sheet and not the fact that he thinks he caught a glimpse of the late Ron Erhardt, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the road win vs the Raiders.

Cole Holcomb, Davante Adams, Steelers vs Raiders

Cole Holocomb throttles Davante Adams. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Pundits are parsing this as Kenny Pickett’s best game. Was it? Pickett threw 16-28 for 235 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was his first multi-touchdown pass game and the Steelers did lead in time of possession. Nonetheless, their 6-15 third down conversion rate must improve. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris earned a gritty 65 yards on 19 carries, with a long run of 17 on the Steelers touchdown drive, showing that it was rough sledding up front for most of the night. Connor Heyward got his first carry of the season for zero yards. ON the night, Steelers running backs rushed for 94 yards, a season high which, while still too low represents and improvement. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 41 yards including a perfectly executed play action pass during the Steelers first trip into the Red Zone. That play was set up in no small part by a 14 yarder that he caught two plays before. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
This week it was Calvin Austin’s turn to get open deep in the middle of the field. And Austin delivered by burning the Raiders secondary for a quick six points. George Pickens only had 4 catches but they went for 75 yards and either converted third downs or otherwise set up scores. Allen Robinson had 4 catches, including a third down converter that iced the game. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once. But don’t let that stat deceive you, he took some vicious hits after the pass. And while the running game did enjoy more success this week, the Raiders still recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Not good enough. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Josh Jacobs looked normal, rushing for just 62 yards and a long of only 10 – much better than what we saw the last two weeks. Overall the line authored a strong game, Keeanu Benton breaking through to make a phenomenal sack which saved a touchdown. Grade: B

Linebackers
A glance at the stat sheet suggests “off night” for T.J. Watt, who only had 2 sacks and 3 other QB hits. But those sacks wrecked drives. Kwon Alexander led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cole Holcomb delivered a thunderous hit on Davante Adams that scuttled the Raider’s opening drive of the second half. Marcus Golden also got a sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
No the plus side, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson both came down with interceptions. On the flip side, the secondary got caught on a deep route on 3rd and 1 and was again fooled on a two- point conversion. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 for field goals of 42, 43 and 57 yards. Pressley Harvin averaged 53.8 on 6 punts, pinning the Raiders inside their own 20 on 3 occasions, although his penultimate punt was a short 41 yarder that had terrible hang time. The Steelers return coverage was solid, although they did give up a penalty on a field goal. Grade: B

Coaching
We have a mixed bag on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers defense was sound. It took away the ball 3 times, sacked Jimmy Garoppolo 4 times, contained Josh Jacobs, limited the Raiders to 4 of 15 on third down and opened the 4th quarter by forcing a turnover on downs.

But the unit got caught with its pants down twice on running plays, and the Raiders moved the ball far too easily on their 2 fourth quarter scoring drives. Yes, you can say Minkah Fitzpatrick’s roughing the passer call was bogus. But the Steelers defense had 2 chances to make a stop and failed then allowed a 2 point conversion.

Matt Canada certainly succeeded at one thing in the season’s first two weeks: He got Steelers Nation to forget Randy Fitchner and Todd Haley.

And for much of the game against the Raiders, he did little to jog their memories. As the Steelers offense vacillated between three and outs and field goal drives with one quick strike sprinkled it to keep things interesting.

But at two points in the game, it was almost as if Ron Erhardt’s Force Ghost* appeared to Matt Canada and the entire Steelers offense instructing, “Use the Force.” Seriously. The Steelers third quarter touchdown drive couldn’t have been scripted with better precision. And if the unit followed that with 2 back-to-back three and outs, it responded at the very end to kill the clock.

Mike Tomlin saw to it that the horrific performance against the 49ers had no ripple effect. After the Cleveland win he kept the team focused on a short week, ensuring that it didn’t go to their heads. Grade: C

Jaylen Warren, Robert Spillane, Steelers vs Raiders

Former Friends: Robert Spillane tries to tackle Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

*Truthfully, on that series the Steelers looked more like a Ken Whisenhunt offense than an Erhardt one, but Whiz is still with us and God willing will be for a long time.

Unsung Hero Award
A week ago this player missed his block, causing a sack on third down. This week the same player met Maxx Crosby head on and bought his quarterback time setting up a deep strike. He also ripped of a number of long runs and pass receptions to set up scores and for that Jaylen Warren wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Browns: No All Nighters for This Teacher Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is late with his marks because he refused to pull an all nighter, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 win over the Browns on Monday Night Football.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Browns,

George Pickens scores the Steelers lone offensive touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 15-30-1-1 for 222 yards. On the surface that look “OK.” Although Pickett made completed a few nice throws within tight windows, he didn’t look comfortable out there. Worse yet he didn’t improve as the game progressed. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 43 yards on 10 carries. Jaylen Warren had 20 yards on 6, while adding 66 more through the air. The running backs didn’t have much room to run but made the best with what they had. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught one pass for 2 yards on one target. The other two tight ends were invisible. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens took it to the house on a 71 yard pass from Pickett. He also caught 3 other passes for a 4 of ten targets. Allen Robinson caught 2 passes while Calvin Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Myles Boykin each caught 1 pass. Pickett checked down early and often. Was that because guys weren’t open or he was just more comfortable close to home? Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns had 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Worse yet, the line failed to move bodies when it counted the most, such as on the failed 2-point conversion effort. Deeply disappointing. Grade: F

Defensive Line
DeMarvin Leal got a sack, Montravius Adams forced a fumble, Keeanu Benton had two tackles while Armon Watts showed he belonged. Grade B

Linebackers
Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are tied as the Steelers number 2 scorers thus far this season. Both men authored All Pro worth performances as Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the week while Watt simply became the Pittsburgh Steelers all time sack leader. Cole Holcomb forced a fumble, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts looked stout against the run. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped the pass that Highsmith intercepted and was one of the leading tacklers despite leaving early with an injury. Joey Porter Jr. had limited snaps, but defensed two passes just the same. Patrick Peterson batted away one pass. For the second straight week Levi Wallace came up short in run defense and it cost the Steelers. Again. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, hitting 52 and 50 yards – the Steelers need both. Calvin Austin had a punt return for 14 yards. Pressley Harvin banged off some really impressive punts and pinned the Browns down inside their 20 four times. Gunner Olszewski fielded a kick he should have let go out of bounds. Grade: B

Coaching
We will pull no punches here: Something is rotten in the State of Pennsylvania and the odor makes it clear that it is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

2 weeks into the season and the Steelers are once again charter members of the “One touchdown per game” club. In the second half of 2022, they would move the ball, control the clock but settle for field goals. Now they’re not even doing that, averaging 10 points per game.

When the Steelers don’t sputter out of the gate and put the onus on Pickett to convert third and longs, they play physical football and set up third and shorts only to watch plays implode at the snap.

Is it Matt Canada’s fault? Isaac Seumalo the next Ladarius Green? Did Pat Meyer create a mirage with the rest of the offensive line late last season? I don’t know.

  • But I do know this: Nothing is going right.

In contrast the Steelers defense rebounded against the Browns. No they unit was not perfect. And yes the story may have been very different had Nick Chubb not gotten hurt. But Teryl Austin’s unit proved itself of capable of making a big play when it counted.

The Steelers showed up against the Browns with fire. That’s not a surprise, but its also not a given as opening day disappointments can have a spiral effect. But Mike Tomlin’s team have a history of bouncing back from big losses, and they added to that against the Browns. Grade: C-

Larry Ogunjobi, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns

Larry Ogunjobi sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
With Cam Heyward out someone on the defensive line was going to need to step up. And they were going to need to do it early to prove to the Browns that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be pushed around. This player did it, stepping up and sacking Deshaun Watson after Kenny Pickett’s gift wrapped interception. He later recovered his fumble and stopped him stone cold on another run – all in the first half. And for that Larry Ogunjobi wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Defense Creates Its Own Destiny in Steelers 26-22 Win over Browns on MNF

It wasn’t pretty.

At times it was actually butt ugly.

It confirmed more doubts that it dispelled, at least on one side of the ball.

What the Steelers 26-22 win over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football means for the rest of their season remains very much an open question.

But there’s one thing we do know now: Pittsburgh won because they prevailed in the game’s critical “Reality Football” football moments.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Stats Don’t Win Games, Players Do

“A Most betraying box score,” was the first headline I saw the morning after the game. It was in an email from The Athletic. And let’s agree: the stats don’t paint a pretty picture for Pittsburgh. Consider:

  • The Browns outgained the Steelers 411 to 258 yards
  • Cleveland logged 21 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 9
  • The men from the Mistake by the Lake dominated time of possession 35:28 to 24:32

And no, I won’t go to “So and So made their Fantasy Football owners happy BUT…” again, because it would be flat out wrong. That’s because Jerome Ford, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb both delivered for their team in multiple key moments.

But the Steelers defense came up bigger in the game’s critical moments. Before we dive into that, let’s discuss the Nick Chubb situation.

Yeah, But What About Chubb, Watson and the Penalties Etc…

First, Godspeed and good luck to Nick Chubb in his recovery whose injury is almost as gruesome as gruesome Joe Theismann’s was.

As it relates to the game, many are saying “The Steelers wouldn’t have won had Chubb not been hurt.” They’re probably right. So are those who argue “Had Deshaun Watson not self-destructed, the Browns would have won.” Or “Cleveland killed itself with penalties.”

All of that is irrelevant.

The Steelers 1-1 record doesn’t come with an asterisk today. Nor will Roger Goodell add one at the end of the season, just as Pete Rozelle never added an asterisk to Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record because Rocky and Franco both got hurt in the 1976 AFC Championship game.

Injuries and errors are both a part of football, and winners are ones who can capitalize on them.

Steelers D Dominates on Weighty Downs

Anytime a defense outscores an offense in football, we tend to describe the defense as “dominant.” Yet, the Steelers defense gave up runs of 69 and 20 yards and passes of 23 and 29 yards. And frankly, Cleveland made it look easy. Just think back to Deshaun Watson converting a 3rd and 13th while standing on his own 3. He made it look so easy Troy Aikman was left in disbelief.

  • Indeed, that was a key moment of “situational football” that the Browns offense won.
  • And it likely would have been a critical moment had the Steelers defense not created bigger moments.
Joey Porter Jr., Elijah Moore, Steelers vs Browns

Joey Porter Jr. tips a pass away from Elijah Moore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith set the tone by picking off a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected and taking it to the house on the game’s very first play. Ten plays later Joey Porter did it again, by batting away a pass and forcing a field goal.

  • The defense didn’t get to rest much.

Kenny Pickett almost gave the Browns a layup, throwing an interception with his third pass of the night on Pittsburgh’s 16. Larry Ogunjobi sacked Watson on the next play. His next pass went for one yard. Ogunjobi got credited for defending a pass on the ensuring third down. Then the Browns missed a field goal.

And that was the story of the night:

  • When the Browns went for it on 4th, Montravius Adams stripped Watson, as Ogunjobi recovered
  • With Cleveland threating to score to close the first half, T.J. Watt forced a field goal by sacking sacked Watson.
  • Cole Holcomb forced another fumble in late in the third quarter
  • Alex Highsmith answered Moore’s third down conversion with a strip sack, that Watt recovered and scored on.

And Joey Porter closed the game the way he opened it, by batting away a ball on 4th down. While it still has its warts, the Steelers defense showed it can create its own destiny.

The Steelers Offense: From Reality Football to a Reality Check

While the Steelers defense made a statement following their awful performance against the Browns, their offense did the opposite.

Sure, Kenny Pickett had a nice connection with George Pickens. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped off a handful of authoritative plays. Calvin Austin came down with a very nice third down converting pass, catching a bullet that Pickett tucked into a tight coverage window.

  • Those were all excellent, highlight-worthy plays.

The problem is they were the only positive plays Pittsburgh’s offense made all night. Thank God the Steelers defense scored on their first and last turnovers. Because the other two resulted in a total of 4 plays that led to a fumble and a punt.

  • How bad was the Steelers offense?

Going into the 4th quarter it needed 2 points to take the lead. Not only did the offense need the defense to score those points, but Kenny Pickett and company actually netted negative 5 yards.

All of the progress the offensive line appeared to make last season seems like a mirage. For once, Matt Canada doesn’t look as bad as his critics say he is. He looks worse. And Kenny Pickett looks lost.

Time for Less Work, More Progress

Against the Browns the Steelers defense showed itself as a unit capable of creating its own destiny. As for the offense? Bob Labriola, fully admitting to being charitable, remains a work in progress.

Fair enough. But next week against the Raider the offense had better start proving it is capable of making that progress.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – Teeth Kicked in Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose students aced the practice test only kicked in the teeth on the real exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 opening day to the 49ers.

Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs 49ers

Javon Hargrave celebrates with an air kick after sacking Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterback
On the face of it 31-46-232 for 1 TD and 2 interceptions might seem respectable. But it was not. Kenny Pickett was off every time it counted. He didn’t shy away from the center of the field but that’s where he threw his worst interception (OK he had a far uglier almost interception.) Pickett can still make the 2nd year leap – at this point he can only go up. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Take away Najee Harris’ 24 yard scamper at the end of the 2nd half and he and Jaylen Warren totaled 13 yards rushing. The duo added 14 more through the air. Unacceptable by any measure. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught the only touchdown but missed a key block on a shove jet sweep on the second play of the game. Connor Heyward caught 2 passes. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson II had a respectable day and Calvin Austin caught 6 passes for a total of 37 yards – this is the kid who is supposed to spread the defense? Diontae Johnson contributed to Pickett’s first pick, and he and Pickett failed to connect on what should have been an easy touchdown pass. George Pickens had 5 catches for 36 yards. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs averaged 1.6 yards per carry if you control for Harris’ long run. 49er defenders recorded 8 tackles for losses. Kenny Pickett was sacked 5 times and hit a total of 9 times. It’s as if the second half of 2022 never occurred. Grade: F

Defensive Line
San Francisco 49ers average 5.5 yards rushing. And that’s including two kneel downs. That isn’t entirely on the defensive line’s shoulders, but it starts there. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was a man on fire. The rest of the unit got burned. This was the first time the inside linebacking group played together in a game that counted and it looked like it. Both Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith authored some good places, but as a whole the unit was below the line. Grade: D

Secondary
Brandon Aiyuk had his third best outing in terms of catches and his best one measured by yards. Patrick Peterson defended a few passes nicely, but he was on coverage for some of those plays against Aiyuk. Levi Wallace took a poor angle and missed a tackle on Christian McCaffrey’s 65 yard run. Minkah Fitzpatrick took a poor angle on a key blitz. Brock Prudy very well may prove that he’s the next Tom Brady on his own merits. But even if he doesn’t, the Steelers certainly made him look like Brady. Grade: F

Special Teams
After an awful opening three and out, Pressley Harvin shanked a 34 yard punt, setting up the 49er’s first score. Later on, long snapper Christian Kuntz got called for a face mask, tacking on a 15 yard penalty and setting up another score. Ex Steeler Ray-Ray McCloud III set the 49ers up other scores with solid punt returns. Chris Boswell made his only PAT. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers knew they had to limit the 49ers yards after catch. They knew they couldn’t let Christian McCaffrey reach the second level. On offense the Steelers understood that the 49ers were the tough to run on and would need to win the battle in the trenches.

  • We know that because Mike Tomlin told us.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs 49ers

Anthony McFarland was a bright spot for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

We have every reason to take him at his word that he, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin did their damndest to prepare their units for the 49ers. Whatever they did, it didn’t work. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
How to you find a hero after an awful game like that one?

Well, one easy way is to avoid mentioning a highlighting his key contribution to his unit and mention him here. Against the 49ers Anthony McFarland returned kicks for 25, 32 and 34 yards and for that McFarland wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 opening day win over the 49ers.

 

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Good to be King? Steelers Sign Desmond King, Cornerback from the Houston Texans

Alas, Omar Khan didn’t have another “Khan Artist” style trade up his sleeve. The Steelers initial 53-man roster had 2 punters on it: Pressley Harvin and Braden Mann. Surely this wasn’t going to last. So speculation started.

Glancing down the Turnpike, the Eagles didn’t have a punter and had 7 defensive backs….

….Could Khan and Andy Weidl be cooking up a cross state exchange? After all, the biggest question on the depth chart was whether the Steelers had found the right mix between speed, youth and experience in their cornerback room.

Desmond King, Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Chargers

Tyler Matakevich tries to tackle Desmond King. Photo Credit: Chargers.com

While a trade never materialized, the Steelers did acquire a defensive back when they signed Desmond King who’d been cut by the Houston Texans. Unable to make a trade (assuming he tried), Khan remained in the Steelers comfort zone of “feeding the hand that slaps you.”

During the 2022 off season the Steelers filled key defensive needs by signing Levi Wallace, Genard Avery, and Larry Ogunjobi, all of whom had hurt the Steelers with big plays. And while few Steelers remember the name “Desmond King,” most will never be able to forget his 75 yard punt return for a touchdown in the Steelers 2018 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

The play was not only dramatic, but was likely aided by an uncalled clip.

Desmond King was a 5th round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2017. He played for the Chargers for four season, appearing in 53 games and starting 23. The Chargers traded him to the Tennessee Titans in 2020 and he signed with the Houston Texans during the 2021 off season.

In Houston, King appeared in 33 games, starting 25 of those. During his career he’s logged in 9 interceptions, force 3 fumbles and recovered 7. He’s also made 8.5 sacks and delivered 16 hits on the quarterback.

And between Calvin Austin and Gunner Olszewski the Steelers appear to be set for returners, but King gives Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith an option there, having returned over 101 punts in his career and 57 kickoffs, including a 50 yarder just a year ago.

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