Week 1 in the NFL is all about acquainting yourself with reality. And the reality Pittsburgh faces today is that the San Francisco 49ers came to Acrisure Stadium for the 2023 season opener and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of 30-7.
- Sometimes reality bites.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin minced no words declaring, “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.” He’s right. The question is why and should we be worried?
How Quickly Off Season Accolades Feel Hollow
The NFL has dominated sports news, in terms of commanding press coverage and fan interest since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to professional football. Yet through all of it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely remained in the background.
But 2023 was different. The Steelers got out of their comfort zone:
- Free agents that otherwise would have stayed in Pittsburgh were allowed to walk.
- Older free agents and/or others with injury histories were brought to the Steel City
- Omar Khan and Andy Weidl authored a draft that made everyone happy
- “Flawless” isn’t too much of an exaggeration to describe the Steelers preseason effort
Yet, as Washington Commanders fans can assure us, winning the off season Lombardi counts for nothing when the games actually matter. Oh, it’s not that the everything the Steelers did in the off season blew up in their faces. To the contrary:
- T.J. Watt had 3 sacks and forced 2 fumbles (yeah, that first one was a fumble. Period.)
- Patrick Peterson skillfully batted away two passes.
- Kenny Pickett ran a two minute drill at the end of the first half reasonably well.
- Najee Harris had a nice 24 yard run on that two minute drill
- Anthony McFarland looked sharp as a kick returner
- Elandon Roberts dumped 49ers rushers for losses twice, with authority.
And that exercise above, ladies and gentleman, is the football analysis equivalent of having the icing off of the top of your cupcake before eating the rest of your dinner. And by cupcake, I’m not talking about the kind your mother made, I’m talking about a Hostess cupcake. You might enjoy a brief sugar high, but everything else will disappoint you as your appetite is spoiled.
Because really everything else the Steelers did in their 2023 opener disappointed.
Losing It in the Trenches
One of the most heartening things about the off season was the front office’s commitment to returning to “Steelers Football.” By “Steelers Football” we mean winning in the trenches because the ones in Black and Gold are the ones hitting the hardest.
First in free agency and then in the draft, the Steelers invested heavily in bulking up their starters and backups on both lines, while signing thumpers to rebuild their inside linebacking corps. Yet the 49ers pushed the Steelers around like rag dolls.
- You remember that picture-perfect run Jaylen Warren in preseason against the Bills?
Well, the 49ers executed a similar play to open the 2nd half, where Christian McCaffrey ran 65 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey ran well on that play, but his lineman watch that play again and try to count all of the Steelers defenders who got manhandled on that play.
- Nor was that an isolated incident. Take away that 65 run and McCafferty still averages over 4 yards a carry.
Granted, on the first touchdown pass Brock Prudy placed the ball with super-human precision, but either way Aiyuk literally caught everything that was thrown his way.
Chicken, Egg or Both?
During the back-half of 2022 the Steelers formula for success on offense was simple:
- Control the line of scrimmage
- Create manageable third downs by running hard on first and or second down
- Count on Kenny Pickett (or Derek Watt if we dare say) to convert those third downs
- Dominate time of possession
Sure, the Steelers got stuck in the Red Zone more often than not ensuring that a lot of games went down to the buzzer. But it worked.
Fast forward to September 2023. When Mike Tomlin was asked about the poor performance of his offense, he reference the fact that the Steelers started something like 0-5 on third down conversions.
Take away Najee Harris 24 yard run at the end of the 1st half and he averages 1.4 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren wasn’t much better, averaging 2 yards per carry. Suffice to say, there’s no running back controversy in Pittsburgh this morning.
But the offense’s woes don’t lie entirely on the shoulders of the running backs and offensive line. The Steelers tried opening several drives with short passes, but even when they completed those they still found themselves in third and long.
What’s perhaps more worrisome was how they attacked those third and longs. During the second half of 2022 the knock on Kenny Pickett was that he played it safe, avoiding throwing downfield and/or in the middle of the field.
- Against the 49ers he attacked the middle of the field, and the middle counter attacked.
Perhaps his first interception was due to Diontae Johnson slipping, but he threw a very poor pass dead center in the middle of the field on his second one, and he should have had a third returned for a touchdown.
In his defense, Pickett faced pressure all day. The 49ers sacked him 5 times and registered a total of 9 hits. Couple that with the 8 tackles for losses registered by 49er defenders and Andy Weidl’s “planet theory” of offensive line building looked more like space dust.
Primary Differentiation on Opening Day
Is all hope lost for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. The Steelers opened their previous two seasons with upsets of AFC contenders only to flounder for large portions of both campaigns. Looking further back, during the Cowher Era and opening day blowout was almost a good omen.
- But with that said, opening day revealed a stark contrast to Steelers Nation.
The San Francisco 49ers looked every bit of the team that’s been to 3 of the last 4 Conference championships and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a team still searching for its first playoff win since 2016.