Reality Bites: 49ers Kick Steelers in the Teeth, 30-7 to Open the 2023 Season

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?

 

Kenny Pickett, Drake Jackson, Steelers vs 49ers

Drake Jackson sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

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:

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.

And the 49ers hardly executed a one-dimensional offense. The Steelers defense might have “contained” George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but Brandon Aiyuk torched them for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

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.

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Key Question: If Kendrick Green Stays at Fullback, Can He Match Derek Watt’s Streak?

So apparently Kendrick Green at fullback wasn’t a onetime thing.

The big news out of the Steelers annual Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Stadium was center/guard Kendrick Green getting reps at fullback.

Green told Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell, “I felt like I was a kid again playing backyard football.” Green, who got work at fullback with the team’s third offense tempered expectations conceding, “Just something they were just dabbling with. I don’t think it’s going to be nothing too serious, though. We’ll see.”

Kendrick Green, Kendrick Green Fullback

Steelers guard/center takes reps at fullback. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

After issuing similar cautions before Saturday’s practice, Green got several reps at fullback again for the Steelers, including at least one with the first team offense.

Mike Tomlin, who was not present for the “Friday Night Lights” practice, explained on Saturday “That guy is a unique guy, so we asked KG to provide a quality look for us, and he did,” before revealing “We just put that in our hip pocket.”

The Steelers started the summer with fullback Monte Pottebaum on their roster, but he mysteriously went on the reserve/retired list early in camp. Connor Heyward has been mentioned as an option at fullback, and now so has Kendrick Green is getting reps there.

  • So apparently the speculation that the Steelers will sign Derek Watt is moot.

Which makes dollars and salary cap sense. Derek Watt was an asset during his 3 years in Pittsburgh, but he was a very expensive “Nice to have” for the Steelers offense. Kendrick Green is both cheaper and offers position flexibility.

But if Mike Tomlin decides to take Kendrick Green out of his “Hip pocket” the question should be asked, “Can he match Derek Watt’s rushing streak?”

Thus far Kendrick Green’s reps at fullback have seen him block while catching a few passes from Mason Rudolph. But the hidden value Derek Watt added to the Steelers offense was in short yardage carries: Derek Watt only carried the ball 10 times for the Steelers, but Pittsburgh went 9-1 in those games.

  • If Kendrick Green can deliver at even remotely that level, this little experiment will be worthwhile.

One final factoid to remember: Kendrick Green wouldn’t be the first Steelers guard/center to do double duty at fullback.

During the Steelers 2009 season, center/guard Doug Legursky saw action at fullback. One of those games was Rashard Mendenhall’s 165 yard, career-best performance against the San Diego Chargers – Just Say’in….

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Steelers Cut Anthony Miller, Bolster Special Teams with Nick Kwiatkoski, Rex Sunahara

Two seasons, one catch for two yards on third and 6 in 41-10 loss. Alas, that stat will define Anthony Miller’s Steelers resume as the team announced his waiver to create roster space for Nick Kwiatkoski.

The Chicago Bears drafted Anthony Miller in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Yet in three years at the Windy City, Miller never started more than 7 games. The Bears traded him to the Texans in July 2021, but he only lasted in Houston until October 6th. The Steelers signed shortly thereafter opening the door to his one catch 2 yard career in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Miller,

Anthony Miller’s Steelers Career consisted of 1 catch for 2 yards. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Still, Anthony Miller impressed a lot of people in training camp during the summer of 2022 and appeared as a roster lock prior to going on injured reserve in August. The Steelers quickly offered him a futures contract in January and his name was mentioned along side Calvin Austin III as it became apparent that Omar Khan would neither use a premium pick nor a major free agent signing on a wide receiver.

They’ve also signed Hakeem Butler whom they took a long look at going into the 2019 NFL Draft. And of course they’re bringing back Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Gunner Olszewski.

Steelers Bolster Special Teams with Nick Kwiatkoski and Rex Sunahara Signings

In letting Anthony Miller go the Steelers gave Special Teams coach Danny Smith a boost by signing linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. The Bethel Park native and West Virginia alumni was a fourth round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 2016 NFL Draft. He brings the Steelers 89 games of experience with 34 starts for the Bears and then the Raiders.

However, injuries limited his 2021 campaign to just 66 defensive snaps for the Raiders and he saw zero defensive snaps on his most recent stop with the Atlanta Falcons. He did log close to 400 combined special teams stops in those cities and special teams will be his ticket to a roster spot in Pittsburgh.

  • The Steelers also signed long snapper Rex Sunahara to compete with incumbent Christian Kuntz.

The Kwiatkoski signing sends a strong signal that the Steelers have turned a page from both Derek Watt and Benny Snell, two running backs who saw few carries over the last two years, but were both special teams standouts.

 

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Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Does Pittsburgh Have the Picks to Add Depth?

2022 was a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. For the first time since 2007, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker “Until the wheels fell off,” the Steelers rushed for over 2,000 yards.

That’s a dramatic improvement for a franchise that has struggled to run the ball consistently ever since James Conner got injured in the middle of the 2018 season.

Do the Steelers need to address running back in the 2023 NFL Draft to sustain that improvement? Let’s find out.

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

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starter

In his rookie season Najee Harris became the first Steelers running back to crack the 1000 yard mark since Le’Veon Bell in 2017. In his sophomore season, Najee Harris became the first Steelers back to have back-to-back 1000 yard seasons since Bell’s ’17 campaign.

  • It wasn’t easy.

As a rookie, Harris ran behind a weak offensive line, but succeeded in running strong and, at times, making it look easy. Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp and the offensive line’s run blocking was subpar during the first half of the season.

Harris struggled through the first 8 weeks of the season. Many of his critics pounced, arguing that his mediocre rushing averages proved that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had erred in investing a first round pick in him in 2021.

But if his stat line failed to impress, for my money, Harris continued to pass the “eye test” early in the season. The fight was there, even if the blocking wasn’t, and it seemed obvious he was nursing an injury.

Like they did with nearly everyone else on the team, Steelers Nation saw a different Najee Harris after the bye week. Harris began running with authority and power, 6 of his seven touchdown, and logging 3 90 yard plus games, including 111 yard effort in the road win over the Ravens.

Perhaps most impressively, Harris earned his second straight 1000 yard season while playing nearly 20% fewer snaps than he had in 2021.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

The emergence of Jaylen Warren is the reason why Najee Harris was able to remain on the sidelines for close over 200 more snaps than he had has a rookie. Warren made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, first earning a roster spot and then carving out a role as their third down back.

As a rookie, Jaylen Warren played in 31% of the Steelers offensive snaps, both on third downs and rotating in with Harris. He only ran for 379 yards with a season-high effort of 76 against the Ravens, but he proved himself to be a true number 2 running back.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Beyond Warren on the depth chart is Anthony McFarland. McFarland returns to the Steelers on a futures contract, after spending 2022 on the practice squad, save for his activation against the Colts. McFarland only ran for 30 yards in that game and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but for the first time since the Steelers drafted him in 2020, he looked like he belonged in the NFL.

The Steelers also have Jason Huntley and Master Teague on their roster.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Running Back

As of this writing, both Derek Watt and Benny Snell remain unsigned. The Steelers may have seen enough from McFarland to pencil him in as the third string running back, but there’s no one on the roster remotely capable of taking Watt’s spot.

Ah, remember the good ole days of 2000, when the Steelers opened the season with fullbacks Jon Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala on the active roster and Dan Kreider on the practice squad? Yeah, times change.

The Steelers need to beef up their depth at running back this off season, but lacking a 5th and 6th round pick, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it in the draft. Which is a shame because their need at running back going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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Watt’s a Fullback Worth? Ideally, the Steelers Would Resign Derek Watt. But the World Ain’t Ideal

Believe it or not, but the fullback was once the lifeblood of the Steelers offense. Franchise greats such as Franco Harris and Merril Hoge as well as disappointments such as Walter Abercrombie all played fullback in Chuck Noll and Tom Moore’s offense.

Ron Erhardt’s offense sharply curtailed the fullback’s carries and shifted his focus to blocking. And that’s where it remained for the balance of the 90’s. During the 21st century the role of the fullback faded both in Pittsburgh and the rest of the NFL.

Yet the Steelers went back to their roots in 2020 when they signed Derek Watt to a 3 year contract. That contract is up and he’s now about to be a free agent again. Should the Steelers keep in in Pittsburgh?

Derek Watt, Steelers vs Eagles

Derek Watt catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Derek Watt Career with the Steelers

Here’s a good test. True or False: “In 2022, Matt Canada greatly expanded Derek Watt’s role in the Steelers offense.” Raise your hand if you answer “True.” I raised my hand.

  • But I shouldn’t have.

The Steelers brought Derek Watt to Pittsburgh in the spring of 2020 and then proceeded to play Watt in 52 or 6% of offensive snaps. The transition from Randy Fitchner to Matt Canada only increased Watt’s snap percentage by 1%. And Watt’s snap count remained at 7% in 2022.

What did change was that in 2022 Derek Watt actually started getting the ball. No, Watt’s carry count didn’t break double digits, but his 9 carries is the highest number of carries by a Steelers fullback since Tim Lester’s 8 carry season in 1996. (As Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala did line up as a fullback at times, you could argue the point.)

  • And while 9 carries might seem insignificant 8 of those carries converted a 3rd or a 4th down.

Perhaps more importantly, Derek Watt has been a vital part of the Steelers special teams throughout his time in Pittsburgh, logging almost 2/3s of special team snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

For all the focus on passing and building up Fantasy Football stats, in the NFL games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. In Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, and a growing offensive line, the Steelers have the foundation for a winning rushing attack.

Derek Watt gives you the physicality to push that rushing attack over the top. He also provides special teams consistency.

Oh, and to those who argue that his short yardage success is just a “nice to have,” the Steelers were 7-1 in games when Derek Watt got a carry. Just Sayin….

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

Fullbacks have authored some of the most glorious moments of the Steelers past. Fullbacks form a fundamental part of the franchise’s legacy.

And that’s the point. They’re part of the franchise’s legacy, not its future. Yes, there still is a place for fullbacks in NFL – for now – but the Steelers have paid Derek Watt just under 10 million dollars over the last three years to touch the ball 19 times and make 28 special teams tackles.

Surely Omar Khan can find some combination of veteran minimum salary players and/or undrafted rookie free agents to do the same for a faction of the salary cap space. Can’t he?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Derek Watt

This is a tough nut to crack. The old school Generation X Steelers fan in me screams, “Bring him back! You never appreciate what a fullback can do until you don’t have one!”

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

And even if you can’t make sentimental personnel decisions, Mike Tomlin is right when he says “You can never have enough Watts.” Which is a way of saying that Derek Watt brings a lot more value to the team than his numbers suggest.

But does that value justify 3.3 million in salary cap space per year?

  • The change in front office is another factor to consider.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert worked extremely well together. In business terms you’d say, “Coaching achieved alignment with the Front Office.” But there are times when the two were been out of step. See Max Starks‘ career arc for an example.

  • Its been suggested that Derek Watt this could be another example of this.

If it is, then will Omar Khan back Derek Watt the way Kevin Colbert backed Max Starks? Or will he be differential to the coaching staff?

At the end of the day, Derek Watt is a good player. He isn’t as dynamic as T.J. Watt is on the field, but like his brother his brings the kind of character to locker rooms that helps you win Super Bowls. The Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh, but only at the right price.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2023 Free Agent Tracker

The Steelers 2023 off season is about to kick into high gear. The Scouting Combine is this week and free agency is only a few weeks away.

And this will be the first time Mike Tomlin has navigated the free agent waters without Kevin Colbert. General Manager Omar Khan and Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl will now work with Tomlin to guide the Steelers through the first off season of the Kenny Pickett Era.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

Although the Steelers salary cap situation is generally considered to be healthy, Omar Khan will certainly need to make moves to allow the Steelers to maneuver.

And maneuver they will need to do, as Pittsburgh has 23 free agents to make decisions on this spring.

Here is a look at the lay of the land before the chess pieces begin to move.

Click on the highlighted names for a full profile of each Steelers free agent.

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Signings

Christian Kuntz, long snapper
Signed 1 year exclusive rights free agent tender 2/23/2023
Jamir Jones, Outside linebacker
As an exclusive rights free agent, signed one year deal on 2/27/2023
Patrick Patterson, Cornerback
Signs 2 year 14 million dollar contract with $5.85 million in guarantees on 3/13/2023
Larry Ogunjobi, Defensive Tackle
Signs 3 year 28 million dollar contract on 3/14/2023
Damontae Kazee, Safety
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Nate Herbig, Guard
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Cole Holcomb, Inside Linebacker
Signs 3 year contract on 3/15/2023
Elandon Roberts, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract on 3/16/2023
Isaac Seumalo, Guard
Signs 3 year contract on 3/18/2023
James Pierre, Cornerback
Signs 1 year contract on 3/22/2023
Le’Raven Clark, Offensive Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/24/2023
Zach Gentry, Tight End
Resigns with Steelers on 3/25/2023 — signing not confirmed 1 week later
Keanu Neal, Strong Safety
Signs 2 year contract with Steeles on 3/30/2023
Breiden Fehoko, Nose Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/30/2023

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Losses

Cam Sutton, Cornerback
Signs 3 year contract with the Detroit Lions, for 33 million dollars in change and 22 million in guarantees
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract with Las Vegas Raiders
Devin Bush, Inside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with Seattle Seahawks
Malik Reed, Outside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with the Miami Dolphins
Terrell Edmunds, Strong Safety
Signs 1 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles
Trent Scott, Right Tackle
Signs 1 year contract with Washington Commanders
Steven Sims, Wide Receiver
Signs 1 year contract with Houston Texans
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/Guard
Signs 1 year contract with New York Giants

Restricted Free Agents

Jeremy McNichols, Running Back

Unrestricted Free Agents

Mason Rudolph, Quarterback,
Derek Watt, Fullback
Benny Snell Jr., Running Back

Chris Wormley, Defensive End
Miles Boykin, Wide Receiver
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle
Karl Joseph, Safety
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker

Yeah, Omar Khan certainly has his work cut out for him. Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover it all, adding capsule profiles as they’re ready and updating signings as they occur.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Retain Matt Canada – No the Hindenburg Hasn’t Been Sent to Rescue the Titanic

It is official. Mike Tomlin has retained Matt Canada as the Steelers offensive coordinator for at least one more season. Predictably, Steelers Nation is acting like the Hindenburg has just been sent to rescue the Titanic.

It is not.

Steelers fans love to revile their offensive coordinator. It’s an annual pastime. Thanks to marriage of Madden and Fantasy Football, everyone seems to think that working an as offensive coordinator is easy.

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

I’ve railed against Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians. Yet, as the “FIRE MATT CANADA” cries reached a fever pitch, I’ve largely kept my silence, even when joining the chorus would have delivered plenty of clicks.

There are several reasons for this, reasons why Tomlin’s decision isn’t a disaster and might even be a good thing. Let’s look at why.

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

Steelers retaining Matt Canada ISN’T akin to sending the Hindenburg to rescue the Titanic.

“You Have to Have the Players.” – Dan Rooney

Dan Rooney routinely made this statement whenever he was asked to explain the Steelers continued success. The Steelers record, headlined by 6 Super Bowls, since he took control of the team from Art Rooney Sr. in the 60’s vindicates the late Chairman.

  • The Steelers offense under Matt Canada had hardly been the Greatest Show on turf.

In 2020 the Steelers posted a 9-7-1 record that featured 7 come from behind wins. The offense was at its best when Ben Roethlisberger was in the 2 minute drill, calling his own plays.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

Not exactly. Ben Roethlisberger was a bad fit for Canada’s offense. This old dog wasn’t going to learn any new tricks. And Roethlisberger was playing behind a make-shift offensive line, with a rookie running back and a rookie tight end.

  • During the first half of 2022 the Steelers offense regressed.

This isn’t opinion. Its fact. The Dr. de Acero commented to me, “Nunca habia visto un ofensa de los Steelers tan inepto” – I’ve never seen a more inept Steelers offense. And he was right. But we’ve also never seen such an inexperienced Steelers offense.

  • Who were the most experienced veterans on the Steelers offense?

Chuks Okorafor, Diontae Johnson and Zach Gentry (and Gentry missed most of 2019 and 2020 in IR.) Outside of those three and Derek Watt, no one had more than 2 years of experience with the Steelers.

Moreover, emerging leaders such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth were in their second years. George Pickens and Connor Heyward were rookies. Mitch Trubisky was in his first year with the team and Kenny Pickett was a rookie.

Assembling an offense on the field is a bit different that designating a week’s starters for Fantasy Football. It takes time for 11 guys to learn to play together. Even Joe Gibbs, who perhaps had the greatest offensive mind in the modern NFL, started in Washington going 1-6 before finishing 8-8.

(And Gibbs had veterans like Joe Theismann, John Riggins and future Hall of Famer rookie Art Monk to lean on.)

“Not Making Change for the Sake of Change” – Mike Tomlin

The quote above was Mike Tomlin’s to questions about whether he would fire Matt Canada midseason after the Steelers got pasted by the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin would be asked that question several other times during the course of the season.

Each time Tomlin would preach the virtues of a systematic as opposed to reactionary approach to coaching.

Tomlin’s philosophy prevailed is illustrated by Mike DeFabo tweet:

That turn around might not have led Fantasy Football owners to scramble to trade for Steelers skill players to add to their team, but those statistics added up to wins.

  • How did Matt Canada and the rest of the offensive staff pull off this turn around?

There’s no secret here. They didn’t execute any massive schematic change (although they did make some tweaks.) Instead, they eliminated the execution errors that had plagued the team earlier in the season and, once that happened, Canada’s system worked.

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

This is true. Canada’s offense does lack explosive or “chunk” plays. Even taking into account the turn around in the 2nd half of the season, under Matt Canada, the Steelers remain bottom feeders when it comes to passes longer than 20 yards.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But how much of this is by design and how much of this is Canada’s “fault?”

Perhaps a little of both. As Steel City Insider film reviewer D.I. Davis has pointed out since week 1, the Steelers might lack long passing gains, but the deep routes have been there and receivers have been open.

  • If you doubt that look no further than to George Pickens’s tantrum during the middle of the season.

Mitch Trubisky tried to get aggressive in relief of Pickett against the Ravens and his 3 interceptions likely kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. Pickett too stuck with the short passes, particularly early on. As the season progressed, he got a bit more adventurous downfield, albeit with mixed results.

  • On the flip side, Matt Canada’s offense clearly favors ball control.

That might not be exciting, but as the wins over Carolina and Cleveland proved, if you ball control combined with drives that end in touchdowns instead of field goals can be downright lethal.

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

As mentioned above, I too was a harsh critic of former Steelers offensive coordinators Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians.

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Walton’s tenure was a disaster and his last NFL job (although he did excel at Robert Morris). Ray Sherman’s was arguably worse, lasted one year and he only had one more season as an NFL coordinator.

I also defended Sherman’s predecessor, Chan Gailey for his aggressiveness in the 1997 AFC Championship loss to the Broncos. As the seasons and AFC Championships mounted between 1997 and 2005, I began to regret his decision to put the game in Kordell Stewart’s rather than Jerome Bettis’ hands.

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

A good chunk of this sites content during our first year in 2008 was directed at criticizing Arians. Then came the playoffs and Super Bowl XLIII where Arians’ offense excelled. And of course Arians enjoyed tremendous success since leaving Pittsburgh.

  • The moral of this stroll down memory lane is two-fold.

First, Matt Canada may not be Pittsburgh’s next Bruce Arians, but he has earned the chance to try. Second, Mike Tomlin is far more qualified to make that judgement than I am.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Dare to Dream Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher daring to dream that his classroom once again features a franchise quarterback, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s stat line of 16 of 27 for 168 yards and one touchdown appears so “pedestrian” at first glance. But there was nothing pedestrian about the poise and playmaking instincts he showed on his final pass. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his first 100 yard game, a 111 yard one to be exact, mixing long runs and tough yards on 22 carries. Jaylen Warren ran for 76 yards on 11 carries with Derek Watt converting a 3rd and 1 for 3 yards. Warren and Harris combined for 5 catches, none more important that Harris’ game winner. Harris also pushed Pickett on a 4th down conversion. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 6 targets for 36 yards to lead the team, but his 20 yard catch brought the Steelers to midfield on the game winning drive. Neither Zach Gentry nor Connor Heyward had a catch, but contributed to run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 35 yards, Steven Sims had 3 for 34 yards and George Pickens “only” had 2 for 29 yards. Miles Boykin didn’t have a catch, but helped push Kenny Pickett across the line on a QB sneak. Gunner Olszewski executed a nice reverse and made a key block on Warren’s long run. Plays like that, along with the receiver’s stats won’t make Fantasy Football owners happy.  But the reality is that the quality of each individual play is why the Steelers playoff hopes are alive. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit nine times. The latter number is too high, but is OK given the context. However, the offensive line contested the line of scrimmage from the very beginning and paved the way for the best rushing effort of a Steelers offense since Le’Veon Bell’s prime. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 4 tackles followed by 3 by rookie DeMarvin Leal. What the stat sheet doesn’t show is the number of times the Ravens rushers were either stopped for zero or minimal gain. An excellent night for the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led the unit with 8 tackles including one for a loss. T.J. Watt “only” had one sack, but it came two plays after J.K. Dobbins 22 yard run and helped ensure it was the last run of the night. Watt also had another tackle for a loss and 3 other QB hits. Alex Highsmith and 3 tackles – for little or no gain. Grade: A

Secondary
The Ravens were 5 for 12 on third downs. And for the second consecutive week, an opponent’s desperation comeback attempt ended with a Steelers interception, this time at the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who also led the unit in tackles. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he made 3 others including a 51 yarder. The Steelers gave up a long kickoff return, only to have their defense deliver a save. Pressley Harvin averaged 5 yards a punt including one inside the 20. Grade: C-

Coaching
Complainers about Matt Canada’s offense will find plenty of fodder given the Steelers partly pass numbers, sluggish Red Zone performance and settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Again.

So be it. The Baltimore Ravens are on of the toughest teams in the NFL to rush on, and the Steelers waltzed into their home and rushed the ball down their throats earning a 10 point advantage in the time of possession.

  • Moreover, the Steelers committed to the run and that delivered dividends as the game wore on.

On defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores decided that the Ravens weren’t going to repeat their success running against the Steelers, and deployed a 4-4-3 scheme that featured 2 rookies to stop the Ravens. And stop the Ravens they did.

Eight weeks ago the Steelers record was 2-6. They’d just gotten thrashed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and talk both inside and outside of Pittsburgh was how high within the top 5 of the draft the Steelers would fall.

But Mike Tomlin committed his team to playing to win, his players bought into it, and today their playoff hopes remain alive. Grade: A

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Mike Tomlin hesitates to praise rookies too much. Yet after the Ravens game he described this individual as “combative” and “confrontational” urging that those characteristics were “needed.” Seven tackles on 50% of the defensive snaps were enough to make Mark Robinson the 3rd leading tackler of game and for that he win Unsung Hero honors for the 2022 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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