Steelers 2022 Season Review – Rebuilding the Right Way in Pickett’s Rookie Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season 9-8, just barely missing the playoffs but giving the franchise its 19th consecutive non-losing campaign since 2003. The quick take away?

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

2022 was a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh. Just don’t expect Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan or even Kevin Colbert to utter the word. In fact, expect them to reject the concept. To understand why go back to the words of Bill Cowher.

After consecutive losing seasons in 1998 in 1999, reporters asked Bill Cowher the Steelers were rebuilding in 2000. The Chin rejected the idea immediately, explaining, “Anytime you say you’re rebuilding, you’re giving yourself an excuse for losing.”

I don’t know if Mike Tomlin ever rejected rebuilding so eloquently, but his actions prove that he shares his predecessor’s philosophy.

But if Mike Tomlin will not, and should not say the Steelers were rebuilding in 2022, I can and I will. In 2022 the Steelers showed right way to rebuild. Let’s look at how and why.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

The secret to rebuilding the right way is as simple: Successfully rebuilding in the NFL means doing your best to field a winning team as quickly as possible in a way you can sustain in the future.

  • But if that’s easy to write, it’s hard to execute.

The NFL certainly doesn’t lack “Get rich quick” schemes. The wisest move of the Steelers brain trust was to avoid any of those temptations, as they declined to throw draft picks and guaranteed contracts to bring Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or even Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the Steelers focused their rare salary cap abundance on shoring up weaknesses at offensive line by bringing in Mason Cole, James Daniels and at inside linebacker with Myles Jack. And they remained true to the core franchise philosophy of building through the draft.

While the success or failure of their ’22 draft will hinge on Kenny Pickett’s development, the story of the 2022 phase of the rebuild belongs as much to the rest of the Steelers 2022 draft class as it does to Pickett.

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

Other commentators have described the Steelers 2022 season as “The Tale of Two Season: Before the Bye and After.” You can muster many statistics from both sides of the ball to show how bad the Steelers were before their bye week. You can point to Najee Harris playing injured, the offensive line’s slow development under Pat Meyer and/or T.J. Watt going on injured reserve.

Those are all valid points. But the simple explanation for the Steelers 2-6 is the best one: For the first time in 18 years, Pittsburgh was playing without a franchise quarterback.

Gunner Olszewski, Brenden Schooler, Steelers vs Patriots 2022 home opener

Gunner Olszewskimakes the tackle after muffing a punt. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Watching the Steelers try and fail to comeback against the Patriots in week 2, I had no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger, at least the 2021 edition of Big Ben, would have gotten Chris Boswell into position to tie the game. I’d argue that had Roethlisberger returned the Steelers would have won 2 of the three against the Jets, Browns, Dolphins.

Instead we saw Mitch Trubisky playing not to lose and the Kenny Pickett playing like a raw rookie. The defense  struggled without T.J. Watt; although new comers Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were improving it against the run, as foreshadowed in the upset of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

After the Bye – Coming Together, Growing Together, Winning Together

The conventional explanation ties the Steelers 2nd half turn around to Kenny Pickett’s development. And be clear about it, Pickett’s growth was critical.

Heyward first “appeared” when Tampa’s defense ‘forgot’ him and Mitch Trubisky found him in the middle of the field for a 49 yard gain that set up an insurance touchdown as the Steelers secured their second win. Next, Kenny Pickett found Heyward open in the middle against Atlanta, giving the Steelers their only touchdown in a game that improved their record to 5-7. Heyward’s next big play came with 25 seconds left against the Raiders where he took a toss 21 yards before wisely taking a knee, allowing the Steelers to kill the clock and improve their record to 8-8.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

Injuries forced him into the starting line up in the season finale, where he:

  • Converted a 3rd and 1 with a six yard scamper.
  • Caught 3 of 4 passes thrown on the game-closing touchdown drive
  • Those catches included a 27 yarder on 3rd and 8

Connor Heyward earns this extended shout out because his arc exemplifies the arc of so many on the team.

The offensive line gelled, allowing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to run smarter instead of just harder. Backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland did the same in Indy when injuries forced them into the game. George Pickens arrived in Pittsburgh making acrobatic catches – as the season progressed he started making them in clutch situations. Steven Sims made several clutch catches of his own down the stretch, while Diontae Johnson managed to break his nasty habit of running backwards after a catch. Pat Freiermuth played well from the get go, but continued to deliver even when limited by a knee injury late in the season.

  • On defense, the story is similar, but it revolves more around T.J. Watt’s return.

The Steelers lost T.J. Watt in the opening upset of Cincinnati, and struggled in his absence. Even if Watt wasn’t at wasn’t at full strength until December, he still forced defenses to account for him.

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

And that’s why both veteran leaders like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as emerging leaders like Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton authored their biggest “splash plays” after Watt’s return.

  • But growth also fuels part of the 2022 Steelers defense’s story.

After getting embarrassed against the run at home against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin turned to rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, and the duo helped shut down several stout rushing attacks in late December.

Every player had a hand in the pile pushing the Steelers late season surge. And anatomical measurements aside, no player had a bigger hand than Kenny Pickett.

Pickett’s Progress

Drafting a first round quarterback in the NFL is pro sport’s ultimate risk-reward call. Consider this: between 1994 and 2021, Washington has drafted 5 first round quarterbacks and won 2 playoff games.

In the same timespan, the Steelers have drafted one first round quarterback and appeared in 9 conference championships and 4 Super Bowls. So the Steelers took a risk when they took Kenny Pickett.

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Even during Pickett’s interception-laden early appearances, the game never looked “too big” for Pickett the way it sometimes did for Mason Rudolph or say Kordell Stewart. After Mitch Tribuisky’s strong performances in relief of Pickett and after the trashing from Philly, there were calls for Mike Tomlin to “put Pickett on ice” for the rest of the season.

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

  • A come-from behind win against the Colts on Monday Night Football
  • A flawless two minute drive to comeback against the Raiders
  • An improvised throw on a broken play to clinch the comeback against the Ravens – on the road

Let’s be clear. Pickett has a lot to prove. He needs to play better earlier in games, use the middle of the field and improve his deep ball accuracy. But Pickett can learn those things. Pickett’s comebacks reveal traits that  quarterback’s cannot learn.

In 2021 thanks to the heroics of their aging franchise quarterback, the Steelers made the playoffs when they didn’t deserve to. In 2022 the Steelers came together as a team around their rookie quarterback and missed the playoffs even though the probably deserved to make it.

Missing out on competing for a Lombardi is always a disappointment, but that disappointment shouldn’t cloud the fact that the 2022 Steelers showed the NFL how to rebuild.

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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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He’s Got “It”: Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Kenny Pickett’s Poise Carries Day

Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.

  • In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:

  • Decisions made before the game
  • Decisions made on draft day
  • Decisions made during the game

Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Pre Game Decision

22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:

  • Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.

Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.

A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.

  • But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
  • Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.
T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

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

So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.

So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.

But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”

Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition

Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:

Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%

Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.

Game Day Decision Making Delivers

Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.

  • The Steelers are hardly immune.

Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.

And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.

So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.

  • Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.

Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Najee Harris, James Daniels, Steelers vs Ravens

James Daniels blocks for Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.

  • Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.

Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.

But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.

And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.

Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again

Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.

While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:

  • Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.

But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:

That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.

  • Kenny Pickett has “It.”

And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Living Up to Legacy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his students adding to the legacy left to them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Raiders on the 50 Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads the Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 26 of 39 for 244 yards with 1 touchdown and one interception. In truth, Pickett did not look sharp for much of the first 55 minutes of the game. But he delivered perfectly when the game was on the line. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 76 yards on the ground on 22 carries, although perhaps those numbers would have been better had the Steelers committed more to the run. The duo also combined for 7 catches for just under 50 yards. Derek Watt was stopped on third down. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 7 of 8 passes thrown to him for 66 yards and the arrow on this kid continues to point up. Zach Gentry caught 1 pass for 1 yard and missed the block on Derek Watt’s run. Connor Heyward took a surprise pitch 21 yards and showed veteran savvy by sliding down in bounds to keep the clock running. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 64 yards on 7 targets, leading the group. George Pickens caught 5 passes on 5 targets including a 25 yarder, the night’s longest, and the game winning touchdown. Steven Sims and one catch for 7 yards on 1 target. Myles Boykin helped push Kenny Pickett to a first down on 4th and 1. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked all night and was only touched on 4 occasions. That’s good. However, the run blocking wasn’t there on a consistent basis, forcing lots of 3rd and longs and consequently, punts. The Steelers need to be able to run the ball in cold weather. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi have only had one stop for a loss, but he helped dominate the Raiders upfront after the opening drive. Montravius Adams had 3 tackles as part of an effort that shut down the Raiders running game on a night when running the ball meant everything. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith closed the third quarter with a 13 yard losing sack of David Carr which helped begin the Steelers rally. T.J. Watt had a tipped pass and a tackle for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles with 12. Grade: A-

Secondary
Arthur Maulet made a heads up play intercepting the ball immediately after Pickett’s turnover. Minkah Fitzpatrick Short circuited their next drive with an interception of his own, and helped set up a sack on a blitz late in the fourth quarter. Cam Sutton made an interception that all but sealed the win for the Steelers. Grade: A

Special Teams
The Raiders did have one long punt return, but its impact was limited. Kick coverage was good and Steven Sims fair caught all but one punt. Pressley Harvin was solid on his returns. Chris Boswell did make two field goals, but he also missed to more. Yes, weather was a factor, but kicking at Acrisure Stadium should be his specialty. Grade: C-

Coaching
Matt Canada’s offense struggled for much of the night and one has to question why the Steelers passed 39 times on a night with 9 degree weather. Still, had the field goals not been missed, the last minute drive wouldn’t have been necessary, but it was and his unit executed to perfection.

  • And the toss to Connor Heyward was a beauty that sealed the game.
Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Franco Harris Jersey, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin wearing a Franco Harris jersey. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via St. Albert Gazette

Teryl Austin’s defense made an immediate adjustment that neutralized the Raiders running game and his defense kept delivering even as the offense missed a field goal and punted 3 times in the second half alone.

  • In early October the NFL had left the Pittsburgh Steelers for dead.

They had a rookie quarterback and had been smacked around by the league’s heavyweights and up and comers a like. At this point the smart money was on Pittsburgh spending Christmas “competing” for a top 5 pick.

Instead the Steelers competed for a playoff spot on Christmas Eve. On a night when the Steelers celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and said goodbye to Franco Harris, Mike Tomlin harnessed that emotion without letting his team get caught up in it. Grade: B+

Sung Hero Award
The Steelers tapped him to lead introductions carrying a Number 32 banner. When the game started, Cam Heyward showed why he was worthy to carry on Franco Harris’ legacy, with two sacks, a pass defensed, another tackle for a loss and numerous others for no or little gain, and for that he wins the Sung Hero ward for the 2022 win over the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Panthers: Bouncing Back Edition

Taken from the Grade Book of a teacher proud to see his students bounce back after what could have been a humiliating loss, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Panthers

Najee Harris goes airborne. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky was a careful but efficient 17 of 22 for 179 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he also avoided interceptions.  The Steelers converted 12 of 16 third downs, and while some of those were runs, Tribuisky had to several key long throws and authored the NFL’s longest drive since 2001. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown. Jaylen Warren had 38 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Derek Watt had 2 yards on another 3rd down conversion. The Steelers running backs ran well early. When Carolina clamped down they continued to run hard. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For the first time in recent memory, Pat Freiermuth did not catch a pass. Zach Gentry did catch one for 4 yards. The tight ends helped in the run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 98 yards on 10 catches catching all 10 targets. That’s impressive, as was his ability to convert third downs, even if he seems to have to resist the urge to run backwards. Amazingly, he STILL doesn’t have a touchdown 14 games into the season. Steven Sims and  Gunner Olszewski each had a catch. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Carolina Panthers sacked the quarterback once and hit him one other time. The Steelers ran well during the first half. During the second half as the Panthers adjusted, the Steelers didn’t run as well, but they were able to run the ball at moments in the game when they needed to run it. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was alive, recording 1.5 sacks and hitting the quarterback two other times. Larry Ogunjobi had 5 tackles including 2 for losses. Isaiahh Loudermilk had a tackle for a loss. Carolina’s running game went no where, and the line is a big reason for it. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt looked closer to his old self getting 1.5 sacks on critical downs, and getting to the quarterback on two other occasions. Alex Highsmith also had a sack and a forced fumble. Devin Bush had four tackles. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles, but was out of place on Terrace Marshall  that set up Carolina’s only touchdown. Grade: B

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles with 5 and overall had a strong game. Overall the secondary played well, but this was more of a “bend but don’t break” game for the Steelers. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in a 50 yard field goal that essentially iced the game for the Steelers. Pressley Harvin had a solid day while Steven Sims was above the line as a returner. Kick coverage did allow a long return. Grade: B-

Coaching
Functioning at its best, Matt Canada’s offense isn’t going to make many fantasy football owners happy. Which is just fine by me. What the win over the Panthers showed was that the formula of ball control combined with touchdowns can be downright lethal.

If the Panthers did move the ball a little too easily at times against Teryl Austin’s defense, the Steelers completely neutralized the Panther’s rushing attack forcing them to try to beat them with Sam Darnold, at task which Darnold wasn’t up to.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The loss to the Ravens could have crushed his team. At the very least it appeared to expose the run defense as their soft underbelly. Yet Mike Tomlin opened the game by daring Carolina to run on him and challenging his defense to stop them.

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Panthers

Thanks to George Pickens’ block, Steven Sims runs for 22 yards on 3rd and 1. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Panthers tried. The Steelers stopped them. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
His 38 yard reception converted a third down and set up a touchdown. But it was his block that sprung Steven Sims free on a risky 3rd and 1 call that kept another TD drive makes George Pickens the Unsung Hero of the Steelers 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

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Losing It In the Trenches: Steelers Lose to Ravens 16-14 as Baltimore Dominates Line of Scrimmage

The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Baltimore Ravens 16-14, losing out in the battle of the backup quarterbacks. The loss snapped the Steelers 2 game winning streak and the Ravens four game losing streak against Pittsburgh.

  • The reason for the change in trends?

As Mike Tomlin conceded during his press conference, there’s nothing mystical about it:  When you turn the ball over 4 times in the Red Zone, you’re going to lose. Even if that is true, and it is, the Steelers still had a chance to win. They didn’t because they fell short on another, more ominous fundamental.

Gus Edwards, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

It falls to Minkah Fitzpatrick to stop Gus Edwards. Not Good. Photo Credit: Joey Polney, BaltimoreRavens.com

Understanding Tomlin’s Patience with Pickett

The win over the Falcons provided an affirmative example of why Mike Tomlin has been smart to stick with Kenny Pickett, despite calls from outside the franchise to sit the rookie. The loss to the Ravens provides a negative one.

  • Pickett’s progress has been slow at times, painfully slow.

The offense has improved, outside the Red Zone at least, the improvement has flowed the way molasses drips down the side of a bottle. The positive is that the drip’s progress is sustainable – unless something acts on it from the outside.

Roquan Smith, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Roquan Smith sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • A reason for Pickett’s slow progress is that he’s been very, very careful with the ball.

That caution virtually eliminated turnovers from Pickett’s game, yet that caution came at the cost of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.

  • The Baltimore Ravens were the outside force that slowed the molasses of Pickett’s progress.

After just two series (and two punts), Pickett left the game in the concussion protocol, giving way to Mitch Trubisky. And Tribusky certainly provided the proverbial “spark” to the offense.

  • He wasted little time in finding Pat Freiermuth for 14 yards converting a 3rd and 9
  • He immediately struck downfield to George Pickens for 42 yards
  • He looked again to Pickens who drew a pass interference penalty

Najee Harris lunched himself into the end zone, cutting Baltimore’s lead to 3. The decisiveness, and the downfield aggressiveness that had been missing from the offense was back. I daresay the series reminded me of the tiempo pickup we saw when Joe Gibbs benched Jay Schroeder in favor of Doug Williams against the Lions back in ’87.

But Tribusky’s aggressiveness carried its own cost. His next two series ended with a Red Zone interception and another interception just outside the Red Zone. Instead of settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, the Steelers got nothing.

Worse yet, while Tribusky protected the ball better the next time the Steelers neared the Ravens Red Zone, Calais Campbell blocked Chris Boswell’s field goal….

Yet despite turning the ball over four times on three possessions which could reasonably have ended with Chris Boswell field goals, the Steelers were in the game till the very end.

Defense Fails @ Line of Scrimmage

Normally turning the ball over four times yet still having a chance to win amounts to a tiny silver lining. That’s not the case here.

The Steelers defense had a chance to win this game. And the Steelers salary cap decision tell us that this defense was built to win games just like this.

Those Splash plays were nice, but the Steelers defense came up short on bread and butter plays. Fitzpatrick’s hit on Huntley forced him from the game, bringing in Ravens 3rd string quarterback Anthony Brown.

Gus Edwards, Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Ravens

Gus Edwards stiff arms Alex Highsmith. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • All the Steelers needed to do was stop the Ravens running game.

The Steelers defense knew the run was coming. They tried to stop it. They failed. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards hung 186 yards on Pittsburgh.

Sure, the Steelers limited the Anthony Brown-led Ravens offense to one field goal. But the field goal drive saw the Ravens rip off runs of 5, 14, 6, 7 and 7 yards. Patrick Ricard also converted a 3rd and 1. Oh, and the Steelers had done a good job of taking Mark Andrews.

  • Except when Anthony Brown hit him for 7 yards on to convert a 3rd and 4 on the field goal drive.

The worst play for the Steelers run defense came last: Gus converted a 3rd and 3, gaining 6 yards thanks to a Minkah Fitzpatrick stop.

You know your run defense is “choto” (Argentine slang for… coming up short er um, anatomically , discussed here) when it is 3rd and 3 after the 2 minute warning where a stop gets you the ball back and your free safety makes the tackle.

  • And so it was.

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Falcons: Dark Tower Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher who is almost as pleased by the fact that he was able to work a Dark Tower reference into his analysis (see the link at the end) as he is about the Steelers back-to-back wins, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 road win over Atlanta.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 16 of 28 for 197 yards with one touchdown and for the fourth straight week – no interceptions. Steadily but surely, Pickett continues to improve. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 17 carries, followed by Benny Snell with 24 yards on 6 carries, Jaylen Warren with 15 yards on one carry and Derek Watt with 1 carry for 4 yards that converted a 3rd down. So the top 3 running backs plus the full backs get carries in consecutive games for the first time in memory. And the Steelers get their first consecutive wins of the season. Coincidence? I think not. Grade: A

Tight Ends
The stat sheet tells you with Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 76 yards on 5 targets and that Zach Gentry caught 1 for 8 yards on one target, and the Connor Heyward caught 1 pass on one target for 17 yards. Gentry’s catch set the Steelers up with a 2nd and 2 with 4:50 left in the game; teach of Freiermuth’s touchdowns converted a 3rd down, and Heyward scored the only touchdown. The Steelers tight ends showed just how much damage you can do with 5 catches. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the unit with 5 catches for 60 yards on 11 targets. But he dropped at least one critical catch and got gift call on a play that should have been a fumble. Steven Sims didn’t catch either of the passes thrown his way, but did look good on reverses. Gunner Olszewski had 2 reverses for 2 yards. George Pickens had one catch for two yards and made little secret of his unhappiness with getting targeted – this attitude must NOT continue. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was not sacked for the entire day and he only took 4 QB hits. Equally impressively, the Steelers offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage opening holes for the runners. This unit is coming along. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a difference making sack early in the game. Larry Ogunjobi decisively dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for a loss that forced a field goal. Expecting the pass the Steelers took Montravius Adams and the Falcons ran very well in the second half. The line shoulders some of that. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack led the unit with six tackles and Devin Bush and Robert Spillaine logging QB hits as pass rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith had quiet games. Grade: B-

Secondary
The Falcons were 3-10 on third downs. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit and the team in tackles, including one for a four yard loss that helped stall a drive, and of course he authored the interception that ended the game. The secondary did get a little squishy in the 2nd half, but went into “Bend but don’t Break” mode in the Red Zone. (Although Arthur Maulet should have been flagged for pass interference). Overall a strong afternoon for the secondary. Grade: B+

Special Teams
What a difference 1 week makes. Matthew Wright hit all four of his field goals and completely neutralized Cordarrelle Patterson on kick returns. Pressley Harvin did a spectacular job pinning the Falcons down, while Myles Boykin downed the ball deep Steven Sims shaky punt returns drops this grade, but special teams was a difference maker for the Steelers. Grade: A-

Coaching
Is it me or does Matt Canada’s play calling suddenly look smarter now that his rookie quarterback is maturing and his offensive line continues to jell? During the first half the Steelers executed their physical, ball control brand of offense to perfection outside of the 20s. They didn’t do quite as well in the 2nd half, but killed the clock when necessary.

  • Getting touchdowns instead of field goals and Red Zone performance must improve, but that should come.

One defense the Steelers completely unhinged the Falcons during the first half. During the second half the Falcons reverted to their roots, and ran the ball effectively. Some of that success likely can be laid to the feet of the Steelers moving away from their base defense.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Sutton keeps the Falcons from landing in the end zone. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review.

George Pickens temper tantrums are a cause for concern as is the coaches obvious attempt to pacify him with a cheap catch, which would only seek to encourage the temperamental rookie. With that said, it was the Steelers, and not the Falcons who were playing like a team 1/2 game out of first place, as Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to their road win since playing a road game on Monday Night Football. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Atlanta didn’t have a lot of luck through the air. But they did take their shots down field. And although he’s only credited with one pass defense, Cam Sutton played a huge role in keeping the Falcons from landing in the end zone on more than one occasion and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over Atlanta.

 

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Stack ’em: Steelers Beat Falcons 19-16 as They “Remember the Faces of Their Fathers”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 at Georgia’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The win came in their second road game on a Monday Night Football shortened week giving them their first consecutive victories of the 2022 season.

  • Just how and why were the Steelers able to accomplish this modest yet important milestone?

The Steelers won in Atlanta because, to borrow the words of Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “They remembered the faces of their fathers.”

Connor Heyward, Connor Heyward 1st touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Connor Heyward scores his first touchdown. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Remember the Faces of Their Fathers

Roland Deschain is the Dark Tower’s protagonist acting as a sort of mythical knight in the form of an old Western gunslinger (Clint Eastwood’s character in Pale Rider is a good metaphor). A fully summary of an 8 book a 4,250 pages’ series is impossible here, but whenever Roland implores something critical to his katet or posse, he does so by reminding them to “Remember the face of your father.”

Roland Deschain

Roland Deschain

“Remembering the face of your father” serves as a fitting motif for a game that saw Cam and Connor Heyward step with big plays in honor of their father, the late great Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, but that’s part of the motive driving this motif.

After the Steelers 2009 season, Art Rooney II called out his team’s inability to rely on the run in critical situations, describing rushing the football as one of the franchise’s foundations.

A week ago, the Steelers defeated the Colts because they were able to lean on backfield depth after losing their top two backs to injury.

And both players played well. But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada didn’t hesitate to rotate in Benny Snell when necessary. They even continued to rely on Derek Watt who converted yet again in short yardage situations.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Falcons

Najee Harris looked like a first round pick vs Falcons. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Najee Harris’ 86 yards on 17 carries were impressive as were Benny Snell’s 24 yards on 6 carries. Jaylen Warren’s 5 yard carry was more economical, but it converted a third down on a field goal drive.

  • Statistics paint an incomplete picture, however.

The Steelers running backs hit holes with authority and ran decisively. On several occasions Najee Harris stiff armed his way to additional yards and as a group, the Steelers running backs forced piles to fall forward.

Pittsburgh’s running game wasn’t perfect. Matthew Wright’s 4 field goals show that the Steelers are still struggling in the Red Zone, but by relying on an effective running game, the Steelers gave themselves a chance to win.

Pickett Continues to Progress

Even since Mitch Trubisky came off the bench and sealed the win over Tampa Bay, plenty of outsiders have called on Mike Tomlin to bench Pickett and allow the rookie to learn from the sidelines.

After the Philadelphia disaster, Bill Cowher suggested Tomlin was putting Pickett’s confidence in jeopardy. Following the beating from the Bengals, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed to other rookies who’ve been shown the bench around the league suggesting the Steelers follow suit.

  • But Mike Tomlin has kept his own counsel and during these last two weeks we’re seeing why.

A week ago, Kenny Pickett stepped up and put a tough throw trhough a tight window to George Pickens on third down in what would be the game winning touchdown drive. Against the Falcons Kenny Pickett hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times on third down, converting each one.

And with Pittsburgh holding a 3 point lead and sitting on 5 minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers alternated effective running with passes to Zach Gentry and Diontae Johnson, both of which converted third downs.

  • Beyond that, Pickett’s game-IQ continues to improve.

This goes beyond not throwing an interception.  He’s also tucked and run with it when it’s been wise to do so and otherwise thrown it away rather than force a dangerous pass.

And as the read he made on Connor Heyward’s touchdown catch shows, Pickett is doing far more than just driving without denting the back bumper.

Defense Dominates, Slips, Then Stiffens

Taking a 16-6 lead into half time isn’t normally an occasion for saying that the leading team is stomping on its opponent, but that was indeed the case with the Steelers defense in the first half.

Cam Hewyward, Marcus Mariota, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

There weren’t a lot of fireworks, save for Cam Heyward’s sack of Marcus Mariota, but the Falcons could get nothing going. Indeed, had the Steelers been able to trade one of Matthew Wright’s field goals into touchdowns, they very well may have put the game away at the half.

  • But in the 2nd half it was time for the Falcons to remember something.

They remembered that they had the trio of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley who could run the ball. And Atlanta began letting them run the ball, daring the Steelers to stop them.

  • For much of the 2nd half, the Steelers struggled to do that.

As Atlanta played Smash Mouth football to work its way down to the Steelers 10 yard line with 7 minutes left to go, it looked like the lead to this article was going to be that the Steelers had forgotten the faces of their fathers.

But thanks to stout play by the two Cams, Cam Heyward and Cam Sutton, the Steelers defense forced a field goal. But two more players were to step up before this was over.

Harvin Hits It on a Dime, Setting Up some Minkah Magic

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Chargers 2015

Cam Heyward honoring his father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward on MNF. Photo Credit: Twitter

After forcing a field goal the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away, but thanks to the smart play by Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris and Benny Snell mentioned above, they burned off four minutes and 45 seconds off of the clock – including all of Atlanta’s time outs.

  • Pressley Harvin boomed off a 38 yard punt that Myles Bokin downed at Atlanta’s 2.

Marcus Mariota had 42 seconds to get the Falcons into field goal range with no timeouts. He wasted little time in taking a deep shot to Drake London and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted even less time in jumping the route, intercepting his pass and returning in 16 yards before running out of bounds.

With the game on the line, Harvin and Fitzpatrick made big, smart plays – truly remembering the faces of their fathers.

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