Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

Keep up with Steelers Free Agency. Click here for all of Steelers 2024 coverage.

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Steelers Report Card for the 2023 Season – Glad the Grading is Over Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is glad to be done with grading for a while, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 season.

T.J. Watt, Jake Browning, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jake Browning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Both Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky disappointed. Kenny Pickett not only failed to make the “second year leap” he posted some historically anemic passing numbers. Trubisky had multiple chances both as a reliever and a starter to show why he belongs in this game, and he squandered them. The difference is Trubisky turned over the ball, Pickett did not. Mason Rudolph in contrast, elevated the entire offense. IT was a different unit with him on the field. And his performance pulls the group’s grade up. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren entered uncharted territory for the franchise this year, becoming the only 2 running backs to get a carry (although Anthony McFarland did catch 2 passes in the opener.) Both men earned over 1000 yards from scrimmage, with Najee Harris rushing for 1035 yards – his third consecutive 1000 yard season. We saw as the season progressed, the running backs were capable when they had the blocking. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth got hurt in the opener and then played through injuries for the first several weeks until missing several games in the middle of the season. His effectiveness was limited, but he did come on late. Darnell Washington did a respectable job for a rookie. Connor Heyward was a quality role player and his presence as a blocker was notable late in the season. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wideouts had their ups and downs. George Pickens flashed early in the season, but struggled in the number one role. His attitude came into question, but he closed the year with a bang. Diontae Johnson was injured early in the season, and took some time to find his stride. Calvin Austin flashed on a few plays, but otherwise was a non-factor. Allen Robinson served as a serviceable slot receiver. Myles Boykin didn’t see much action outside of special teams. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This unit was easily the biggest disappointment for the first half of the season. Pass blocking was poor and run blocking appeared to be non-existent at times. The change began when Broderick Jones entered the starting lineup. However, the rest of the line improve, particularly as Isaac Seumalo got his legs under him. The improvement was important, but the difficulty the Steelers had running the ball against Buffalo shows that this group has a long way to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
This group got a taste of what life could be like after Cam Heyward, and at times that was pretty scary. Early in the year it looked as if the Steelers run defense might revert to 2021 form. However, the unit improved as Keeanu Benton worked his way into the line up. Still, it would be nice to call out a few other up and comers. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored another Defensive Player of the year worthy performance. Watt proved time and time again he is a generational talent capable of altering the course of a game by himself. Alex Highsmith’s numbers were down a bit from his previous year, but Highsmith delivered, as did outside linebacking backups Markus Golden and Nick Herbig. At inside linebacker, it took a while to jell, but the Steelers had quite a troika there in Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Then of course Holcomb and Alexander got hurt, as did Roberts, forcing the Steelers to look to the street for replacements. Those guys did well enough, but the absence of the starters was significant. Grade: B+

Secondary
When the Steelers opened against San Francisco, Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace were the starting corners, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee and safety Keanu Neal formed a troika while Eric Rowe sat on the Carolina Panthers practice squad. When the Steelers closed at Baltimore, Joey Porter Jr. was a starting corner, Levi Wallace was back as a starter as Patrick Peterson was playing safety alongside Eric Rowe. Yes, this unit weathered a lot of adversity. And while their numbers might not have been flashy, they had as big a part of keeping the Steelers in games as did any other unit on the defense. Grade: B

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Miles Killebrew was a one man wrecking crew blocking 2 punts during the season. Calvin Austin may not have done much as a receiver, but he proved to be a good punt returner. Godwin Igwebuike proved to be a solid kick returner with “upside.” Steelers kick coverage could have been better at times, but it was never a liability. Pressley Harvin’s punting was inconsistent, and that brings the group’s grade down. Grade: B+

Coaching
The Steelers coaches’ score card for 2023 contains ugly, bad and good.

The ugly stems from the ill-fated decision to retain Matt Canada. None of the progress evident during the final half of the 2022 season was evident in 2023. Instead, the Steelers fielded one of the most anemic offensive efforts franchise history. Three and outs became the norm. The Steelers failed to establish the running game and Kenny Pickett did not progress.

For as disappointing as Kenny Pickett’s failure to make the “second year leap” was, the Steelers worst stretch of the season came when Kenny Pickett was out. Mitch Trubisky showed a lot of leadership, looked in command on the field, but he ultimately failed to rally the team in relief of Pickett and floundered in his first two starts.

  • Mike Tomlin had treated Mason Rudolph as a “nice to have” and he should have given him stronger consideration sooner.

The Steelers defense had its struggles early on too. But as the troika of inside linebackers found their stride, the unit perked up. Then they started to get hurt. Many Steelers fans question why Mike Tomlin extended Teryl Austin for two more years.

They should not. Austin’s defense may never have broached shut down level, but it displayed an uncanny knack for delivering big plays at critical moments. This continued throughout the season, despite the fact that Austin had to rebuild the middle of his defense, almost on a weekly basis.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

If Mike Tomlin deserves criticism for retaining Canada and the horrid 10 quarter stretch that followed Pickett’s injury – and he does – he also earns credit. When the bottom falls out on and NFL team late in the season like that, free fall generally ensues.

Mike Tomlin made sure the opposite happened, defying the odds and landing his team in the playoffs, where they made a spirited run at a Super Bowl favorite. Grade: C+

Front Office
The improvement of the Steelers in 2023 can be tied, in many respects, directly to integration of its rookie class into the starting line ups. Omar Khan and Andy Wedil’s first draft won accolades.

That was nice, but the Steelers 2023 draft class helped the team win games, which is far more important.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

The front offense proved to be quick on its feet, as the Steelers found themselves cycling through street free agents at safety and inside linebacker. Likewise the free agents Khan brought to Pittsburgh also accounted itself well. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offense had trouble scoring for most of the year. At times it had difficulty doing anything right. But there was one player who could be counted on to score when his number was called, and he delivered 56 times out of 59 and for that Mr. Automatic Chris Boswell wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2023 season.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

It started in a moment of triumph. Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny f___ing Pickett” after Pickett’s last-minute comeback against the Ravens on January 2nd started 2023 giving Steelers Nation permission to “Believe.”

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

Before the ’22 campaign even ended, Steel City Study’s Jeremy Hertz declared, “I can’t wait for training camp next summer!”

Then Omar Khan led the most aggressive free agency effort in franchise history. Next came the draft, where the Steelers 2023 draft class won universal praise, even from hardened skeptics.

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

Expectations skyrocketed after a sterling Steelers preseason. All of it remains understandable, even in 20/20 hindsight, but the story of the Steelers 2023 season is simple: Expect the unexpected.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ominous Opening Day Omen

In 2023, for the first time since 2014, the Steelers opened the season in Pittsburgh. Their opponent was the San Francisco 49ers, an NFC heavyweight and a Super Bowl favorite.

  • What a perfect opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers to prove themselves.
49ers fans Acrisure Stadium, Steelers vs 49ers

49ers fans invade Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: 49ers.com

Yet even before the opening kickoff, something was amiss: 49ers fans were taking over Acrisure Stadium. Steelers fans gloat when Steelers Nation invades stadiums on the road. It’s not so funny when the tables are turned. As Jack Lambert said, the Steelers should be the intimidators.

  • This phenomenon in the stands foreshadowed events on the field.

The Steelers were terrible. The offensive line got dominated like rag dolls by the 49ers. Kenny Pickett was tentative, inaccurate and ineffective. The Steelers defense appeared to play a speed slower than the 49ers offense.

The 49ers exposed Pittsburgh as pretenders not contenders. Worse yet, the Steelers saw Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and Cam Heyward fall to injuries.

But it fell to Anthony McFarland that set the tone for what was to come. McFarland was the only player who stood out that disappointing day. His arrow was pointing up. Or so it seemed. McFarland went on IR after the game and got cut before season’s end.

Yes, expectations were dangerous things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans.

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

When future generations browse the 2023 Steelers season on Pro Football Reference and glance at weeks 2-12 they’re think, “OK, the opener was bad and the Houston loss was ugly, but they won several close games against some decent teams. They must have improved.”

That’s the logical conclusion. It’s also the wrong one.

From week 2 to week 12 the Steelers validated legendary Washington DC radio journalist Ken Beatrice’s argument that “…Every Sunday in the NFL, very few teams win games. It is most often the case that the other team loses.” The Steelers didn’t win those games, they avoided losing them.

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

It quickly became apparent Mike Tomlin erred badly in retaining Matt Canada. He tried moving Canada to the sidelines. That didn’t work. But more than Canada ailed the offense.

The offensive line struggled. The progress and promise they showed in the second half of 2022 was a mirage. Najee Harris, when he wasn’t getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage, struggled to manage a couple-of-three yards in what Jim Wexell decried as “Sludge ball.” Jaylen Warren looked better, but he got fewer carries.

Kenny Pickett struggled, except during the 4th quarter, when his “clutch gene” kicked in. To be fair to Pickett, with Pat Friermuth and Dionte Johnson out, he had few weapons to target. George Pickens flashed, but struggled in double coverage. Allen Robinson was nice to have and Calvin Austin was little more than a place holder.

The Steelers defense struggled against the run without Cam Heyward, and at cornerback Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace left fans screaming for Joey Porter Jr. to start.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

Yet the offense avoided turning over the ball, and the defense showed an uncanny knack for making big plays at the right time:

  • Week two vs Cleveland saw Minkah Fitzpatrick open with a tipped pass that Alex Highsmith turned into a pick six.
    Alex Highsmith closed with a strip sack by Highsmith that T.J. Watt returned for a TD
  • Next week, Levi Wallace closed a 23-18 game with an interception vs. Oakla.. er Las Vegas
  • Against Baltimore, Joey Porter, Jr. picked off a pass in the end zone with 4 minutes remaining
    Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt followed with another strip-sack, fumble-recovery combo
    T.J. Watt closed the game with a sack
  • Against Los Angeles, T.J. Watt opened the second half with an 24 yard interception return, setting up a touchdown, in a 24-17 win
  • Against the Titans, Kwon Alexander closed 20-16 game with an end zone interception.
  • Against Green Bay, Damontae Kazee closed a 23-19 game with an interception at the Packers’ 2.
  • In a 20-26 win over Cincinnati, Trenton Thompson ended the Bengals opening drive of the 2nd half with a Red Zone interception.

And this list of plays that saw the Steelers defense either score, set up scores and/or take certain points off the board for the opponent doesn’t include numerous other turnovers, key third down stops and/or sacks.

What’s makes this stretch of defensive fireworks all the more impressive starting in November, the Steelers practically lost a starting inside linebacker and/or a starting safety to injury each and every week.

No, they weren’t pretty, but the Black and Gold kept winning. Until they didn’t.

December Arrives. And Unpretty Winning Turns to Losing Ugly. Fast.

Firing coordinators during the season is something the Steelers never do. It just isn’t in their DNA.

Yet, Mike Tomlin opened Thanksgiving week by firing Matt Canada after an awful outing in Cleveland. Kenny Pickett and the offense perked up a bit that week against Cincinnati, but were struggling against the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals at home the following week.

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Shortly before halftime, on 3rd and 3 at the goal line, disaster struck as Kenny Pickett tried to run it in himself. Pickett didn’t score, but he did get injured. Najee Harris tried again on fourth down and failed.

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

What followed was perhaps the worst 10 quarter stretch of football in the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers lost the following week at home, against the 2-10 New England Patriots as Mitch Trubisky struggled.

A week later, the Steelers managed to play even worse against the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Trubisky’s struggles continue, Damontae Kazee got ejected and ultimately suspended. Worse yet, the Colts closed the game by ramming the ball down the middle against a Steelers defense that was powerless to stop it. It looked like they had quit.

When the NFL announced Damontae Kazee’s suspension, it was for the rest of 2023, including the playoffs. Kazee appealed. The NFL acquiesced, agreeing to allow Kazee’s return for the playoffs.

That seemed like a cruel joke. The Steelers had just dropped 3 straight and were looking worse with each passing week. The only thing standing in between Steelers ending 2023 on a 6 game losing streak was the chance that John Harbaugh might rest his starters in the season finale against Baltimore.

Rudolph to the Rescue

Mason Rudolph, once Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, toiled in obscurity for three years. Rudolph dove into free agency during the 2023 off season, but he returned to Pittsburgh because no one else wanted him. Rudolph mopped up at the ass-end of the Colts game and looked as bad as everyone else.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

So Mike Tomlin appeared to be desperate when he named Mason Rudolph as his starter for that Bengals game. Then a funny thing happened:

The Steelers not only won their next three games, they won convincingly. They even won in Seattle, and the Steelers NEVER win in Seattle. The offense came alive, and players like Eric Rowe and Myles Jack literally stepped off to couch to make game-changing plays on defense.

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

Mason Rudolph forced defenses to respect the deep ball. They couldn’t crowd the box. Opposing special teams coordinator didn’t automatically tell his punt return unit to get their helmets on each time the Steelers were in 3rd and 5 or more.

George Pickens – a candidate to be benched for the rest of the season after Indianapolis – exploded for 326 and 2 touchdowns in two games, and a delivered a devastating block in the season finale. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren romped. Defenders like Nick Herbig and Patrick Peterson made splash plays at critical moments.

And so it was that the Steelers went from being a 7-7 team looking at a near-certain 7-10 finish on December 16th in Indianapolis, to a 10-7 team that stood in Buffalo just 7 points away from tying the AFC’s number 2 seed with just 7:18 left in the game.

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

Kenny Pickett demonstrably failed to make the “2nd year leap” in 2023 as hopped. And the tempting take away would be that it is unreasonable for the Steelers to expect him to make that leap in 2024.

But perhaps Pickett will prove once again the lesson coming out of 2023 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to expect the unexpected.

 

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Steelers Report Card for AFC Wildcard Loss to Bills: Effort Isn’t Enough Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students learned that “effort isn’t enough,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Wildcard loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Khalil Shakir, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills AFC Wildcard 2023

It looks like Minkah Fitzpatrick has Khalil Shakir. But he doesn’t. (Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph went 22 of 39 for 229 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. That interception was costly, as it took at least three points off the board for the Steelers. But Rudolph showed poise in keeping the Steelers in the game, passing for 14 first downs. Overall Rudolph’s first playoff start was “good” but the Steelers needed him to be mistake free. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
This is one instance were the “Eye test” fails. Once the Steelers offense got going, it seemed like both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren ran pretty well. Their numbers suggest something a little different as neither man cracked 40 yards, although Warren’s 4.8 average was impressive. Both men had two catches, helping in the passing game. Still, the Steelers needed more from their running backs. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with 5 receptions but he escaped disaster with a fumble that was ruled out of bounds. Connor Heyward had 1 catch for 5 yards. Darnell Washington was targeted once but did not have a catch, and committed two false start penalties when the Steelers could ill afford them. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 5 catches for 50 yards and Diontae Johnson was close behind with 5 for 48 and a touchdown. Allen Robinson had 2 catches for 12 yards. Calvin Austin had 1 catch for 7 yards, but it was a touchdown. The wide receivers deserve credit for getting the Steelers back in the game, but George Pickens’ fumble helped put the Steelers in a deep hole. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The offensive line did an nice job of keeping Mason Rudolph upright, as he only suffered one sack and was hit just three other times. However, the run blocking lagged. Certainly it was better than what we saw early in the season, but it wasn’t playoff caliber. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Bills ran the ball efficiently, and they were very effecint when Cam Heyward was out of the lineup. Keeanu Benton is going to be a very good player for the Steelers one day, but he wasn’t a difference maker in his first playoff game. Grade: D

Linebackers
It wasn’t the same unit without T.J. Watt. Sure, Alex Highsmith and Markus Golden had sacks, but overall Josh Allen had time to throw. And the Bills tight ends tormented the Steelers during the first half. Myles Jack’s penalties hurt the Steelers at the worst possible time. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick provided a bit of a boost early in the game, but he missed on Khalil Shakir’s touchdown (so did several others.) The game was more about plays the secondary didn’t make. Patrick Peterson didn’t sack Josh Allen, he got close. Eric Rowe didn’t get an interception that could have changed the game, instead he only got close. Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee didn’t tackle Josh Allen on his touchdown scrable, they got close. See a trend? Close isn’t good enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, kicking in difficult conditions. Nick Herbig recovered a blocked field goal that got the Steelers into the game. Calvin Austin had a good punt return that set up a field goal. But Pressley Harvin’s punts were pathetic. That hardly spelled the difference in this game, but the Steelers needed every edge they could get and their punting game didn’t deliver. Grade: B-

Coaching
This is a bit of a glass-half full or glass-half empty situation.

The Bills were ready for the Steelers at the start of the game. For much of the first half, the Steelers offense looked as inept as it has all year long. On defense Buffalo’s tight ends terrorized the Steelers.

But the offense put 17 points on the board and should have had at least three more, and the defense held their own, keeping it close until the deep into the fourth quarter.

The Steelers could have folded at any number of points, but they never blinked. Mike Tomlin’s players fought for every blade of grass, even if they lost a few too many of those fights. Grade: C

Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills 2023 AFC wildcard

The Bills attempt a field goal. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
It was the biggest play of the game for the Steelers. Easily. Yet, after it happened its author got zero air time nor is there memory of the commentators even mention his name. No one, not even the Steelers team photographer got a picture of the moment, let alone its star. You have to dig deeply into the stat sheet to found out how did it, but did it he do, and for that Montravius Adams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Wildcard loss to the Buffalo Bills.

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5 (Not So) Random Reflections on the Final 3 Weeks of the Steelers 2023 Season

Welcome back! Steel Curtain Rising has been dark since the s loss to the Colts before Christmas.

Although I was in the United States for the last three weeks of the regular season, I only caught ½ of a the Steelers last game. In another point of my life, that would have been unacceptable. But this time, it was OK. I’ll detail the reasons why at the end.

Of course I’ve followed the Steelers on a daily basis, watched highlights from each of their three victories, and the overall experience has left me with 5 insights to share.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

1. You Should Trust Your Instincts

Instinct informed me that things had taken a bad turn the moment Kenny Pickett got hurt against the Cardinals. And instinct held a lot of truth. The Steelers imploded on both sides of the ball following that failed 4th and one attempt.

  • Worse yet, they suffered a weather delay.

My guts screamed for me to do something else rather than wait out the storm until the game resumed. But I didn’t want to sacrifice time as I wanted to get my article written in time to publish Monday morning.

The Steelers of course found a way to lose against the Patriots. Just as Chuck Noll beat Bill Belichick in his retirement finale, Billy B. leaves the Patriots having owned the Steelers. The Steelers were playing the Colts 3 days before I was set to leave for the States.

My wife had wanted to pack on that Saturday (traveling light is not an art we’ve yet to master), but I begged off, wanting to watch the game in part to ensure I could get the post-game article written. I could have watched the game on delay and perhaps accomplished the same thing.

  • Alas I did not. (Yeah, hindsight is 20/20.)

And the Steelers posted one of their worst efforts of the Tomlin era. What a waste of time. (My wife would agree. Enthusiastically.)

2. You Should Trust Your Instincts. Until You Shouldn’t

The Steelers would play 3 games during the second Christmas I’d spend in the US since 2000. That last year I made a point of trekking to the legendary Purple Goose Saloon on Christmas Eve to watch the 2000 Steelers finale against the San Diego Chargers.

  • I made the right decision.

The Steelers won and then I got to watch Bubby Brister come in for Daunte Culpepper and, in his final game in the NFL, once again keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. But I knew I was headed to Argentina and visits to the Purple Goose would be spare after that (I got to the Goose two more times.) And I made it home in plenty of time for Midnight Mass, where the beloved Fr. Adam Kostic would deliver his final Christmas eve sermon.

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

In 2023, watching the Steelers wasn’t a priority. I’d planned to see the Bengals game. But COVID had other ideas. As I was sitting at the Dr.’s office Patient First in Aspin Hill, Maryland as the Steelers were taking the field against the Bengals.

I couldn’t see the game, but my WhatsApp exploded with commentaries from the Steelers Groups I’m in. It was obvious things were going well.

  • That was welcome. And surprising.

But only to a point. I’d thought back to the December 26th Steelers-Panthers match up, the penultimate game of the 1999 Steelers. The Steelers started slowly, then when the snow hit Jerome Bettis took over Three Rivers Stadium, and the Steelers dominated thereafter.

They lost next week – this was the games that saw Bobby Shaw’s Superman shirt and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell on an interception return. So I chalked the win over the Cincinnati Bengals up as a blip.

  • The Steelers New Year’s eve game against the Seahawks didn’t pose much of a quandary.

The Steelers never win in Seattle. I remember the 1993 Steelers post-Christmas game there, where Jon Vaughn (who? That’s the point) gouged a flu stricken, Greg Lloyd-less Steelers for 131 yards (John L. Williams tacked on 86 more, for good measure.)

I was better from COVID and my wife wanted to spend some time in downtown DC. So to the District of Columbia we went.

  • So I thought nothing of missing the game and, viola, the Steelers won.

I was in New York City for the regular season finale. The wife of my good friend from high school was the curator of an art exhibition in Jersey and invited us to the opening. Needless to say we went. We made it back to the hotel in time for me to catch most of the 2nd half against the Ravens.

I was impressed. The previous two weeks hadn’t been a mirage. I’m glad I caught Diontae Johnson’s interception, Eric Rowe’s forced fumble and Markus Golden’s sack.

3. Trust Mike Tomlin, Not the Pundits

Everyone knows that George Pickens had been a lighting rod for criticism. And for good reason. The guy mailed in when he wasn’t featured on a play. His failure to block for Jaylen Warren was inexcusable. His response was worse.

Listening to legends Ed Bouchette and Vic Ketchman on Jim Wexell’s podcast during COVID isolation, I fully agreed that the Steelers needed to cut their losses with Pickens. Indeed, I had the time but not the energy to write an article saying the Steelers should bench him for the balance of the season.

  • Once again, it is a good thing Mike Tomlin doesn’t listen to me.

Mike Tomlin has a way with young men. He’s far from infallible (see Martavis Bryant). But he can often shepherd them on the path to maturity. For now at least, he’s done it with George Pickens. Pickens burned the Bengals, singed the Seahawks, and then delivered some devastating blocks against the Ravens.

Yeah, Mike knew what he was doing.

4. The Steelers 3 Quarterback System Works

Self-styled NFL personnel experts argue that salary cap dynamics dictate that investing in a veteran backup quarterback is a waste. As for the third string quarterback? Most people will tell you he doesn’t matter.

  • Most people are wrong.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Omar Khan opened the 2023 off season saying that the Steelers had, “Left the door open for Mason Rudolph.” Few paid attention. Yet, when the Steelers resigned Mason Rudolph it was treated as a “surprise.”

And Rudolph looked to be nothing more than a clip board holder. Until he wasn’t. The NFL is all about stepping up when you get your opportunity. And Mason stepped up. For the first time since he arrived it Pittsburgh, you could see why Kevin Colbert had a first round grade on him.

Oh, and even before he came on gang busters in his first start since the tie vs the Lions in 2020, Mason Rudolph had already proved something else: The Mike Tomlin has ushered in the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks.

5. Take a Page for the Rooney’s: Focus on Family

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

If watching Steelers games wasn’t a high priority when I arrived in Maryland, it became an even lower one quickly. Between COVID, my sister-in-law’s father losing a brief battle with pneumonia (and Donald Hay was a great guy) and some other issues, it clear was that I should follow Dan Rooney’s lead: Focus on the family.

I distinctly remember one of his sons being interviewed, it may have been Dan Rooney Jr. but I can’t be sure, explaining that not only did Dan Rooney focus on academics rather than sports when it came to bringing up his children, he made time to speak to each of his 9 children about their day every evening during dinner.

The same child also mentioned that he didn’t even know what his father did for a living until he was in his pre-teen years. That’s because Dan Rooney, at his core, was a family man. Dan always put his family first.

  • I took that lesson to heart on this trip, focused on family and missed three Steelers wins because of it.

And I’m confident that, looking down from heaven, both Dan Rooney and his father Art Rooney Sr. would wholeheartedly agree with me that this was the best decision I could have made.

Go Steelers. Let’s upset the Bills 1989 style!

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Steelers Report Card for Meltdown vs Colts: Who DIDN’T Get an F Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is in no mood for mercy here is the Steelers Report Card for the meltdown loss to the Colts.

Mol Alie Cox, Mark Robinson, Steelers vs Colts

Mol Alie-Cox burns Mark Robinson for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Mitchell Trubisky was 16 of 23 for 169 yards with one touchdown and 2 interceptions. His first interception shifted the momentum to the Colts. His second one basically killed any chance the Steelers had of a comeback. How terrible was Tribusky? Mason Rudolph went 2 for 3 for 3 yards and a sack in mop up duty and he’s starting next week. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers totaled 74 yards on the ground with Jaylen Warren getting 40 of those while Najee Harris was held to 33. Harris’ fumble knocked the bottom out of the game for the Steelers. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for sixteen yards as the tight ends were inconsequential. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 62 yards to lead the team. George Pickens had 3 for 47 yards. Allen Robinson had 3 for 19. While those number read more like the type of stat line you’d expect from Louis Lipps, Dwight Stone and Drew Hill the real crime here was Pickens non-block on what should have been a Jaylen Warren touchdown. That’s part of the malaise that infects this offense. Grade: F

Offensive Line
The Colts registered 4 sacks and 9 QB hits. And Indianapolis, known for their terrible rushing defense, stoned Steelers running backs at regular intervals. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi had a nice sack to wreck a drive early, but the Colts ran on the Steelers at will when it counted – indeed a pair of practice squad running backs made it look like Marshall Faulk AND Eggrein James were both still playing in Indianapolis. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had two sacks, but Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson both go burned for touchdowns. Grade: F

Secondary
Damontae Kazee’s ejection and ultimate disqualification might be a little harsh, but it cost the Steelers dearly. As did Joey Porter’s pass interference call with 35 seconds left in the first half that gave the Colts the ball on Pittsburgh’s 14. Grade: F

Special Teams
Between Chris Boswell missing an extra point, Pressley Harvin erratic punting and leaky punt return coverage, the Steelers special teams weren’t very special. Grade: D

Coaching
So Matt Canada has been gone for over a month and the Steelers offense not only hasn’t gotten better, it has regressed. This is disappointing but not surprising.

The Steelers lack talent on offense. They lack coordination on offense. They lack motivation and leadership on offense.

  • The Steelers defense IS deeply depleted.

But what’s damning about their performance isn’t the 3 touchdown passes that they gave up, but rather than the Colts were one play shy of running the ball 13 straight times – and the Steelers defense lacked the ability, or worse the willpower to stop them.

Steelers vs Colts, Nick Herbig, Connor Heyward, blocked punt

Connor Heyward blocks a punt! Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

In the past, even through the earlier parts of this season, Mike Tomlin excelled at coaxing the most the talent he has at hand and getting his players to respond when their backs were to the wall.

This year the opposite is happening. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
They teamed up on what should have been a game-turning, blocked punt and recovery for the Steelers and for that Connor Heyward and Nick Herbig win Unsung Hero Award honors from the Steelers meltdown at Indianapolis.

 

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Meltdown in Indy: Steelers 30-13 Loss to Colts Is a Microcosm for Entire Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium was a debacle in every sense of the word.

And perhaps that is how it should be.

Because even with three games remaining on the schedule, the Steelers meltdown in Indy serves as a perfect microcosm for the 2023 season.

Zack Moss,

Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Strong Start Signals Sinkhole to Come

The Steelers had lost two ugly games against bad teams that had no business beating Pittsburgh, at home no less. Yet, Jim Wexell reported on WESA, that the Steelers had had a strong week of practice.

And as beat writers will tell you, performance in practice during the week is almost always indicative of performance on Sunday. And besides, Mike Tomlin always rallies the men when their backs are two the wall. Doesn’t he?

Mike Tomlin boldly elected to take the ball to open the second half, giving his offense a chance to grab the proverbial bull by the horns….

And, he was rewarded by a Najee Harris run for no gain (wasn’t the Colt’s rushing defense supposed to be weak?), a Mitch Trubisky sack (what was it about the Colts not blitzing), and a 4 yard pass to Jaylen Warren on 3rd and 14. Oh, and Pressley Harvin only managed 42 yards on his punt.

But T.J. Watt wrecked the Colt’s next possession with a sack, and Indy’s Matt Gay bounced a 56 yard field goal off of the crossbars. The Steelers had won several games earlier in the season by combining big plays on defense and capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes.

Might they be reverting to form. For the next 8 minutes or so, that seemed to be the case.

  • But as always is the case with the 2023 Steelers, there was a big “BUT” attached to it.

Mitch Trubisky moved the team effectively following the blocked field goal. Nothing spectacular. But the Steelers keeping the sticks moving. But even then there were danger signs, both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were getting stopped regularly.

After a one yard run by Harris, Trubisky moved the Steelers into the Red Zone with a 14 yard strike to George Pickens. Jaylen Warren followed by ripping off a 6 yard run on 1st and seven in a play that saw Pickens…

…Stand there and watch instead of blocking, costing Warren at least a yard if not a touchdown.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Two plays later, Mitch Trubisky’s second attempt to sneak the ball into the end zone succeeded, but only after replay ruled he had crossed the goal line before fumbling.

But all’s well that ends well, right?

  • Maybe not, because Chris Boswell’s extra point bounced off the cross bar.

Given the way the defense and special teams were playing it looked like Boswell’s missed extra point might be a mere footnote. Larry Ogunjobi wrecked the next drive with a sack and Connor Heyward blocked Rigoberto Sanchez with Nick Herbig recovering at the one.

Najee Harris 3 yard loss on first and goal at the one might have been ugly, but Mitch Trubisky hit Diontae Johnson for a touchdown one play later to put the Steelers up 13-0.

Barely a minute had elapsed in the 2nd quarter and the Steelers had already made it a 2 score game.

Anatomy of a Meltdown

How does a team go from starting a game 13-0 in the first 16 minutes to losing 30-13? Let’s count the ways:

1. Getting burned deep
The Steelers defense is hurting. But even before losing their two starting safeties, Gardner Minshew burned the Steelers for two deep strikes to Michael Pittman.

2. Being Soft in the Middle
There’s a reason why Mykal Walker was unemployed in October. The Cardinals and Patriots exploited him in the previous two weeks, and the Colts followed suit.

The Colts got their first touchdown courtesy of items number 1 and 2.

3. Turnovers I
The faults of the Steelers offense are legion. But one of the things they did not do was this: Turnover the ball.

That was early in the season. For the last 3 weeks? Not so much. Pittsburgh seemed primed to answer the Colts’ score, as both Harris and Warren had a couple of strong runs. Then Mitch Trubisky thought it was a good idea to target George Pickens in triple coverage. He almost pulled it off, but the ball was a bit high and napped by Nick Cross.

The Colts didn’t covert that turnover into a penalty, but did back the Steelers up to their own won.

4. Attrition I
The game of football has changed. Back on November 15th 1993 the Steelers were already leading the then-AFC Alpha male Buffalo Bills, Gary Jones laid this hit on Don Beebe:

Beebe left the game, there was no flag, no fine just Gary Jones getting his 15 minutes of Steelers history fame. Now compare this to the hit that Damontae Kazee laid on Michael Pittman.

There are some difference in the mechanics of each play, but the big difference is what came after, not only did Kazee get a 15 yard personal foul, he got thrown out of the game. That forced 4th string safety Trenton Thompson into the game.

On the next series Minkah Fitzpatrick got hurt and left the game, leaving the Steelers with Miles Killebrew to play.

5. Penalties
While still behind, Gardner Minshew hit D.J. Montgomery over the middle, for a 42 yard pickup. Joey Porter Jr. gave them another 26 yards on pass interference on Alec Pierce. Two plays later Minshew was connecting with Montogmery to put the Colts ahead. For good.

6. Turnovers II
It is easy to pinpoint where the bottom fell out for the Steelers in this game. The Colts got the ball to start the second half, but the short-handed Steelers forced a three and out.

Najee Harris fumbled the ball right back to them, and the Colts scored on the next play.

7. Penalties II
Steelers responded with a punt, the Colts got a field goal and on the next drive Pittsburgh held the ball for nearly six minutes. Good. They also suffered 3 holding penalties on that same drive. They reached Indy’s 39, but Mike Tomlin opted to punt rather than try a 57 yard field goal.

At this point it serves no narrative purpose to enumerate the Steelers breakdowns, because they simply repeated themselves. The Colts ran the ball down the Steelers throats, with Pittsburgh knowing it was coming an unable to stop.

Mitch Trubisky threw another ugly interception. The Steelers kept killing themselves with penalties. Mason Rudolph came in for mop up duty and managed to complete 2 passes, one for negative yards and get himself sacked.

For the record this game wasn’t the worst loss of the Mike Tomlin era – a couple of candidates from the 2009 5 game losing streak would top this – but it clearly makes any top 5 list.

Can the Steelers Recover from Shell Shock?

The Steelers offense lacks talent at some positions and desire at others (see wide receiver.) It lacks coordination. Despite some of the results of the last week, the defense is in much better shape, or at least it would be if it weren’t so deeply depleted.

  • But even that doesn’t account for Pittsburgh’s poor performance against the Colts.

This team is shell shocked. It is playing with zero confidence and self-destructing as a result of it to the extent that one would be surprised if they win another game this year.

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If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Big: Steelers 21-18 Loss to Patriots Leaves Lessons

The hits keep coming. Thursday Night Football saw the New England Patriots waltz into Acrisure Stadium with a 2-10 record and leave with a 3-10 mark after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.

  • This one stings. And so it should.

The Steelers have just dropped back-to-back home games against twin 2-10 teams. Ouch. But losses leave lessons to be learned. In fact, there’s a saying in business “Fail quickly.” The 2023 Steelers looked like they might be taking that route in the season opening stinker vs San Francisco.

Instead they rallied, stitched together 7 wins, a few of which were ugly while some others resembled respectability. Now they’ve lost two games to weak teams after seemingly turning a corner in Cincinnati.

And the reason why is clear: Having lost the ability to fail quickly, Mike Tomlin’s decision-making in both games shows he’s willing to Fail Big, even though he clearly desires a different outcome.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Belichick Still the Boss

Last season, week two, brought the Patriots to Pittsburgh, and yours truly savored at the chance to see the Steelers go up against Bill Belichick sans Tom Brady. The hope was for a return to the pre-Brady days when the Steelers owed Belichick.

At first glance the 6-3 Steelers should have had every advantage against the Patriots. Pittsburgh was playing at home on a short week against one of the few teams in the NFL that has a worse offense than theirs. But this overlooks a few inconvenient facts:

  • The Patriots have an excellent run defense
  • The ground game is the only thing that has sort of worked for the Steelers’ offense
  • The Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string linebackers

That last part is a bit of a fib. Although Elandon Roberts had left the game against the Cardinals with a groin injury, he did play 81% of the snaps against the Patriots. But the injury clearly impacted him. And the truth is that his counterpart, Mykal Walter was in between practice squad gigs just 38 days ago.

  • Bill Belichick took note and mercilessly attacked the middle of the Steelers’ defense.

And for the game’s first 20 minutes or so, Bailey Zappe channeled his inner Tom Brady. Seriously. By the 7:38 mark of the second quarter, he’d thrown 3 touchdown passes on the Steelers’ defense – or half as many as Kenny Pickett has thrown all year.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Patriots

Mitch Trubisky hit. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Patriots dominated just as thoroughly on the other side of the ball.

  • Steelers tried to run and failed
  • The Patriots’ pass rush collapsed the pocket around Mitch Trubisky
  • And when it didn’t, their coverage confused him

The best plays on the Steelers first scoring drive were Tribuiky’s 15-yard scramble and the pass interference penalty that negated his first interception. But Trubisky had no such luck on his second interception, which set up an easy score (shout out to Connor Heyward for crossing the field to prevent a pick six.)

Credit Trubisky for showing a lot of mental toughness for ignoring the boos and chants for Mason Rudolph that were raining down from Acrisure Stadium throughout the first half. He closed the first half with a solid drive that saw the offense mix it up with a successful reverse to Calvin Austin, solid runs by Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris, and a 25-yard touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson.

Being down 21-10 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 21-3.

…The NFL Will Seldom Note and Quickly Forget

Professional football is a pass-fail endeavor. There are no “A’s for effort.” That’s the way it should be. But let’s also acknowledge something here which few elsewhere note:

  • The Steelers’ defense performed a 180 degree adjustment against the Patriots’ offense.

It began at the tail end of the first half. New England had time to score, but sacks by Elandon Roberts and tackles for losses by Minkah Fitzpatrick stifled those hopes. Cam Heyward got into the act in the 2nd half, sacking Bailey Zappe on third down and forcing a punt.

Mykal Walker, who’d been exploited for most of the first half got an interception, killing the next drive. T.J. Watt, Patrick Peterson, and Heyward stepped up to make critical stops.

  • The Steelers opened the second half down 21-10.

The defense did its part, in the final two quarters, forcing 5 punts, securing a turnover, and not allowing the Patriots to even sniff a score. It wasn’t enough to redeem the 21 points so easily allowed it in the first half, but the effort gave the offense a chance to either succeed or fail.

Failing Big

Mike Tomlin signaled his intentions at the end of the first half to either go for it all and win or fail big by trying. The Patriots got the ball back with 2:50 remaining, and after two good plays by the defense, Tomlin called a time out. Ultimately the Steelers didn’t get a chance to score before half time, but Tomlin had set the tone.

Against the Cardinals, the Steelers reached the Red Zone, and on 4th and 1, after losing Kenny Pickett to injury, Mike Tomlin went for it. The Steelers didn’t make it, and the bottom fell out.

Take Tomlin at his word when he said he had no regrets because he did the same thing against the Patriots. Mykal Walker’s interception gave the Steelers the ball at the 10 yard line.

The Steelers called 3 plays, none of which worked, although Tribuisky salvaged one with a 7-yard scramble. Mike Tomlin didn’t blink. He went for it on fourth, but the pass protection broke down and an ugly dump off to Jaylen Warren netted just 1 yard. The Steelers needed 2.

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Miles Killebrew blocked a punt to give the Steelers a second chance, and this time the Steelers scored. Tomlin went for 2, and Pat Freiermuth got the 2-point conversion, making it a 3-point game. The mathematicians will note that had Tomlin kicked a field goal instead of going for it on 4th, the Steelers could have tied the game.

  • Tomlin wasn’t interested in a tie: He wanted a win.

The Steelers had the ball twice after narrowing the gap on the scoreboard to 3 – they managed 35 yards on 13 plays, going for it on 4th twice, succeeding once and failing the next time. Tomlin played to win but ended of failing. But at least he failed big.

Benefits of Failing Big

Mike Tomlin is in the middle of one of the toughest moments of his coaching career. But the temptation to treat this as a unique experience is a false one. Mike Tomlin is doing what he’s always done, put the game in the hands of his players at critical moments. Tomlin’s decision to go for it on fourth isn’t any different than:

The difference in the last two weeks is that the Steelers have failed big whereas in two out of the three cases above, they succeeded. Failing big stings. But it does offer a dose of reality therapy, bringing home various painful truths:

  • The offensive line is average at best, with at least two starters that need replaced.
  • Ditto the wide receivers. Johnson and Pickett have talent but attitude issues.
  • As for Austin and Allen Robinson? They’re placeholders.
  • Firing Matt Canada was no panacea, as the answers certainly aren’t to be found in house.

The downside is that there’s really not many ways to apply that insight this late in the season. So Mike Tomlin should continue to play to win while being prepared to fail big.

If nothing else, we’ll find out who is mentally tough on this team.

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Ugly Afternoon @ Acrisure as Steelers Choke, Losing 24-10 to the Cardinals

After an ugly afternoon of football at Acrisure Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 24-10 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.

  • After the game Mike Tomlin declared “That was a horrible day at the office.”

Tomlin hit the nail on the head. The Cardinals arrived in Pittsburgh as a 2-10 team that hadn’t won on the road in close to a year. The Steelers were 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC North race.

Yet the Steelers suffered an ugly loss because they failed to heed the lessons that carried them through several ugly wins this season: Win the weighty downs, don’t turn over the ball and above all else, don’t lose the game.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

What Went Right (no, that’s not a misprint)

With the New England Patriots coming to town in just four days, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of self-pity. (They also may not have the luxury of letting injuries heal, but we’ll get to that later.) Nor should they seek comfort in silver linings.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Steelers started the game by doing a lot of things right.

In just three plays the Steelers were at the Arizona 11, and then there came a big “BUT.” But before we get to that “BUT” let’s move on to other things that went right.

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi opened by stuffing James Conner for no gain, setting up a quick three and out. On Arizona’s next possession it fell to Watt and Keeanu Benton to stuff Conner for no gain in a drive that saw the Cardianls settle for 51 yard field goal.

Arizona’s next possession ended with a three and out in large part to Alex Highsmith’s sack of Kyler Murray. After a Steelers three and out, it fell to Nick Herbig to stuff Connor and T.J. Watt to drop Murray for a loss.

The Steelers got the ball back and went on a 12 play, 79 yard drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of clock time. In truth this drive contained much of what had been missing on Matt Canada’s watch.

  • The Steelers made 4 first downs.
  • Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped of double-digit runs
  • They also made shorter runs to set up manageable 3rd downs
  • Pat Freiermuth converted one of those with George Pickens picking up another through the air.

The Arizona Cardinals 1 yards line lie at the end of those 79 yards, where the next big “BUT” reared its ugly head.

About Those “BUTS”

The success of the Steelers first three plays was almost uncanny. In the blink of an eye, Kenny Pickett and company was just 16 yards away from an opening drive touchdown. Once there Najee Harris ran for 5 only to see Pickett fail to connect on his next two passes, bring up a Chris Boswell field goal.

On that second, picture perfect drive, the Steelers tried four times to punch starting from the Arizona 7, but couldn’t make it into the end zone.

  • Pittsburgh left 11 points on the field on those two drives along.
  • Chris Boswell missed a field goal in the second half.
  • Make that 14 points the Steelers left on the field.

It is tempting to conclude “You can’t leave points on the field like that and expect to win in the National Football League.” Which is generally true. But we’ve seen the Steelers win in spite of their offense for most of the season. But against the Cardinals, something else was different.

Back to Ball Security

The Steelers defense opened the second half down 10 to 3 after having given up a 99 yard touchdown drive to close the first half. The Black and Gold’s response was to force an Arizona three and out.

Pittsburgh’s rebound was short-lived as 7 plays later Mason Cole wobbled a snap to Mitch Trubisky’s shoe laces and the Cardinals recovered. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona was able to convert in the Red Zone and put the Cardinals up 17 to 3.

Giving up that touchdown might not have ended it for the Steelers, but Boswell’s missed field goal came on Pittsburgh’s next possession and his miss effectively ended things.

Another Twist in a Long, Strange Season

Two weeks ago the Steelers loss of a winnable game in Cleveland carried ominous overtones. Mike Tomlin reacted by firing Matt Canada, and last week it felt like the team had turned a corner in Cincinnati. Instead they dropped a game, at home to one of the league’s worst teams.

What to make of it? Well, there are a couple of things:

  • This Steelers team really has no margin for error as it lacks the talent to overcome mistakes.
  • Injuries may not be an excuse, but they are an explanation.

Seriously.

The Steelers did everything they could give this game to the Cardinals, including 2 illegal formation penalties that negated first downs, a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a 3rd and 8 incompletion, in addition to twin personal fouls on punt returns and a too many men on the field — after a time out.

The Steelers defense started the game shutting down the Cardinals in stunning fashion but ended up unable to stop them at critical points. But by that point an inside linebacking corps that had lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander had also lost the services of Elandon Roberts, who’d arguably been the defense’s MVP over the last several games.

And on offense the Steelers lost Kenny Pickett and Isaac Seumalo just before half time. And Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand during the first half (but was able to return).

  • Yet, for all of that, had the Steelers not left 14 points on the field they’d have scored enough to tie the game.

This reality excuses nothing. But it reminds us that the Steelers stole a couple of wins early in the season by taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Now they’ve had one stolen from them in the same fashion.

Mike Tomlin and company have 3 days to figure out how to prevent the Patriots and Bill Belichick to be the next to benefit from the law of averages. They have their work cut out for them.

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Progress @ Paycor? Steelers Beat Bengals 16-10 as Pickett Plays Complete Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paycor Stadium in a scene that was eerily similar to the one they faced last week:

  • They were in Ohio.
  • They were playing in the AFC North.
  • They were playing against a rookie quarterback starting only because of injury.
  • Their own quarterback, Kenny Pickett was gaining more doubters with each passing week.

Yet for all of those similarities going into the game, the key difference coming out was that Steelers left the Buckeye state with a 16-10 victory. And while Mike Tomlin would be the first to remind us that “style points don’t count” it was the way the Steelers won that offered real hope for the future.

Kenny Picket, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers vs Bengals 2023 Paycor

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

A Fitting Venue and Time for Pittsburgh to Pivot?

IN case you’ve been under a rock, prior to today’s game, the Pittsburgh Steelers have held a dubious distinction:

  • Cumulatively they had been outscored this season and their opponents had outgained them in each game.

Yet the Steelers defied statistical history and continued to win games, going into last week’s contest with Cleveland at 6-3. But their loss against Cleveland was particularly ugly. It felt like the offense had a moment similar to the Wile E. Coyote, who after walking on air without falling, looked down and crashed.

Mike Tomlin reached a similar conclusion and reacted by doing something the franchise hasn’t done since 1941:  firing a coach in season as he relived Matt Canada of his duties.

24 years ago Bill Cowher found himself at a similar crossroads at this same point in the season in a game against the Bengals no less. Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. The move the pleased fans but failed to alter the trajectory of either the game or the 1999 season.

Mike Tomlin’s decision also came going into a game against the Bengals, and one at Paycor Stadium a place the recent Steelers teams have defined their trajectories.

In 2020, at then Paul Brown Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger struggled so badly, I asked out loud if we had just witnessed the Steelers football equivalent of the 1980 Ali-Holmes Las Vegas fight.

In 2021, the Bengals and Joe Burrow’s domination of the Steelers confirmed that the AFC North had a new pecking order.

And even if the Steelers opened 2022 with a win at Paycor, the takeaway there was that the Steelers would need exceptional play on defense and special teams AND an injury to Joe Burrow to eke out wins against this Bengals team.

So the question as the Steelers arrived in Cincinnati was simple: Would Kenny Pickett respond positively to change?

Pickett Makes Progress

We can be certain that neither new Offensive Coordinator Eddie Faulkner nor Play Caller Mike Sullivan were aware of these Steelers-Bengals geographic or historical symmetries. But the duo clearly looked to make a statement by opening the game with a 24 yard strike down the middle of the field to Pat Freiermuth.

  • Kenny Pickett has avoided the middle of the field all season long like the plague.

Here he was taking chunk out of the middle of the field to start the game. Sure, two plays later that failed bubble screen looked to be vintage Canada, but had George Pickens not missed his block Diontae Johnson probably gets a first down.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bengals

Najee Harris stiff arms his way to more yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Pickett continued his aggressive ways on the next drive, hitting Pat Freiermuth for 29 yard yards down the middle again. Pickett should have had a touchdown pass on that, and a fumble ended that drive two plays later.

Yet on Pittsburgh’s next possession, Pickett hit Diontae Johnson deep for 39 yards in a drive that got the Steelers on the board for 3.

Kenny Pickett didn’t do it alone. He spread the ball out between 8 different receivers. More importantly, the Steelers committed to and succeeded in establishing the run game. Najee Harris had his best game of the season, running for 99 yards in a combination of short yardage grinds paired with double digit runs.

Jaylen Warren did his part with 49 yards on the ground and 13 more through the air.

Defense Makes Browning Look Like a Rookie

A week ago the story was that rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a 5th round pick no one had ever heard of, outplayed Kenny Pickett. Oh, Thompson-Robinson certainly looked like a rookie for most of the game, but he came up big down the stretch and put Cleveland in position to kick the game winner.

The Steelers made Bengals rookie Jake Browning look like a rookie, no asterisk required. To put that into perspective:

  • The Bengals lone touchdown drive came after a 49 yard kick return
  • When they reached the Red Zone next, Trenton Thompson picked off Browning
  • Nick Herbig broke off coverage to sack Browning on third down
  • T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward wrecked multiple drives with sacks
    [Note to Bengals: Maybe it is wise to block T.J. Watt on 3rd and 3 late in the 4th quarter.]
  • Led by Elandon Roberts, the Steelers run defense suffocated Joe Mixon

Credit Ja’Marr Chase for making two catches off of tipped passes. Where it not for those two heads up plays, it would have been a far longer afternoon for Browning.

Pickett Far from Perfect, Takes a Step Forward

Let’s be clear on something important: Kenny Pickett did not enjoy a “breakout” or a “statement” game at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers offense may have broken the 400 yard mark for the first time since week 2 of 2020, but it still only put 16 points on the board.

The fact that Steelers didn’t suffer a single three and out is a positive, but hardly cause for celebration. And if those deep and middle-of-the-field passes are legitimate positives, Pickett still stuck to short, safe passes.

But for the first time all season, the Steelers offense played as if it belonged in the NFL for an entire game. And for the first time all year, Kenny Pickett played kind of game we hoped to see coming out of preseason.

  • And that is an important step forward.

If Kenny Pickett can build off of that step, then hopefully we’ll look back and say that this time Paycor Stadium marked a positive pivot point for Pittsburgh.

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