Steelers 3-7 Start = “Gut Check” Time for Steelers Nation

Right now it is tough to be a citizen of Steelers Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-7. They just got their tails kicked by the Bengals in a game that got flexed out of Prime Time and are heading into a Monday Night Football matchup up with the Colts.

Steelers Nation

Steelers Nation at a Steelers playoff rally in 2017. Photo Credit: Stephanie Strasburg, Post-Gazette Interactive

Playing MNF used to be a “get to,” as in “we GET TO watch the Steelers on Monday Night!” Now it’s a “gotta,” as in “We gotta watch the Steelers this Monday…” (and this “gotta” sensation is even more pronouced for those of us who live in parts of the world where the game will end at 2:30 am.)

So be it. Rebuilding is a tough thing for a franchise to go through and it can be agonizing for the fans to watch. If you didn’t understand before why Art Rooney II resisted the urge to “Tear off the Band Aid” and instead hung on to Ben Roethlisberger as long as he could, the last 10 games should have enlightened you.

Yes, these last 10 games have shown just how much of a difference a franchise quarterback, even an aging one whose lost his mobility and his ability to throw deep, can make. But of course the Steelers struggles this season go far beyond Kenny Pickett’s growing pains.

It is clear that there’s no a single spot on the depth chart that couldn’t benefit from an immediate injection of talent. And that’s tough to watch.

  • In fact, the Steelers 2022 season is forcing a gut check for a lot of Steelers fans, which is a good thing.

This gut check calls to mind something I learned in the classroom of someone who was one of my formative influences as a Steelers fan. On the first day of school in the fall of 1986 at suburban Maryland’s Parkland Junior High School (yes, we still had “Jr. High” then), my Honors NSL Government teacher Dave Walzak, introduced himself and after talking about his educational background related, “…What else do you need to know about me? Well, I’m from Pittsburgh originally. I root for the Steelers and I HATE the Redskins.”

  • My thought? “Man, this is my kind of guy.”

And it was during Mr. Walzak’s that we learned about Thomas Paine, one of the intellectual architects for US revolution, who wrote in American Crisis:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country….

Dare we suggest that “THESE are times that try fan’s souls. The summer Steelers fan and the sunshine patriot of Steelers Nation will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their team….” A little exaggerated to apply that to Steelers fans during this 3-7 start?

Yes, I suppose it is exaggerated. Just as some of the reactions to the Steelers first losing season since 2003 are exaggerated.

Kenny Pickett, Haason Reddick, Steelers vs Eagles

Haason Reddick hits Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: John Geibeiler, Eagles.com

Look, losing sucks. And there are times when Pittsburgh has played piss poorly this season. But rebuilding is a process albeit a painful one. And as the old adage goes, “No pain, no gain.”

  • So it’s time to not only understand that, but to embrace it.

I may not actually have been born in Pittsburgh, but my brother and sister were, my parents were, as were all four of my grandparents, and the only two of my great-grandparents that weren’t born there emigrated to Pittsburgh from Germany and Italy.

Heck, St. Joe’s and St. George’s cemetery off of Brownsville Road in Mt. Oliver is the final resting place of all four of my grandparents, my dad’s biological mother, 7 great aunts and uncles, 4 great grandparents and two cousins who were taken from us far, far too soon.

So no matter how long this rebuilding process goes on, the Pittsburgh Steelers are my team. Period.

  • Steelers Nation is of course a global phenomenon.
Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

Many fans don’t share these family ties to the Steel City. Fair enough. Sticking with the Steelers during down times like these is what makes moments like Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL or Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII all the more special.

And if that doesn’t quite seal the deal for you, then think of the example Mr. Walzak set. He was a re-located Pittsburgher who remained loyal to his team in an era when it was difficult to follow, let alone watch an out of town franchise. And he made his “I love the Steelers. I hate the Redskins” declaration in 1986, when the Steelers started 3-7 and finished 6-10. Mr. Walzak remained loyal.

In doing so Mr. Walzak’s example inspired similar loyalty to in a would be wavering 14 year old. His example should continue to inspire us today.

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Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors: Larry Ogunjobi

Thanksgiving 2022 has arrived, so as we’ve done every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising is naming its 2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winner.

  • Our tradition began during the middle of the 2009 Steelers ugly 5 game losing streak.

The Steelers had just dropped a very winnable game in overtime against Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs. They’d just lost Ben Roethlisberger to a concussion. And Charlie Batch broke his wrist. Yet from the carnage of that ugly loss came a ray of hope.

Andy Studebaker had picked off a pass intended for Hines Ward. He was in his own end zone and had nothing but green in front of him. So he took off. He would have taken it the house, were it not for Rashard Mendenhall, picking himself off of the turf and coming from the complete opposite side to run 94 yards to bring him down.

If one can question the “what it” that Mendenhall displayed at other times during his Steelers career, no one can deny the heart he displayed on that play.

So Mendenhall earned our first Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, and it has been a tradition since.

2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winner Larryy Ogunjobi

This year’s honors begin with the brightest spot (thus far) of the otherwise disappointing Steelers 2022 season.

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had come to Pittsburgh. Kenny Pickett had driven the Steelers down the field and gotten them on the board with a touchdown pass to Najee Harris. But the Buccaneers had gotten a field goal, and as the second quarter opened, Brady had moved Tampa Bay 2nd and 1 on Pittsburgh’s 1 yard line.

  • The Steelers meager 4 point lead seemed destined to become a distant memory.

Leonard Fournette, a man who has tortured the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium, got the call. He thought he had a hole behind the left guard.

  • Instead he got dumped for a 3 yard loss.
Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Now, you might be thinking, “Last year you used a similar example when bestowing Steelers Thanksgiving honors on Cam Heyward, you’re giving it to Cam again?” We’re not talking about Cameron Heyward. Yes, Cam tackled Forunette for a 5 yard loss on 3rd down, but someone else made the play on 2nd down.

And we are giving Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors to Larry Ogunjobi precisely because last year Cam Heyward was the only Steelers defensive lineman capable of making those kinds of stops, and this year he has Ogunjobi to help him.

  • And after 10 games Larry Ogunjobi is showing just how much difference one man can make.

In that same game, Ogunjobi made several stops for little or no gain. And he’s done so throughout the rest of the year.

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense gave up an average of 5 yards per carry, and were the NFL’s worst run defense. The Steelers only saw 3 games were an opponent’s longest run was less than 20 yards. Opponents had long runs of over 40 yards in three games and long runs of over 30 yards in 3 more. Overall, the Steelers opponents’ longest run from scrimmage averaged at 26.5 yards.

  • The Steelers 2021 run defense was so bad, one wonders why anyone even tried to pass.

Yet in 2022 the Steelers are writing a different story. This year they’re giving up 3.9 yards per carry and that 1.1 yard difference improves them to 5th in the NFL. The longest run they’ve given up is 36 yards, and the average longest run given up is 19.5 yards.

Even Cincinnati, who rushed on the Steelers at will in 2021, struggled to run the ball in an otherwise lopsided win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Alex Highsmith strip sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, HJ News.com

  • Does Larry Ogunjobi deserve all of the credit for this improvement?

Absolutely not. And that’s the point. Improved play from Devin Bush and Montravius Adams, the arrival of Myles Jack, the maturation of Alex Highsmith and Robert Spillane and the return of Tyson Alualu are all critical to this improvement.

But none of those men would be able to do their jobs as well as they are doing them, were it not for Larry Ogunjobi making plays on his own, tying blockers up or taking advantage of double laid on Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • Followers of our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors will note Larry Ogunjobi is a bit of an outlier.

And he is. Most past honors have gone to up and comers, think Antonio Brown in 2011 or Ryan Shazier in 2016, or an established presence in the franchise such as Ben Roethlisberger in 2017 or Kevin Colbert in 2019.

In contrast, Ogunjobi is with the Steelers on a one-year “prove it” deal and could easily be playing somewhere other than Pittsburgh in 2023.

But that’s one of the lessons that comes with this year’s choice – sometimes its best to be thankful for what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

As I “celebrate” my 21st Thanksgiving in Argentina, I’ll again express my hope that everyone reading this has reasons to be Thankful that go far beyond football.

So whether your spending Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh or welcoming friends and family from Pittsburgh as I did so often growing up and as a young adult or whether you’re just a Steelers fan with no ties to the Steel City, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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Steelers Report Card for ’22 Loss to Bengals @ Acrisure: 1 Step Forward 2 Steps Back Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but feel he just saw his students follow 1 step forward with 2 steps back, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Eli Apple, George Pickens, Steelers vs Bengals

Eli Apple deflects a pass aimed at George Pickens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett protected the ball and looked sharp enough on three first half scoring drives. But he was utterly ineffective in the second half, save for some garbage time glory. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran 20 times for 90 yards including a touchdown and added 4 catches for 26 yards. Jaylen Warren converted a third down with a 9 yard catch before leaving with a hamstring injury. Solid night from the running backs, but the Steelers needed a little more. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 8 catches for 79 yards including a tough one over the middle. He also had a drop and a holding call on a drive that saw the Steelers reach 3 and 25. Zach Gentry had 2 catches for 8 yards and frankly doesn’t look as promising as a number 2 tight end as he did a year ago. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 4 catches for 83 yards including a 33 yarder and a 24 yard touchdown. He also had a drop. Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 21 yards and looked nothing like a number 1 wide out. He had 1 yard on a jet sweep. Steven Sims didn’t have a catch, and lost 3 yards on his reverse. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Run blocking was OK and while Kenny Pickett was only sacked twice, the Bengals hit him seven times. Pickett has been taking too much punishment of late. Grade: D

Kenny Pickett, Cam Sample, Steelers vs Bengals

Pickett is taking too much punishment. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
The good news? The Steelers pretty much neutralized the Bengals running game. The bad news, Cincinnati didn’t need to run much. Cam Heyward had a sack and Montravius Adams had a nice stuff for a loss, but the Steelers needed more upfront. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had half a sack, intercepted a pass and got his hands on two more. Alex Highsmith also had half a sack. Individually the stats of the rest of the linebacking crops look good, with Myles Jack leading the team in tackles, Devin Bush coming in second, and with Robert Spillane logging a tackle for a loss and a deflected pass. But Joe Burrow moved the ball with ease, often in the middle of the field and was untouched for too many series. The linebackers also came up short in the Red Zone. Grade: D

Secondary
The Bengals were only 3 for 9 on third down. That’s in large part because they had 18 passing first downs. Arthur Maulet led the unit in tackles and Levi Wallace had a nice interception, but Joe Burrow threw 4 touchdown passes and led 3 other scoring drives. Grade: F

Special Teams
Steven Simms muffed a punt that help pin the Steelers back. That must not continue. Simms however was effective as a kick returner. The Steelers kick coverage gave up a long return which set up a Bengals score. Pressley Harvin had a solid night punting, while Matthew Wright redeemed himself kicking 3 field goals and making all of his extra point attempts. Grade: B

Coaching
During the first half Matt Canada’s offense was effective, scoring two touchdowns and running an efficient 2 minute drill. The second half told a different tale as the Steelers offense punted 5 times, turned over on downs once and could only muster a measly field goal after a turnover.

To be fair to Canada, there were obvious execution errors – he didn’t commit the penalties to push the Steelers back to 3rd and 25.

  • Still, some of his play calls were head scratchers.

Teryl Austin has a different problem. He’s got championship talent on his defense. His defense delivered several splash plays late in the 2nd half and during the 3rd quarter when they could have been difference makers.

But its too simplistic to say, “The defense did enough to win and didn’t get the help it needed from the offense.” The Bengals moved up and down the field with relative ease on all four of their touchdown drives. And the defense was horrendous in the Red Zone.

  • You simply do not win games in the NFL when you let that happen.
Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Bengals

Gunner Olszewski catches a batted ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Against the Bengals, the Steelers showed they are capable of playing wining football against varsity opponents. Mike Tomlin must find a way to make that happen consistently. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
While it’s hard to laud garbage time glory as heroics, this player made a heads up catch on a batted ball at the goal line that set up a face-saving touchdown, and for that Gunner Olszewski wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Busted! Steelers 37-30 Loss to Bengals Reveals a Rebuilding Team Struggling to Learn to Win

“Disappointing football game,” declared Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 37-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Tomlin is right. Especially when you consider the Steelers week one upset of the Bengals in the Queen City. That game featured:

  • T.J. Watt sacks and interceptions.
  • A Cam Heyward a sack at a critical moment.
  • The Steelers defense securing and taking advantage of turnovers.

The Steelers defense did all of the above in the return bout in Pittsburgh, yet it wasn’t enough.

  • Why? The reason is actually very simple.

For part of the game, the Steelers flashed the very best they could hope be at this point. For the rest of it they that proved they still have a lot of rebuilding to do.

Samaje Perine, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bengals

Samaje Perine scores one of his 3 touchdowns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Seeing a Mirage in First Half Flashes

The digest version of this game would explain how the Steelers looked sharp in the first half only to disintegrate in the second. That’s an efficient yet inaccurate way to tell the story.

The truth is that the Bengals closed the first quarter with a 10-3 lead over the Steelers. By itself, that’s hardly damning. What was distressing was that Cincinnati made it look so easy.

But after a Steven Simms kick return set the Steelers up with a short field, Kenny Pickett converted 2 third downs to set up Najee Harris’ 19 yard touchdown scamper. Unfortunately, the Bengals answered with a touchdown of their own, it the Steelers were again down by 7.

  • Just a few games ago, this might have doomed the Steelers.
George Pickens, Eli Apple, Steelers vs Bengals

George Pickens scores a 24 yard 2nd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Matt Canada’s offense has struggled to find the end zone more than once a game, so no one would expect them to match Cincinnati touchdown for touchdown. Yet, that’s just what they did, as Najee Harris, Kenny Pickett and Diontae Johnson nickled and dimed the Bengals for several short gains until Pickett hit George Pickens from 24 yards out to score a touchdown.

No, the Steelers offense wasn’t executing with the lethal efficiency of one of Ken Whisenhunt units, let alone did it look like look like “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But it was answering a touchdown from a high powered offense with one of its own, and that been an uncommon sight in Pittsburgh for a long time.

The defense took it cue from the offense, as Levi Wallace short-circuited the Joe Burrow’s 2 minute drill with an interception at midfield. Mike Tomlin declined to take a tie into the locker room at half time, and with four play including a 27 yard strike to Pat Freiermuth, set the Steelers up for a Matthew Wright field goal that gave them the lead at half time.

Unfortunately, that was the high water mark for the offense during the game.

Too Few Defensive Fireworks in Second Half

Cincinnati’s 20 second half points make it easy to assume that Pittsburgh’s defense mailed it in during the second half. But that’s actually not quite the case.

It was the second half that brought those dramatic sacks from Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt, the later of whom also had an amazing interception that looked like an exact replay of his week one pick of Joe Burrow.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers offense could do nothing when it counted in the second half.

They managed six yards after Watt’s interception and settled for another field goal. Two series later, the Steelers defense stoned Cincinnati’s offense for negative yards, bottling them up at Pittsburgh’s 7 and forcing a punt.

Najee Harris ripped off a 13 yard run to get the Steelers to Cincinnati’s 34. And then penalties pushed Pittsburgh back to the Bengals 49 yard line as the Steelers found themselves a 3rd and 25. Needless to say they failed to convert.

The Bengals marched 90 yards for a touchdown. Mike Tomlin described the two series as “a significant sequence in the game.” He was right. What followed was mere window dressing as the Bengals tacked on an insurance field goal while the Steelers scored a garbage time touchdown.

The Reality of the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

This is who the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers are. The offense took a few steps forward, but it feels like it took a few steps back in the 2nd half. Najee Harris ran reasonably well, but Kenny Pickett struggled on third down. At other times the offense self-destructed with penalizes or poor play calls and/or poor execution, particularly on first down.

  • The Steelers defense is a bit more disturbing.

This was the first time Teryl Austin’s unit was at full strength since the season opener, with Minkah Fitzpatrick playing after suffering an appendectomy just six days earlier. And while the defense did do some nice things, Joe Burrow hooked up with Tee Higgins, at will; the Bengals had 6 players make catches of over 20 yards, and in the Red Zone Samaje Perine was “Mr. Automatic for Cincinnati.”

  • Does this mean that all hope is lost on both sides of the ball?

No, it doesn’t. But when all was said and done, the Cincinnati Bengals looked like a team shaking off his Super Bowl hangover and angling to make another run, while exposing the Pittsburgh Steelers as a team struggling to learn how to win games.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Saints: Glass Half Full Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sees his students’ glass as half full, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card from the 2022 win over at Acrisure over the Saints.

Arthur Maulet, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints 2022

Arthur Maulet breaks up a pass for Crhis Olave. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 18 of 30 for 199 yards with no touchdowns, but most importantly, no interceptions. Pickett still looks like a rookie. He’s not seeing open receivers and his accuracy was off at times. Still, the Steelers converted 9 of 17 third downs. More importantly he got better as the game moved on. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers had their highest rushing totals since December 2016 when Le’Veon Bell broke the franchise rushing record. This time it was a team effort, with Najee Harris having his best day of the year, logging 99 yards while Jaylen Warren adding 37 more, the bulk of which came during when it was needed to kill the clock. Derek Watt had 2 runs for 5 yards, both of which converted 3rd and 4th downs. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches for 36 yards, but that stat doesn’t do justice to the one handed catch he made of a ball that Kenny Pickett gunned at him. Zach Gentry had one pass thrown his way which was deflected. Connor Heyward had two catches for 9 yards. Grade: B –

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 36 yards including a 36 yarder. George Pickens added 3 for 32 yards, but also contributed with a 22 yard end around. Gunner Olszewski had 1 catch for 4 yards, while Steven Sims and 1 catch for 15 yards and 2 carries for 2 yards, the second of which converted a third down on the final, clock killing drive. Grade: B –

Offensive Line
On the plus side, the offensive line’s progress in run blocking continued. While no one would mistake their efforts for Road Grading, Steelers running backs did have holes to run in. However, pass protection was weak, as Pickett suffered 6 more sacks. Not all of those are the line’s fault, but protection must improve. Grade: C

Defensive Line
No where to run. The Saints totaled 29 yards rushing. Or 7 less that Najee Harris’ longest run. Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams stat sheets won’t make any fantasy football owners happy. But measure in Reality Football this group played well. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt only had 4 tackles and one QB hit, but his presence was felt throughout, whether it was stopping guys at the line of scrimmage, snuffing out QB scrambles or drawing double teams…. And those double teams helped Alex Highsmith, who had two sacks, including a strip sack that helped end New Orleans final possession. Devin Bush quietly had another good game. Grade: A

Secondary
Wow. What a difference interceptions make. Damontae Kazee’s 4th quarter interception set up the Steelers final touchdown while Levi Wallace ended the Saints final possession. Arthur Maulet’s stat line reads 3 tackles 2 solos and 1 pass defensed. Nice, but it doesn’t do justice to the incredible play he made. The Saints were 3-12 on 3rd downs. Giving up a TD on a two minute drive brings this group’s grade down. A smidge. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Pressley Harvin punted 3 times, nailing the ball into the 20 twice and none of his punts were returnable. The Steelers kick coverage was sound, and Steven Simms looked good in his lone kick return.

Matthew Wright, however, missed two of his field goals and his kickoffs were short. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers entered the bye week as a 2-6 team that had gotten its tail kicked be a Super Bowl favorite. They exited it looking like a team that used its week off to get “back to basics.”

  • Tackles were crisp. Assignments were smart. Run blocking was physical. Penalties were minimized.

Matt Canada’s offense finally looked like an winning offense. Yes, the Red Zone remains an issue and a tendency to rely on trick plays is forming. But they scored twice at the goal line through smart execution.

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Teryl Austin’s defense put on the most complete performance of the season. Were it not for the late 2nd half hiccup, there’s a strong chance the Saints never see the end zone.

Through it all, Mike Tomlin has kept his eye on establishing sound fundamentals, and that focus paid off. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
This player led the team in tackles, the first two of which went for third down stops. He also made several other stops for no gain, with the biggest coming against Andy Dalton on 4th down with 7:47 left to play and for that Robert Spillane is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Saints.

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Persistence Pays Off: Steelers 20-10 Win over Saints Fueled by Dominating Defense, Patient Offense

Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:

  • Ugly
  • A dominating defensive performance
  • A “team win”

Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.

Jaylen Warren, Demario Davis, Steelers vs Saints

Jaylen Warren rips off 4th quarter run. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off

For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:

Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year

  • These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.

Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.

Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”

Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.

Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.

Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite

The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.

  • It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.

That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.

  • And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.

 

T.J. Watt, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Saints

T.J. Watt stuffs Jordan Howard. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.

  • But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.

Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.

  • The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.

How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.

Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.

Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.

Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status

Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.

  • Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
  • Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
  • Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
  • Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
  • Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.

All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.

But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.

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

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

But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.

  • Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.

After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.

The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”

But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.

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Emperor’s Wisdom: 5 Chuck Nollisms to See Steelers Nation Through the 2022 Season

These are tough times for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans. The team holds a 2-6 record at the bye week and the franchise appears to be fated for its for its first losing season since 2003. Oddly enough, its during tough times like these that Steelers Nation would do well to lean into the wisdom of Chuck Noll.

  • Chuck Noll, the head coach who altered the course of the franchise, was never known for his colorful quotes.

As Myron Cope remembered in Double Yoi, after one of Noll’s pre-Super Bowl press conference, a national reporter taped a blank page to the wall of the press room titled, “Highlights of Chuck Noll’s Press Conference.”

Yes, Nollism’s were rare. That’s what makes them so special. Here are a few that are relevant to 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll in his element with the Steelers at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

1. “When you’re losing, everything they say about you is true”

This quote from Noll underlines his understanding that the NFL is a bottom line business. There may be, as his successor Bill Cowher often reminded, a “Fine line between winning and losing,” but Noll knew that when you end up on the wrong side of that fine line, no one cares why, even though some might think they do….

2. “…the question they’re really asking is ‘Why don’t you win?’”

After the 1989 Steelers started the season losing to the Browns 51-0 and to the Bengals 41-10, as vulchers circled over Three Rivers Stadium, ESPN dispatched Pete Axthelm to Pittsburgh to ask Noll “Has the game passed you by?”

Noll dodged the direct question while delivering a truthful response, by responding “When people ask that question, its like when they ask, ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun?’ ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ and what they’re really asking is, ‘Why don’t you win?’”

  • He was right then and his words of wisdom apply today.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Should the Steelers use Derek Watt more in the offense? Yes, I certainly think so.

But I wouldn’t care if the Kenny Pickett was playing as well as Ben Roethlisberger did in 2004. Nor would we care about how Mike Tomlin was splitting carries between Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris if they were pounding offenses the way Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were during that same Steelers 2004 season.

3. “Back to Basics”

Whenever the Steelers would hit a rough stretch, Chuck Noll would begin the week with one of his “back to basics” speeches. Noll was a fundamentalist. He lived and died by the credo that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily.

That philosophy is what led him to critique and correct the pre-snap stance of Andy Russell, one of the few good players he inherited from Bill Austin, transforming a Pro Bowl player into someone who, arguably broached Hall of Fame level under Noll

This pearl of wisdom relevant to the entire 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers squad, but particularly the offense. Lost in all of the anger directed at Matt Canada and his “one touchdown a game” offense is the fact that this is young and inexperienced unit.

Extra focus on “the little things” like avoiding illegal formation penalties, or footwork to get your feet in in bounds, would be invaluable for this offense.

  • Doubt that, do you?

Well consider the penultimate drive against Miami. Kenny Pickett moved the team to the 3rd and 1 on the 1 yard line, only to see penalties on successive plays push the offense back 10 yards when he threw an interception. The “little” things add up, particularly when you don’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback.

4. “If everyone can be just 1% better, we’ll be 22% better as a team”

Teamwork drove Chuck Noll. He talked about it in his Hall of Fame induction speech. He relentlessly reminded his players that geese flew much faster in formation than alone.

The 2022 Steelers need to take this to heart, whether this means holding a block a second longer, concentrating just a bit more on the cadence of the snap count, or focusing on executing their exact assignment on a play.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close on Duriel Harris. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via the SportingNews

This is mentality was in evidence during the Steelers win over Tampa Bay, and something they should embrace coming out of the bye week.

5. “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.”

This Nollism isn’t oft repeated, but I remember Mel Blount and Ray Mansfield talking about it during an NFL Films clip on Chuck Noll. As Blount explains, Noll preached this to his team at the peak of their Super Bowl runs in an effort to ensure that their success never went to their heads.

  • Suffice to say the 2022 Steelers are on anything but a Super Bowl run.

And that’s their fans need to keep Noll’s wisdom front of mind. The Steelers are rebuilding. Rebuilding is a process, not an event. And because its a process, that’s why its painful as it is far more like rehabbing an injured joint than pulling off a Band Aid.

So expect that results, at least at first, to be measured by progress before those measurements come via victories.

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Steelers Fans Should Embrace What Looks To Be A Rare Bad Season

I feel like a teenager all over again.

Why do I say that? I’ve been reminiscing about the 1980s, back when times seemed simpler and the world was full of possibilities. Maybe it’s because I turned 50 in May. Maybe it’s because I really miss the formative years of my life.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Or maybe it’s because the Steelers are oh-so awful in 2022, complete with a 2-6 record and a place near the bottom of many statistical categories, both offensively and defensively.

That’s right, the offense, one now led by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, is ranked 28th in total yards. As for the defense, one that was supposed to carry the team in 2022, it’s ranked 29th in total yards allowed. Yes, the unit has been without T.J. Watt since Week 1, but the defense was no bargain a year ago, even with Watt putting together a Defensive Player of the Year season.

The calls for head coach Mike Tomlin’s dismissal — calls that were always quite popular even during the good years — have been louder than ever.

Speaking of coaching dismissals, the Steelers have officially reached their bye week, and the only thing the fans are hanging their hats on at the moment is the possible firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Seriously, the fans are wishing for that like some fans wish for a championship.

The tide is low in 2022. In fact, it hasn’t felt this low since the late-1980s when 6-10 and even 5-11 campaigns became commonplace under the Emperor, Chuck Noll.

Yes, times were tough under Bill Cowher in the late-’90s, but this just “feels” different and more like the 1980s struggles when a turnaround wasn’t just a few moves away.

I guess that’s why I’ve been drawn to mid-to-late-’80s Steelers nostalgia as of late. Maybe that’s why I watched the NFL Films “highlights” from the 1986 campaign, one that ended with a 6-10 record, the franchise’s then-worst mark since 1969. That feature was narrated by Larry Richert, an unknown at the time but someone who would go on to become a Pittsburgh radio icon, as well as Dan Marino‘s brother-in-law.

  • Oh yeah, Richert is the PA announcer for every Steelers home game at Acrisure Stadium.

I’ve also been watching broadcasts from the Steelers’ 5-11 campaign in 1988, their now worst season since 1969. The Steelers started off even worse in ’88 than they did through seven games of the 2022 campaign–1-6–before stunning a slightly better Broncos team, one that was without the legendary John Elway, 39-21 at old Three Rivers Stadium.

I’ll never forget where I was — at my grandparents’ home in Pittsburgh — when Rodney Carter opened the game by galloping for a 64-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0. The late Sam Nover, a long-time sports broadcaster for WPXI, a local affiliate for NBC, was the play-by-play man that day for the Peacock Network and screamed as if Carter had just scored a touchdown in the AFC title game. Maybe that’s because Nover was quite close to the Steelers in those days and was often the locker room reporter who interviewed the players during The Fifth Quarter postgame show.

  • The Steelers actually jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead and looked about as dominant as they would all season.

Much like today, there was talk of Pittsburgh climbing out of its hole and making it to the postseason, but 2-6 eventually turned into 2-10.

The ’88 season was so forgettable that I was given a free ticket to a game against the Eagles at Three Rivers Stadium. It was my first-ever Steelers game, and I went with my uncle–he’s the same age as me, believe it or not. We were two teenagers who had a great time and were surrounded by many lunatics in the stands who supported both Pennsylvania teams, as well as the right to punch each other in the face.

It was fun, but it wasn’t a victory, as the Steelers fell, 27-26, when a 57-yard field goal attempt by Gary Anderson was blocked at the buzzer.

It wasn’t all bad for the Steelers in ’88. In fact, they pulled things together near the end of the season and finished with three wins in their final four games–including an exciting 37-34 victory over the Houston Oilers at the iconic Astrodome on Sunday Night Football.

I don’t know if this current Steelers team can pull itself out of the mess it’s in and avoid its first losing season since 2003. If Pittsburgh can’t, well, the streak had to come to an end sooner or later, right?

I guess it would be fitting for it to happen in 2022, the first one without Ben Roethlisberger as the face of the franchise in nearly two decades.

If the Steelers do actually finish with a losing record in 2022, not only will it be the first time in 19 years, but it would only be the fourth such occasion since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1992.

That’s pretty incredible, especially when you consider the fact that Pittsburgh finished with a losing record in four of the final seven seasons of Noll’s career.

  • If you’re a Steelers fan, you should embrace the pain. Experience it.

It’s not often you get to witness something like this around here.

 

 

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Eagles: Fire & Fight Isn’t Enough Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher hoping fire and fight he saw in a losing effort isn’t fools gold, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Steven Simms, Steelers vs Eagles

Steven Simms returns a kick. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s road got rougher in his fourth start to the tune of 6 sacks and 11 total hits. Pickett protected the ball, until he didn’t in the 4th quarter. He did some nice things, used the middle of the field more, but the Steelers 1-12 third down conversion rate in 1 touchdown says it all. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren showed some fire and heart, but half of Harris’ 32 yards came on 1 run, while Warren had 6 carries for 50 yards. Harris added 6 catches for 26 yards while Warren had 3 for 25 yards. Derek Watt caught 2 passes including the only touchdown. The running backs weren’t a weak link, neither were they a strength. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with catches, but the fact that he clocked in at 4 should tell you what you need to know about the Steelers offense. Zach Gentry caught one pass for 3 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool had four catches and one pass for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 35 yards and probably should have drawn a pass interference penalty. George Pickens had three targets, he couldn’t come into bounds on one, got a ticky-tacky penalty on another and didn’t bring in a final catch. The Steelers needed more. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The slow, but steady progress the Steelers offensive line had been making came to a crashing halt in Philadelphia. Early on the Steelers running backs had no room to run, something that didn’t change until the draw plays started. Pass protection got worse as the game wore on. Even at its best it would have been rough sledding against the Eagles. The line was at it worst. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The line came up big late in the 2nd half when Carlos Davis and Cam Heyward logged sacks to force a Philly punt. But the line could not pressure Jalen Hurts for the rest of the afternoon, and gave up some rushing yardage late in the game when the Steelers still had a theoretical chance to win. Grade: C-

Linebackers
A quiet day for the unit Robert Spillane and Myles Jack led in tackles with Alex Highsmith rendered a non-factor. Grade: D

Secondary
The Stat sheet says that Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton defensed passes. Ahkello Witherspoon, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Edmunds got burned 3 times by A.J. Brown. James Pierre did well in relief, but that’s just window dressing. Grade: F

Special Teams
Replacement kicker Nick Sciba was perfect on his kicks, but his kickoffs left a lot to be desired. Pressley Harvin had a solid day punting and Steven Simms had a solid day returning. Return coverage was sound.

Gunner Olszewski made a gutsy play that showed a lot of spirit and the Steelers converted a fake punt thanks to Marcus Allen. Grade: B

Coaching
Ooh, this one was ugly.

But if you look at the 3 bombs the Steelers secondary gave up in the first half, Teryl Austin’s defensive backs were in the right places, they just didn’t make plays. Still, the inability to mount any semblance of a pass rush was part of what allowed Jalen Hurts make it look easy.

  • On offense the Steelers were a mess.

For yet another week, the unit only scored one touchdown, and if you credit Matt Canada’s creativity on the play, you also have to question why it was necessary, coming on 4th down by virtue of a penalty.

Malik Reed, Jalen Hurts, Steelers vs Eagles

Malik Reed disrupts a pass, saves a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It would be insincere to suggest that, absent the penalties, the Steelers offense could have given the Eagles a run for the money. That’s probably not true. But penalties continue to short-circuit drives week-in-and-week-out.

Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his guys burning with fire and fight until the better end, but that fire and fight didn’t make them competitive in this game, nor does it him on this Report Card. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Standing in as a replacement player for a generational talent is unforgiving. And for the most part, this player has been quiet, but against the Eagles Malik Reed had a sack and pressured and got a hand on a ball that would have been another touchdown, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 10th consecutive loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

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