Are the Steelers Hiding the Next Yancey Thigpen on their 2024 Roster?

What is the Steelers plan at wide receiver for 2024?

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asked that question late last week. A day later, Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review cautioned readers that the Steelers lack of depth at wide out can’t be “rationalized away.”

  • Both writers make valid points.

The Steelers opened the off season by trading Diontae Johnson to Carolina Donte Jackson. Everyone expected Omar Khan to follow with another splash personnel move. But since then, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” Steelers Nation has spent the off season “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”

Outside of George Pickens the Steelers cupboard at wide receiver is pretty bare. And with the draft over and free agent options dwindling the answers to Wexell’s question appear to be:

1. Omar Khan still has another “Khan Artist” like move up his sleeve.
2. Arthur Smith and Mike Tomlin are all in on a “Damn the receivers! Pound the rock!” offense.

Those two possibility have been widely bandied about on blogs and social media. But there’s a third one that no one is entertaining:

3. The Steelers are hiding the next Yancey Thigpen on their roster.

The likely response of those who either remember or at least know about Thigpen’s playing days is, “…Yeah, Right. Someone’s been drinking too much Argentine wine.” Well, I do send too much of my money to the Salentein family, but the idea is not alcohol induced. Read on….

None of the Steelers New Veteran WRs Look Like Thigpen

Instead of bringing in a blue chip wide out, Omar Khan has scoured the NFL’s free agent bargain bin. Since saying goodbye to Diontae, the Steelers have Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins and most recently Scott Miller. (They also signed Denzel Mims in late January. Drafted Roman Wilson and still have Calvin Austin.)

Van Jefferson had 20 catches last year with the Falcons and Rams, Watkins logged 15 for the Eagles and Miller grabbed 11 at Atlanta. (Mims was out of football, but had 11 catches for the Jets in 22.)

Even if you agree (and I’m not sure that I do) that you can substitute quantity for quality at wide receiver in the NFL, the trio collectively still falls short of Diontae Johnson’s 51 catches.

So no, none of them projects to be the next Thigpen. Not even close. At first glance the easy response is, “…Pal, keep drinking Salentein, but stick to Portillo. Stay away from the expensive stuff.”

But Thigpen Didn’t Look Like Thigpen. Until He Did.

The Steelers new wide outs have good speed, but outside of that nothing inspires. Yancey Thigpen didn’t inspire anyone either. Until he did.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

Yancey Thingpen played four games in 1991 for the San Diego Chargers and recorded zero stats as a wideout. During the middle of the Steeler 1992 season Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher picked him up off of the waiver wire.

Thigpen played special teams in 1992, recording one catch on four targets. In 1993 he had nine grabs on 12 targets. By the end of ‘93 it was clear that the Steelers lacked a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps. So they parted ways with their number 1 wide receiver Jeff Graham, and tried to convert other starter, Dwight Stone into a utility back.

Yet going into the 1994 season, the arrow was pointed out at wide receiver in Pittsburgh.

Andre Hastings looked primed to make the proverbial “Second year leap” and the franchise had just picked Charles Johnson with their first pick in the 1994 NFL Draft.

Yet neither man was the Steelers best receiver when the 1994 campaign ended, because Thigpen had earned that distinction. Yes, Johnson had one more catch, but Thigpen was the one who delivered down the stretch and in the playoffs.

A year later Thigpen was breaking John Stallworth’s single-season reception record en route to the 1995 Steelers AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXX. Injures sabotaged his 1996 season, yet a year later, Thigpen became Kordell Stewart’s go-to man in the 1997 season that ended in the AFC Championship.

By the time Thigpen left as a free agent in 1998, he’d earned the right to be considered alongside Louis Lipps as one of the franchise’s best receivers behind Swann and Stallworth. In contrast, Hastings and Johnson were disappointments.

Does that mean that Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins Scott Miller or Denzel Mims will prove himself to be the next Yancey Thigpen in 2024?

I wouldn’t be on it. But then again, no one was betting on Yancey Thipgen in May of 1994….

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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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Steelers Fire Matt Canada. Now What? 1999’s Kordell Stewart Benching Offers a Warning….

Yesterday Mike Tomlin shattered franchise precedent by firing Matt Canada in season and in the process he gave Steelers fans what they’ve long wanted. Tomlin’s decision makes sense for a lot of reasons.

Sure, the Steelers are sitting on a 6-4 record, but each of those six wins has been ugly. And the last second loss to the Browns felt like the proverbial other foot had dropped. The Steelers offense has been lackluster for years, but it was poignantly pathetic in Cleveland. And it wasn’t going to get any better with Canada at the helm.

  • But with Matt Canada gone the focus now becomes more intense: What happens next?

As I watch Steelers Nation celebrate Canada’s dismissal on social media, I can’t help but think of a similar situation the Steeler found themselves in back in November 22, 1999. Indeed, as this current season has evolved, its resonance with the 1999 Steelers has grown stronger.

That season offers a clear lesson for today: While Matt Canada was part of the problem, there’s no assurance that firing him will work as a solution.

Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, 1999 Steelers

Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomlin in the late 1990s.

Nightmare Like Its 1999

You can take a deep dive on the 1999 Steelers here. This is the the backstory you need to know now:

Although the Steelers closed 1998 with 5 straight losses to finish 7-9, they began 1999 with hope. Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe confidently boasted to the media something along the lines of, “…No offense. But I like proving you wrong. I don’t think we’re that far off from being a contender again.”

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

The ’99 Steelers opened with a blowout over the expansion Cleveland Browns and a lack luster win against a weak Bears team. Three butt ugly losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars at home, and Doug Fluite and the Bills on the road followed.

  • If you asked any fan what the Steelers needed to do they’d have answered in unison: Bench Kordell!

But Bill Cowher stuck with Kordell Stewart, and the Steelers won 3 straight, then dropped a horrific home loss to the Browns, and an terrible loss to the Titans on the road.

That brought a home game against the Bengals. The Cincinnati Bengals of that era were the AFC Central’s doormat. Tom Donahoe, in a bit of candor you would never see in 2023, openly proclaimed Pittsburgh as the more talented team.

The Bengals scored a touchdown on their first possession. The Steelers answered with 4 plays followed by an interception. The Bengals responded with a second touchdown. The teams traded a couple of punts, Pittsburgh managed to get a field goal and Carlos Emmons even opened the second quarter with an interception of his own.

After a 1 yard run to Jerome Bettis, (“Sludge Ball” foreshadowed) Kordell fired off pass towards Jon Witman and Rodney Heath intercepted, returning it 58 yards for a pick six.

Bill Cowher had seen enough.

On the next series Mike Tomczak was under center at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The crowd at Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon cheered. The guy two bar stools down from me who’d spent the previous hour alternating between railing against “Queerdell!” and asking “You guy’s don’t think this makes me a racist, do you?” was elated.

Meanwhile, at Three Rivers Stadium where it actually counted, Mike Tomczak hit Troy Edwards for 4 yards. Jerome Bettis ran for 4 more. On third and 3 Richard Huntley ran for 3 more…

…before fumbling, with Takeo Spikes recovering. Corey Dillon ripped off runs of 20 and 12 yards and 6 plays later the Bengals were scoring again, leaving Pittsburgh down by 24-3 just 20 minutes into the game.

To be fair to Mike Tomczak and everyone else, the Steelers offense perked up, putting 17 points on the board in the next 25 minutes to enter the third quarter only down 24 to 20. But here’s how the 4th quarter unfolded for Pittsburgh:

  • Jerome Bettis being stopped for no gain on 3rd and 4th down
  • Tomczak tossing incompletes and then giving up 2 sacks
  • A Wayne Gandy penalty at Cincinnati’s 21, follow by 3 straight Tomczak incompletes

The Bengals scored another field goal along the way, winning the game 27 to 20.

1999’s Lessons for 2023

That home loss to the Bengals left the 1999 Steelers at 5-6, but Pittsburgh still had a shot at the playoffs if not the AFC Central crown. Bill Cowher stuck with Mike Tomczak as quarterback, but the Steelers only won one of its next 5 games.

Tomzack’s final quarterback rating was 75.8 compared to Stewart’s 64.9, but his completion percentage was 5 percentage points lower. Benching Kordell Stewart did spark the offense a bit, but here’s what it didn’t do:

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

Quadry Ismail scorches Steelers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Indeed, two weeks after Stewart’s benching, the Ravens came to town and earned their first victory in Pittsburgh on the back of a Qadry Ismail 258 yards receiving performance. As Scottie Brown, who was sort of the dean of the Purple Goose quipped after Ismail’s second 50 yard plus touchdown, “Its Kordell’s fault!”

  • And that’s something to keep in mind as the Steelers start life without Matt Canada.

As someone who defended the decision to bring Canada back after 2022’s strong finish, I have no problem eat my share of crow this morning. I was wrong. Clearly his offense lacked “coordination” and, well, that was his job.

But it’s also wise to remember isn’t the only thing that ails the 2023 Steelers. Canada’s absence won’t change the fact that the Steelers seem to be losing a safety and/or an inside linebacker to injured reserve per week.

When the calls to “Fire Canada” went viral in September, I’d have warned you that firing Canada wouldn’t have made any of the offensive lineman playing better. Fortunately offensive line play has improved.

As recently as two weeks ago following the Titans game, there were still tangible reasons to be optimistic that things might soon “click” for Kenny Pickett. After watching him “get by” against the Packers and then struggle against the Browns, I’m less sure.

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It is true that a bad offensive coordinator can stunt the development of a young quarterback (see Joe Walton and Bubby Brister, or Ray Sherman and/or Kevin Gilbride and Kordell Stewart). And when you invest a first round draft pick in a quarterback, you need to do all you can to make it work.

But the fact is that far more quarterbacks drafted in the first round fail than succeed and replacing one franchise quarterback with another is very difficult to do.

And firing Matt Canada isn’t going to change either of those realities.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Browns: Nightmares Like its 1999 Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher worrying that he hasn’t seen a quarterbacking nightmare like this since 1999, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 road loss to the Browns.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Too high! Diontae Johnson reaches for a poorly thrown pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 15 of 28 for 106 yards. In this case “…at least he didn’t turn over the ball eh” does not apply. Pickett inaccurate and especially so on third downs. The lion’s share of his 15 completions were safe, check down route. The Steelers haven’t seen type of timid, 3 yard passing plays since the days for Kordell Stewart in 1999. Grade: Fsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren ran for 129 yards, and while the biggest chunk of that came on his 74 yard explosion, he had several other good runs. Najee Harris had 35 yards on 12 carries, with half of that coming on one carry. The Steelers could not afford “Sludge Ball” when Harris was carrying, but that’s what they got. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth’s much ballyhooed return resulted in one catch for 7 yards. Darnell Washington had a catch for 8. It wasn’t that the tight ends were necessarily bad, but they weren’t an asset. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens led the team with 4 catches for 38 yards. Again this is not a misprint of a Charles Lockett stat line from the 1980s. Allen Robinson was next with 3 catches for 20 yards. Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 16 yards and was misaligned with Pickett on another play. He’s now claiming on social media that he ran the right route and openly griping in the locker room. Ouch. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked 3 times, but the first one set the tone for the game (and should have been a safety) the second one came on third down, and the final one helped force a field goal when a touchdown would have given the Steelers the lead. He was only hit 4 other times, but he was under pressure for much of the game. The run blocking was good at times. Run blocking took a step back. Sometimes holes were there, other times both Warren and Harris were either getting hit behind the line of scrimmage or met walls when they got there. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers limited the Browns running backs to sludge ball of their own with Cam Heyward and Keeanu Benton making their presence known. More pressure on Dorian Thompson-Robinson would have been nice. Grade: B

Linebackers
Elandon Roberts stepped up in the absence of the other two members of the starting troika and led the team with 15 tackles including 2 for losses. T.J. Watt only had one sack but that helped get the ball back for the Steelers in a tie game. Mykal Walker didn’t stand out in his first start, which is good. Grade: B

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. and Patrick Peterson both had tipped passes while Chandon Sullivan had two with Sullivan coming down with a very difficult interception. Damontae Kazee looked solid. The Browns were 4-17 on third down conversions – worse than the Steelers, if you’ll believe. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, Calvin Austin was strong as a punt returner, Pressley Harvin had one bad one that went off the side of his foot, but other than that was strong. Punt coverage was a little leaky. Grade: B-

Coaching
The Steelers came into the week starting a raft of practice squanders on defense, and at times early in the game that was painfully obvious. However, once the Steelers defense settled down, they started making Dorian Thompson-Robinson look like a rookie.

One can criticize Teryl Austin’s group for giving up the final field goal drive, but with the game tied the defense delivered the ball to the offense twice in the game’s final six minutes.

  • The Steelers offense, outside of the play of Jaylen Warren, was an unmitigated disaster.

Pressley Harvin punted four times in the first half alone. And if the touchdown to open the second half was good, And although a touchdown to open the second half was nice, it is yet another case of Matt Canada’s offense being able to drop an random a pure big play into a bucket full of raw sewage.

If it is true that Kenny Pickett NEEDED to make some of those passes with the game on the line why wasn’t Jaylen Warren given a carry at clutch time when the Steelers needed to both move the ball and get a score?

Worse yet, sniping started almost immediately in the locker room after the game. Mike Tomlin needs to fix this. Fast. Grade: F

Trenton Thompson, Steelers vs Browns

Trenton Thompson bats away a pass on third down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Going into the game Mike Tomlin made a distinction between practice squad players who were “developmental” and “capable” with Mykal Walker falling into the latter category. However, it was it was the “developmental” guy who kept a lid on the top of the Steelers defense was stepping up twice to bat away passes, once in the Red Zone and once on third down and for that Trenton Thompson wins Unsung Hero Honors for the Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland.

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Brown Out: Steelers Lose to Browns 13-10 as Offense, Kenny Pickett Stumbles Down Stretch

In so many ways the Steelers trip to Cleveland was like other games earlier in the season as it featured:

  • A slow start
  • A dramatic big play on offense
  • 2nd half defensive fireworks
  • A field goal coming on to the field to settle things as regulation expired

Yet, this one had a different result, as the Browns beat the Steelers 13 to 10 on a last minute Dustin Hopkins field goal. The reason this one was different for Pittsburgh is simple: Kenny Pickett not only failed to find his 4th quarter magic, his performance suggested that the previous examples were mere mirages.

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Browns Start Strong, Steelers Sputter

The 9 game the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers have been a historical aberration. They’ve been outgained in all of their games and collectively outscored. Yet they arrived in Cleveland after having passed the season’s half way mark with a 6-3 record.

  • Were they a bad team hiding behind a couple of three on Any Given Sundays?
  • Or where they a good team struggling to find themselves?

As staff writer Tony Defeo observed on X (formerly known as Twitter):

Could the Browns offer something of a real test?

After all, they’d lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season and were starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But the Steelers had lost Kwon Alexander, Kenau Neal and were already missing all Pro Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and forced to start practice squanders Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson at inside linebacker and safety.

Credit the Browns PR staff for selling the “Browns locker room rallies around the rookie story” as the CBS broadcast crew kept touching on threads tied to this story line every chance they got.

  • But credit Kevin Stefanski and his staff for breathing truth into this narrative.

No one would mistake Cleveland for an offensive juggernaut nor did its defense go into shut down mode, but they were clearly the better-prepared unit in the first half, as the Browns scored 10 points while the Steelers spent the first quarter burning time outs on both sides of the ball to avoid penalties.

And while the Steelers defense hung tough in the Red Zone late in the first half by forcing a field goal, with the Steelers offense completely AOWL, Pittsburgh was lucky to be down by only 10.

Meet the Steelers One Man Offense

The Steelers got to the ball to open the second half. On first down Najee Harris got the nod, and ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage, gaining one yard. Another 30 minutes of “Sludge Ball” seemed to be in order.

Warren ripped off a 74 yard run that was even more impressive than his cousin Fast Willie Parker’s 75 yard Super Bowl XL romp. In the blink of an eye, Warren had gained more yards than the entire Steelers offense had gained in the first half and he’d putt Pittsburgh to within three.

Jaylen Warren was literally the only thing about the Steelers offense that worked against the Browns. He followed his touchdown with a 14 yard catch, a 21 yard run and a 12 yard run. Would Warren have been able to “take over the game” had Matt Canada given him a chance?

It is hard to be sure.

But clearly he was out performing Najee Harris behind an offensive line whose run blocking was shaky enough. Hindsight’s 20/20, but the Steelers should have leaned on Warren more.

Defense Delivers 2nd Half Fireworks

Statistically speaking the Steelers 2023 defense ranks near the bottom both against the run and against the past. They’ve made a lot of fantasy football owners happy this season. But they’ve found a way to deliver when the game is on the line.

Sunday’s trip to Cleveland was no exception:

All of that was good enough for the Steelers defense to force punts on 5 punts the Browns six the second half possessions. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked like a frustrated, clueless rookie through much of it.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson was good enough to do something Kenny Pickett wasn’t able to do – get his team into field goal range inside the 2 minute warning.

Pickett Regresses

Kenny Pickett finished 2022 with a bang. He started 2023 with a thud. He looked terrible in blowouts to the 49ers and Texans and in the week 2 win over the Browns.

  • In his six wins his MO has been the same: Start slow, finish strong.

Narrative spinners in Steelers Nation have liked to talk about Pickett’s 4th quarter magic as if its been something he turns on at will during the game’s final 15 minutes. But the truth is that he’s gotten progressively better as games have worn on.

Others may disagree, but even in the loss to the Jaguars he seemed to be improving on the “eye test” before he got hurt. Last week’s win over the Packers was a little different. Pickett did get a little better as the game progressed, but his improvement was marginal.

  • Against the Browns it was next to non-existent.

Kenny Pickett converted just 2 of 11 third downs passing. After the Steelers tied the game with 7:44 remaining, Teryl Austin’s defense forced two punts and limited the Browns to just 10 plays. That gave Pickett and the Steelers offense 2 possessions to get 3 points in the game’s final minutes.

Yes, Pickett did start that stretch with a nice hook up to George Pickens. After that he threw 5 passes, completing only one of those. Those incompletions are damning enough, but if you really want to understand how Pickett has come up short look at his completion: A 2 yards pass to Jaylen Warren on third and 15.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Steelers haven’t seen such timid play at quarterback since Kordell Stewart and the dark days of the 1999 season.

For those of you who’ve forgotten or are too young to remember, the 1999 Steelers won just six games. Its no exaggeration to say that if Kenny Pickett doesn’t find a way to pick it up, the Steelers might finished 2023 with a similar total.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bhttp://steelcurtainrising.com/2011/12/tomlin-chokes-on-roethlisberger-decision-steelers-lose-to-49ers.html/ench in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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

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

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

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

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pickett’s Progress

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

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

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

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

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

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not.

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

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

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

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

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

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

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

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

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

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

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

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

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

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

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

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

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

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Still Believe in Yesterday? 20th Anniversary of Tommy Maddox Playoff Rally Shows Need for Prudence with Pickett

January 5th certainly is a momentous day in Steelers history. Thanks to the magic of social media yesterday I was reminded that January 5th was:

  • Chuck Noll’s birthday (he’d have been 91 on January 5th 2023
  • The anniversary of Tommy Maddox‘s dramatic playoff comeback vs the Browns at Heinz Field in 2003
  • The day Bill Cowher resigned in 2007 after the Steelers 8-8 2006 season

All three events were important in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers as we know them today. All three are worthy of memory and celebration.

But one offers an important lesson for Steelers fans, if not the organization itself today in January 2023. And that is Tommy Maddox’s playoff rally.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Tommy Gun Story: Digest Version

For a full accounting of the Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” story click here to read Tony Defeo’s retrospective on the Steelers 2002 season. If you don’t have time, here’s the digest version:

  • Tommy Maddox was a first round pick in 1992, who’d washed out with the Broncos, Giants and Falcons
  • Maddox played the 2001 edition of the XFL and quarterbacked Los Angeles Xtreme to the championship
  • The Steelers signed Maddox in the summer of 2001, and Maddox won the backup job

Kordell Stewart had quarterbacked the 2001 Steelers to the AFC Championship game and won team MVP honors after stepping up following Jerome Bettis‘ midseason injury. So Kordell appeared set as the starter going into 2002.

However, the Steelers started 0-2, Kordell looked bad, and Bill Cowher opted to bench Stewart in favor of Maddox in week three in the name of giving the team a proverbial “spark.”

Maddox led the team to a win in overtime, Cowher opted to stick with a hot hand, and the 2002 Steelers won their final first AFC North crown, brining up a wild Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

Maddox’s Playoff Rally at Heinz

Bill Cowher’s Steelers defenses of the 1990’s had carried a reputation for their “shut down secondaries.” But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady opened the 2002 season exposing the Steelers secondary as a shell of its former self (hence Kevin Colbert trading up to get Troy Polamalu that next spring, but that’s another story.)

The Browns exploited that weakness to jump ahead 14-0 and kept it a two score game for the first 45 minutes of play. They opened the 4th quarter with a 27 to 14 lead, and held 33 to 21 lead with just over ten minute left.

Tommy Maddox went to work.

  • First he led a 14 play drive that ended with a Hines Ward touchdown
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out
  • Maddox led an 8 play drive where he completed 4 of 5 passes, setting up Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard touchdown

An Antwaan Randle El pass complete to Jerame Tuman completed the 2 point conversion, the Steelers defense held on for what Dan Rooney described as one  of the most exciting playoff wins in Steelers history.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And it was exciting. It also seemed to cement Tommy Maddox’s status as the Steelers franchise QB. Dan Rooney, per Bob Labriola, seed to have come to a similar conclusion, after spending much of the game “Making a list” which he balled up and threw away at after the Steelers beat the odds with their comeback win.

For my money, I thought the game proved that Tommy Maddox had the most important intangible quality a quarterback can have — mental toughness. Heck, according to urban legend, Maddox himself stood in the huddle, down two scores with 5:30 left to play and said, “Alright. We got ’em where we want ’em.”

Lesson? Remain Prudent with Pickett

But of course Tommy Maddox wasn’t the Steelers answer at quarterback. He had a rough go of it as the Steelers struggled throughout the 2003 season, leading Pittsburgh to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Kenny Pickett has had a tremendous rookie year. The poise and acumen he’s show in orchestrating game winning drives against the Colts, Raiders and most impressively the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium IS impressive.

  • Those drives show not only mental toughness, but an instinctive, innate playmaking ability that can’t be taught.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan should proceed into the 2023 off season with the assumption that the Steelers have found their franchise QB in Kenny Pickett. Fans should also keep that in mind whenever the Steelers decline to make some sort of inane trade with Green Bay should Aaron Rodgers throw one of his “I’m not sure I want to be a Packer anymore” tantrums.

But fans should also remember the lesson Tommy Maddox left us – the true test of a quarterback isn’t whether he can author on successful season but several.

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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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