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

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

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

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

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

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

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

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

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

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

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

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

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

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

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

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

Wanting It More

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

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

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

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

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

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

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More than Meets the Eye: Steelers 13-10 over Raiders Reveals Greater Growth than Score Suggests

Final scores can be tricky things. They tell you who won but don’t explain why.

The record books tell us that 50 years ago the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first playoff game by defeating the Oakland Raiders 13-7. But that number tells us nothing of the Immaculate Reception, the greatest play in the history of football, where Franco Harris staked his first claim to greatness.

  • 50 years later, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Las Vegas Raiders 13-10.

While no one in the Black and Gold authored any monumental plays in this game, the Steelers prevailed because, in the words of Mike Tomlin “…it was a grow-up evening for us tonight.”

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.

The True Test of a Legacy

Sports writers, yours truly included, love to write about heritage or legacies left by those who came before. The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, sharing space occupied by teams led by the likes of Lambeau and Lombardi, Halases, Brown and Landry.

Mike Tomlin embraces this reality. As he declared during his opening statement:

We had a chance to be a part of Steeler history tonight and, man, we don’t take that lightly. We’re just so appreciative of the ground that’s been laid by those that have come before us, the men like this man’s jersey that I’m wearing right here.

But when it comes to organization building, the true test of a legacy isn’t whether those carrying on its mission today remember the legacy, but whether they can add to it.

The Oaklan… ur um, Las Vegas Raiders tested the Steelers faith to their legacy on both sides of the ball.

Steelers Defense Simple Special vs Raiders

Just two weeks ago the Baltimore Ravens flocked into Acrisure Stadium and committed the worst possible insult a divisional opponent can lay on the Pittsburgh Steelers: They made them look soft.

The Steelers rebounded against the Carolina Panthers, but the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher Josh Jacobs. Not only did the Raiders have Jacobs, but they also had a host of other weapons.

  • Simply stacking the box wasn’t going to be enough.

By the time 8 minutes and 22 seconds of the first quarter had expired, the Raiders had put 7 points on the board and Josh Jacobs had run for 26 yards on 5 carries – an average that would decimate the Steelers of he could sustain it.

Alex Highsmith, David Carr, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th Anniversary

Alex Highsmith sacks David Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • He did not. During the rest of the game, he only gained 18 yards on 10 carries.

The Steelers limited the Raiders to another field goal during the first half, but Chris Boswell missed on his first field goal attempt in the first half and while he made his second one, he missed on his first kick in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, Kenny Pickett threw an interception six plays into the third quarter – if the Steelers were going to win this game, the defense would have to be special. They were:

  • One play after Pickett’s interception, Arthur Maulet picked off David Carr
  • Five plays after Chris Boswell missed his next field goal, Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off another pass
  • Alex Highsmith got a sack on third and 12, ending another drive
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick blitzed Carr on 2 & 6, setting Cam Heyward‘s 10 yard sack and an unconvertable third down, forcing a punt
  • Heyward stuffed Jacobs on 2nd and 5 on the next drive, setting up another punt.

After the Steelers went ahead, Larry Ogunjobi pressured David Carr into throwing a pass a little too soon. So instead of hitting Hunter Renfrow deep, Cam Sutton jumped the route and intercepted Carr for the third time that evening.

After the Radiers opening touchdown, the Steelers defense limited them to: Punt, Punt, Field Goal, Interception, Interception, Punt, Punt, Punt and Interception. You can’t ask more of a defense in the National Football league.

Pickett’s Poise Carries Offense at the End

The knock on Matt Canada and the Steelers offense, at least since Kenny Pickett took the helm, has been that they can’t finish drives. While there’ve been times when the Steelers have teased they might change this – see last week’s effort against the Panthers – thus far the field goal has been their most consistent weapon.

  • That could have worked against the Raiders, except that Chris Boswell kept missing his field goals.

When Cam Heyward wrecked the Raiders 5th drive of the 2nd half with a 10 yard sack of David Carr, the Steelers responded to the ensuring punt…

…with a three play, nine yard drive, that featured 2 good runs by Najee Harris, followed by Kenny Pickett failing to convert a third and 1. Pickett’s play in those first 55 minutes of the game had been shaky at best. Although he’d only thrown one interception, he’d had enough other misfires to lead one to question whether the game was too big for him or at the very least might be hitting the proverbial “rookie wall.”

The Steelers defense stone walled the Raiders on the ensuring drive, giving Pickett and the offense one last chance.
Pickett’s poise carried the day for Pittsburgh. With 2:55 remaining, Pickett started by throwing 8 straight passes:

George Pickens, George Pickens touchdown, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

George Pickens scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • He hit Najee Harris for 5, 19 and 5 yards
  • He hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times as well, for 17, 10 and 4 yards
  • When that four yarder wasn’t enough, he converted a 4th and 1

After completing 6 of 8 passes Pickett saved his best for last, launching a 14 yard laser to George Pickens in the end zone to give the Steelers their first lead with 46 seconds left.

Thanks to some crafty pass defense by Levi Wallace, Sutton’s interception, and Connor Heyward’s 21 yard scamper that including him sliding while in bounds to keep the clock running, the Steelers held that 13-10 lead.

13-10 isn’t an impressive victory margin. But if Pickett and the rest of the offense can sustain the growing up that Mike Tomlin alluded to, the true margin of victory will be much greater.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Colts: Going Old School Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher pleased as punch to see his students go “Old School” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for win over the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Arthur Maulet, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Colts

Arthur Maulet sacks Matt Ryan in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett authored his first comeback win by going 20 of 28 for 174 yards and no interceptions. Pickett is making progress, but still needs to perform better on third downs and in the Red Zone. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris was off to a solid start with 35 yards on 10 runs and a touchdown before getting hurt. Benny Snell stepped in and reminded everyone of why he was on the team with 62 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. Anthony McFarland, looking like he belonged in the NFL for the first time, had 30 yards on six carries plus 2 catches for 11. Derek Watt converted a fourth down with a 4 yard run. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for 39 yards while Zach Gentry had one catch for 4 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
George Pickens made some nice catches and is developing a rapport with Pickett, but he still made some rookie mistakes. Diontae Johnson continues to disappoint. He had 5 catches but didn’t bring in a catchable ball in the end zone and ran backwards on a play where he could have gotten a first down. Steven Sims had 2 catches for 9 yards while Gunner Olszewski ran a reverse for 9. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett had better protection than he’s had of late, but still got sacked on a few critical third downs. But protection improved as the game wore on and The run blocking continues to improve. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi led the team in tackles while Montravius Adams came in second with three with Cam Heyward getting three hits on Matt Ryan. The Steelers contained Jonathan Taylor well enough and that started with the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and came up with a critical pass defense. Myles Jack came in second, and T.J. Watt had a quiet night, but did help deflect a pass. Alex Highsmith had the play of the night when he strip sacked Matt Ryan during the two minute drill, costing the Colts precious time. Grade: B

Secondary
James Pierre made an excellent interception to help set the tone for the night. Terrell Edmunds made a sack in the first quarter and Arthur Maulet logged one in the 4th. Outside of the pass he defensed Cam Sutton had a quiet night which was good for a cornerback. The Colts went 3-12 on third downs. Grade: B

Isaiah Rodgers, Matthew Wright, Steelers vs. Colts

Matthew Wright helps tackle Isaiah Rodgers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams

You know things are bad when the special teams section features a photo of a kicker making a tackle on a kick return that wasn’t the worst one of the night. Yet, that’s what happened. The Steelers gave up two a 45 yard return to Isaiah Rodgers that should have set up a score and an 89 yard one to Dallis Flowers that not only set up a score, but let Indianapolis.

Yes, the Steelers had a blocked field goal. Yes, Presley Harvin boomed off two punts of over 50 yards, the second of which pinned the Colts at the 7 to start their final drive. And Matthew Wright made all of his kicks. So that keeps this unit’s grade in passing territory. Barely. Grade: D

Coaching
While many if not most fans can’t or won’t see it, Matt Canada’s offense continues to improve. Yes, the Steelers still seldom pass deep, although it is clear there are down the field options. Yes, there are puzzling play calling decisions – such as the screen ton Gentry, but it is also clear that there are execution errors. And offensive penalties are down.

On defense Terryl Austin’s unit limited the Colts to on first half field goal and to two touchdowns in the second half. Is this unit dominating at the level one would expect it to given its star power? No, it isn’t.

  • But the defense continues to give the offense chances to win.

The Steelers entered the game 3-7. But if you look at the intensity that reserves Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell played with, you’d have thought Pittsburgh was contending for a playoff bye week. That’s the environment Mike Tomlin has established to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that fumble recoveries come down to luck. And a lot of times that’s true – sometimes the ball just bounces or doesn’t bounce, your way. But even when the bounce doesn’t come your way, a heads up player can turn a lose ball into an opportunity. So after the Colts had held the ball for nearly 8 minutes and gone 87 yards they looked poised to score again. But Matt Ryan could get the handoff right, the ball came out. He tried to dive on it, but Chris Wormley out muscled him and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 MNF win over the Colts.

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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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Times Change: Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave vs. Gary Jones on Don Bebbe

“Times change Myron,” was the quote Myron Cope used to lead off a chapter in his book Double Yoi. Dan Rooney supplied the quote in response to Myron’s protest over the Steelers decision to ban smoking effective January 1st, 1990 in the press room because secondary smoke had been bothering assistant coaches.

  • Cope pointed out that The Chief, Art Rooney Sr. had been a smoker, prompting the response from Rooney.

When Cope shared that story in his 2003 book, the memory of someone smoking (that’s tobacco smoking kids) in an enclosed era like a pro football press room was already anachronistic. Today its almost impossible to imagine that something like that ever occurred, let alone was ever “normal.”

  • And this week Steelers Nation got another reminder of just how much “normal” has changed on the football field.

What was the best play made last week by the Steelers defense in the win over the Saints? Levi Wallace’s interception? Perhaps Damontae Kazee’s pick? Maybe one of Alex Highsmith’s sacks? Or Robert Spillane’s stuff of Andy Dalton on 4th down?

Damontae Kazee, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints

Chris Olave gets a big hit from Damontae Kazee after a tough catch. Photo Credit: Twitter

All good candidates indeed. But you know what? If a  DeLorean burned some rubber on Carson Street, and out strut an analyst from 20 years ago, there’s a fair bet they’d have told you the best play was Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave. Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait.

Yes, that was one hell of a hit.

In another generation even though Olave held on to the ball, such a hit would have been though of as a tone setter. This isn’t hypothetical conjecture, it actually happened.

The high mark of the Steelers 1993 season came on November 15th, 1993 at Three Rivers Stadium where the Steelers shut out the Buffalo Bills 23-0. Early during the game, another Steelers reserve safety, Gary Jones, delivered this hit on long time Steelers nemesis, Don Beebe. Again, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait

It is the exact same kind of hit. The difference is that Kazee got flagged 15 yards for a personal foul, admonished on air by the commentators and then fined for the hit. Gary Jones? Well, you can hear Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford talking about what great of a hit it was.

Yes, as Dan Rooney reminded Mryon Cope, “Times change.”

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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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Steelers Report Card for the Loss to the Dolphins: Misery in Miami Edition

From the grade book of a tardy teacher who nonetheless sees signs of progress in his students miserable performance here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Miami Dolphins.

George Pickens, Noah Igbinoghene, Steelers vs Dolphins

George Pickens with another Lynn Swann like catch. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Quarterback
In his second full start, Kenny Pickett did some nice things, leading a touchdown drive and putting the team in position to win late in the game, twice. Still, third down conversion was abysmal and the interceptions lethal.  Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris is improving, but still isn’t delivering the production on first and second downs that the team needs. Jaylen Warren converted another third down and was an asset in his passing game. Running back were OK. But the Steelers offense needs more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth was a bright spot on offense, catching 8 of 9 balls thrown to him for 75 yards. Zach Gentry caught both passes thrown his way but lost yards on one first down attempt. Worse yet a non-block on another questionable call led to another first down that lost yardage. These errors weren’t that consequential, but they are examples of how small mistakes are killing this offense. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Rookie George Pickens led the group with six catches on six tries with an incredible touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches on 10 targets but a miscommunication contributed to the last interception. Chase Claypool had 5 catches on 8 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit six more times. Running backs had a little more room to run, and the team converted on four down twice. The offensive line IS improving. But still has a ways to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi both came up big in short yardage situations again, and had the game ended differently, those could have been the plays of the game. Still, Raheem Mostert had some success running the ball and Tagovailoa went untouched the entire night. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack was all over the field and is emerging as a true team leader. This unit contributed as much as any to the 2nd half shut out. Still, no one got to Tagoviloa save for one hit by Malik Reed. Grade: B

Secondary
Yes, Levi Wallace, Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton let interceptions slip through their fingers. Any one of those could have been the difference in this game. Still, the unit contained Tyreek Hill while Miami went 4-14 on third downs, as the Steelers defense pitched a 2nd half shutout without a pass rush. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on his kicks, Gunner Olszewski had one nice punt return and kept the ball in his hands. Punt coverage was strong, kick coverage OK. Pressley Harvin was wildly inconsistent. His short punts alone were hardly a difference maker, but serve as yet another example of how the team can position itself to win by eliminating small mistakes. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Tua Tagovailoa, Steelers vs Dolphins

Alex Highsmith just can’t quite get to Tua Tagovailoa. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada is taking a lot of heat in Steelers Nation this week.

When your offense is near the bottom of every major statistical category and scoring a second touchdown would be considered an “improvement” that comes with the territory. Still, how much is really on the play calling and not the execution? Canada didn’t commit those penalties that preceded Pickett’s interception – nor did he throw that pick.

This isn’t to defend Canada per se, but it should dispel the idea that summarily firing him would provide Pittsburgh with a panacea.

One defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores quickly adjusted to Miami’s offense and forced them to settle for 3 points 3 times, before shutting them out completely in the second half.

You are your record. The Steelers are 2-5. That’s not good. So be it. Mike Tomlin’s players contested every blade of grass to the bitter end. Will they keep that up down the stretch? IF they do, will effort translate into victories? I don’t know.

But for now, they’re fighting. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
People have been down on him for a while. Some of it is warranted, some of it perhaps not. Against the Dolphins he batted a pass away, made a tackle for a loss, and a logged touchdown saving stop on a bootleg and for that Devin Bush wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Dolphins.

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Growing Pains: Steelers 16-10 Loss to Dolphins, 2-5 Record Obscures Painful Progress

Frustrating. Disappointing. Unfortunate. These words come to mind after the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football.

Mike Tomlin labeled it a hard-fought defensive battle that slipped through their fingers, thanks to 4 dropped interceptions by Pittsburgh vs 3 that the Dolphins caught.

Fair enough. Indeed, at the game’s end the descriptor “Two interceptions too far” was tempting. But another explainer works better: Growing Pains.

There’s no sugar coating this. 2-6 sucks in the NFL. Pittsburgh is feeling the pain, but there were signs  that this pain signals future gain.

Kenny Pickett, Jaelan Phillips

Jalean Phillips tries to bring Kenny Pickett down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Defense Bends, But Doesn’t Break, Pushes Back

This one started ugly. Miami won the toss and Tua Tagovailoa carved the Steelers up with laser like efficiency and the Dolphins scored with clockwork precision. Clearly, the Steelers could hope to slow him down, let alone stop him as the Dolphins raced right back down to the Red Zone as soon as they got the ball back.

  • However, The Steelers defense bent, but it didn’t break.

Larry Ogunjobi snuffed out a run, Devin Bush stopped Tua Tagovailoa on a scramble, Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected a pass in the Red Zone and the Dolphins settled for 3. But it didn’t seem to matter. Kenny Pickett threw an interception two plays later, and 3 plays later Miami was again knocking on Pittsburgh’s door at the 23.

  • The Steelers defense forced Tua Tagovailoa into 3 misfires, and Miami was kicking again.
Devin Bush, Steelers vs Dolphins

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The real turn for the defense came in the Dolphins 1st possession of the third quarter. ON 3rd and 2 at the Steelers 14, Cam Heyward slammed Chase Edmonds back like a rag doll for a 1 yard loss. Mike McDaniel opted to go for it on 4th and 3 and Myles Jack stoned Edmonds for no gain.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t in “bend but don’t break” mold – it was pushing back.

The defense affirmed that after Jevon Holland intercepted Kenny Pickett with 3:06 left. The math was simple: A Miami first down wins the game. But the defense forced a quick three and out.

  • Can you ask more from the defense?

Yes, you can. Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace dropped interceptions that could have prevented two of the Dolphins field goals. Wallace and Terrell Edmunds dropped picks that could have given the Steelers a shorter field.

The defense couldn’t deliver victory, but they contested every single blade of grass during the game’s last fifty three minutes and forty five seconds and they did so with playoff-level intensity.

Yeah, Canada’s Offense Is Bad, but Still….

Matt Canada is the most hated man in Steelers Nation today. Even Ed Bouchette, who witnessed the darkest days of Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride, asserts he’s never seen a worse Steelers offense.

While tempted to disagree, I’ll lean back on Chuck Noll’s wisdom that, “When you lose, everything they say about you is true.” Measured by many metrics Matt Canada’s offense is either the worst or among the worst in the NFL.

So be it. There were still positive take aways from the Dolphins game:

No, no one will confuse this offensive line with those of Mike Munchak. But the unit is making progress under Pat Myer’s tutelage. This all is encouraging, but transforming these incremental improvement into points and victories depends on one man: Kenny Pickett

Pickett’s Charge

Evaluating quarterbacks in for the NFL is perilous. For every Peyton Manning there are two Ryan Leafs. Why is this? Well, perhaps because you can’t measure a quarterback’s greatest asset, his mental toughness.

An NFL quarterback needs to project where 11 guys will move in a single instant. He must know where a half dozen of his players will go once the ball is in motion. He’s got to process that information and fire off a piece of pigskin at over 55 miles per hour with NASA like precision hitting moving a window that’s the size of a lunch box. Oh, and he needs to do all of this in about 2 seconds with 4 or 5 300 pound guys trying to kill him.

Suffice to say, quarterbacks make mistakes. Even the best ones.

  • The critical question is: How does a quarterback respond when he makes a mistake?

You can’t test for that at the combine, nor does college necessarily offer a representative sample. Kenny Pickett shook off his first interception, intended for Chase Claypool, and led two scoring drives in the first half.

  • He didn’t do much in the second half – until the game was on the line.

Then he moved the team to the 15 yard line, where he converted a 3rd down only to have penalties push him back 15 yards. Then he threw an interception. It would have been easy to fold then, but the defense got the ball back.

Pickett didn’t fold. Instead he moved the team nearly 80 yards to the Dolphins 25, where a miscommunication with Diontae Johnson led to another interception.

I’ll let the X’s and O’s experts critique the technical parts of Pickett’s performance, but my take away is that those two drives suggest he has the mental toughness needed to be an NFL quarterback.

If that’s the case, these growing pains will result in something positive.

Let’s Keep It Real

Rolling your eyes and saying “The Steelers are 2-5 and this guy’s trying to push the positive…?” I am, but I’m also realistic. If you’re 2-5 in the NFL you, put eloquently, suck.

  • And guess what? Next up is the Eagles.

Not only are the Eagles the NFL’s last undefeated team, they’re playing in Philadelphia a city that the Steelers haven’t won in since 1965, when a man on the moon was more science fiction than fact, and in Pittsburgh the phrase “Nixon sucks” referred to Steelers coach Mike Nixon because Richard had assured us we didn’t have him to kick around anymore.

Nixon, however did earn one of his two victories at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, thereby accomplishing something that neither Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher nor Mike Tomlin have been able to do.

While the positives I saw against the Dolphins are real, expect things to get worse before they get better.

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