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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

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

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

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

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

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

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

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

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

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

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

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

Ominous Opening Day Omen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

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

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

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

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

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

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

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

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

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

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

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

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

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

Rudolph to the Rescue

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

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

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

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

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

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

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

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

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

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills 2023 AFC wildcard

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

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

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Steelers Lose to Bills 31-17 in AFC Wildcard as They Fail to Execute Familiar Formula

It was a hard fought game. Much harder than the final score indicates. But the end result saw the Steelers lose to the Bills 31-17 in the AFC wildcard ending their 2023 season at Highmark Stadium, in Orchard Park, New York.

Mike Tomlin was right on the money when opened his press conference declaring, “I appreciate the efforts of our guys in there and I just told the guys that, but efforts don’t get it done.”

He is right. The Steelers effort showed. As did their desire.

But in their season ended in Buffalo for two simple reasons: The Bills have more talent, and the Steelers failed to execute a formula that had served them so well for so much of the season.

Josh Allen, Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills wildcard

Josh Allen romps for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Earn “A” for Effort, for What It Is Worth…

Give the Steelers and “A” for effort.

Mason Rudolph, starting his first playoff game got off to a shaky start, but rebounded to bring the team to within 7 points in the 4th quarter.

His confidence could have wavered. It did not.

Mason Rudolph spread the ball around. Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson combined for 14 passes. Pickens run once for 15 yards. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris both had pass receptions for 10 plus yards. Calvin Austin even got a touchdown.

If someone had told you the stat sheet would look like that going into the game, you’d may have very well thought the Steelers were going to win.

  • But they didn’t. None of the three top pass catchers sniffed 100 yards receiving.

On the ground both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran hard, moved bodies and seemed to fall forward. At least that’s the way it felt watching the game – after the offense got moving. But numbers don’t lie. Both backs might have ripped off carries for double digits, but together they didn’t even break the 80 yard number.

The Steelers had effort was enough to deliver quantity on offense; the Bills had enough talent to prevent the Steelers from transforming quantity into enough quality.

On defense the stat sheet isn’t quite as generous, but if I’d told you that Markus Golden and Alex Highsmith both sacked Josh Allen, you’d have taken that as a good sign.

  • Special Teams tells a similar tale.

Chris Boswell was perfect. When the Steelers had to kickoff at a 15 yard disadvantage Danny Smith’s coverage unit stopped Buffalo at the 30-yard line. And if I told you that Montravius Adams blocked a field goal with Nick Herbig flipping the field to recover at the Bills 33-yard line you’d have also thought that was a good sign.

Yet Pressley Harvin averaged just 38.5 yards punting, consistently giving the Bills strong field position.

The Steelers never lacked for effort in this game. They “proverbially ‘left it all on the field.’” But in the end effort proved to be an insufficient substitute for talent.

Talent Trumps Effort

The Buffalo Bills are a good football team. They may have faltered a bit earlier in the season, but at Highmark Stadium you could see they are legitimate be Super Bowl contenders.

James Cook didn’t dominate the Steelers, but he was far more effective than either of Pittsburgh’s running backs. The Steelers have struggled against tight ends all season long. Dalton Kincaid “only” had 3 catches, but he averaged 19.9 on those grabs and one of them was for a touchdown.

Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin made adjustments to limit him later in the game, but the damage had been done. Talent trumps coaching.

The Buffalo Bills demonstrated their superior talent at several moments during the game, but three stick out to this scribe:

1. Early in the game Patrick Peterson had Josh Allen dead to rights for a sack. Allen wiggled out and ran for 8 yards.

2. Late in the game Allen hit Khalil Shakir for what looked like a short gain. Minkah Fitzpatrick was on him, but couldn’t quite bring him down. Here’s what happened next.

At least four other Steelers had a shot at him in close quarters. Only Cam Heyward got a hand on him and it wasn’t enough.

3. Midway through the second quarter on third and 8 the Steelers were about to collapse the pocket around Josh Allen. You can see what happens next.

Both Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee tried and missed on tackles and he flat out outran Patrick Peterson.

A fourth, bonus example would be Alex Highsmith wrapping Ty Johnson in the backfield late in the game, only to have him evade his grasp and, if memory serves, earn a first down if not make his 11 yard gain.

Be crystal clear on one thing: In many of the above examples the Steelers had very talented players involved on the wrong side of those plays; Buffalo’s players were simply more talented.

Steelers Forget the Lesson that Got Them There in the First Place

Superior talent doesn’t always triumph in the NFL. The formula for beating a more talented team is hides in plain sight:

Limit turnovers
Create turnovers
Capitalize those turnovers
Avoid costly mistakes

With the Steelers already down by 7 on their second possession, George Pickens coughed up the ball. It took one pass to Dalton Kincaid to make put Pittsburgh down 14 to zero with four minutes left in the first quarter.

Two possessions later, Mason Rudolph had led the team on an 88 yard drive before throwing a bad ball to Diontae Johnson that Kaiir Elam picked off in the end zone. That took at least 3 points off the board – and those extra 3 points would have made a comeback much more manageable – and set up Allen’s touchdown run.

  • The Steelers of course got a turnover of their own and capitalized on that.

But when they were in comeback mode trying to get the ball back only down 17 to 24, Myles Jack committed not one, but two defensive penalties gifting the Bills 20 yards and two first downs. Shakir scored his touchdown two plays after Jack’s unnecessary roughness call. Those costly mistakes came when the Steelers could ill afford them.

  • It says here that the 2023 Buffalo Bills are a better team than the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers.

But it also says that the Steelers could have found a way to win, but didn’t. And that’s a reality filled with irony, because for the better part of the season’s first 12 weeks, the Steelers put on a clinic for rest of the NFL in executing the formula for beating more talented teams.

Alas, so ends the Steelers 2023 season.

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“The Pickett Factor” Decisive in Steelers 20-16 Win Over Titans @ Acrisure

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans on 20-16 on Thursday Night Football at Acrisure Stadium. The game was as typical for the 2023 Steelers as its result was inscrutable.

  • Yes, it had an atypical beginning.

Everything else followed the script. In the middle things got ugly. The Steelers found new ways to flirt with self-destruction. Once again, their opponents gained more yards. Once again, the outcome remained in doubt until the contest’s final second.

But once again, the same two elements carried the day for the Steelers as they have all season long: Splash plays on defense and “The Pickett Factor.”

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Titans

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Expect the Unexpected

The loss to the Jaguars had been messy. Steelers Nation was in a tizzy. Thursday Night Football might be horrible for player’s health and safety. But in this case a Thursday night home game gave the Steelers just want they needed: A chance to get back on the horse.

Leading into the game, my friend Neal Coolong set the tone:

No, the Steelers didn’t break the 400 yard mark. But they did do something almost as uncharacteristic: They scored a touchdown on their opening drive. This was something they hadn’t done since beating the Carolina Panthers last December.

Touchdowns early in games have been pretty spare for these Steelers. And when they’ve come, they’ve usually been the product of big plays such as Alex Highsmith’s pick six to open the win over the Browns or the deep strike to Calvin Austin vs the Raiders.

  • But this one was different. It was refreshingly workman-like.

Jaylen Warren, Allen Robinson and Connor Heyward had runs and catches for nice gains. Diontae Johnson caught two passes, and Najee Harris ran it in from 10 yards out, behind a spectacular block throw by, of all people Mason Cole the offensive line’s whipping boy.

  • Best of all? Kenny Pickett, who has been a notoriously slow starter, went 5-7 for 62 yards.

Maybe Matt Canada standing on the sidelines fixed what ails this offense….
Maybe starting Broderick Jones gave the offensive line the shot in the arm it needed….
Maybe the Steelers really had turned a corner….

Defense Delivers Levis, Titans 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Chances

Derrick Henry is the kind of running back that dominates opposing defenses the way the Steelers hoped Najee Harris would when they drafted him. All of the sound and fury directed at Matt Canada has masked the fact that the Steelers have struggled to defend the run.

Maybe getting Cam Heyward back was what this defense needed to find consistency.

And maybe that was too much to expect.

Rookie Will Levis arrived in Pittsburgh with a single winning start under his belt that saw him throw four touchdown passes. Surly the Steelers vaunted defense would bring him down to earth?

Ultimately the Steelers defense did just that. But along the way Levis looked very sharp. He looked sharp on his own merits, but the Steelers defense gave him plenty of help.

On the Titans’ first drive alone, the Steelers defense gave Tennessee 4 first downs by penalties, including a conversion on third and eight. When a flag flew to after a helmetless T.J. Watt sacked Levis it seemed like a miracle that it wasn’t against Pittsburgh.

Later in the game, a 5-yard illegal contact Penalty on Patrick Peterson allowed Tennessee to covert another third down, keeping alive a drive that allowed them to take the lead with a field goal. An sportsman like conduct field gave the Titans a short field after the Steelers go-ahead touchdown.

Joey Porter, DeAndre Hopkins, Steelers vs Titans 2023

Joey Porter defends a pass targeted at DeAndre Hopkins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

And of course a defensive holding penalty on Joey Porter Jr. gave Tennessee fresh life on 4th and 7 with 53 seconds left to go.

After the game Mike Tomlin describe the penalties as “catastrophic.” That’s perhaps a little harsh, given that the Steelers did win. But his point was valid.

The Pickett Factor

Unfortunately Kenny Pickett’s sputtered following his strong start. He went 3-8 for 16 yards. Those are stark numbers. But what they don’t show is how routine the throws were that Pickett missed. He missed George Pickens on an out route. He was too low to connect with Allen Robinson in the end zone. He just wasn’t getting it done.

  • Watching Will Levis it was impossible not to make comparisons with Pickett.

Twice the Steelers had him backed up against his own end zone, and twice Levis moved his team out of danger with spectacular throws. Although Levis didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, he did connect with six different receivers for completions of 24, 29, 23, 21, 29, and 23 yards.

This left even the most patient Steelers fans with no choice but to ask, “Why can’t Pickett do that?”

It is a legitimate question. But Pickett brings something special to the table:

  • He consistently improves as games progress.

Pickett only threw 4 incomplete passes in the second half. One of those would have and should have gone for a touchdown had George Pickens focused more on getting both feet in bounds as opposed to focusing on how he was going to celebrate.

On the Steelers go-ahead touchdown drive, he went 3 of 4 for 41 yards. But again, numbers are far too bland to tell the story. On third and six with 5 minutes remaining he did this:

Four plays later, he was connecting with Diontae Johnson again to put Pittsburgh ahead.

Pickett’s 4th quarter poise is something you can’t put a price on. Contrast that with Will Levis’ play on his final drive:

  • His first pass should have been intercepted by Levi Wallace.
  • His first shot at the end zone should have been picked off by Darius Rush.
  • Kwon Alexander picked off his next and last shot at a comeback

For much of the night, Will Levis out performed his opposite number. But when it counted, “The Pickett Factor” put Pittsburgh over the top. Kenny Pickett’s ability to “turn it on” is unlike anything either the Steelers or the NFL has seen before.

Whether he or the Steelers can continue to win this way is unknown. But against the Titans it was again enough.

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Don’t Look Now: Steelers Put Pat Freiermuth on IR, Activate Diontae Johnson, Cut Gunner Olszewski

It was too good to be true. Coming out of the bye week the Steelers had reached full health with a clean injury to prove it. Then T.J. Watt’s name popped on to with a heel injury. (Breath easy, Watt will play vs. the Rams.)

But Pat Freiermuth wasn’t so lucky. On Thursday he reinjured his hamstring injury. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell described it this way “…when he re-injured it, he cussed loudly and walked off the field and you knew what happened had to be the hamstring.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers ruled him out for the Rams game on Friday and on Saturday morning they put him in injured reserve meaning Freriermuth will miss at least the next four games.

  • That’s bad news for the Steelers.

Pat Freiermuth’s been a reliable receiver with a knack for catching with clutch balls. He’s had a slow start to 2023 (but what player not named Jaylen Warren hasn’t for the Steelers offense) but by the end of 2022 he was developing similar rapport with Kenny Pickett to the one he enjoyed with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021.

  • The hope was that he’d continue that starting with the Rams game. His hamstring had other ideas.

Hamstring injures can be tricky. A non-athlete reading, “He pulled his hamstring” sounds mundane. I mean, who hasn’t pulled a muscle and gone about their day as usual? But hamstrings don’t work that way.

In 1995 Yancey Thigpen exploded to break John Stallworth’s single-season reception record with 85 catches (yes, it was different era.) Yet in 1996, a hamstring injury limited him to 6 games and 12 catches. 2 of those catches were for touchdowns, showing just how much the ’96 Steelers missed Thigpen. A few years later, a hamstring injury suffered in the 1999 Pro Bowl limited Dermontti Dawson to 7 games in 1999 and 9 games in 2000, ultimately forcing his retirement.

Hopefully Pat Freiermuth will fare better.

But his re-injury and trip to injured reserve reminds us that hamstrings heal on their own time and on their own terms.

Hot Rod Next Man Up, Gunner, King Gone, Rush Arrives

One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity in the NFL. With Freiermuth on injured reserve rookie Darnell Washington will get an extended look at tight end.

Friermuth’s misfortune is means that Rodney Williams roster spot is safe. Williams is a reserve tight end who transformed and impressive preseason into a practice squad spot. Against the Ravens, in his first game on the active roster he almost recovered Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt. But what came next was more impressive, as Williams willed himself to make a tackle and save a touchdown following Gunner Olszewski’s fumbled punt return.

The punt was ultimately the last straw for the Steelers on Olszewski, whose fumbling problems with the Patriots have followed him to Pittsburgh.

The extra roster spot does clear the way for the Steelers to activate Diontae Johnson, who is believed to have fully recovered from a hamstring he suffered in the opening day loss to the 49ers.

  • The Steelers also made one under the radar move on defense.

While Steelers Nation clamors for Joey Porter Jr. to start over Levi Wallace (or Patrick Peterson or perhaps both!), the Steelers parted ways with Desmond King, the former Houston Texans cornerback whom they signed following cut down day.

King came to Pittsburgh with almost 50 starts and the pickup was hailed as another “Khan Artist Coup.” Yet, he only appeared in 3 games returning 4 kicks in 15 special teams plays and logging a single defensive snap.

  • To replace King the Steelers signed Darius Rush from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

Rush was a highly rated cornerback prospect going into the 2023 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts took him in the 5th round but cut him at the end of summer. The Chiefs picked him up, put him on the active roster for a few games, but then put him back on the practice squad.

Now he’s with the Steelers and must remain on the active roster for at least 3 games.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Glimpsing of Ron Erhardt’s Ghost Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is using “work to do and bills to pay” as an excuse for his late grade sheet and not the fact that he thinks he caught a glimpse of the late Ron Erhardt, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the road win vs the Raiders.

Cole Holcomb, Davante Adams, Steelers vs Raiders

Cole Holocomb throttles Davante Adams. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Pundits are parsing this as Kenny Pickett’s best game. Was it? Pickett threw 16-28 for 235 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was his first multi-touchdown pass game and the Steelers did lead in time of possession. Nonetheless, their 6-15 third down conversion rate must improve. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris earned a gritty 65 yards on 19 carries, with a long run of 17 on the Steelers touchdown drive, showing that it was rough sledding up front for most of the night. Connor Heyward got his first carry of the season for zero yards. ON the night, Steelers running backs rushed for 94 yards, a season high which, while still too low represents and improvement. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 41 yards including a perfectly executed play action pass during the Steelers first trip into the Red Zone. That play was set up in no small part by a 14 yarder that he caught two plays before. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
This week it was Calvin Austin’s turn to get open deep in the middle of the field. And Austin delivered by burning the Raiders secondary for a quick six points. George Pickens only had 4 catches but they went for 75 yards and either converted third downs or otherwise set up scores. Allen Robinson had 4 catches, including a third down converter that iced the game. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once. But don’t let that stat deceive you, he took some vicious hits after the pass. And while the running game did enjoy more success this week, the Raiders still recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Not good enough. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Josh Jacobs looked normal, rushing for just 62 yards and a long of only 10 – much better than what we saw the last two weeks. Overall the line authored a strong game, Keeanu Benton breaking through to make a phenomenal sack which saved a touchdown. Grade: B

Linebackers
A glance at the stat sheet suggests “off night” for T.J. Watt, who only had 2 sacks and 3 other QB hits. But those sacks wrecked drives. Kwon Alexander led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cole Holcomb delivered a thunderous hit on Davante Adams that scuttled the Raider’s opening drive of the second half. Marcus Golden also got a sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
No the plus side, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson both came down with interceptions. On the flip side, the secondary got caught on a deep route on 3rd and 1 and was again fooled on a two- point conversion. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 for field goals of 42, 43 and 57 yards. Pressley Harvin averaged 53.8 on 6 punts, pinning the Raiders inside their own 20 on 3 occasions, although his penultimate punt was a short 41 yarder that had terrible hang time. The Steelers return coverage was solid, although they did give up a penalty on a field goal. Grade: B

Coaching
We have a mixed bag on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers defense was sound. It took away the ball 3 times, sacked Jimmy Garoppolo 4 times, contained Josh Jacobs, limited the Raiders to 4 of 15 on third down and opened the 4th quarter by forcing a turnover on downs.

But the unit got caught with its pants down twice on running plays, and the Raiders moved the ball far too easily on their 2 fourth quarter scoring drives. Yes, you can say Minkah Fitzpatrick’s roughing the passer call was bogus. But the Steelers defense had 2 chances to make a stop and failed then allowed a 2 point conversion.

Matt Canada certainly succeeded at one thing in the season’s first two weeks: He got Steelers Nation to forget Randy Fitchner and Todd Haley.

And for much of the game against the Raiders, he did little to jog their memories. As the Steelers offense vacillated between three and outs and field goal drives with one quick strike sprinkled it to keep things interesting.

But at two points in the game, it was almost as if Ron Erhardt’s Force Ghost* appeared to Matt Canada and the entire Steelers offense instructing, “Use the Force.” Seriously. The Steelers third quarter touchdown drive couldn’t have been scripted with better precision. And if the unit followed that with 2 back-to-back three and outs, it responded at the very end to kill the clock.

Mike Tomlin saw to it that the horrific performance against the 49ers had no ripple effect. After the Cleveland win he kept the team focused on a short week, ensuring that it didn’t go to their heads. Grade: C

Jaylen Warren, Robert Spillane, Steelers vs Raiders

Former Friends: Robert Spillane tries to tackle Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

*Truthfully, on that series the Steelers looked more like a Ken Whisenhunt offense than an Erhardt one, but Whiz is still with us and God willing will be for a long time.

Unsung Hero Award
A week ago this player missed his block, causing a sack on third down. This week the same player met Maxx Crosby head on and bought his quarterback time setting up a deep strike. He also ripped of a number of long runs and pass receptions to set up scores and for that Jaylen Warren wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

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Dice Don’t Decide Football Games: Steelers Beat Raiders 23-18 as Josh McDaniels Loses Gamble

The Steelers 24-18 win over the Las Vegas Raiders improved Pittsburgh’s record to 2-1 and gave the franchise its first road win against the Raiders since 1995.

While nothing is set in stone this early in an NFL season, week 3 is the moment where tendencies emerge, when players establish consistency (or not) and when a team’s collective positives start outweighing its collective negatives or vice a versa.

  • Going into the game the “bad” had far outweighed the “good” for the Steelers offense.

Matt Canada’s offense improved against the Raiders, but it didn’t improve enough to even the scales to the point where anyone would fear them. However, if the Steelers offense can sustain the progress it revealed in the second half, they’ll be on the road to earning respect from their peers.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Raiders

Kenny Pickett evades pressure. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Steelers First Half Journey All Too Familiar

Mel Blount once shared in an NFL Films clip that Chuck Noll motivated the Super Steelers by reminding them, “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.” The Emperor’s wisdom is as sound today as it was then.

But the 2023 Steelers offense can be forgiven for wanting to focus on the arrival part, because their journey has not been a pleasant one. Sure, San Francisco might have the NFL’s best defense and Cleveland’s defense is also tough. But Pittsburgh’s offense proved it didn’t belong on the same field.

  • And for much of the first half the offense looked like it might stick to the same script.

Yes, Kenny Pickett and Calvin Austin hooked up deep pass followed by a long catch and run that ended in the end zone. In fact, Pickett and George Pickens had done something similar just 6 days before. And that’s the problem. Because just like the week before the offense could only manage field goals 44 and 54 yard field goals.

The other, non-scoring drives of the first half lasted all of 9 plays and ended with Pressley Harvin punts. The Steelers were splitting carries between Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, but neither man was effective.

The stat sheet shows that Pickett didn’t throw an interception. Which is good. What the stat sheet hides is that Pickett hit Marcus Peters right in the numbers for an easy Pick Six that Peters dropped. Which is bad.

  • The Steelers defense was also following a similar script to the one they’d written vs Cleveland.

No, the outside linebackers weren’t scoring touchdowns, but T.J. Watt was wrecking drives, almost single handedly. Going into the half it looked like the Steelers might need their defense to win this one again.

That wasn’t what anyone wanted, but maybe it would be needed.

Canada Channels His… Inner Shanahan in 2nd Half…?

The opening of the second half also had a familiar feel to it, but finally, familiarity felt friendly.

The Steelers defense forced a quick three and out thanks to a heads up play made by deep downfield by Cole Holcomb. The Steelers offense got the ball and kicked another field goal. And although this one was another 52-yarder, it was different. The 54 yarder that preceded it had followed an 11 play drive. This one came on the heels of a-9 play drive.

And this was part of the formula that carried the Steelers to 7 wins in their last 9 games of 2022: Ball control offenses that settle for three but survive thanks to superior defense. This wasn’t what we expected or hoped to see in this new season, but in hindsight everyone would have welcomed something similar against San Francisco.

The real teachable moment came 5 plays later after Patrick Peterson picked off Jimmy Garoppolo 2nd interception of the night.

If you’ve watched the Steelers offense all season, what came next almost seemed like something out of a one of those comedies where the clumsy, bumbling character gets hypnotized or touched by an angle and is suddenly deft, dexterous and intelligent. It seemed like that’s what happened to the Steelers offense.

For six plays, the Steelers executed with the type of precision you’d expect to see from a Kyle Shanahan led unit. Here’s how the action unfolded:

  • 17-yards Pickett to Pickens on a play action pass
  • 4 yard run by Jaylen Warren
  • 16-yard screen pass to Jaylen Warren
  • 14-yard pass up the middle to Pat Freiermuth
  • 17-yard run by Najee Harris, taking Pittsburgh into the Red Zone for the first time in 2023
  • Play action resulting in a 13 yard touchdown to Pat Freiermuth

The Steelers defense stopped the Oakland Los Angeles Oakland Las Vegas on 4th down, giving the Steelers a 23-7 lead with 13:13 left in the 4th quarter.

The game seemed to be over. But then, just as it would in a sitcom, the hypnosis or the angel’s touch disappeared in a blink, as the Steelers offense bumbled their way to two straight three and outs that netted a total of 10 yards, failing to milk even two minutes from the clock.

That Shanahanesque drive may not have been a mirage, but it looked an awful lot like it the law of averages working its will.

That’s certainly the conclusion Raiders Coach Josh McDaniels reached.

Jaylen Warren, Nate Hobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Nate Hobbs tackles Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Canada Makes Raiders Regret Their Lack of Respect

During an on-line chat, the Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac once assured me that, for all the animosity felt on the field, Steelers legends like Jack Lambert held a deep respect for the Raiders of the ‘70s.

  • The same cannot be said for head coach Josh McDaniels.

After the Steelers first three and out of the 4th quarter, the Raiders answered with a touchdown. On their next drive they reached the Red Zone, where Josh McDaniels opted to kick a field goal at 4th and 4 on the Steelers 8. That reduced the Raiders deficit to 5, but meant they had just 2 minutes and 22 seconds to get the ball back and score a touchdown.

Pundits are struggling to understand Daniels’ decision, but it really is easy to explain: He feared the Steelers defense and disrespected their offense.

Daniels’ bet that the Steelers offense couldn’t earn a first down. He represents Las Vegas, and the smart money was on his side.

  • But dice don’t have memories. Matt Canada apparently does.

He ran twice to Jaylen Warren, forcing the Raiders to burn two time outs. Then on third and 2, he lined up in a formation the Steelers had run from previously, and motioned Pickett to his left, who found Allen Robinson for 6 yards and the first down.

The Steelers offense couldn’t get another first down, but they burned the Raiders’ last time out and enough time off the clock to give the ball back to Jimmy Garoppolo with 24 seconds left.

Garoppolo only needed 7 of those to throw an interception right to Levi Wallace, allowing Kenny Pickett to line up in the victory formation.

Dice don’t decide football games football games, players do.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Browns: No All Nighters for This Teacher Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is late with his marks because he refused to pull an all nighter, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 win over the Browns on Monday Night Football.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Browns,

George Pickens scores the Steelers lone offensive touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 15-30-1-1 for 222 yards. On the surface that look “OK.” Although Pickett made completed a few nice throws within tight windows, he didn’t look comfortable out there. Worse yet he didn’t improve as the game progressed. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 43 yards on 10 carries. Jaylen Warren had 20 yards on 6, while adding 66 more through the air. The running backs didn’t have much room to run but made the best with what they had. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught one pass for 2 yards on one target. The other two tight ends were invisible. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens took it to the house on a 71 yard pass from Pickett. He also caught 3 other passes for a 4 of ten targets. Allen Robinson caught 2 passes while Calvin Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Myles Boykin each caught 1 pass. Pickett checked down early and often. Was that because guys weren’t open or he was just more comfortable close to home? Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns had 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Worse yet, the line failed to move bodies when it counted the most, such as on the failed 2-point conversion effort. Deeply disappointing. Grade: F

Defensive Line
DeMarvin Leal got a sack, Montravius Adams forced a fumble, Keeanu Benton had two tackles while Armon Watts showed he belonged. Grade B

Linebackers
Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are tied as the Steelers number 2 scorers thus far this season. Both men authored All Pro worth performances as Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the week while Watt simply became the Pittsburgh Steelers all time sack leader. Cole Holcomb forced a fumble, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts looked stout against the run. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped the pass that Highsmith intercepted and was one of the leading tacklers despite leaving early with an injury. Joey Porter Jr. had limited snaps, but defensed two passes just the same. Patrick Peterson batted away one pass. For the second straight week Levi Wallace came up short in run defense and it cost the Steelers. Again. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, hitting 52 and 50 yards – the Steelers need both. Calvin Austin had a punt return for 14 yards. Pressley Harvin banged off some really impressive punts and pinned the Browns down inside their 20 four times. Gunner Olszewski fielded a kick he should have let go out of bounds. Grade: B

Coaching
We will pull no punches here: Something is rotten in the State of Pennsylvania and the odor makes it clear that it is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

2 weeks into the season and the Steelers are once again charter members of the “One touchdown per game” club. In the second half of 2022, they would move the ball, control the clock but settle for field goals. Now they’re not even doing that, averaging 10 points per game.

When the Steelers don’t sputter out of the gate and put the onus on Pickett to convert third and longs, they play physical football and set up third and shorts only to watch plays implode at the snap.

Is it Matt Canada’s fault? Isaac Seumalo the next Ladarius Green? Did Pat Meyer create a mirage with the rest of the offensive line late last season? I don’t know.

  • But I do know this: Nothing is going right.

In contrast the Steelers defense rebounded against the Browns. No they unit was not perfect. And yes the story may have been very different had Nick Chubb not gotten hurt. But Teryl Austin’s unit proved itself of capable of making a big play when it counted.

The Steelers showed up against the Browns with fire. That’s not a surprise, but its also not a given as opening day disappointments can have a spiral effect. But Mike Tomlin’s team have a history of bouncing back from big losses, and they added to that against the Browns. Grade: C-

Larry Ogunjobi, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns

Larry Ogunjobi sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
With Cam Heyward out someone on the defensive line was going to need to step up. And they were going to need to do it early to prove to the Browns that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be pushed around. This player did it, stepping up and sacking Deshaun Watson after Kenny Pickett’s gift wrapped interception. He later recovered his fumble and stopped him stone cold on another run – all in the first half. And for that Larry Ogunjobi wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – Teeth Kicked in Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose students aced the practice test only kicked in the teeth on the real exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 opening day to the 49ers.

Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs 49ers

Javon Hargrave celebrates with an air kick after sacking Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterback
On the face of it 31-46-232 for 1 TD and 2 interceptions might seem respectable. But it was not. Kenny Pickett was off every time it counted. He didn’t shy away from the center of the field but that’s where he threw his worst interception (OK he had a far uglier almost interception.) Pickett can still make the 2nd year leap – at this point he can only go up. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Take away Najee Harris’ 24 yard scamper at the end of the 2nd half and he and Jaylen Warren totaled 13 yards rushing. The duo added 14 more through the air. Unacceptable by any measure. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught the only touchdown but missed a key block on a shove jet sweep on the second play of the game. Connor Heyward caught 2 passes. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson II had a respectable day and Calvin Austin caught 6 passes for a total of 37 yards – this is the kid who is supposed to spread the defense? Diontae Johnson contributed to Pickett’s first pick, and he and Pickett failed to connect on what should have been an easy touchdown pass. George Pickens had 5 catches for 36 yards. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs averaged 1.6 yards per carry if you control for Harris’ long run. 49er defenders recorded 8 tackles for losses. Kenny Pickett was sacked 5 times and hit a total of 9 times. It’s as if the second half of 2022 never occurred. Grade: F

Defensive Line
San Francisco 49ers average 5.5 yards rushing. And that’s including two kneel downs. That isn’t entirely on the defensive line’s shoulders, but it starts there. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was a man on fire. The rest of the unit got burned. This was the first time the inside linebacking group played together in a game that counted and it looked like it. Both Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith authored some good places, but as a whole the unit was below the line. Grade: D

Secondary
Brandon Aiyuk had his third best outing in terms of catches and his best one measured by yards. Patrick Peterson defended a few passes nicely, but he was on coverage for some of those plays against Aiyuk. Levi Wallace took a poor angle and missed a tackle on Christian McCaffrey’s 65 yard run. Minkah Fitzpatrick took a poor angle on a key blitz. Brock Prudy very well may prove that he’s the next Tom Brady on his own merits. But even if he doesn’t, the Steelers certainly made him look like Brady. Grade: F

Special Teams
After an awful opening three and out, Pressley Harvin shanked a 34 yard punt, setting up the 49er’s first score. Later on, long snapper Christian Kuntz got called for a face mask, tacking on a 15 yard penalty and setting up another score. Ex Steeler Ray-Ray McCloud III set the 49ers up other scores with solid punt returns. Chris Boswell made his only PAT. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers knew they had to limit the 49ers yards after catch. They knew they couldn’t let Christian McCaffrey reach the second level. On offense the Steelers understood that the 49ers were the tough to run on and would need to win the battle in the trenches.

  • We know that because Mike Tomlin told us.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs 49ers

Anthony McFarland was a bright spot for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

We have every reason to take him at his word that he, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin did their damndest to prepare their units for the 49ers. Whatever they did, it didn’t work. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
How to you find a hero after an awful game like that one?

Well, one easy way is to avoid mentioning a highlighting his key contribution to his unit and mention him here. Against the 49ers Anthony McFarland returned kicks for 25, 32 and 34 yards and for that McFarland wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 opening day win over the 49ers.

 

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