Rumors of the Death of the “Steelers Way” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes things change fast on the South Side. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in Pittsburgh, while Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett are in Buffalo, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

In the blink of an eye, Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have remade the Steelers quarterback room in Nietzschean fashion.

SteelersNOW’s Alan Saunders proclaimed, “These are not your Father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.” On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell looked back to the Buddy Parker era – the last time the Steelers completely remade the quarterback room year-on and year-out, and reminded us that these might be your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

More than one commentator has said that these changes prove that the Steelers have fundamentally changed the way they work.

It may feel that way.

But reports of the death of “The Steelers Way” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s explore why.

Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Russell Wilson’s first Steelers press conference. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Yes, This IS a Big Change

Let’s embrace the obvious. The Steelers QB depth chart now reads:
1. Russell Wilson
2. Justin Fields
3. TBD

Precisely NO ONE saw this coming. No one.

Even coming out of the NFL combine the safe money was on Kenny Pickett’s “competition” being Ryan Tannehill. Not only did the Steelers reel in two of the bigger fish in the market, they moved on from Kenny Pickett faster than they’ve moved on from any first round draft pick since Huey Richardson in 1992.

  • For a franchise steeped in stability, that’s a lot of change.

But if you look at consider the moves that Omar Khan has made in the larger context of Steelers history, you’ll find plenty of precedent.

The Myth of Steelers Standing Pat @ Quarterback

If you asked GenAI or some other bot to neatly summarize modern era Steelers quarterback history you could easily get an answer like this:

The Steelers drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Despite seeing a series of bad, average and “good” quarterbacks follow Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers move to get another franchise quarterback until drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

  • Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Perfect for our world of Twitterized communication. Except its wrong.

Not drafting Dan Marino was a grave mistake. The Steelers also could have tried to get Steve Young’s rights in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and would have been better off with Brett Favre instead of Huey Richardson in 1991.

But after missing on Marino, those basically the Steelers only two chances to draft a franchise quarterback until 2001 when they took Casey Hampton instead of Drew Brees.

  • Meanwhile, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert did exactly as Omar Khan has done this past spring.

Despite having invested a first round draft pick in Mark Malone, Chuck Noll traded a third round pick for David Woodley. After dealing Malone for an 8th round pick, Noll traded a 4th to Kansas City to bring Todd Blackledge to Pittsburgh.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister beat out Blackledge for the starting role in 1988. A year later Brister and 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, finishing a bad snap and a dropped pass away from a trip to the AFC Championship.

Yet, Chuck Noll thought that Neil O’Donnell was a first round talent and would have drafted him there in 1990 had Bill Nunn and Dick Haley not assured him O’Donnell would be there in the 3rd.

Get that? The franchise had a 2-year starter at QB who’d just won the franchise’s first playoff game in 5 years, and yet Noll was ready to take another quarterback in the first round.

O’Donnell would of course eventually beat Brister for the starting job, and led the 1994 Steelers to AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh lost in a stunning upset, but people forget O’Donnell broke a few AFC Championship passing records on that dreary day.

  • So what did Tom Donahoe do?

He drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Kordell Stewart saw his ups and downs as Steelers quarterback, leading Kevin Colbert to sign Kent Graham to compete with him.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

Stewart lost but ultimately re-gained the starting role for the 2000 Steelers leading them to a 9-7 record. Yet, Kevin Colbert still took a flyer on XFL “star” Tommy Maddox. Stewart was voted MVP of the 2001 Steelers and appeared to have finally turned a corner. That didn’t stop Colbert for signing Charlie Batch when the Lions surprisingly cut him in the spring of 2002.

  • The Steelers have been criticized for not having a coherent succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger.

No real argument there. Anyone think that no one on the South Side regrets taking Terrell Edmunds over Lamar Jackson?

But along the way the Steelers did take flyers on Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch and Dwayne Haskins, one former part time starter and two former first round picks.

What IS Different

As you can see, Terry Bradshaw began his “Life’s work” the Steelers actively tried to improve at quarterback. Sometimes this has taken the form of (largely unsuccessful) quarterback reclamation projects.

At other times they’ve invested premium draft picks in quarterbacks despite having an incumbent starter – starters who’d been more successful than Kenny Pickett.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

In contrast, Omar Khan has brought an aging veteran in at the veteran minimum and given up a conditional 6th round draft pick to bring in 2021’s 11th overall pick to Pittsburgh on his rookie contract.

Compared to moves to bring Woodley, Blackledge, O’Donnell and Stewart to Pittsburgh, Khan is downright conservative compared to his predecessors.

  • The critical difference or the “independent variable” if you will is Kenny Pickett.

To be sure, the arrivals of these new quarterbacks to Pittsburgh didn’t spawn Cumbia-like moments at St. Vincents. But all of the signal callers in question handled the prospect of competition with far more professionalism and maturity than did Kenny Pickett.

Which is why he’s in Philadelphia facing at least two years of clipboard holding.

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

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

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

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

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

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

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

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

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

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

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

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Cut Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

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

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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Back to the Drawing Board: Steelers Cut Mason Cole, Will Seek Center in 2024 NFL Draft

The NFL’s 2024 off season isn’t quite in full swing but Omar Khan made another decisive move as the Steelers cut starting center Mason Cole. The Steelers signed Mason Cole in 2022 after Kendrick Green’s one year starting stint ended in disaster.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Although sources from inside the South Side expressed skepticism to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell that Cole was up to the task, Cole’s play was solid during his first year in Pittsburgh. 2023 told a different tale. Whether Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph stood under center, one of the first things that fans looked for was an errant or low snap.

Fortunately there were no signature disaster moments such as Maurkice Pouncey opening the 2020 playoff loss to the Browns by hiking the ball so far above Ben Roethlisberger‘s head that neither Ben nor James Conner could recover it before the Browns Karl Joseph did in the end zone.

But Cole’s low snaps were a disruption for an offense line that didn’t find its footing until about Halloween and an offense that literally struggled with the basics until Christmas.

Ironically or perhaps not so ironically, Omar Khan made his move on the day when the NFL officially increased the salary cap 30 million for 2024. Prior to cutting Cole, the Steelers were estimated to be about 8.5 million under the cap.

By releasing Mason Cole, the Steelers will gain about 4.75 million dollars in salary cap space, although they will add to their 1.5 million in dead money.

Who Has the Next Shot?

Although Cole does not have an heir apparent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers do have options at center already on their roster. Reserve guard Nate Herbig can also play center as can starting guard James Daniels. The Steelers also began the off season by signing Ryan McCollom to a reserve/futures contract.

But the 2024 NFL Draft is said to be deep in interior lineman, and the Steelers have already been linked to several top centers.

The franchise’s lineage at the position is second to none, having proceeded seamlessly from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson, to Jeff Hartings. And while the Sean MahanJustin Hartwig interregnum disappointed, the Steelers responded by drafting Maurkiece Pouncey.

So perhaps the 2024 NFL Draft will deliver Pittsburgh its next worthy successor.

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Starting Fast: Steelers Cut Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor & Pressley Harvin to Start 2024 Off Season

Shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs completed their comeback in Super Bowl LVIII the Pittsburgh Steelers published a tweet proclaiming “The 2024 season starts now #HereWeGo.”

Omar Khan certainly got the message as the Steelers began the first day of their off season by cutting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, former starting offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor and punter Pressley Harvin. While none of these moves can be described as a complete surprise, they all reveal something about the thought process of the Steelers brass.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring his final touchdown as a Steeler. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

After years of middle-of-the road punting the Steelers invested a 7th round pick in Pressley Harvin during the 2021 NFL Draft. Harvin had a mixed rookie year that was sprinkled with personal tragedy and the Steelers stuck behind him. Harvin improved in his second year, but his third year was wildly inconsistent. There were times when he boomed punts deep into opponents territory. At other times he placed them perfectly inside the 20s.

Yet there were too many times was Harvin failed to do either. In his season-ending press conference Mike Tomlin minced no words about needing more consistency from his punting game. Most thought that mean Harvin would have competition. Instead he got a pink slip.

Mitch Trubisky stands as Exhibit A for now the NFL really does mean “Not For Long.”

One year ago today, Mike Tomlin, Art Rooney II, and Omar Khan were all singing Trubisky’s praises and signaling their intentions to keep him in Pittsburgh long-term as a backup. Indeed, he seemed to fit the Mike Tomczak perfectly.

Yet Trubisky saw action in 3 games in relief of Kenny Pickett and two as a starter, and he disappointed on all 5 occasions and was clearly outplayed by Mason Rudolph, the man he was brought in to replace. Time will tell what form of competition Kenny Pickett will get for the starting job, but the Steelers wasted none in discarding Trubisky as an option.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

After years of neglecting the offensive line, the Steelers invested a third round pick in Chuks Okorafor in the 2018 NFL Draft as the first step in rebuilding their line. Okorafor saw spot duty in starts vs Denver and Los Angeles his next two years, acquitting himself well against Von Miller and Aaron Donald, before taking the starting role in 2020 thanks to an injury to Zac Banner.

While Okorafor was never a liability, he was also never a strength on several struggling Steelers offensive lines. And the unit clearly improved during the middle of 2023 when Broderick Jones took over the starting role. The Steelers don’t have a lot of depth behind Jones and Dan Moore, but Okorafor can’t play right tackle. It had been suggested the Steelers might trade him — he does have 59 starts under his belt — but the Steelers need his salary cap space now.

These moves save the Steelers approximately 13 million in salary cap space with more cuts and/or restructures to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

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

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

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

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

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

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

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

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

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

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

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

Ominous Opening Day Omen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

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

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

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

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

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

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

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

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

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

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

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

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

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

Rudolph to the Rescue

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

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

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

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

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

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

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

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

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

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

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

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

 

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

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

And perhaps that is how it should be.

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

Zack Moss,

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

Strong Start Signals Sinkhole to Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

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

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

But all’s well that ends well, right?

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

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

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

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

Anatomy of a Meltdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can the Steelers Recover from Shell Shock?

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

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

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

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

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

  • This one stings. And so it should.

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

Belichick Still the Boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

…The NFL Will Seldom Note and Quickly Forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failing Big

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

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

Benefits of Failing Big

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Cardinals: James Connor Homecoming Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is focusing on the homecoming of a former student after a wet and ugly loss, here the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure.

James Conner, Steelers vs Cardinals

James Connor rushes for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett’s numbers of 7 of 10 for 70 yards are solid and he did start the game strong, but 2 of his three incompletions came on third down including one in the Red Zone. Mitch Trubisky was 11 of 17 for 117 yards and a garbage time touchdown, but the Steelers were still 4-11 on third downs. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 63 yards on 16 carries and Jaylen Warren ran for 59 on 9. Both enjoyed some long runs but neither man got into a rhythm. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 12 targets for 29 yards. Connor Heyward had zero catches on 2 yards. Darnell Washington didn’t get a target, but then again, the answer to what ails the Steelers offense clearly isn’t to force-feed the tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had a solid game with a deep catch to open things up and a few difficult ones on the sideline finishing the day at 4 for 86. Diontae Johnson also had 4 catches for 33 yards including a touchdown where he channeled his inner Bobby Shaw. Calvin Austin had 3 catches for 19 yards – so much for taking the top off the defense, while 3 catches for 19 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Mason Cole had at least 3 bad snaps, one of which helped scuttle a drive that started with promise another which caused a turnover. Unacceptable. Overall the Steelers run blocking wasn’t enough to take advantage of the Cardinals weak run defense. Nor was pass protection particularly tight. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Keeanu Benton had a tipped pass as did Larry Ogunjobi. The defensive began the day stuffing the run. That changed as the day progressed. Grade: D

Linebackers
Again, early in the day it looked like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were going to feast on Kyler Murray and the Cardinals running backs. However as the day wore on the opposite happened. Losing Elandon Roberts hurt. With Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson on the field the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string tight ends. But we don’t grade on a curve and the Cardinals carved up the middle of the Steelers defense. Grade: F

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a third and 8 incompletion. The Cardinals scored a touchdown. The Cardinals were 10 of 17 on third down conversions and Minkah Fitzpatrick still managed to lead the unit in tackles despite being out for part of the game due to a broken hand. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal. Miles Killebrew was flagged 3 times on punt returns, the last of which set up the Cardinals final touchdown. Calvin Austin did have an 11-yard punt return, but that’s not enough to bring this group’s grade up. Grade: F

Coaching
So firing Matt Canada in season wasn’t a panacea. To quote Myron Cope, “Whoever would have thunk?”

The Steelers offense got off to a good start, but then couldn’t finish in the Red Zone. When it couldn’t get into the end zone through the air the first time, it tried and failed again on the ground. Pass protection was weak, bone headed penalties cost the team a couple of first down conversions and the offense lacked “coordination” as it had under Canada.

The performance of Teryl Austin’s defense performed in direct proportion to the presence of Elandon Roberts on the field. With him they were good. Without him they were terrible.

  • Austin couldn’t make the adjustment.

One might say, “Oh, it’s too harsh to throw all that onto a coach who is down to his 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.” Yeah, right. Bill Belichick might be down, but you’d better believe he’s licking his chops thinking of ways he can jumpstart his offense by exploiting the middle of the field.

Trap games tripped up Mike Tomlin’s teams throughout the Ben Roethlisberger era. Some suggested, with some merit, that this was in part due to Roethlisberger being an “adrenaline junkie.” Well, Ben’s been gone for two years. Can’t blame this one on him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Deciding on an “Unsung Hero” after an awful, ugly game like this is a challenge. So today we think outside the box. Sunday’s lost might have been a bad day for the Steelers, but it was a good one for Pittsburgh football, as Western Pennsylvania native and Pitt Panthers alumni made his home coming to the Steel City to the tune 105 yards on 25 carries in an afternoon that saw him get better with each carry, and for that James Conner wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure Stadium.

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