Bending Back with a Vengeance: Steelers Beat Packers 23-19 with Two 4th Quarter Interceptions

“Alright, that was easy,” proclaimed Mike Tomlin after the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-19 win over the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium.

  • The Steelers standard bearer was of course being uncharacteristically sarcastic.

Of course this wasn’t easy. Which is actually appropriate. The Steelers and Packers are two of the NFL’s most storied franchises. Many of their recent matchups have gone down to the wire, and this one lived up to the tradition.

While the caliber of football isn’t strong enough to earn this team any sort of legendary spot in NFL Films lore, it should be noted that Mike Tomlin’s team won because his offense returned to its roots and his defense delivered when the game was on the line. Again.

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.

Najee Warren, Jaylen Harris Deliver 1-2 Punch on the Ground

There are some jobs in this world where 1 + 1 equals more than two. Think of making a queen-sized bed. Although it’s a bit counter-intuitive, ranking leaves is another, at least in my experience.

  • NFL rushing attacks are a bit harder to pin down.

For a generation, Chuck Noll’s offense dutifully divided carries between running backs. That changed when Bill Cowher arrived.

During the Steelers 1992 season reporters asked if Cowher might ease up on Barry Foster’s workload, Cowher quipped, “Not unless I see parts of his body falling off.” Mike Tomlin said something similar about Fast Willie Parker in 2007, and he’s stuck with his “bell cow” since.

The win over the Packers proves that the running back-by-committee trend has sustained itself. On the Steelers opening drive Najee Harris carried on four out of the Steelers 5 rushes. After Jaylen Warren ripped off a 12 yarder to reach the Red Zone, the Steelers went back to Harris, who found the end zone one the second of consecutive runs.

  • The next time Pittsburgh got the ball, Matt Canada and Eddie Faulkner flipped the script.

Warren saw most of the work, slogging out some and doing better on others, with Harris spelling him for a double-digit carry. Yet, the fact that Warren got dropped for a 1-yard loss after the Steelers reached the Red Zone didn’t prevent them from going back to him 2 plays later.

Warren rewarded the coaches’ faith, ripping off a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers touchdowns on their consecutive opening drives since… God knows when.

Is the fact that the Steelers affirmed their commitment to a two running back system and scored touchdowns on their first two drives for the first time in recent just a coincidence? You decide.

Defense Breaks, Early

The win against the Packers will not and should not be remembered as one of the great defensive performances of the post-Roethlisberger era, let alone anything larger. Jordan Love’s Green Bay Packers are not of the same pedigree as Brett Favre’s or Aaron Rodgers’.

  • Yet, Jordan Love and his offense hung 2 touchdowns on the Steelers defense in the first half.

Worse yet, they made it look easy. And for a time, in the first half, it looked like this game might turn into a score-for-score affair if not a shoot-out similar to the 2009 match up.

The game evolved differently. After breaking early, the Steelers got a second chance.

The Myth of the “Irrelevant Play” on Display

The extra point and the kickoff return are two of the most mundane plays in the modern NFL. A few years ago serious commentators even suggested eliminating the extra point. And the NFL is all but trying to legislate the kick return out of the game.

  • One might be tempted to conclude that both plays are irrelevant.

The win over the Packers gave Steelers fans a double edged reminder that there are no irrelevant plays in the NFL.

  • Patrick Peterson blocked the Packer’s extra point after their second touchdown.
  • Keisean Nixon set up two Green Bay scores with kick returns of 49 and 36 yards
  • Anthony McFarland set up the Steelers penultimate field goal with his own 36 yard kick return

Chuck Noll preached that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily. Both Green Bay and Pittsburgh leaned in on this last Sunday. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers leaned in a little further.

Steelers Defense Bends Back – with a Vengeance

Kenny Pickett started the game with a completion to George Pickens right out of the gate. While the Steelers running game deserves credit for the first two touchdown drives, Pickett was sharp on both.

Keanu Neal, Keanu Neal interception end zone, Steelers vs Packers

Keanu Neal with the Steelers 1st 4th quarter interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Had Pickett remained similarly sharp or had Diontae Johnson made a few clutch catches the defense’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary.

  • But necessary they were.

The first came with little more than three minutes remaining, immediately after the Steelers had retaken the lead. Green Bay drove the length of the field, reaching Pittsburgh’s 14. There Jordan Love fired a dart to Christian Watson in the end zone. Patrick Peterson tipped it, Keanu Neal intercepted and returned 39 yards.

The Steelers almost ran out the click, but Kenny Pickett was right on the money for a would be game-sealing pass to George Pickens that was negated by a (questionable) Calvin Austin pass interference penalty.

After six plays the Packers were back at Pittsburgh’s 16 – a field goal would do them no good thanks to Peterson’s blocked kick. Again Love targeted Watson:  This time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn to intercept the ball and return in 30 yards as time expired.

The Steelers defense may have broken early, but it bent back with a vengeance when the game was on the line. And that decided the game for Pittsburgh.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

“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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Cam Heyward Goes on IR – Can the Steelers D Repeat the 2016 Rebound?

The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.

This one hurts.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and/or “The Killer Bees,” Cam Heyward has been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade.

Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.

Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.

  • Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.

And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.

When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”

  • The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
  • The season truly seemed be lost.

Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.

Can the Steelers flip the script again?

Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound

As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.

Yes 2023’s Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams are steps down from Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave of 2016.

But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.

DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts and rookie Keeanu Benton look like studs by comparison, although the group lacks experience.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.

  • With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.

By the middle of 2016 Ryan Shazier was coming into his own, and Vince Williams had established himself as a steady, physical presence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.

So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.

Interesting Insider Insight

The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.

As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”

  • That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.

Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Reality Bites: 49ers Kick Steelers in the Teeth, 30-7 to Open the 2023 Season

Week 1 in the NFL is all about acquainting yourself with reality. And the reality Pittsburgh faces today is that the San Francisco 49ers came to Acrisure Stadium for the 2023 season opener and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of 30-7.

  • Sometimes reality bites.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin minced no words declaring, “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.” He’s right. The question is why and should we be worried?

 

Kenny Pickett, Drake Jackson, Steelers vs 49ers

Drake Jackson sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

How Quickly Off Season Accolades Feel Hollow

The NFL has dominated sports news, in terms of commanding press coverage and fan interest since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to professional football. Yet through all of it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely remained in the background.

But 2023 was different. The Steelers got out of their comfort zone:

  • Free agents that otherwise would have stayed in Pittsburgh were allowed to walk.
  • Older free agents and/or others with injury histories were brought to the Steel City
  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl authored a draft that made everyone happy
  • “Flawless” isn’t too much of an exaggeration to describe the Steelers preseason effort

Yet, as Washington Commanders fans can assure us, winning the off season Lombardi counts for nothing when the games actually matter. Oh, it’s not that the everything the Steelers did in the off season blew up in their faces. To the contrary:

And that exercise above, ladies and gentleman, is the football analysis equivalent of having the icing off of the top of your cupcake before eating the rest of your dinner. And by cupcake, I’m not talking about the kind your mother made, I’m talking about a Hostess cupcake. You might enjoy a brief sugar high, but everything else will disappoint you as your appetite is spoiled.

Because really everything else the Steelers did in their 2023 opener disappointed.

Losing It in the Trenches

One of the most heartening things about the off season was the front office’s commitment to returning to “Steelers Football.” By “Steelers Football” we mean winning in the trenches because the ones in Black and Gold are the ones hitting the hardest.

First in free agency and then in the draft, the Steelers invested heavily in bulking up their starters and backups on both lines, while signing thumpers to rebuild their inside linebacking corps. Yet the 49ers pushed the Steelers around like rag dolls.

  • You remember that picture-perfect run Jaylen Warren in preseason against the Bills?

Well, the 49ers executed a similar play to open the 2nd half, where Christian McCaffrey ran 65 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey ran well on that play, but his lineman watch that play again and try to count all of the Steelers defenders who got manhandled on that play.

  • Nor was that an isolated incident. Take away that 65 run and McCafferty still averages over 4 yards a carry.

And the 49ers hardly executed a one-dimensional offense. The Steelers defense might have “contained” George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but Brandon Aiyuk torched them for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

Granted, on the first touchdown pass Brock Prudy placed the ball with super-human precision, but either way Aiyuk literally caught everything that was thrown his way.

Chicken, Egg or Both?

During the back-half of 2022 the Steelers formula for success on offense was simple:

  • Control the line of scrimmage
  • Create manageable third downs by running hard on first and or second down
  • Count on Kenny Pickett (or Derek Watt if we dare say) to convert those third downs
  • Dominate time of possession

Sure, the Steelers got stuck in the Red Zone more often than not ensuring that a lot of games went down to the buzzer. But it worked.

Fast forward to September 2023. When Mike Tomlin was asked about the poor performance of his offense, he reference the fact that the Steelers started something like 0-5 on third down conversions.

Take away Najee Harris 24 yard run at the end of the 1st half and he averages 1.4 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren wasn’t much better, averaging 2 yards per carry. Suffice to say, there’s no running back controversy in Pittsburgh this morning.

But the offense’s woes don’t lie entirely on the shoulders of the running backs and offensive line. The Steelers tried opening several drives with short passes, but even when they completed those they still found themselves in third and long.

What’s perhaps more worrisome was how they attacked those third and longs. During the second half of 2022 the knock on Kenny Pickett was that he played it safe, avoiding throwing downfield and/or in the middle of the field.

  • Against the 49ers he attacked the middle of the field, and the middle counter attacked.

Perhaps his first interception was due to Diontae Johnson slipping, but he threw a very poor pass dead center in the middle of the field on his second one, and he should have had a third returned for a touchdown.

In his defense, Pickett faced pressure all day. The 49ers sacked him 5 times and registered a total of 9 hits. Couple that with the 8 tackles for losses registered by 49er defenders and Andy Weidl’s “planet theory” of offensive line building looked more like space dust.

Primary Differentiation on Opening Day

Is all hope lost for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. The Steelers opened their previous two seasons with upsets of AFC contenders only to flounder for large portions of both campaigns. Looking further back, during the Cowher Era and opening day blowout was almost a good omen.

  • But with that said, opening day revealed a stark contrast to Steelers Nation.

The San Francisco 49ers looked every bit of the team that’s been to 3 of the last 4 Conference championships and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a team still searching for its first playoff win since 2016.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.