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Steelers Grades: Pickett Flounders, Soft Trench Play in BAD Loss

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Patrick Peterson Steelers CB
Steelers CB Patrick Peterson comes out of the tunnel agains the 49ers, Sept. 10, 2023 - Ed Thompson '/ Steelers Now

No one liked how the Steelers loss to the San Francisco 49ers went. That is for good reason, as the Steelers fell apart in every facet of the game on both sides of the football. So, the grades I am about to dish out will be harsh, but rightfully so after the opening day debacle.

Quarterback: F

Kenny Pickett played one of his worst games as an NFL quarterback and collapsed into every bad trait he had in this game. The preseason showcases of poise and comfort went out the window with the 49ers coming after him and rattling him early on. His accuracy went all over the place in what was the game’s biggest surprise to me. There are a lot of things that Pickett can usually struggle with, but he is generally accurate. But some of the balls he threw on Sunday were not catchable.

Pickett looked wild around the field and could not play in structure. With his progressions, Pickett would drop his eyes if he ended up shunned from the pocket. He missed multiple open players for potential big plays. The mental side of his game, which looked sharper in the preseason, faded away. There was no excellent, calm, collected side of him today. That earns him an F.

Running Backs: C-

The running backs did nothing egregious to land them here. In the running game, it’s not like they missed holes that were there, and generally, some of the blitz pickups in pass protection were good. It’s hard to earn something higher than a C- when the position adds zero requisite value in this game. The Steelers went away from running the ball early and leaned heavily into the passing game down 20-0, but the team could not run the ball, either. Outside of a 24-yard run by Najee Harris, Pittsburgh had nine rushes for 17 yards.

For many of his touches, Jaylen Warren was a nonfactor left dead in the water. Anthony McFarland helps bring this group up. His returns gave the team a spark, and he gave the Steelers a few nice catches out of the backfield.

Wide Receivers: C+

I did like some of the stuff I saw from the Steelers wide receivers. Most of the lack of passing game production is not on the wide receivers. There were few egregious drops, and a lot of receivers were open. Pickett just did not hit them on this day. Diontae Johnson seemed poised for a huge game and separated quickly, but it went awry with a hamstring injury and Pickett missing him multiple times.

George Pickens seemed almost too quiet. Sure, he was targeted seven times for less than 40 yards total. The deep targets were not there. On the other hand, Allen Robinson II played better than I thought he would on Sunday. He looks like a delicate chain mover over the middle field and has good chemistry with Pickett on those scramble drills. Calvin Austin III likely should have a touchdown to his name after getting wide open on a slant route. So, the receivers were fine in this one.

Tight Ends: C

The tight ends were the one offensive position I thought got hurt the most by extraneous factors. Pat Freiermuth is another player who deserved better. But his day ended up rocky between some bad throws and the injury. Still, he separated well and looked great from the slot. In his debut, Darnell Washington dealt out some big blocks, and the run-game struggles were not his fault. Connor Heyward got targeted on one of the interceptions against Fred Warner, but the play had no shot. The game fell too flat for the tight ends to have much impact.

Offensive Line: F

The offensive line did not create all the pressure in this one, but man, there were too many free rushers and players left running open in the run game. For all the talk of hat-on-hat plays, the Steelers did not get any plays blocked up well in the running game. That was a big part of this offense’s struggles, with Pickett shouldering the burden and the offense getting behind the sticks.

The stunning thing? Most of the pressure did not come off the edge but on the interior. Stunts and one-on-one individual reps fell short of expectations. That interior let them down for the group the team should have relied upon. Dan Moore and Chuks Okorafor tried against Nick Bosa and Drake Jackson, but those guys feasted for most of the day. Overall, it was a pretty ugly day for the offensive line.

Defensive Line: F

It was a pretty awful day where the only remote bright spot was the flashes shown by rookie Keeanu Benton, but even he played inconsistently. Still, of all the non-Cam Heyward linemen, and Heyward did not play much after suffering that groin injury, Benton looked like the best defensive lineman the Steelers have.

We discussed how the Steelers’ run defense came across as a big plus in training camp. But on Sunday, that never shone through. All the depth guys had bad reps for the run game, and no one stepped up to make some big plays once Heyward exited. Put a below-average game for the team.

Linebackers: B-

The grade being up at a B- is almost entirely the doing of T.J. Watt. Watt started his campaign with a Defensive Player of the Year-like performance with three sacks, five QB hits, and two forced fumbles. The Steelers star played out of his mind well against Colton McKivitz. Alex Highsmith played against Trent Williams, which ended up going about how you thought it would. The depth along the outside linebacker room played well.

On the other hand, the inside linebackers would get a D from me. These linebackers struggled all day in most facets. Cole Holcomb lost a ball over the middle of the field that could have ended up an interception. The run fits lost integrity, and Christian McCaffrey ran wild. San Francisco reached the second level, and once there, little fight was given by the unit. From missed tackles to bad run fits it was an ugly day.

Defensive Backs: F

I am giving the defensive backs another F grade. There is little to write home about from this one. Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace got torched all day with little pushback. Outside cornerback appears to be a significant concern moving forward for the Steelers. The 49ers receivers are good, and I like Brandon Aiyuk, but some of those reps were non-competitive. Joey Porter Jr. played only seven snaps. The guys in the slot did not stick out in a good or bad way.

For the safeties, the physical run fits from the box never came. Minkah Fitzpatrick played too much near the line of scrimmage, which essentially took him out of the game. Keanu Neal got beat in coverage a few times. Overall, it was a pretty rotten performance from the Steelers secondary.

Specialists: D-

Even special teams did not hit the bill. McFarland helps elevate this out of the F territory, but Pressley Harvin fell back into his bad habits, having a few clunkers for punts. After a strong preseason, that is a sign the Steelers did not want. Then, tack on three more special teams penalties from the Steelers’ coverage units. Ray-Ray McCloud had a few solid returns on punts from Harvin when it seemed the coverage did not get back deep. Overall, it was another bad day for this Steelers group.

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