PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers offense that has been a significant work in progress throughout the rookie season of Kenny Pickett seemed like it was going somewhere as of about 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Now, after a 37-30 loss to the Bengals, it seems back where it started.
In Week 10, coming out of the Steelers’ bye week, the Steelers took some steps forward. Kenny Pickett took care of the ball. The run-game success from the team’s loss to the Eagles in Week 8 carried over as Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren both had big days and the Steelers scored 20 points in game, tying their 60-minute high for the season in a 20-10 win.
In the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday evening, it was more of the same. The Steelers had a balanced, efficient attack, with Pickett throwing 19 times, completing for 14 for 141 yards, and Najee Harris running 11 times for 56 yards.
They got touchdowns from Harris and George Pickens, and were leading the Bengals at the break, scoring 20 points in the half after having failed to cross that threshold in for quarters all season.
Then it all fell apart. The Steelers came out with the ball to start the second half and went three and out. That was the first of four consecutive three-play-and-out drives in the third quarter.
Their fifth drive of the second half got one first down before punting from Cincinnati territory. Their sixth was another three and out and another punt from Cincinnati territory. Their seventh drive of the second half went four-and-out, as the down and distance demanding going for it on 4th and 10.
It wasn’t until the game was out of reach and the Bengals softened their coverage that the Steelers were able to do anything offensively.
And just that like, the momentum that was build slowly from the embers of the loss to Philadelphia, stoked over the bye week and developed through the win over the Saints was gone.
The Steelers appear to be back to the drawing board.
But what caused the dramatic shift in events for the Steelers at halftime against the Bengals, and can it be repaired while salvaging some of the momentum the team had built?
Part of the problem was the protection for Pickett. The rookie quarterback was sacked just twice — a big improvement over six sacks in each of the previous two games — but he was pressured on many downs when he needed time to do his thing.
He was also in too many down and distance situations when he needed time to make deeper throws.
During that fateful third quarter, he missed Steven Sims on a crossing route on a 3rd and 9 when he had some time.
On a 3rd and 4 — deep in the shadow of his own goalposts thanks to a special teams gaffe by Sims — he had to escape the pocket when Dan Moore was railroaded by Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson. Throwing on the run, he missed Pat Freiermuth, badly.
On the next series, he ran from the pocket on 2nd and 13 and threw the ball away. On 3rd and 13, he completed a pass to Zach Gentry well short of the sticks.
After T.J. Watt’s interception, then Steelers had 3rd and 4 and the Cincinnati 15. Pickett had some time, but bounced one at Diontae Johnson’s feet on a crossing route.
The next drive was sank when Pickett was sacked. The following one was ruined by two penalties, a hold on Freiermuth and an illegal man downfield after Harris and Pickett had a miscommunication one a play call.
There’s a lot of issues there. Some of it is some pretty stagnant second-half play calling. Some of it is Pickett missing receivers down field when he has time. A lot of it is the offensive line not giving Pickett enough time. Some of it is receivers not getting open.
“Our defense did a great job of giving us a chance to win the game and we didn’t come through in the second half,” Pickett said. “That’s on us. We’ve got to get it fixed and have two strong halves to beat a team like that.”
Mike Tomlin calls it popcorn. There’s not one big problem. There’s a lot of little problems. They all have different causes and different solutions, and there won’t be sweeping changes to make them all better.
Firing Matt Canada won’t make Pickett stop missing open receivers. Benching Pickett wouldn’t make the offensive line better. There are no easy fixes. This is one of the reasons why teams that care whether they win or lose football games do everything they can to avoid playing rookie quarterbacks.
It’s a process. It takes time and hard work and it’s frustrating. I asked Pickett about that frustration.
“You’re going to have adversity throughout every football game and it’s never going to be perfect, especially at this level,” he said. “We’re all working together and picking each other up to try and get to the ultimate goal, which is victory at the end of the day. …
“No one is happy, man. Obviously, no one wants to be in this situation. But we’re going to stick together and get on track.”
Pickett’s improvement will be measured by seasons, not halves. The first-half, second-half blip that loomed large in the aftermath of Sunday’s loss won’t matter one bit in the long run when it comes to his ultimate success or failure.