CINCINNATI — It would have been pretty difficult for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense to fail to look better on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals than it did the week before against the Cleveland Browns.
Regardless of any real or imagined impact made by the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the co-promotion of Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan, the Bengals don’t represent near as much of a challenge as the Browns do in terms of the quality of the opposition.
So while the Steelers gained 400 yards for the first time this season, and for the first time since 2020, and quarterback Kenny Pickett posted his second-highest single-game passer rating of his career at 97.8, they still have a lot to accomplish.
Because 16 points against the Cincinnati Bengals still doesn’t translate to a lot of victories against playoff teams. In fact, it might not be an upgrade over 10 points against the Browns last week.
But it definitely represented an important step forward for the Steelers. And as Mike Tomlin said, more importantly, they did it in a victory.
“We did what we needed to do to win,” Tomlin said. “Guys like myself and Kenny, we’re judged based on winning and losing, and we don’t run from that, we run to that. He and I are winners today.”
But the Steelers had been winning. They were 6-4 before they fired Canada and had won two of their last three. So how did the Steelers show growth in the areas that they hoped to when they made the move?
Eliminate September football
Part of coaching is getting your players to understand a concept and execute it. Another part of coaching is understanding which concepts your players understand and are capable of executing.
Somewhere, the Steelers’ process in that arrangement was falling apart under Canada. Either the coaching points weren’t getting home, or the coaching points weren’t the right ones, or the plays that were chosen were just not ones the players were capable of or ready to execute.
This week, Tomlin called that concept “September football.” Players in the wrong place. People turning the wrong way. Penalties. Things that just shouldn’t be happening to a football team in the middle of its season. It was one of the major reasons that Tomlin said he made the change when he did.
The Steelers cleaned a lot of that up in one week. Despite changing signal-callers and embracing an arrangement unique in professional football with one man as offensive coordinator and another as play caller, the Steelers didn’t have any obvious miscommunications and generally seemed to be on the same page throughout.
“I’m not trying to paint with a broad brush and act like: ‘Eureka!’” Tomlin said. “We did what we needed to do to win today and we’ll keep pushing.”
There was some slip up. Pickett and Diontae Johnson weren’t on the same page on one third-down route. But for the most part, the glaring errors that highlighted the team’s Week 11 loss to the Cleveland Browns were gone on Sunday.
Get Pat Freiermuth involved
The Steelers have not been blessed with great health as a football team this year, and they’ve spent almost the entire season missing one of their top three passing weapons in Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth.
Freiermuth returned to the lineup last week in Cleveland, but it was clear that Tomlin considered that just a get-right game for his full return this week.
“Pat’s first week back was last week,” Tomlin said. “He was out an extended period of time. It was more of a reflection of him and Kenny getting back on things. When Pat is on, he really makes a difference.”
The Bengals attempted to deal with the trio in a predictable way. With the Steelers historically eschewing the middle of the field in their passing attack, Cincinnati started the game in a two-high safety shell, giving each cornerback tasked to deal with Johnson or Pickett available deep help.
What that left open was the middle of the field, which was mostly patrolled by Freiermuth. He responded with a career high.
“I thought we spread the ball around, we changed things up schematically with different launch points,” Tomlin said. “We attacked down the field early when they were in split safeties. We weren’t going to let them sit in that comfortably all day. We did what we needed to do.”
“It felt like they were showing a lot of middle field open coverages where we need Pat to step up and be big for us, which he was,” Pickett said. “I think Pat had an unbelievable game. Really happy for him. (He was) battling back off an injury with his hamstring which isn’t easy. So, it’s great to have 88 out there.”
On one hand, I’m sure from wherever he watched Sunday’s game, Canada was shouting that he’d have loved to be able to call more games with that receiving trio intact.
But the Steelers’ and Pickett’s unwillingness to attack the middle of the field has been happening for a long time, and any progress in that area is welcome.
Era of Good Feelings
The Era of Good Feelings was the period of United States history that immediately followed the War of 1812, which was marked by a feeling of unity, patriotism and markedly less political strife.
The War of 1812 was militarily a draw at best, and saw Washington D.C. invaded and the White House burned.
The good feelings came as a result of people putting aside their differences to focus on the collective.
I’m not going to type out a paragraphs-long allegory here that compares Myles Garrett’s Browns to the redcoats ransacking the capital, and Johnson and Minkah Fitzpatrick’s post-game muck-up serves as a foil to the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel as a stand-in for a divided country and locker room.
Tomlin didn’t specifically say that losing the locker room was one the reasons that Canada was fired. But it’s important to note that the Steelers followed the ugly loss to Cleveland by coming together as a group against a common enemy (in this case, their own failure and recently departed offensive coordinator) and figuring out how to work together.
There was plenty of negativity to be absorbed along the way in Cincinnati — that happens when you only score 16 points — but it seemed that the togetherness of the unit was a positive and not a negative.
“It’s lot of adversity, a lot of things going on, moving parts,” Pickett said. “It felt like a short week almost, because when we got the news and how quickly we all had to kind of react to what happened and flush it and move on and get ready to go this week. Hats off to our guys in our locker room that did that. …
“It’s the ultimate team game, especially offensively. You need everybody — all 11 working together, all 11 on the same page in order to be successful.”
The Steelers offense has yet to reach its full potential. It was clear that the unit, under Canada, was not even close to that mark. That’s not to say that they got their on Sunday in Cincinnati, either.
To beat a playoff-caliber opponent, they’ll have to do much better than 16 points against Cincinnati’s defense. But they showed progress in a significant way. It’s probably not reasonable to expect that Faulkner and Sullivan will fix all of the team’s offensive issues.
But with a still-dominant defense, and if they can continue to minimize turnovers, even if they can be average, that might be good enough for significant January football.
“We always knew what we’re capable of doing, it’s just putting it together,” Pickett said. “And we still haven’t 100 percent put it together. We were driving really good. It felt like we left points out there. But you’ve got to take the positives and continue to march forward, which is what we plan on doing.”