PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers is like watching the same movie every Sunday. There is minimal variation; maybe you find an Easter Egg here or there, but the story is the same. The messaging can change slightly based upon the lens you want to watch that movie through, but what you would have thought after first watching is mainly accurate. The Steelers are a very flawed team with strengths that can carry them to wins, but there are overwhelming flaws they can not overcome this year.
Usually, I write some drivel to transition into the main takeaways, but I want to preface that today with the first takeaway. The Steelers have issues they can not fix this year. Some of it is based on inherent schemes, others personnel-related. You can not suddenly switch around parts of this team in-season. The Steelers made their bed and must figure out how to move forward into the offseason with some of these issues.
When a team has little down-to-down consistency but tons of splash, you get a jumbled mess that could swing either way. Pittsburgh has the stars. They even have some underlying talent, but this team does not have the requisite success rates of a well-coached football team paired with excellent execution to elevate where they should be from here. That’s just the first surface-level stuff. So, let’s get into the takeaways proper.
Remember when I said the Steelers had made their bed and had to sit without themselves on some issues? One of those in their secondary. Sorry, but there are too many spots here to move and replace. The vast issue remains that the group does not have the athleticism to keep up with more athletic units like the Jaguars. At both safety and cornerback, it’s not an athletic group but one of the more veteran-based, slower groups in the league. To their credit, the Steelers have tried to scheme around it, but it’s tough. It severely limits what they can do.
Cornerback is a story that has painted its verses throughout the year. Levi Wallace was out, and on the outside, the cornerbacks held up fine on Sunday. Patrick Peterson probably played his best game as a member of the Steelers. But the middle got toasted. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s injury is a severe burden for this group. Miles Killebrew got playing time, and that went about as expected.
But even Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee fell flat. Kazee got an interception but likely blew the coverage on the Travis Etienne touchdown. In man coverage, those two players, plus Chandon Sullivan, were toasted in the middle of the field. The Steelers must acquire a safety, cornerback, or both. It has to be the right deal. Pittsburgh needs to make a long-term investment with a move to make it, I think. But it appears there are some candidates for that. If that deal comes along, there is zero reason not to make it. But the secondary will be an issue all season, even if Fitzpatrick’s injury is minor.
This is the one thing I can not figure out. What is going on with the offensive slow starts? Before much of it could be placed on poor game planning, the Steelers laid Matt Canada out to dry early in this game. From a Diontae Johnson drop on the first play of the game to Kenny Pickett underthrowing a wide-open corner route to George Pickens, this team had many chances to make something happen. Those opportunities were there, but they failed to execute. Pickett missed Johnson later on a surefire touchdown, too. Over the last four games, Pittsburgh’s first-half numbers are among the worst I have seen.
Since their loss to the Texans, the Steelers are averaging just 83 yards of offense in the first half. They are averaging just 5.5 first downs per first half. In those games, they have scored just nine first-half points. Pittsburgh’s offense runs just 25.5 plays on average in the first half over that span. They averaged six drives. Steelers opponents average 37.5 plays over that span with six drives. That is a lot of three and outs.
I have no clue how you fix that. But the offense is pretty broken. That’s the takeaway. When everything goes wrong, it pours. I am not sure there is a reset button for this group this year, despite having enough talent to be a solid offense.
Where is Darnell?
I like Rodney Williams as much as the next person, but he should not be out-snapping Darnell Washington. That is as curious a development as any, with Connor Heyward becoming the team’s de facto starter without Pat Freiermuth. Washington played just ten snaps, while Williams played 12 snaps. This is a concerning trend for Washington, which seems to be falling out of favor with the coaching staff. The odd thing? Pittsburgh is hurting themselves in the run game by doing this to their team. Even if Washington falls flat in the passing game, his blocking is as advertised. So, unless there is some underlying injury they manage without us knowing, it’s a curious decision that should change.
Joey Porter Jr. Balling
Okay, let’s have a positive at some point here. There were some positives in this game. Two, to be exact, that I will talk about. The first is Joey Porter Jr. How good has this guy been? I thought Porter had a chance to be an excellent player, but he’s soared over those expectations. This guy is easily the best cornerback on the team and playing like the best rookie cornerback in football. It appears if he keeps this up that, Pittsburgh may have found themselves an absolute gem at the top of the second round.
As he plays more, his stat line won’t look as sterling as it once did coming into the game. That’s fine. But he has plays that keep showing growth. In this game, the most prominent example I can point to is when he got beat to the inside by Calvin Ridley, and Trevor Lawerence threw a dart on third and long to maximize yards after the catch. It could have gone for a massive gain, but instead, Porter made a fantastic tackle to end the drive. That’s the type of growth you need to see, and each week, Porter gets better.
Pittsburgh has ILBs!
After a long, arduous battle, Omar Khan has solved the inside linebacker woes. Finally, it would seem. Pittsburgh has three inside linebackers that work exceptionally well off one another. Kwon Alexander is a splash play machine who is one of the better coverage linebackers they have had in some time. Meanwhile, Cole Holcomb is a steady presence on the inside. He signed a three-year deal this offseason, and it seems like he is likely to play that entire deal out if he keeps playing like this. Meanwhile, Elandon Roberts is the hammer the team needs and executes it at a high level.
I love this group. None of them are stars, but the Steelers are catering to their strengths, and they have rewarded Pittsburgh in every sense of the word. Alexander has an expiring contract the team needs to bring back if he continues to play like this through the end of the season. They played an excellent game, so take it for what it’s worth. But this group is legitimately impressive.
Kenny Pickett Update
Okay, last thing I want to touch on this, but let’s talk about Kenny Pickett. He played one half of football. By my second rewatch, I think he is comfortably better than Mitch Trubisky right now. At least, I certainly feel better about my team’s chances with him in there over Trubisky. Each time Trubisky dropped back to pass, it felt like disaster would come. Pickett has enough of those plays with some pretty positive interception luck, but there is an inherent ceiling Pickett has that Trubisky does not have.
But back to him, Pickett, whom we have seen for about twenty games. In light of games like the ones we saw from Will Levis on Sunday, it’s fair to question when the explosion for Pickett comes. Does it ever? Where are the high-end franchise quarterback flashes not just over a drive or a quarter but a game? The Steelers have not seen that guy come out. That’s a concerning trend. Pickett struggles with decision-making and pocket presence, and it has lead him not to have that game of high-end flashes. They need to figure out if he is anything more than just a baseline starter by the season’s end, even within the context of the Matt Canada offense.