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Steelers Analysis

5 Steelers Takeaways: The Pickett Problem, Tomlin Tumbles



Steelers HC Mike Tomlin
Steelers HC Mike Tomlin against the Arizona Cardinals, Dec. 3, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — What was Sunday? I have no idea. The Steelers lost 24-10 to a terrible Cardinals team they had no business losing to, but it is something that has become all too common with the team. Between the struggles they have faced with the offense getting on the right track and then injuries mounting all over the place, the Steelers are a mess. But there are takeaways and lessons from this game I wanted to dive into and takeaway.

Blame Goes to the Top

This will come from a different perspective than last week’s takeaways. Those were heavily focused on schematic things that the Steelers could fix on the field. After this performance, I am at a loss. There are schematic things on the defensive side of the ball they can do better; we’ll get to those, but that’s not the crux of the issue. I did not think that Mike Sullivan called a very good game either, but I would rank him low on the list of reasons they lost this game.

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin against the Green Bay Packers, Nov. 12, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

This game is falling on the shoulders of mishaps of the Steelers’ own doing. Credit to Arizona for taking advantage, but this was a disaster in how to hurt yourself at every turn. Just think of all the things the Steelers did wrong in this game. Two illegal formation penalties to wipe out significant gains on running plays. Three penalties on special teams, all by one player, their special teams captain nonetheless. The center could not snap the football accurately all game, making timing off and costing the team a turnover. Three costly penalties on third downs that would have otherwise got the defense off the field, meaning that Arizona added ten points on those drives alone. This is how you lose a game by yourself.

When all three facets lack detail in their prep, that’s an indictment on the position coaches. The players, too, they have to be better prepared. But when you lay an egg of this proportions and take yourself right out of the game, this falls on the shoulders of Mike Tomlin. This team came into this one woefully unprepared and in complete disarray. When things could not get worse, they somehow did. It snowballed out of control. Jaylen Warren even said he thought the team took the Cardinals too lightly.

You have seen this movie before, though. This is not something new with Tomlin’s teams. The sky is falling this week, and they will very likely bounce back despite injuries faced. But we can not continue to fall into this cycle when details fall apart year after year in games each year. Tomlin is a great coach. You will not get that argument from me, but you must also point out his flaws. There are too many games such as this on his resume. That’s a fact.

Defensive Adjustments Don’t Exist

The box score will say the Arizona Cardinals drove 99 yards down the field for a touchdown. But you may as well have said that Cardinals tight end Trey McBride did it instead. He caught four catches for 49 yards and the touchdown on the drive, all coming against Mykal Walker and Damontae Kazee while Minkah Fitzpatrick roamed elsewhere around the field. Later on, they would start to put Fitzpatrick on him, leading to much more success, but Walker still got put in tough spots too often.

Steelers LB Mykal Walker

Steelers LB Mykal Walker at practice on Nov. 15, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“That’s an unacceptable performance by me,” Walker said. “Really, that drive was all on me. They kept coming at me. I have to do better.”

Walker can do better. He has in the last two games. This guy did exceptionally well against David Njoku two weeks ago. He’s not some bum. Walker can be a good complementary piece. So, it would be nice if they would have him with inside help rather than man-to-man against McBride, which is a real problem. This team never gave him the respect he deserved. Their game plan for Bengals tight end Drew Sample and McBride were indistinguishable. That’s unacceptable.

“We really let the tight end catch a couple of balls over the middle. He is a good player,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t think we gave him the respect he deserved at first.”

Agreed. And then they came out of the break and never gave him enough respect until they finally put their foot down. Unfortunately, it was essentially too late. That’s a coaching gaffe to the highest degree in this one. Losing Roberts sucked for the team, I get it, but you can not leave Walker out there to dry. They did just that.

The Roberts Loss

I’m unsure how this defense gets back to an elite level without Elandon Roberts. He’s too vital with Kwon Alexander and Cole Holcomb. Maybe Myles Jack and Blake Martinez can patchwork something together with Walker, but what Roberts brings is something no one else can get. He has a veteran intensity that no one else in that room has.

Steelers LB Elandon Roberts

Steelers LB Elandon Roberts against the Green Bay Packers, Nov. 12, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

But his football IQ and run defense also add a lot to the room. Roberts is a fantastic processor who is better than I think anyone realized. Even in coverage, he competes. I think he can do that a lot better than people think. But he highlights what Walker can not do well and allows him to show out, so his injury is massive.

“When you lose a guy like that, it’s a big loss,” Walker said. “We know what he brings, but you just have to be the nest man up. You know, communication wasn’t as good as it could have been. I put that on me.”

With Roberts out, the communication snowballed. The Steelers had a few bad run fits and a few times where they did not get the front set, allowing the runs to spring out. More than that, the team’s tackling display was horrid. Walker had a tough game there, too. James Conner is a fantastic, elusive back, but this tackling display was one of the worst of the season. That’s not good enough, and if Roberts is out for an extended period, the Steelers are in some trouble.

Red Zone Blues

Man, the Steelers can not get the red zone stuff figured out for the life of them. Last week, they frankly pummelled the Bengals’ defense but kept it close because they can not turn three into seven. The same thing happened this week. Pittsburgh ended up inside the Cardinals’ 30-yard line three times before their garbage-time touchdown. They came away with three points. The Steelers can move the ball but can not finish in the end zone.

Steelers OC Eddie Faulkner

Steelers OC Eddie Faulkner coaches against the Cincinnati Bengals, Nov. 26, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The red zone is where well-coached units step up. Good coaches have the players ready down to the detail with each call because when you have the tight area like the red zone, you need to be hyper-alert on these details. The Steelers were not, and it is crushing this group. Pittsburgh legitimately outgained the Cardinals and lost. So, it does not matter if you can not turn that into points. That’s the common theme here. You can’t trust the offense until that happens. And it will make the margin for error that much tighter.

“It has nothing to do with the coordinator,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “It has everything to do with the players. It’s not the coordinator’s fault that we’re lining up wrong and jumping offsides. It’s not the coordinator’s fault at all, it’s never been. We’ve got to fix it. The players.”

I tend to agree with Freiermuth on a lot of that. These red zone issues are indicative of these struggles. Pittsburgh does have an easy matchup, but not a cakewalk in the Bill Belichick-coached defense. These details will matter as much as any week if they want to step on the gas pedal and beat the Patriots like they should.

The Pickett Problem

Kenny Pickett did not play this whole game. I understand that. But with him now sidelined for two to four weeks after ankle surgery, it’s hard for me to tell you what they should do this offseason. Firing Matt Canada was supposed to spark the offense and give them a chance to see what Pickett could do without him. That small sample size got even tinier now. And Pickett has not shown enough flashes of being the guy to earn unquestioned starter status heading into year three. That stinks, but it’s the fact of the matter.

Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

Steelers QB Kenny Pickett against the Arizona Cardinals, Dec. 3, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

His blitz identification continues to be poor. Pickett misses open reads too often, and his pocket presence remains as jittery as ever. He has moments where the flashes pop out to you, hut nothing consistently throughout the games to show he is a bonafide franchise quarterback.

This is where I come down at some point. The Steelers are struggling offensively. At some point, the quarterback has to make a play to spark them. But Pickett is so inconsistent that it’s tough to rely upon. Then, there is the worrying health history growing with him, too. The Steelers will be at a crossroads this offseason with their quarterback. But they’ll need some insurance.