INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Steelers did it in their signature style. It’s not pretty; it’s more than ugly, but they notched another win in that column. They are now 4-2, and despite the bye week, there’s not a ton to change from that week, but there might be some things we can take away from this. What can we learn from the Steelers 24-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams?
Second Half Kenny
Kenny Pickett is Mr. 4th quarter. Oddly, Pickett warms up to the game’s rhythm before feeling it in those big pressure moments. But he did it again. Pickett completed his last nine passes and went 11 for 12 in the second half. He was sharp, precise, and the Steelers’ receivers hit the ground running on several catches for quality yards after catch. It rounded up nicely for the Steelers to the point where the group found sustained success on offense throughout most of the fourth quarter for the first time all season. But Pickett has some gene about him that rises to those big moments.
Kenny Pickett throwing chart from today: pic.twitter.com/gXA9qgsTaP
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 23, 2023
Pickett saw some more diverse route concepts with Diontae Johnson in the lineup. Slants became more open, whip routes showed up, and George Pickens got more attention, giving Johnson more options. The Steelers could turn things around through the air, mainly because Pickett had more passing game options with the rushing attack going. In the first half, some of his pocket management tendencies showed up, including the infamous 360 spin move out of the pocket. But Pickett keeps finding a knack for making plays when it matters. He must see that gene for the rest of the game to become a higher-level quarterback.
Joey Porter Jr. Struggles Tackling
Steelers defensive backs have not tackled well all season. They did not this week again. Some of that is due to effort, while for others, it is technique. Rookie Joey Porter Jr. has serious issues when going in for tackles. It’s more than just a minor note, as this seems to be the likely reason he sat as long as he did. Despite earning praise from Mike Tomlin, the tackling department must improve. Porter noted that he has the mentality to make the tackles; it’s just his technique. I would agree with this. He sticks his face in the fan. But he has trouble wrapping up around players now.
At Penn State, Porter would nip at ankles. He is trying to tackle too high through their center of gravity instead of around their quads to stop the momentum. As a result, he becomes more like a bowling pin who gets knocked off in these attempts. He missed at least three tackles against the Rams to make otherwise ordinary plays become YAC staples. He has excellent man coverage skills that keep popping, but Porter has to improve as a tackler to take the next step in his game. Since it’s a technique issue, he likely will.
The Trickiness with Minkah
Minkah Fitzpatrick is a phenomenal player, but the Steelers have a balancing act to play with him this season. With struggles elsewhere in the secondary and specifically up front in run defense, Fitzpatrick has played in the box at an astronomically higher rate this season. It has its perks. Fitzpatrick is an elite player who has grown from just an acceptable box safety to an excellent box safety. His tackling is underrated, and he can come screaming off the edge. But that limits his chances of making those splash plays he is known for on the back end. The Steelers do not have the personnel to allow him to pop there.
So, there are pros and cons to his usage this year. I’m sure, at some point, the splash will come back. He’s on a cold streak. But Fitzpatrick is on pace to shatter the team’s record for most tackles by a defensive back this season. That will happen when he plays all over the field and, even more importantly, down in the box like he has this year. It’s been a far more physical season for Fitzpatrick in this new role. It’s a vastly different one than any other time in Pittsburgh. His moldability makes him a particular player, but you must embrace the double-edged sword.
Take Aaron Donald Out
The Steelers found a way to eliminate Aaron Donald from their gameplan. No, it was not easy. Donald is one of the best in the game and still destroyed plays and got to Kenny Pickett for several pressures. But the team could run away from Donald on the left side of the play. How did they take away Donald? In pass protection, he would sometimes be doubled or triple-teamed. But in the run game, Najee Harris said they had a system where Pickett would come to the line, see the front, and then signal if the run would go right or left.
That’s a fun little nugget from Harris. It’s good game planning from the Steelers, who had to minimize Donald’s impact to win the game. But he still got his due, but not nearly enough to wreck the game as much as he could. That’s only a massive positive for the Steelers, and their plan to take Donald out of the game was bright.
Red Zone Success
Before Sunday’s win, I’m not sure the Steelers remembered what the red zone was. No, seriously. Pittsburgh stunk when they got there, but they ran the fewest plays in the red area per game in the NFL at just 1.4 plays per game. So, naturally, the team found the end zone not once but thrice. And they found paydirt on each of those drives. The first was not their doing, but T.J. Watt on an interception. Then, on two straight drives, they would reach there.
Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris would each notch touchdowns. And against a team like the Rams with Sean McVay, it matters a lot to turn those scores into sevens. Threes are how you lose against guys like Matthew Stafford. Pittsburgh executed that part of their game plan, and Mike Tomlin knew it.
“I’m not partaking in that negative narrative that you outlined in the beginning of that question,” Tomlin said. “Red zone execution is significant. It’s good to run the ball into the end zone. I like the energy that they displayed. When you’re playing good people like Coach McVay and Matthew Stafford, field goals will get you beat and we understand that.”
Kwon Balling Out
Kwon Alexander is one of the better inside linebackers to play for the Steelers in recent years. This inside linebacker room feels like one that will round into shape as perhaps the best the team has had in a long time. But Alexander is already there as a unique player in that regard. He’s a standout coverage linebacker. Since Ryan Shazier got injured, how many of those have they had? I’d say zero. This team has struggled to find a coverage linebacker at any point in this season, and yet, at this point, Alexander is now playing at a high level.
He has the veteran instincts after being in the league for as long as he has, but Alexander is excelling with his athleticism, too. Alexander is the perfect player for this type of defense, where they have a rotational role at inside linebacker and cater to his strengths because those strengths are shining extremely bright.