The Steelers’ loss to the Houston Texans continues to crop up worrying signs across the Pittsburgh roster. When I tasked myself with coming to try and decide the takeaways from this game, it was hard to narrow it down to just a few. The problem is everything. But some worrying trends underlay these issues. Two games might be a pattern, but four is a trend. We know enough about the Steelers to find out who they are now. And something has to change. But apart from that extensive macro overview, here are some micro observations causing Pittsburgh to stumble.
The Biggest Problem on Offense
The Steelers have a multilayered issue on offense. Matt Canada, Kenny Pickett, offensive line, and injuries combine to make a nasty combination of hits. But when you get suboptimal offensive line play, bad quarterback play, and bad coaching, the Steelers offense is what you get. Pickett ranks last in the NFL in success rate on passing plays this year. He’s 34 out of 34. It could be easy to say he’s the issue, but it’s hard for me to embrace that.
While he’s not the whole problem, I have a hard time not saying the most significant problem on offense is Canada. Why? This offense is not devoid of talent. That struggling offensive line is playing like a bottom-five unit in football. Talent-wise, they’re not that. Canada is not putting its players in positions to succeed. It’s as simple as that. In the run game, his condensed sets invite players into the box, which they jet into gaps. He fails to build off his previous plays and catch defenses off guard. The scheme lacks a dynamic passing game, with little concepts in the actual playbook.
A lot of players are playing below the line right now. Isaac Seumalo did not forget how to play football. Pickett’s stunning regression lands at his feet in some regards, but Canada has done little to help him. When teams scout the Steelers, they fail to anticipate the responses from opponents and get ahead of the curve. It’s like self-scouting of their tendencies does not exist. The issues in the run game are about 75 percent scheme-related.
Something has to change. Mike Tomlin promised change following this game. The chances are that’s just lip service. If he’s serious about it, watch this main issue on offense. Something has to give, or you are doing the same things repeatedly, running the tires in the mud.
On defense, the run defense is a huge issue. But I think it’s less of an issue than the secondary. At least the run defense has flashes of working, and it feels like there is patchwork to make do with there. But it’s a severe issue. However, I am not sure how to fix the secondary woes. Pittsburgh has let top receivers go off in all four games they have played. Nico Collins had a career day against the Steelers, and every top receiver seems to be having a considerable day regardless of scheme.
Top WRs vs the Steelers this year:
Week 1: Brandon Aiyuk 8 rec. 129 yds, 2 TD
Week 2: Amari Cooper 7 rec. 90 yds
Week 3: Davante Adams 13 rec. 172 yds, 2 TD
Week 4: Nico Collins 6 rec. 116 yds, TD
It's a clear pattern.
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 1, 2023
If Tomlin talks about changes, this might be the area to do it. Move Minkah Fitzpatrick to his free safety role full-time. Start playing Joey Porter Jr. outside of sub-packages. Get Desmond King ready to go. The Steelers were torched through the air on Sunday, and their cornerbacks were a massive part of their run defense struggles when the Texans ran outside the edge rushers. The secondary is a place that needs serious contemplation from Tomlin moving forward. Whatever they are doing is not working.
Time to Embrace Youth
This is the time to embrace the youth now. Broderick Jones came in due to injury; Porter Jr. is starting to play more. Keeanu Benton has impressed in his snaps. Darnell Washington will get more playing time with Pat Freiermuth injured. Nick Herbig has flashes of his potential. There’s not much reason to keep trotting out these veterans in fear of big plays occurring or the ground falling out. Much of that has already happened with those veterans.
Rookies are volatile, and that’s fine. It’s evident to everyone that those rookies will struggle a bit. But the team will be better off for their experience later in and into future seasons. The young kids need to start playing. They are hungry and show fights out there. Let’s see what they have in a more significant role. The time for training wheels is depreciating quickly.
There’s a Semblance of a Running Game
My last and only semi-positive takeaway is that the Steelers have a running game. They found their way in the second half and started to get moving but could not turn those opportunities into points. That makes the fourth-down play call that ended with Kenny Pickett down on the ground and in a heap that much more annoying. But Pittsburgh has a blueprint to work with if they follow the breadcrumbs. But it’s hard to trust Canada to follow that trail when the unit blatantly ignored everything that worked against Las Vegas.
The Steelers need to get their guards and linemen on the move. Pull them, get them into space, and start working on that action. Moreover, they run out of spread looks. The Steelers must have the most negative runs out of multiple tight ends and condensed looks. It’s a key. They don’t pass much ball outside of play action in those looks, and the team shoots the gaps. But if they follow those spread looks with some pulling action, this unit could run the ball. They certainly have the running backs to do it.
If Canada and his staff return to the film room this week and don’t embrace that unit’s identity, which runs mostly just inside zone, split zone, and duo at this point, they deserve to continue to see putrid returns from the offense at large. The blueprint for a rushing attack isn’t far off. The offensive coordinator must navigate them there, but that could be a significant challenge.
It wasn’t the longest gap between NFL games, but Steelers punter Brad Wing sure didn’t want to wait any longer. The 32-year-old spent 3,199 days in between NFL games while taking time away to get straight the substance abuse issues that cost him his first go-around in the league.
Wing said he felt like he had to warm up to the game a little, but by the end of things, he was feeling about normal.
He led the XFL with a 47.6 per punt average this spring, and was one of the few bright spots for the Steelers on Sunday, averaging 47.6 yards again, with one kick downed inside the 20 and another that should have been.
Wing called the moment “bittersweet,” with his return to the NFL coming amid the Steelers struggling as a team against a Texans team they should have handled.
Kendrick Green got the last laugh against his former team, with the Texans guard playing a solid game against the Steelers.
After spending two seasons and a third offseason with the Steelers, Green was obviously very familiar with what the Steelers like to do defensively. But multiple members of the Steelers’ defensive line said they weren’t concerned about him having too much knowledge about their operations and said they didn’t do anything specific to try to throw him off.