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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Takeaways: Canada Struggles, Where is JPJ?



Steelers CB Joey Porter Jr.
Steelers CB Joey Porter Jr. against the 49ers Sept. 10, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers suffered a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers, and it is Week 1, so take the result and showing with a grain of salt. But from Week 1, what sticks? There are a few things to take away from this game, and most are not good.

Matt Canada’s Blame Game

I noted in postgame that I would blame just about everyone on the Steelers, from the top down, for this loss. Matt Canada is included in that, and although the burden of this loss is not entirely on him, he had his hand in it. For one, the opening scripts of games repeatedly fall flat. That is across multiple quarterbacks and tracks back to his LSU and Maryland days. It’s not a new development. The first play call you have to question of the day is the pop pass to Calvin Austin on the second play of the game to the short side of the field. Why condense the field for Austin?

However, the call that stuck out from the game was on 4th and four late in the third quarter. Instead of running anyone to the sticks, the entire route concept ran the players to the back of the endzone, giving Kenny Pickett few options. Overall, Canada does not deserve to be the only person blamed, but when the offense comes out that flat, the offensive coordinator deserves some share of the blame.

Over his first 36 games with the team, the Steelers have had zero games over 400 yards with Canada at the helm. That’s not just bad; it’s horrific. The last time the team cracked the 400-yard mark was in their wild-card loss to the Cleveland Browns during the 2020 season.

The most concerning part? These passing charts from today, one of which is Kenny Pickett, and the second, Ben Roethlisberger from 2021, look virtually the same. There are too many patterns over the years, quarterbacks, and personnel changes to deny the obvious. Canada has a large hand in the offense’s problems.

The Team Has a Kick Returner

There is one positive from today. Anthony McFarland proved he is an outstanding kick returner. There was nothing to be optimistic about for much of the first half until McFarland ripped off a few excellent kickoff returns. He went on to make some nice grabs in critical moments, too, proving his receiving ability is a real asset. The Steelers do not need to worry about the kick returner spot. McFarland has that on lockdown, which is well deserved after Sunday’s showing.

Defenisve Line Depth Suspect?

In training camp, we discussed how the Steelers’ run defense came across as a big plus. But on Sunday, that never shone through. All of the depth guys had bad reps for the run game, and no one stepped up to make some big plays once Cam Heyward suffered a groin injury and had to exit the game. Larry Ogunjobi ended up being the guy with the most flashes while playing on essentially one good foot. If Heyward misses any time, this is a significant concern for the Steelers.

Keeanu Benton was the one player who showed the most flashes. That’s not all too surprising. Benton has great traits, and the mold is there for him to become a particular player. Pittsburgh got his highs and lows on Sunday, but the flashes gave them more production than anyone else after he was thrust into a challenging role.

Where’s JPJ?

The Steelers have some things to figure out in the secondary. Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace both struggled mightily in this game. When in the slot, Peterson looked like he was at home. Maybe that is where he needs to go more often, but the Steelers did some different things with all three safeties today instead of bringing out Joey Porter Jr. for most of the sub-packages.

According to Brooke Pryor of ESPN, Porter only played seven snaps the entire game. However, if the Steelers will play primarily man coverage, they need to have their best press-man coverage cornerback out there. The group, as it stands, lacks speed and has serious trouble with speedy receivers like Brandon Aiyuk. Maybe Porter will not help it that much, but his lack of a role in the first game is a puzzling trend.

Don’t Burn the House Down

If there is one thing to note about this game, the Steelers should not panic. As putrid as the performance was this week, this is Week 1. Everything in Week 1 needs some asterisk. The 49ers, the team that went to the NFC Championship last year, lost to the three-win Chicago Bears in Week 1 last year. Wacky stuff happens, even in games like this one. It does not mean that the Steelers will suddenly have a losing season and be out of contention. Najee Harris made that exact point.

We have 16 games left. We’re not blinking. We’re still here, and we’re still excited for this year.” Harris said.

It’s a fair point. The Steelers have much to work on, but it’s hard to say the team is what they are. In the opposite direction, the Steelers knocked off the Bengals and Bills in situations like this the past two years. Those did not tell anyone how good Pittsburgh or the teams they beat would be. So, at the very least, remember there are some question marks, but not everything is sticky.

Talent Level

The Steelers needed to view this game as a barometer for their requisite talent level. This whole offseason, I saw a group that is deep and has some obvious top stars, but did they have the all-around talent to match a group like the 49ers? I came away from this one thinking the answer was no. Pittsburgh’s group is deep, and they have some quality depth at different spots, but their team does need some upgrades across the roster.

Pittsburgh is more talented than a lot of teams in the NFL. But saying they were a top-five or even top-ten roster in the NFL always stretched the truth a bit. The group is one that I think will find its footing eventually, but right now, they will be outgunned in some matchups. They are not ready to compete with the league’s big dogs just yet.

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