CINCINNATI — The Steelers are back in the win column after an odd win over the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-10. The team’s vibes coming out of it are better after firing Matt Canada and seeing the offense put out a solid performance despite the points not following it. But what can be taken away from the game?
The vibes around this team are..different. You can see it for yourself on social media. Videos are back, whether that was Instagram Lives or just videos. Bankroll Fresh’s ‘Take Over Your Trap’ blared in the locker room postgame. Interviews seemed more jubilant. Sometimes, that is all needed for a team like the Steelers to feel a spark. Nothing was all that drastically different, but it never needed to be, either.
The Steelers always had talent on offense. They found that out on Sunday. Pat Freiermuth came alive. Others shined in a new light and the role they were given. Kenny Pickett played one of his best games of the season, if not the best. Maybe the best thing? The Steelers found balance on offense. They split runs and pass right down the middle at 33. They feel like they found their nirvana there.
“This feels like the first time we found balance,” center Mason Cole said. “I think we felt balanced in the run an passing game. In the past it just felt a little different. We found a good balance, a good rhythm.”
With a defense playing well, the team has some goodwill around it. No, the team is not even perfect. The turnaround is nowhere near complete, and they were still a profoundly flawed team. But the morale is better. Sometimes, a team needs a boost when the locker room is down. That happened.
The Steelers Scouting Team Takes Two
Dave Pettit and Sheldon White are two names that most Steelers fans might not know. They work with Andy Weidl and Omar Khan to scout the team, find guys to fill their weaknesses, and pump the iron on pro film rather than college tape. It’s an important job when the times get tough, like, say, three safeties get injured and two starting linebackers are lost for the season. When Pittsburgh lost Kwon Alexander and Cole Holcomb, things looked bleak. Then, when Minkah Fitzpatrick, Keanu Neal, and Elijah Riley were injured, it got murky. Somehow, Pittsburgh has come out of that fine.
Why? Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson. Those two have come on strong in their two starts, and in those games, the Steelers have allowed a combined 23 points, averaging 11.5 points per game against the Bengals and Browns. Walker’s sideline-to-sideline speed stands out opposite of the solid Elandon Roberts. His coverage skills have flashed, too.
For Thompson, he has turned into a real playmaker. He brings athleticism to their secondary, but more than that, Thompson’s instincts and ball-hawking capabilities have flashed, too. Thompson made the read to fool Jake Browning into an interception on a critical second-half drive.
“Nah, it wasn’t anything I saw — it was just playing football and being where I’m supposed to be on my drop, and he just happened to throw it to me. I dropped one last week, so this made up for it,” Thompson said.
The Steelers inserted Thompson into the lineup with plenty of confidence in him. Thompson joined the Steelers in training camp after several injuries at the safety position and got plenty of playing time throughout camp and the preseason. His playmaking ability jumped out to the coaching staff in the preseason after he caught an interception against the Buccaneers. That and his relentless work ethic were crucial reasons for keeping him around on the practice squad. But now, as a starter, he is shining, too.
“One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. Efforts like Trent’s today make that real,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’re really appreciative of it. I think it’s what team is about, particularly over the course of the journey that is the season. There’s going to be opportunities for people to ascend and change the perceptions of who they are professionally. This guy has been excited about his opportunity and we’re excited for him. He delivered.”
Let’s Not Forget about Steelers RB Najee Harris
Jaylen Warren has been exceptional. He was one of the NFL’s brightest young stars last month. But let’s keep it real for this game — he had an off-game. Warren did not force many tackles and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. His efficiency was okay, but he averaged -6 rushing yards over expectation. Meanwhile, Najee Harris ended up on the flipside. His hard running style cracked the code for Pittsburgh’s rushing offense, as the Bengals could not stop him en route to a 99-yard performance.
“He’s our down-in and down-out ball-toter,” Tomlin said. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit because of the nature of which he plays and the style we play. But that attrition component is significant and we’re always appreciative of his efforts.”
Some of that was run blocking, as Harris averaged over four yards per carry before being touched, the highest mark of his career. But his 33 rushing yards over expectation showcases how hard running made a difference in finding hidden yardage for this team. He was the better back for this game.
“He was awesome. He was running downhill, being able to watch from a bird’s eye — view from behind — see how he was hitting the holes,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “He was hitting the holes hard. And it was great to have Najee and Jay (Jaylen Warren) doing their thing like they usually do. So, huge positive for 22 (Najee Harris) and our offense as a whole, putting up the yards that we put up today.”
The main point I want to make? Harris is a good player. It does not have to be either or, and some gameplans, like the soft two-high shells the Bengals gave the Steelers, are tailored to Harris’ gameplan. Their safeties were bad tackles tailored to him in space, too. Harris had his A-game on Sunday. It’s fine to play both. Pittsburgh is better for it, and most teams would love Harris on their team.
Joey Porter Jr. is in the DROY Conversation
Joey Porter Jr., yet again, stood on his head against a great receiver in Ja’Marr Chase and took shadowing responsibility. He did his job well. Chase flexed on him after a catch down the sideline, but Porter was in great coverage. Porter knows they will see each other again; it’s a rivalry in the making. Most of Chase’s production came on two tipped passes that Porter could not do anything about. While on Chase, Porter allowed 36 yards on two receptions. It’s another great day for him, but he could not believe those tipped passes happened.
“Yeah, how did he catch those? He’s catching tipped passes I don’t even think wide receivers would go for. It was cool, though. It was good,” Porter said.
That continues a trend where Porter has made play after play. He is proving to be a find and a half for Khan and the scouting staff. The Defensive Rookie of the Year Award will likely go to Jalen Carter. He deserves it. But Porter has to be in the conversation along with Carter and Devon Witherspoon of the Seahawks. He has played that well. Porter is still grabby sometimes, but his footwork and hand usage are coming a long way. That’s a big-time hit for Pittsburgh.
Spotty Special Teams
The Steelers’ special teams are not going well the last few weeks. Punting has sometimes been an issue, but Pressley Harvin III was not the issue this week. No, it was the punt coverage. Two times, Pittsburgh could have downed it inside the five-yard line and instead turned it into touchbacks with guys in position. That’s not good special teams, and it does affect how things go.
But punt return, now potentially without Calvin Austin III, also got called for two penalties. On those times, Pittsburgh would have taken over near the 50-yard line and 40-yard line, respectively. That’s a significant swing in field position. It matters, especially with how Pittsburgh tries to win the games.
Kick return is a net zero. But kick coverage has taken a nosedive, too. On a squib kick, running back Trayveon Williams burst up field to the 47-yard line. The only above-average unit right now is the kicking unit, where Chris Boswell is immaculate. But Tomlin was not very happy with his group, either.
“Field position was a component of the first half,” Tomlin said. “We gave up a kickoff return to midfield, we had two touchbacks on punt circumstances when we had the chance to put them on a long field. We had some penalties in the punt return game. The field positioning component made it more uncomfortable than it should have been.”
Even when talking about Thompson’s interception, who he praised, he thought to bring up the special teams play. Tomlin seemed particularly irked by the fact they so consistently fell short in the field position component.
“Sequencing like that, with complementary football is really important,” Tomlin said. That’s why I was upset about the field positioning component of special teams in the first half. We had a punt return to midfield and had a penalty that lost us 20-plus yards. We had a couple of touchbacks (that) we had a chance to down inside the five or 10-yard line. That field positioning component in special teams in the first half really minimized the complementary component we’re discussing.”
It’s not hard to see why he was angry, either. The special teams have to be better, or Pittsburgh could find themselves on the losing end of one of these games.
Controlling the game
Several times this year, the Steelers have been out-gained by an opponent, sometimes significantly, only to come through late and steal a win.
This game looked like it was shaping up to be the opposite, as the Steelers held the advantage in yards and time of possession throughout, but trailed deep into the third quarter.
T.J. Watt isn’t giving away any of those comeback wins, but to hear him say it, he’s much happier being on the bench while the offense salts the ball away, no matter the score.
“Rest,” Watt said when asked for the key to the second-half play. “I think we took 21, 22 snaps in the first half as a defense. That’s huge. The offense was controlling the time of possession. Defense, we were getting off the field. Obviously, I didn’t like that early drive that ended in a score. Being able to smash the run helps a lot, trying to get them one-dimensional. We spent a lot of time on the bench today and that was awesome as a defense.”
The Steelers offense possessed the ball for 33:17, which is a season high and the most in over a calendar year. They held the ball for 38:56 in an easy win over the New Orleans Saints last Nov. 13.