PITTSBURGH — The Steelers won 23-19 over the Green Bay Packers at home in anything but routine fashion. It continued the team’s string of games where they maddeningly kept the game close but somehow pulled it out in the end. What can be taken away from this win?
Run Game Cooking
The Steelers rushing attack is finding its zone. What happened between the bye week and now, though? Even though it’s clear that the team believes they have their identity as a smash mouth run team figured out, it all came in the slight adjustment made by the running backs and offensive line. Both Najee Harris and Broderick Jones said that the offensive line and running backs are now meeting with each other more frequently and going over what they like. It’s less about what the running backs like and more about what the offensive line wants now. And they seem to love outside zone and plays that involve pulling guards and tackles.
“I just feel like we’re learning a lot from each other,” Jones said. “You see what one guy likes and what we all like. It’s easier to get things going with each other. I think it’s helping us a lot.”
Pittsburgh’s changes in the run game can be slotted into four different things. But let’s just run them down. First, Jones came in for Chuks Okorafor. Second, Pittsburgh is using the athleticism of its offensive line to get out in space and lead block. I include Darnell Washington in that statement. He’s involved as much as anyone. Third, they are mainly running out of shotgun or stacked looks. Even if the box is more cluttered, those stacked looks give the receivers free releases in the pass game or more apparent avenues in the run game. Pittsburgh now has a legitimate play action under center passing game, and they use their guys effectively in motion in those looks. Lastly, they are using like bodies on like bodies. Tight ends are not down-blocking edge rushers; receivers are not blocking linebackers. That all comes together to combine for 371 rushing yards in two games.
“When we talk about the meetings and stuff, we talk about plays they like,” Harris said. “They like pulling, they do, so if they like to pull, we do too. If they like to run outside zone, we do too. They like it, so we like it. It just works.”
Welcome to Pittsburgh’s new-look run game. It’s working, and it’s sustainable.
Canada’s Sideline Impact
Don’t believe that Matt Canada has an impact from the sideline? He does. It’s not some otherworldly change, but the open communication between each position group and Canada works for these players. First, Canada talks to Kenny Pickett. Then, he makes his rounds to each group on the bench. They ask questions and offer suggestions, and the general workflow for feedback and play-calling is working. It seems like a worthwhile change. Even the emotion with Canada, who celebrates with his players now, is a net bonus.
“It’s cool having Canada on the sideline,” Harris said. “After I scored, he came over and hugged me. But really, he just goes around and we can offer suggestions. He tells us why we run certain plays and what looks we see. It’s all going really smooth.”
Warren and Harris seem to feed off Canada’s energy to the sideline.
“Just seeing him there, the energy, and us being there together instead of him being there in the box, it’s been great,” Warren said.
This is Canada’s new home because the players love it. I have yet to hear a negative word about Canada on the sideline. It just offers a different feel for the game, and, in general, it seems Canada and the players have a better feel for what each other is feeling following that move.
Balling Broderick Jones
Jones is adding a spark to this offensive line that was hard to envision. You have to understand how impressive what Jones is doing right now regarding him being a rookie. He flipped from his natural side in a short week and is now playing like a massive net positive for the team. The crazy thing? Jones is far from polished. He’s very raw. But his physical gifts stick out and raise his floor considerably.
“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable here,” Jones said. “We’re just out there, sticking to a plan.”
Everyone sees the energy that Jones brings to the table. But Mike Tomlin gave Jones some praise you do not hear often out of the head coach’s mouth. That’s atypical of what Tomlin does with rookies, but Jones has earned it. Not only will he likely start moving forward, he’s becoming an integral part of their plan by getting him out in space and pulling.
“You know, I think he’s been really good, and we’ve been really good” Tomlin said. “You can’t deny that.”
He doesn’t sustain blocks yet. His hand placement is all over the place, and his timing between his feet and hands is not there yet. But Jones is playing well despite that and learning while doing it. The Steelers have some extremely quality looks at Jones, and they should be excited for good reason.
Is it pretty good when, between extra point attempts and field goals, your kick is 28 of 29? Oh, and the one missed kick is a 60-yarder. If not for an offside call on Isaac Seumalo, Chris Boswell would be perfect. He had a down year last year after suffering a groin injury, but there is no reason to worry about him anymore. It’s hard to argue there has been a better kicker in football so far this season with how well he is playing.
“It’s automatic,” Tomlin said. “You know, I’ve been really blessed here in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve been here a long time and essentially have had three kickers, and so that continuity, man, that ability to deliver with a high level of consistency is — we don’t talk about it enough, but rest assured it’s appreciated.”
Pittsburgh’s offense has needed it. I don’t want to jinx the man, but if he keeps it up, this might finally be the year Boswell nabs that elusive All-Pro. He deserves it if he holds at this pace.
Pass Rush Goes Silent
It was intriguing that Pittsburgh’s pass rush did not show up on Sunday. Zach Tom handled T.J. Watt better than I thought he would. Alex Highsmith had a few pressures but nothing earth-shattering as the Packers chipped him and gave him extra attention. Cam Heyward is not 100 percent. The best player on the defensive line was arguably Keeanu Benton, who destroyed the Packers’ line’s interior. He’s putting together a particular rookie year. But what happened with the pass rush? Even late in the game, they did not get to Jordan Love. Watt admitted he was gassed at that point. But the explanation might lie in how the Packers worked on the edge and Pittsburgh’s lack of juice outside Benton.
But defensive coordinator Teryl Austin started to find an answer. He cranked up the heat and sent blitzes after Love. He rattled him because of how many people he sent. Keanu Neal, Elijah Riley, Elandon Roberts, and Patrick Peterson all blitzed at different points, and Love got hit on almost all the plays. But they could use better timing.
“I think we can get better on our blitzes and the timing,” Heyward said. “I think we can do a much better job on those things and the details.”
Today, it felt like they didn’t win. I have thoughts on what they could do to help that. Missing Montravius Adams, who has been sneakily productive in the pass rush opportunities he gets, hurt them. They have to rotate at edge rushers more in those weighty areas. Larry Ogunjobi needs to play a bit less. His tank runs hot and cold when he plays 50 snaps per game. If you reduced that by 15, he would be much more effective. Benton has to play more, too. The pass rush will be fine, but there are tweaks to get it to the level of potentially the best front in the NFL.
The Steelers have an opportunistic defense. But they do not have a consistent reason. That is holding the group back from reaching their ceiling, and Pittsburgh has yet to figure out what is happening in those areas. Some of it comes down to innate athleticism. Other times, it is communication with players who are out of sync and in the wrong spot. That is an easily fixable problem, but Pittsburgh losing Kwon Alexander, Cole Holcomb, and Minkah Fitzpatrick has forced Pittsburgh into those spots.
“I wouldn’t even just say the secondary, I would say we are all not on the same page right now,” safety Damontae Kazee said. “A lot of miscommunication, giving communication, a lot of people not receiving it and stuff. Man, we can just do a whole lot better. Just younger guys stepping up now is making it even more challenging but that’s what we live for.”
Elandon Roberts now has the green dot. But Pittsburgh’s third-down defense became a conglomeration of everything. The Packers went eight of 16 on third down with four explosive plays. And that does not count their touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs on the first drive. Pittsburgh has lots of work to do to keep a lid on it. That’s where the inside linebacker position is felt. The secondary’s athleticism is not improvable sans more playing time for Darius Rush. These communications breakdowns are, though.