Photo courtesy of NFL.com.
After Thursday night’s 20-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 5-3 and temporarily alone in 2nd place in the AFC North. The path the Steelers took to their 5-3 start has not been pretty but in the immortal words of legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says it is.”
They say numbers don’t lie, but in the Steelers’ case, there is no way they should be 5-3. Pittsburgh has scored 133 points and given up 163. Draft 412 takes a closer look at the Steelers’ defensive and offensive team rankings at the midway point of the season. Some of these statistics will leave observers scratching their heads:
Steelers’ Team Ranks
Yards per game- 377.3 (30th)
Pass Yards per game- 244.1 (24th)
Rush Yards per game- 133.1 (27th)
Points Allowed per game- 20.4 (16th)
Yards per game- 278.5 (28th)
Passing per game- 188 (25th)
Rushing per game- 90.5 (24th)
Points per game- 16.6 (29th)
With numbers like this, the team might be lucky to be at a 3-5 mark and not at 5-3. If the team is going to make a true playoff run, Draft 412 believes the Steelers will need to address three things:
The Steelers’ offense has been a train wreck since the opening snap of the season and oft-criticized Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada has been calling a very vanilla game. Up until their performance against the Titans, the offensive line has not given Kenny Pickett the time he needs to throw and when Pickett has had some time, he has missed on open targets from time to time. The Steelers lead the league in “3 and outs” which will be accretive over the long haul to a defense that has to be on the field more than most.
This past Thursday, however, Broderick Jones proved that he should be starting at either tackle position (and eventually will be the Steelers’ starting left tackle). He played well against the Titans, making blocks on the second level in the run game and also doing a great job of sealing off the edge. This should help with not only protection for Pickett but in the run game as the season progresses.
But will pulling Canada out of the booth and placing him on the field help?
The offense showed signs of better execution than they have all season but it’s a small sample size and let’s face it—the Steelers were playing the Titans, not the Chiefs, Bengals or Bills. For this team to get to the playoffs, they will need Kenny Pickett to play consistently for 60 minutes. His six 4th quarter comebacks in his short career are remarkable, but the team must do a better job of scoring in the first half.
Starting Running Back Najee Harris is also showing signs of life after a lackluster first half of the season. His game is north and south, and with some improved line play in front of him, there is hope for an emergent second half of the year. But Harris still needs to break arm tackles more often than he does, especially with his large frame. So far, he seems to struggle to pass by the first contact he encounters. Getting his counterpart Jaylen Warren more involved should help take some pressure off of Harris, but execution of the offense at large comes through Canada to Pickett.
The talent is there. Wide Receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson have the ability to be stars. Getting Tight End Pat Freiermuth off of IR in the next couple of weeks should help out this offense as well.
Bend But Don’t Break Defense
As mentioned above, the Steelers’ defense spends too much time on the field. This problem is derivative of the team’s offensive ineptitude and less an indictment on the defense.
However, the run defense is the biggest disappointment so far in 2023, still giving up big chunk plays that off season acquisitions were meant to eliminate. The additions of Inside Linebackers Cole Holcombe, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander provided an entire position overhaul as GM Omar Khan invested heavily in improving the position. But on the season, they are still 27th in rush defense and have already given up 100 yard games to Christian McCaffrey and Jerome Ford. The unit is allowing 4.4 yards per carry on the year.
The secondary featured many new faces and predictably has suffered through some growing pains. The addition of 2nd round draft pick Joey Porter Jr., and veteran stalwart Patrick Peterson looked good on paper but on the field, the results have been mixed. The defensive backfield has fallen victim to several key mix ups in communication and has been called on too many pass interference penalties.
Corner Levi Wallace’s play has regressed and this past game against the Titans, the Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin removed the training wheels from Porter Jr., allowing him to match up against Tennessee’s best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins most of the night.
Yes, there are obvious growing pains, but Porter Jr. gives the Steelers’ defense their best chance of winning.
Overall, the defensive unit has done a great job of bending but not breaking, letting teams drive down into the redzone but holding them to field goals or forcing turnovers, some of which have been true splash plays. But that is not a recipe for long term success for a playoff contender.
The Steelers had 10 penalties for 80 yards on Thursday night against the Titans, and the last one, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Broderick Jones, could have cost them the game. Every team is going to get holding calls and illegal procedures, but it is the unnecessary personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that will derail this team against greater opponents.
But it’s just not one game. In the Los Angeles Rams game, wide receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson both got flagged for taunting after making separate first down catches and Steelers rookie CB Joey Porter Jr. has fallen victim to the same on the other side of the ball. The Steelers have lacked discipline over the past several seasons and for them to have any chance at a playoff run and not just another one-and-done appearance, they need to reel in their egos and just play ball. When you are struggling to manufacture yards and points, the last thing you need is unnecessary 15 yard penalties.