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After a cataclysmic Week 1, where do the Steelers go from here?

Boy, things can change in the blink of an eye.

Following an offseason of optimism and a near-unblemished preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers were hit by reality in the form of a ton of bricks — wearing scarlet and gold. The San Francisco 49ers, despite being one-point favorites, entered Acrisure Stadium and smothered the Steelers with a 30-7 dismantling.

There are a myriad of ways to express how lopsided the outcome was, and most fans (myself included) would like to try to forget about a putrid 60 minutes of football as best as possible. Here are a few key stats: San Francisco led for the entirety of the contest; the 49ers posted 188 rushing yards on 5.5 yards per carry; and the explosive play differential was 12-to-4 in favor of the visitors. Yikes.

In the span of three hours, those around the NFL went from wondering Could the Steelers be a dark horse AFC contender to Will Pittsburgh even finish .500?

Some of those concerns are quite legitimate. Matt Canada’s offense, which has been one of the least productive units in the league for the last three years, sputtered yet again. Even more worrying was the play of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett, who seemed to revert from his improved self — making unwise decisions, missing open receivers and displaying iffy pocket movement. The team’s defense was virtually lifeless aside from three sacks/six pressures from T.J. Watt, consistently missing tackles, taking bad angles and leaving receivers open (see: Brandon Aiyuk).

Maybe most worrisome is the team’s health exiting Week One. Star defensive lineman and vocal, spirited leader Cam Heyward suffered a groin injury that will likely knock him out until past the team’s bye week. Stud receiver Diontae Johnson was ailed by a hamstring injury that will presumably sideline him for the next few games.

The odds are quickly becoming stacked against Mike Tomlin’s team, one which was projected to compete for a playoff spot in a loaded AFC and make legitimate improvements. While an extra week of preparation will help, opposing a Cleveland Browns team fresh off a 24-3 win against division favorite Cincinnati is daunting.

If the Steelers are to turn things around — even as soon as Monday in primetime — the team has to remember that its terrible showing happened in only its first game of the year. Week One rust and incoherence can be a real thing, with the first week’s outcomes sometimes making no sense. Just last year, the Bears took down the 49ers; that victory proved to be one of the Bears’ three on the year, while the 49ers wound up 13-4 en route to an NFC Championship game appearance.

Fundamentally, it’s hard to glean a ton from Week One around the entire NFL. At best, what we learned is that the Steelers aren’t on the 49ers’ level, but that wasn’t exactly a shocker. Tomlin must disseminate to his team that it still has plenty of ability and time to prove its talent for the rest of 2023, and to make Week One a blip on the radar.

The element of simply flushing a drubbing is probably the easiest part of getting ready for Week Two and beyond. What will be tougher is to improve coordination on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, the onus is on Pickett to play significantly better with his accuracy, field reading and decision-making. He’s not the only one to blame, of course, but he can’t afford many more games like Sunday if the Steelers want to accomplish their season goals. Canada, too, needs to better utilize the middle of the field, create conflict and build upon concepts — things he’s struggled with rather regularly as Pittsburgh’s OC, but which he began to do better with in the second half of 2022.

For Teryl Austin’s defense, generating consistent pressure from someone else besides Watt will be key; overall, it wasn’t a particularly strong day for a good front four against a mediocre offensive line. Further, the team’s linebackers need to stay more sound in their intermediate drops when in zone; having more calls with Minkah Fitzpatrick playing as a rover or in the box could help mitigate that.

While the injuries to Johnson and Heyward are very significant — and render the Steelers a much worse team than before — they’ll need to proceed as best as possible. Calvin Austin III and Allen Robinson must become valuable pass-catchers for Pickett. On the defensive line, Larry Ogunjobi, DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Keeanu Benton and Montravious Adams must improve in block-shedding and holding their ground.

It can be easy to hit the panic button after how the Steelers played in Week One, getting embarrassed on their home turf. At the same time, this team can still very easily regroup and compete for a playoff spot, if not the AFC North, if it realizes its mistakes and relies on its healthy talent against Cleveland.


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