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At Mid-season, Steelers’ Defense Shines But the Offense Leaves Much to be Desired

Last Thursday night at Acrisure Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense played tough, physical football, consistently stopping the Tennessee Titans offense. In the absence of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cole Holcomb (lost for the season with a knee injury), Cam Heyward’s return and dogged play by the rest of the defense kept the score close enough for the offense to mount another fourth quarter rally. While Steelers Nation has come to expect solid defense from the Black-and-gold, this performance was above and beyond the call. During the final quarter, the defense stymied the Titans on four drives, any one of which might have turned the tide against the Steelers.

As impressive as the defense has been, the offense continues to struggle at mid-season (including all games through Week 9), generating an average of only 16.6 points per game. Kenny Pickett currently ranks No. 26 statistically among NFL quarterbacks, behind former Steelers backup Josh Dobbs (No. 20), Green Bay’s Jordan Love and Jets QB Zach Wilson. The Steelers’ RBs also are far behind the league leaders in rushing yards, with Najee Harris ranking 26th with 382 yards while Jaylen Warren ranks 43rd with 263 yards. George Pickens, the Steelers’ leading receiver, currently ranks 27th in the league.

While some modest signs of improvement emerged in last week’s victory, the Black-and-gold offense still isn’t performing anywhere near the level necessary for a serious contender. This is particularly true because the AFC North has become the league’s toughest division. Considering that the Steelers have two matchups with the Bengals during the latter half of the season, plus one more game each with the Browns and Ravens, their performance in interdivisional games might determine whether they secure a playoff berth.

Given the persistent issues affecting the Steelers’ offense, it seems quite unlikely they could matchup with teams such as the Chiefs, Ravens or Bengals in must-win games. The key factor possibly altering this scenario would be if Kenny Pickett starts living up to the high expectations demonstrated when the Steelers made him their No. 1 draft pick in 2022. Currently, Steelers Nation continues to impatiently await the kind of breakout performance by Pickett which would affirm his potential to become one of the NFL’s leading quarterbacks. But if the Steelers offense continues sputtering during the latter half of this season, concerns about Pickett’s future no longer would seem premature. While we’ve definitely seen some positive indications, so far they’ve been too few and far between.

On the positive side of the ledger, the contemporary trend in the NFL to cultivate parity shows no signs of reversing. This gives a still-developing team like the Steelers a reasonable opportunity to become a contender provided they can build some momentum in their remaining games.

NFL statistics at the season’s midpoint bear out the fact that few teams are actually running away from the pack. For example, 17 teams have scored fewer points than they’ve given up (including the Steelers at -30 PF/PA). We might add the Green Bay Packers to this group of 17 because they’re only slightly above the line at +1 in PF/PA. Because Joe Burrow was injured for several weeks at the beginning of the season, the Bengals remain at -7 PF/PA despite sharing the Steelers’ 5-3 record. But with the Bengals currently looking quite strong amidst their 4-game winning streak, nobody expects their PF/PA numbers to remain in minus territory in the weeks ahead.

Additionally, only 15 NFL teams currently have records above .500 while 17 teams are at .500 or below (not including the Week 10 games). The Ravens currently are the NFL’s hottest team at +115 PF/PA, scoring nearly 13 points per game more than their opponents. Baltimore’s defense also has been playing better than that of any other NFL team, surrendering a bit less than 14 points per game. The Miami Dolphins currently have the league’s most productive offense, scoring 285 points or 31.66 points per game.

Largely thanks to the efforts of their tough, persistent defense, the Steelers have a realistic opportunity to make their move in November and December football. But to accomplish this feat, the Black-and-gold offense must step up to play its proper role. Reaching mid-season at 5-3, the Steelers have shown equal tendencies in their first eight games either to improve on last year’s record or sink entirely out of playoff contention.

This circumstance places the pressure squarely upon the shoulders of Pickett and his offense. The Steelers simply cannot continue to count on their defense to bail them out in close games. They must substantially improve their numbers both in rushing and passing during the second half of the season. The fact that a playoff berth certainly isn’t out of the question at this point despite their shortcomings ought to inspire some hope that the Steelers offense will finally stop sleepwalking through the current season.

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