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For the Steelers, Change Must Come After a Dismal 13-10 Defeat in Cleveland

“The critics are always right. The only way you shut them up is by winning.”
(Chuck Noll)

Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depressing 13-10 loss at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday afternoon, plenty of opinions were flying around on various game threads to explain the team’s miserable performance. Some blamed the Steelers defense for changing its approach on the Browns’ final drive to seal their win with a FG. Others blamed Matt Canada for spawning yet another stillborn game plan. Kenny Pickett — once again appearing to be on a different page than his receivers — also received a hearty and legitimate share of blame.

The dimensions of this debacle lent credence to theories both valid and outlandish. As former Steelers Coach Chuck Noll once observed, anyone slamming the Black-and-gold’s performance in Cleveland, regardless of their rationale, probably would find a receptive audience under these circumstances.

It’s a significant failure that the Steelers squandered their golden opportunity to capitalize on Cleveland’s quarterback situation and bolster their standing in the AFC North. But the failure of the Steelers offense to move the football or tally more than 10 points in four quarters of play raises the more-troubling question of where this team might be trending at a crucial stage of their season. By all appearances, the Steelers have devolved into a team which would have serious difficulty prevailing in any matchup regardless of their NFL opponent.

In the wake of a failure of this magnitude, one might expect the head coach to sharply criticize the overall effort while stressing the need to improve. But that’s not at all what we heard from Mike Tomlin during his post-game press conference. On the contrary, Tomlin seemed oblivious to the horrible showing of his offense — instead crediting the Browns’ defense for their lack of production. He made no reference to the obvious fact that Pickett’s pass protection was sketchy at best, nor to the number of Pickett’s passes that were off-target.

Despite Coach Tomlin’s efforts to put lipstick on this pig, anyone who watched the game realizes that the Browns’ defense, however talented they might be, were conducting a clinic for Pittsburgh’s future opponents on how to totally paralyze the Steelers offense. Only Jaylen Warren’s inspired running spared the Steelers from what otherwise might have ended in a 13-0 shutout for Cleveland.

Beyond Warren’s 129 yards rushing including a scintillating 74-yard TD run, the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense was abysmal. Pickett passed for only 106 yards for a mediocre 3.8-yard average and a QBR of 34.6. George Pickens, the Steelers’ leading receiver in the game, had only four catches for 38 yards. Recently activated TE Pat Freiermuth had only one catch for 7 yards, while Diontae Johnson had two catches for 16 yards. The offense converted only 3-of-14 third down situations.

Of particular concern was the fact that, despite not committing any turnovers and getting one Cleveland interception, the Steelers were unable to come home with a win. The turnover metric which previously had been their chief advantage wasn’t enough to turn the tide in Cleveland. Furthermore, in a game where the Steelers defense was expected to take advantage of rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, T.J. Watt had Pittsburgh’s lone sack.

When we recount the tale of the Steelers’ 2023 season, this defeat in Cleveland seems likely to appear as pivotal. This was a game which might have been won handily given only modest improvement in the offense we’ve been watching in recent weeks. But if anything, Pickett and company took a huge step backwards.

As things now stand, the Steelers have a totally ineffective passing game disrespected by every NFL defense. Pittsburgh has high-round draft picks at RB, WR and TE who are incapable of showcasing their capabilities under the direction of arguably the league’s worst OC. The Steelers’ highly-paid defense, due to some key injuries, no longer appears capable of compensating for the lack of offensive production. Furthermore, next week the Steelers will face another backup QB working with a better running game and receivers than Cleveland.

While Coach Tomlin might not be prepared to admit what seems obvious even to the casual fan, the 6-4 Pittsburgh Steelers currently have the look of a team in trouble. At this point, the major investment which the Steelers made in drafting Kenny Pickett — as well as in predicating other draft picks on his development — remains anything but a sure bet.

There’s a real danger that the Steelers will find themselves at the end of the current season without the certainty they need at the quarterback position. While this possibility is tempting to dismiss because of its ugly ramifications, Pickett still hasn’t played a single game which could accurately be described as a breakout performance. Additionally, some of the habits Kenny has developed along the way are similar to those of other young QBs in the past who failed to make the NFL grade.

As others have noted, strictly in terms of entertainment value, the Steelers have become a difficult team to watch. They show zero creativity on offense while their hard-pressed defense struggles mightily to compensate. As fans, we continue to await something definable as Steelers Football which occurs nowadays only rarely.

All indications suggest the Steelers need to make a comprehensive reassessment of their goals and whether they’ve got the personnel and staff to achieve them. This isn’t necessarily to suggest the kind of wholesale house-cleaning that many critics suggest. But Sunday’s mistake by the lake clearly indicates the Steelers have diverged from their path to success. To get back on track, the team probably needs to make some significant changes in the weeks and months ahead.


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