Random Steelers Observations: Tennessee Titans Edition
Does winning really cure all ills, as the old saying suggests? I keep hearing that familiar refrain from my friends and colleagues, and from the majority of Steelers Nation. Winning is definitely better than the alternative obviously, but it doesn’t fix everything.
Think back to the 11-0 start of 2020. What a strange season that was, occurring smack dab in the middle of the pandemic. No fans allowed in the stands. No tailgating, zero atmosphere or home field advantage. Truthfully, I was just thankful that we had Steelers football as a needed distraction.
The Steelers started the season in perfect fashion, and plenty of our community members were talking Super Bowl possibilities. However, I was skeptical. I didn’t want to be, but I was trying to be realistic.
The team had plenty of holes, and no depth to speak of. The offensive line was aging and deteriorating before our very eyes. After the elation of the first half of the season, that’s when my concerns really amplified. The Steelers were still winning, but they were definitely winning ugly. Their numerous warts started to show, and their opponents quickly recognized ways to exploit them.
My colleagues and I used to do quarterly review articles, where we graded the team’s performance for each quarter of the season. My grades were consistently lower than my peers, especially after midseason, for one huge reason. Not only were the Steelers not showing improvement, they had seemingly flatlined. Maybe peaked is a better word, and far too soon. But it got worse real fast, and the Steelers regressed over the second half of the season, and stumbled into the playoffs.
My concerns were warranted. True championship teams show continuous growth and improvement throughout the season, and are hopefully peaking around the time the playoffs roll around. Clicking on all cylinders when it matters most. Think back to the 2005 Steelers for a perfect example of a roster peaking at the right time.
Great news everyone! The 2023 Steelers are in absolutely no danger of peaking too soon. The Steelers are winning, currently sitting at 5-3, which actually feels hard to believe. They are the poster child for winning ugly. A quick statistical review makes their current record appear almost miraculous. Smoke and mirrors, baby. Tomlin is pulling rabbits out of his hat this year.
In conclusion, winning doesn’t cure everything, as the Steelers have numerous issues to address, but hopefully the Steelers can keep winning more than they lose as they continue to strive for sustainable improvement. As the Steelers continue to work towards true contender status, sustainable improvement is more important than random victories.
Now it’s time for some more of my random thoughts and observations on the Steelers.
- I loved the fact that the Steelers had Matt Canada on the sidelines for the first time in his career, particularly for the accountability factor. No possible disconnect between coach and players. You feel every emotional ebb and flow of the game on the sidelines. Canada had to look his players in the eyes after every series, and the players had to do the same when they failed to execute. It might seem like a small detail, but it really isn’t.
- Speaking of failed execution, Kenny Pickett struggled with his accuracy all night against the Titans, but particularly in the first half. We already knew coming into the contest that the painful rib injury would impact his throwing motion most of all, thus effecting his accuracy and velocity. Pickett gutted out a courageous performance, when the Steelers needed it the most. I have little doubt that the Steelers would have lost that game with Mitch Trubisky at the helm. Pickett protected the ball, and made the big throws in the big moments. His pocket presence and progressions continue to improve, which was particularly impressive when dealing with a painful injury.
- George Pickens might not realize it, but he is at an important crossroad in his development. He is now priority #1 for opposing defenses, with a huge target on his back. Some of this Pickens brought on himself, with his non-stop trash talking and immaturity. However, there’s no doubt that Pickens is the Steelers most explosive offensive weapon. Now is the time to focus more than ever, and work even harder. Sadly, that hasn’t happened yet. Pickens has been shutdown over the past couple games. Multiple individuals at the games have commented on less than full speed routes and half efforts. Two observations against the Titans in particular concern me; his lack of effort to get his second foot down on what should have been an easy touchdown, and his childish pouting display on the sidelines after Diontae Johnson’s huge touchdown. It’s time to grow up and reach that enormous potential, young man.
- My thoughts and prayers go out for Cole Holcomb, after his devastating knee injury. He was developing into one of the Steelers most reliable defenders, and was performing better than any inside linebacker since Ryan Shazier. Holcomb’s athleticism, intensity, and communication will be gravely missed. Thankfully the Steelers signed Kwon Alexander when they did. Alexander had proven to be an ideal compliment to Holcomb, but now he has to fill that role of lead guy. I believe he is definitely up to the task. Elandon Roberts has been as advertised. An extremely physical run stopper. His intensity and leadership should not be overlooked. Mark Robinson needs to step up to the challenge before him, and become a reliable member of the rotation. This is the perfect example of why I always want the youngsters to get a few snaps in the rotation each game. Give them low pressure opportunities before you have to depend on them in high pressure situations after inevitable injuries happen. It’s too late now, but thankfully I believe Robinson is more than ready.
- Speaking of giving the youngsters opportunities, I am encouraged by the Steelers recent willingness to utilize their young talent, and the performances produced by said talents. There should be no doubt that Broderick Jones has to remain a starter moving forward, even if I believe his greatest value is protecting Kenny Pickett’s blindside. Joey Porter Jr is not only the full-time starter, but he is already the Steelers best shutdown corner since Ike Taylor, and potentially the best since Rod Woodson. Keannu Benton is a man child, and the only reason he doesn’t have 4 or 5 sacks this season is because he can’t quite beat Watt and Highsmith to the QB. Kid needs more playing time, at the expense of Montravius Adams. So does Nick Herbig, who has produce in extremely limited minutes. Darnell Washington finally caught another pass against the Titans, for a first down actually. Baby steps, but progress none the less.
- Lastly, I must give credit where credit is due. Teryl Austin displayed some defensive creativity against the Titans. He moved both Watt and Highsmith around the formations, and pressed the LOS with his off ball linebackers pre-snap, alternating between bringing pressure and dropping into coverage post snap. Austin even allowed Joey Porter Jr to shadow the Titans best receiver DeAndre Hopkins around the field on occasion, with great results I might add. I was actually quite surprised, and beyond pleased, that the Steelers gave talented rookie CB Darius Rush some playing time. Maybe there was a reason that the Steelers refused to pay the asking price for another NFL caliber CB at the trade deadline. Maybe Austin and company felt they already have that player on the roster in Darius Rush. If that proves to be the case, I feel much better about the Steelers inactivity at the deadline. Give the kid regular opportunities, especially in press coverage, to show what he can do. Then you can utilize Patrick Peterson as intended, as a discount Cam Sutton. Which should allow you to use Levi Wallace in sub-packages, which is optimal. There is realistic hope on the horizon for the Steelers secondary, but Rush’s rapidly development is an integral part of any hope for improvement. Truthfully, at the midway point of the season, there is still time for the Steelers to reach their peak, and not a moment too soon.