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Random Steelers Observations: Week 5 Edition

There really is nothing quite like beating John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.

It goes beyond the fierce rivalry, or how important each contest always seems to be in the standings. What makes this particular rivalry so special is the mutual disdain and respect shared by the two combatants.

You can’t have one without the other. Hate and admiration. You don’t hate the individual, but you despise the uniform, and everything it stands for. There is no way around the situation. Each franchise is fully aware that they must go through the other to reach their desired destination. That knowledge allows the rivalry to flourish, even with all the roster upheaval in modern free agency.

The Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns want to be considered rivals, but they are missing all the key components. First, there must be sustained success. The Bengals have experienced some recently, but it takes more than a couple of seasons to be taken seriously. The Browns are not relevant in this discussion.

Secondly, the aforementioned respect factor. Neither franchise has proven to possess self respect, much less respect for their opponents. There’s is plenty of hatred within their fanbases, but respect is severely lacking.

Lastly, both franchises have lacked leadership at the top for decades. Zero culture, besides losing. All the way down to how they handle day to day operations. I give you DeShawn Watson’s guaranteed contract as Exhibit #1.

Speaking of leadership at the top, John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin have matched wits more than any head coaches of the modern era. That requires sustained success, loyalty, and stability. It might sound simple, but there really is no great secret to their success.

Without further ado, let’s get to some observations.

  • Here’s an interesting truth nugget: John Harbaugh’s questionable decision making is putting his job security in jeopardy. He has habitually proven overaggressive in recent seasons, especially against the Steelers, and to the detriment of his team’s efforts. A less tenured coach, without his track record of success, would have already found themselves unemployed. His record against Tomlin and the Steelers in recent seasons is not doing him any favors either.
  • Lamar Jackson saved Harbaugh’s bacon a few seasons back, when Harbaugh was hanging by a thread in Baltimore. Harbaugh went all in on Jackson, who was a truly unique offensive weapon. The move saved Harbaugh’s job, but now new questions must be answered. Jackson will continue to lose a fraction of his breathtaking athleticism each season, and he has become more injury prone also. The Ravens went all in on Jackson yet again this offseason, giving him the huge contract he was searching for. Now those big questions need answered. Can Jackson evolve as more of a pocket passer, as his mobility slowly eludes him? Can the Ravens win a Super Bowl with Jackson at the helm? Regardless of the answers, Harbaugh and Jackson are forever tied at the hip.
  • I always hate when the Steelers have an early bye week, but this one could prove beneficial. The Steelers appear to be positioned perfectly for another offensive revival post bye. The Steelers should be getting back multiple key offensive components after the bye in Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth, and James Daniels. Plus, third string RB and starting kick returner Anthony McFarland Jr is scheduled to return. It’s also the perfect time for the Steelers to air out their dirty laundry, and come back with a renewed focus and offensive identity. A post bye resurgence, similar to last season, would be optimal.
  • During last year’s bye week, the Steelers committed to improving their time of possession. That required limiting mistakes and penalties, staying ahead of the chains and in favorable down and distances, and converting on third downs. They definitely need a refresher course this bye week, but they must fully commit to utilizing the entire field offensively, particularly the middle. Canada’s avoidance of the middle of the field would be comical if it wasn’t so debilitating.
  • There are so many variables that factor into a player’s success. Scheme fit is a big one. Kevin Dotson wasn’t a good scheme fit for the Steelers. His preseason trade to the Rams should prove beneficial to all parties involved. I am starting to believe that Najee Harris has found himself in a similar situation. He doesn’t appear to be an ideal fit for the Steelers outside zone schemes. The Steelers offensive line is still struggling to gel, but I am starting to question if Harris will be the right fit if they ever do find their rhythm. There’s no doubt that Jaylen Warren’s burst benefits the Steelers offensive line, who are struggling to open and maintain running lanes.
  • Time to let everyone in on a little secret; the Steelers desperately need to trade for a NFL caliber cornerback before the deadline. Actually, the sooner the better. The Steelers have an elite pass rush, especially once Cameron Heyward returns from injury. But the Steelers pass rush can be neutralized by their soft zone coverages. Far too often, Watt and Highsmith make contact with the QB a split second after he has already released the ball for another easy completion. Pressures are good, but sacks are better. For this defense to be elite, the Steelers need another corner capable of press coverage to pair with rising star Joey Porter Jr. This would allow the aging but versatile Patrick Peterson to move around more frequently, and for Levi Wallace to be utilized more effectively in sub-packages. Under Kevin Colbert, I would have had no hope that a trade would be possible, much less probable. But in Khan we trust.
  • I have found myself quality of the crime of overestimating a player due to the total incompetence of their predecessor. I have always been a huge Mason Cole supporter. Especially after his functional performance in 2022. It had been awhile since the the Steelers were functional at the center position. Compared to Kendrick Green, Cole was Pro Bowl caliber. I fully expected Cole to come into training camp buff and ready to seize control of his first opportunity as an established starter. That hasn’t happened. Many of the Steelers transformed their physiques this offseason, but Cole remains the same. Maybe that’s just who he is, but he continues to struggle against elite size and strength. While I still believe that Cole can improve in conjunction with his linemates this season, it’s becoming more and more evident that the Steelers could benefit from an upgrade at the position.
  • I was concerned that my evaluation of the inside linebacker position could have been potentially tainted in a similar manner, but after further review, it has not. The Steelers totally revamped their depth chart at the position, and are reaping the benefits. Cole Holcomb appears more comfortable by the week, and his non-stop effort level is contagious. Elandon Roberts has provided a level of physicality that has been absent since Vince Williams patrolled the middle. Kwon Alexander has proven to be a shrewd signing by Omar Khan. His athleticism coming in was well documented, but I have been blown away by his intelligence and football IQ. It’s an impressive depth chart, with the talented young Mark Robinson waiting in the wings.
  • Finally, I must take a second to give props to the Bubble Gum King himself, Danny Smith. Smith has done a solid job with his units, in spite of some serious personnel turnover. He has been aided by the familiar faces of Killebrew, Boykin, and Pierre, but I must give credit where credit is due. Chris Boswell is striking the ball extremely clean thus far this season, after being slightly off throughout last year. Even Pressley Harvin lll appears to have risen to the challenges of a tumultuous offseason. Now if he could only stay healthy. Such is the life of a Steelers punter.

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