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The Steelers made one play on offense Monday night, and it was spectacular

The Pittsburgh Steelers escaped Acrisure Stadium Monday night with a 26-22 win over their division rivals, the Cleveland Browns, raising their record to 1-1 and avoiding their first 0-2 start since 2019.

I say “escaped” because the team relied on two defensive touchdowns to provide the majority of their scoring. The offense was punchless. Pittsburgh had nearly as many punts (7) as they did first downs (9) and gained just 255 total yards on 53 plays. That figure gets much worse if you subtract the one big play the offense made on the evening — a 71-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kenny Pickett to receiver George Pickens. Minus that connection, they totaled 184 yards on 52 plays for a sorry 3.5-yard average.

The culprits for their offensive woes were many. The line could not get a push against Cleveland’s defensive front, which stymied the rushing attack for much of the contest. Pittsburgh gained 55 yards on 21 carries, with 38 of those coming on consecutive runs by Najee Harris in the 3rd quarter. The other 19 carries netted 17 yards. The Steelers have now rushed for a total of 96 yards in their first two games, or an average of 48 per game. That’s a far cry from the 140+ they averaged over the final nine contests of 2022, during which the team went 7-2.

Pickett had his second straight shaky outing. He was off-target with some throws and made poor decisions on others. He nearly threw an interception on the opening play of the second half, when rolling to his right and finding no one open, he tossed a ball directly into the chest of Browns’ defender Rodney McLeod rather than chucking it out of bounds. McLeod seemed so surprised by the ball he promptly dropped it. Pickett was pressured for much of the night by an active Cleveland pass rush that rarely allowed him to get comfortable in the pocket. But for a second week in a row, his decision-making and his accuracy left a lot to be desired.

Then there was coordinator Matt Canada, whose play-calling drew the ire of Steeler Nation. The “Fire Canada!” chant you may have heard emanating through the stadium was not just in your head. It really happened. And it was loud.

I am not a Canada hater, predominantly because I’m a play-caller myself and I know how hard it is to do so in real football situations. But Canada has done little in his 2+ years as coordinator to show he can be effective at the NFL level. He continued his habit on Monday night of running gimmicky plays that failed to surprise the defense. Last week it was an inside reverse on a jet sweep to Calvin Austin on the second play of the game that was swallowed up by the 49ers. Monday night, it was another reverse to Austin, this one coming late in the 3rd quarter with the Steelers trailing by three and having just crossed midfield into Cleveland territory. The play lost two yards, put the Steelers in 3rd-and-long and they ultimately punted.

Canada also failed to get his tight ends involved in the game plan, with the trio of Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward and Darnell Washington receiving just one total target. On a night when Diontae Johnson was out of the lineup, that seemed like a mistake. He also called an ill-advised designed run for Pickett on 3rd-and-1 with 3:05 to play and the Steelers on the verge of being able to run out the clock with a 1st down. The play never had a chance. It lost three yards and the Steelers again punted.

The evening wasn’t a total disaster, though. The offense did make that one play, the 71-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Pickens midway through the 2nd quarter that gave them a 16-11 lead. If they were only going to make one play of consequence on the evening, they dialed up a good one. The overall execution was solid, and Pickett was spectacular.

On the play, Pittsburgh aligned in a 2×2 set with Freiermuth set as a tight end on the right side of the line and Pickens split wide of him. On the left side, Allen Robinson aligned in the slot with Austin outside. Freiermuth ran a drag route at linebacker depth while Robinson ran a speed out. Austin and Pickens worked a post/dagger concept with Austin taking the top off of the coverage and Pickens crossing the field underneath him. Pickett play-faked to Jaylen Warren, then looked left for either Robinson on the out or Austin to the post. Neither were open, so he worked back to Pickens. At the last second, with the rush closing in, he delivered a strike that hit Pickens in stride. The big receiver did the rest of the work from there, splitting the deep defenders and outrunning them to the end zone:

From this angle, you can see just how close this was to being a sack. When Pickett came off of his initial read, the pocket had begun to collapse. If you freeze the clip below at the :03 mark, you can see defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (94), all 6’3-325 pounds of him, bearing down on Pickett even before Pickens enters the frame. Pickett could have bailed out of the pocket to his right, where he likely would have scrambled for a yard or two. Or he could have turtled up and eaten the football. Instead, he stood tall, gave Pickens the extra second he needed to clear coverage, delivered the football and took a huge shot.

Tomlinson literally snatched Pickett off of his feet and twirled him to the turf as though he were a 3rd-grader. I’m not begging for a roughing the passer call here, because I think quarterbacks are overprotected and Tomlinson made a perfectly clean hit. But we’ve seen defenders get flagged for doing less. This was a big hit, and Pickett absorbed it to make a big play.

One play will not make Steelers fans feel better about the performance of the offense so far this season. Granted, the team has faced two top-notch defenses in San Francisco and Cleveland, but it’s been disappointing to see how little progress they’ve made since last season. Still, moments like this one, where Pickett displayed the field awareness to work through his progressions and then the toughness to stand in and take a shot in order to make a splash play, provide hope of better things to come. I don’t know if the Steelers can overcome Canada’s limitations as a play-caller, or their own shortcomings as a unit. But this one play provided hope. It was the only play the Steelers made on offense Monday night. But it sure was spectacular.

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