Two steps forward, three steps back. It seems as if every time the Steelers appear to find some answers, more questions immediately pop up. The questions are numerous for this Steelers squad, and the questions are constantly changing. That sounds strangely familiar for some reason.
The Steelers offense struggled at times to consistently move the ball against the Seahawks, who came into the game statistically as one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Seahawks interior defensive lineman disrupted the Steelers rushing attack by clogging up the running lanes, which has become a common occurrence against four man fronts.
Najee Harris found room to roam hard to come by in the early portion of the game, but enjoyed more productive runs as the game progressed after he stopped trying to set up big plays every carry and reverted to his more traditional power style. He couldn't continue to display patience with the offensive line struggling to execute their assignments.
The Steelers were hoping to build off the momentum of last week's victory over the Broncos, especially the confidence building performance of the offensive line, but any additional progress against the Seahawks was negligible at best, especially in light of the level of the competition. Although there are potential answers to some issues, more questions remain.
Steelers Stock Trending Upward: T.J. Watt
In a career already filled with extraordinary performances, Watt enjoyed a couple of breakout moments when they mattered most. In overtime, facing a must win situation during a primetime telecast, Watt made the biggest plays at the most opportune moments to win the game.
For the first time in his illustrious career, Watt came through in the clutch when it mattered the most, with the undivided attention of a nation of football fans tuning in. That has long been the one missing attribute to his multiple DPOY campaigns, where he is always the bridesmaid but never the bride.
Watt was good in regulation, but otherworldly in the overtime period. He registered both his sacks when they mattered most, none bigger than his strip sack of Geno Smith that set up the game winning field goal.
I have been one of Watt's harshest critics in the past, pointing out how he has always failed to produce outcome changing moments late in games. The type of plays that former Steelers DPOY winners James Harrison and Troy Polamalu made with regularity. T.J. Watt has finally added that final piece to his impressive resume. Broken through the glass ceiling so to speak. I think it safe to say, with the monkey finally removed from his back, repeat performances in crunch time should be expected.
Although T.J. Watt was the Steelers star that shined the brightest against the Seahawks, there were 3 other fellow defenders that definitely earned honorable mention. Cameron Heyward, Alex Highsmith, and Tre Norwood all produced standout performances.
Heyward continues to be the best defensive tackle in the NFL not named Aaron Donald. Heyward is arguably having his best season, and I wholeheartedly believe he is the strongest defender in the league.
Highsmith has been dealing with a nagging groin injury all season, but he played like the dominant edge rusher on Sunday night that he resembled throughout the preseason and training camp. He has been an excellent run stopper all season, but had failed to register a sack or even a QB hit, due mainly to his explosion being compromised by the aforementioned injury. He enjoyed a breakout performance, finishing with 1.5 sacks after spending much of the game in the opposition's backfield.
Tre Norwood was only credited with 3 total tackles in his limited defensive snaps, but all 3 were TFLs at key moments in the game. As Coach Tomlin recently stated, the moment never seems too big for the instinctual and intelligent young man.
Steelers Stock Trending Downward: Tackling
I am not sure about you, but I started having flashbacks of the two Jacksonville Jaguars games back in 2017 during the third quarter Sunday night. It's been a few years since a team successfully ran the football seemingly at will against the Steelers defense. One things for sure, it's no fun reminiscing about those not so good old days.
The Steelers have invested huge money and draft capital since then in a concerted effort to make sure a repeat of those dark days never occur again anytime soon. The truth is injuries happen, and are part of the cost of doing business. They are impossible to predict or avoid. Some of those injured are much easier to replace than others, but the show must go on.
The Seahawks ran the ball repeatedly and successfully; especially in the third quarter, directly at Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley, two depth players trying their best to replace their far more talented and accomplished predecessors. They were not up to the task at hand.
Buggs and Wormley struggled to tie up blockers effectively, therefore they were unable to keep the Steelers inside linebackers clean and able to flow to the ball. The Steelers run defense improved substantially whenever rookie DL Isaiahh Loudermilk was inserted into the game. His quality performance against the run definitely earned him extended snaps moving forward.
The main issue plaguing the Steelers defense during the disastrous third quarter was a startling inability to tackle. The sudden ailment struck both inside linebackers and the whole starting secondary at the same time. Truthfully, it was the worst display of tackling fundamentals by the Steelers since that 2017 season. I have a theory about why that might have happened.
The Steelers experienced a heartbreaking roller coaster of a week leading up to the second must win game in a row, with the tragic news that inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky's wife passed away unexpectedly.
Then the Steelers had to refocus on the task at hand, preparing to play the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football. There were Steelers legends throughout the facilities, including the most recent HOF inductees scheduled to receive their enshrinement rings on the field at halftime. The truth is current Steelers players gain inspiration from having so many Steelers legends in attendance.
The Steelers defense was fired up to start the game, and they were dominant in the first half. They came out of the locker room obviously flat after experiencing an unavoidable emotional letdown at halftime.
The dismal tackling to start the second half was a direct byproduct of the lack of intensity from the Steelers defense, playing a fired up Seahawks team facing their own must win scenario. Momentum is hard to quantify, but impossible to ignore. Once you lose it, it's hard to get back.
Poor tackling hasn't been an issue for a Steelers defense thus far this season. Based on the circumstances leading up those struggles, I don't believe tackling will continue to be an issue moving forward.