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Kenny Pickett impresses, the defense regresses, and James Daniels takes a stand

In Week 5 the Steelers were smacked in the mouth, and there were a lot of takeaways from the game.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Steelers were shredded by Josh Allen and the Bills on Sunday, losing 38-3 in Buffalo. Still, Kenny Pickett’s debut as starting quarterback was encouraging, and James Daniels may have delivered a statement to his team. Here, in my “3 & Out” column, I offer some insights on these subjects, with some food for thought at the end.

Pocket Man

Matt Canada called plenty of plays on Sunday where he moved the pocket to give Pickett simple throws away from the pass rush. But, when he asked Pickett to stand in the pocket and process, the rookie was sharp. Pickett showed a natural ability to block out chaos and focus on his progressions. His calmness in that regard is rare for a player so inexperienced at the NFL level. It will allow the Steelers to run longer-developing routes and full-field concepts, something they haven’t done in earnest since 2018. This should help the offense significantly.

Pickett’s pocket presence was evident right out of the gate. On Pittsburgh’s opening possession, the Steelers faced 3rd and 11 from their own 38-yard line, with the ball on the left hash. They aligned in a 3x1 formation with George Pickens wide right, Chase Claypool in the slot, Pat Freiermuth at tight end and Diontae Johnson on the back side. Pickens ran a deep comeback route, pushing to 14 yards before breaking off and working back to the sticks. Pickett stared down the seam to Claypool, then threw a strike to Pickens:

This was impressive for several reasons. First, it should dispel any concerns about Pickett’s arm strength, which, in addition to his grossly disfigured and horrifically small hands, was a reason many pundits thought the Steelers reached for him in the draft. Second, Pickett showed a good understanding of how to manipulate coverage by holding the defense with his eyes before working towards Claypool. And third, he hung tight in the pocket as it began to collapse, rather than bail the moment he felt pressure.

Later in the drive, Pickett engineered another impressive 3rd down conversion on a completion to Zach Gentry. Here, he didn’t simply hold a defender with his eyes. He came off his initial read, then a second one, to find Gentry crossing the field on a mesh concept:

Pickett read this concept outside-in, with his eyes going first to running back Jaylen Warren on the wheel, then to Claypool on the low cross, and finally to Gentry. Below, you can see him look right, then middle, then left before releasing his throw. Most impressively, Pickett found space inside the pocket when he felt pressure from Von Miller (40), rather than giving up and attempting to flee:

One reason I believe Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Mitchell Trubisky and insert Pickett into the lineup was Trubisky’s failure to operate this way. Too often Trubisky would look to bail out rather than hang tight and let his routes develop. Pickett has a great sense of when to stay in the pocket and when to escape. This play doesn’t look special on the surface. But it’s the sort that separates franchise quarterbacks from those who come and go.

The Steelers kicked a field goal on that drive. Then, as has often been the case, the offense bogged down. They went 3-and-out (a fitting name for this column) on three consecutive possessions. The problem was not with Pickett, though. A holding penalty and a 3rd down pass Diontae Johnson could not corral killed their next drive. Then Canada got conservative, opting for a run-run-pass approach. This put Pittsburgh in 3rd-and-long situations and let Buffalo get aggressive. When Canada resumed mixing things up, the Steelers moved the ball. They were down 24-3 by that point, though, and the game was essentially over.

In the second half, Buffalo fell into a soft zone to protect their big lead. This gave Pickett plenty of room underneath with which to work, which resulted in some inflated passing numbers. He finished 34-52 for 327 yards. More importantly, he continued to stand in the pocket and make throws, like this one to Claypool in the 3rd quarter:

Pickett is mobile, and he throws well outside the pocket. Many quarterbacks do. The thing that could make him special, though, is his ability to stay inside, read the field and allow routes to develop. Like all rookies, he is a work in progress. He still forces throws at times, like this interception he tried to drop into a small window against Cover-2 near the end of the 1st half:

Still, he’s giving the Steelers their best quarterback play since 2018, and he’s only going to get better. This should provide plenty of hope for the future, despite the dreariness of the present.

Bombs Away

The Steelers yielded an astounding 348 passing yards in the first half. Buffalo’s total came on just 14 completions for an average of almost 25 yards per reception. It was the 2nd-most passing yards in a half in an NFL game since 1991.

A big chunk of those came on two throws to receiver Gabe Davis, who burned the Pittsburgh secondary for touchdowns of 98 and 65 yards. On the first one, with Buffalo backed up at their own 2-yard line and facing 3rd and 10, the Steelers blitzed Josh Allen and played man-coverage. Interestingly, the only receiver they doubled was Davis. As the diagram on the CBS television broadcast shows, the Steelers played bracket coverage, with corner Levi Wallace handling outside leverage and safety Tre Norwood squeezing Davis to the post. Neither player capped the route, though, and Davis split the coverage. Wallace was late getting out of his backpedal and Davis blew by him as he cut up-field. Norwood broke flat, perhaps anticipating a shorter route due to the pressure the Steelers were bringing. Allen laid the ball out perfectly, Davis ran under it and the Steelers, after pinning Buffalo deep on the opening kickoff, quickly found themselves in a 7-0 hole:

The second bomb to Davis was simply an exceptional play by Buffalo. Allen threw another missile, this one traveling 65 yards in the air, and Davis miraculously hauled it in with one hand, then wrestled the ball away from Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was in excellent position to break it up:

From this angle, it looks like Fitzpatrick was about to take the ball away as the players crossed the goal line. But Davis somehow reclaimed it for a gut-punch touchdown that seemed to take away whatever fight the Steelers had in them.

Following that score, Pittsburgh retreated into a soft zone to protect the post. This allowed Allen to gash the Steelers underneath, as he did on Buffalo’s next touchdown.

With the ball at the 15-yard line, corner Cam Sutton gave Stefon Diggs a seven-yard cushion. He then backpedaled, allowing Diggs an easy release inside, where Allen hit him on an RPO that drew the linebackers towards the run fake:

The aggressiveness of the backers made this an easy throw for Allen, but Sutton’s cushion was the real culprit. Due to the compressed space, defensive backs should squat on throws at the goal line and make them go over their heads. The failure to do this has been a theme in 2022 for the Steelers. Both New England and Cleveland scored on passes in front of a Pittsburgh secondary playing soft in the end zone. Their touchdowns, like Buffalo’s, came on slant routes. The word appears to be out on how to beat Teryl Austin’s defense in the red zone. Austin, to date, has not adjusted.

The Steelers played this game without Ahkello Witherspoon and Terrell Edmunds in the secondary, and without T.J. Watt up front. There’s little doubt their presence would have made a difference. And they played a Buffalo offense that is downright scary these days. Still, 348 passing yards in a half? After a brilliant start in Cincinnati, the defense has regressed. They miss Watt terribly, but that can’t be an excuse for everything. While the offense gets the lion’s share of the blame for what’s wrong with the Steelers, the defense will have to step up, too, for the team to become more competitive.

The Hit Felt ‘Round the Locker Room?

Late in the 3rd quarter, with the ball in Buffalo territory, Pickett scrambled out of the pocket and headed towards the sideline. He couldn’t get there before defenders arrived, so he chose to slide. Then, this happened:

The hit, by Pickett’s former teammate at the University of Pittsburgh, Damar Hamlin, was not penalized. Looking at it more closely, Hamlin appears to commit to it just as Pickett goes into his slide. It was a close call for the referees, but realistically, at a time when officials are vigilant in protecting quarterbacks, it should have drawn a flag.

One thing it did draw was the ire of Steelers guard James Daniels, who, as you see in the initial clip, flattened Hamlin as he got to his feet. Teammate Kevin Dotson drew a flag too for shoving some Buffalo players in the fracas that followed. The Steelers were assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, and the drive ended when Chris Boswell missed his second field goal of the day.

Personally, I couldn’t care less that the penalty on Daniels undercut a potential scoring drive. Buffalo led 31-3 at the time, and whether the Steelers scored a touchdown or not, there was no way they were coming back to win. The value of Daniels’ reaction is in the simple fact he stood up for his quarterback on a day the Steelers, as a team, didn’t do much standing.

I have no idea if Daniels’ reaction to the hit by Hamlin will change anything. Pittsburgh has a host of issues to fix, in all phases of the game. But, at minimum, it should send a message to the locker room about the need to fight for one another. The Steelers must pull together as they work through their problems elsewhere. It’s a low bar to clear, but at least Daniels had the presence to set it.

And Out...

The Steelers have now lost four games in a row for the first time since 2016, when they dropped mid-season contests to Miami, New England, Baltimore and Dallas. That team rebounded to win nine straight, including two playoff victories, before falling in the AFC Championship to the Patriots.

Nine wins in a row for this Steelers team is a pipe dream. Still, it wouldn’t shock me if they pulled things together next week and upset old friend Tom Brady and a Bucs team that hasn’t been overly impressive. I know that makes little sense, coming off the debacle in Buffalo. I just have a hunch. Don’t hold your breath on that prediction. But don’t be stunned if it happens, either.