The Steelers 20-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints on a cold and windy Sunday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium was definitely much needed, but far from a thing of beauty. The windy conditions seemed to play havoc with the passing and kicking games, at least for the Steelers.
Stock Trending Up: Kenny Pickett's professional growth
Kenny Pickett struggled with his accuracy at various times throughout the game, but at least when he missed the target, he missed so badly nobody on either team had a chance to corral the throw. Pickett never threw a touchdown pass in the game, missing on at least a couple of opportunities, including an unfortunate drop by Najee Harris, but he never was intercepted either. His clean performance was crucial in such a close, hard fought contest.
Pickett produced a typical uneven rookie performance, but he showcased real growth in the process. His performance reminded me of a savvy veteran pitcher in baseball. The type of gritty performance where the pitcher doesn't have his best stuff, but he finds a way to gut out six solid innings to help keep his team in the game. Like I mentioned earlier, Pickett was consistently off throughout the game, but he fought to find ways to positively contribute to a winning effort.
Pickett seemed in command of the huddle, confidently directing his weapons were they needed to go. When his protection started to collapse, which happened too often, he successfully scrambled for positive yardage, or wisely threw the ball away outside the pocket when the opportunity presented itself.
On one particularly memorable occasion, Pickett could be seen racing full speed 20 yards downfield in an all-out effort to potentially throw a block for Najee Harris. Protect the ball, take what the defense is giving you, and figure out a way to win ugly. That's another step in Pickett's development.
Stock Trending Up: Alex Highsmith
For seven weeks, Steelers fans got to watch opposing offenses chip block an often frustrated Highsmith into submission. Teams focused the majority of their pass protection on Highsmith as the Steelers primary pass rush presence. Highsmith battled valiantly, but he missed his bookend edge brother immensely.
What a difference a T.J. Watt can make. Watt's mere presence demands extra attention, and elevates his teammates. Nobody appreciated Watt's return more than Highsmith. Two sacks, a forced fumble, and multiple pressures. Highsmith was dominant on the day, both against the run and rushing the passer, as he played his best overall game since Week 1.
Highsmith and Watt are precariously close to forming the dominant edge duo we always knew they potentially could be. First they have to both stay healthy and on the field. Highsmith needs Watt to reach his full potential. Hopefully the young man remembers that during future contract negotiations.
Stock Trending Up: Running game
Now that's what I am talking about! In my Glimmers of Hope article on the offense, I surmised that the Steelers focus on realistic objectives. Start small, like creating more manageable third downs, which can produce favorable results. The Steelers accomplished that objective by rushing for over 200 yards on the day, and almost 39 minutes in time of possession.
None of that would have been possible without the best run blocking performance from the Steelers offensive line in at least five years. The line played with improved precision and unity. They appeared quicker and more assertive off the snap. Their overall performance was definitely overdue and much appreciated.
The Steelers running backs flourished behind the rejuvenated offensive line. Najee Harris rumbled down the field like a man blessed with his physical attributes should, aggressively and without hesitation. There were multiple occasions where Harris simply refused to go down, resulting in a whistle stoppage. Hopefully he will be obsessed with that feeling of success, because that is exactly how he must continue to perform to be successful. Ideally, we will look back on the performance as a career defining moment.
Warren once again showed why he deserves more touches. He brings an immediate spark as a change of pace back. His explosive acceleration and elusiveness makes him an excellent compliment to Harris power game. Warren always seems to be driving forward at contact, consistently moving the chains.
Hopefully Sunday's ground game performance is a positive portent of things to come.
Stock Trending all over the place: Robert Spillane
I honestly can't remember a more polarizing figure on defense for the Steelers, outside of Devin Bush. Spillane is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Mike Tomlin absolutely loves the man, and he is well respected by his teammates. Former running mate Vince Williams openly campaigned for Spillane as a starter after his surprise retirement prior to last season. Makes sense, seeing how Williams was his mentor, and they possess similar strengths and weaknesses.
Spillane started in place of injured starter Myles Jack, and proceeded to produce a maddeningly inconsistent performance. Spillane was solid all around throughout the game, even earning praise for his communication skills from a couple of more accomplished teammates after the game. He even had a huge tackle for loss of Andy Dalton on a fourth down QB sneak, one of his team leading seven tackles on the day.
That's the good news. The bad news is Spillane was once again exploited badly in coverage, especially on the Saints lone touchdown drive late in the first half. Thankfully the Steelers adjusted at halftime, and shut out the Saints in the second half. When Minkah Fitzpatrick is healthy enough to get back on the field, the Steelers will be able to utilize the three safety look, and limit Spillane's coverage liabilities. That's crucial, because the better offenses remaining on the schedule will easily exploit that glaring mismatch.
Stock Trending Down: Matthew Wright
Quite the forgettable 2022 debut for Wright in a Steelers uniform. As I mentioned earlier in the article, it was a cold and windy day in the Steel City. Even under less than ideal circumstances, Wright's performance was subpar. He failed to strike the ball cleanly or confidently, either on kickoffs or field goal attempts. The missed field goals weren't even close. With Boswell on the mend for at least the next three weeks, Wright desperately needs a bounce back performance against the Bengals, or he maybe looking for his next opportunity sooner than expected.
One Final Thought
Move over puny penguins, there's a new ferocious fowl in town; the predatory Pittsburgh Pigeons. First the Duck, now the Pigeons. Opponents beware. Be afraid, be very afraid.