The Steelers highest scoring offensive output in a year came right with their defense giving up the most points they have given up in...5 weeks. The Bengals asserted themselves as the better team often in this game, and yet the Steelers only lost by a touchdown. We don’t usually take moral victories in Pittsburgh, but the growth of the young talent on offense is heartening, with their best two games on offense coming the last two weeks.
The offensive line outside of Mason Cole and Kenny Pickett all played the entire game again. The offensive line played well, especially when you consider the quality of the Bengals defensive line. The Steelers ran for the 6th most yards the Bengals have given up this year, and passed for the 4th most yards the Bengals have given up. They scored the second most points the Bengals have allowed also. The 30 points the Steelers scored was the 6th time in the last two seasons, they allow 30 points in less than 20% of their games.
Kenny Pickett has played better, throwing for 262 yards per game, 1 TD and 0 INT for an 83.3 passer rating the last two games, compared to 192 yards a game, 2 TDs and 8 INTs for a 66.8 passer rating in the first five games he played.
With Jaylen Warren out after only three snaps, the Steelers kept Najee Harris on the field for all but 6 snaps, and again Harris delivered, running for 90 yards on 20 carries. Harris now has 2 TDs and 189 yards on 40 carries (4.7ypc) the last two weeks, compared to 361 yards on 108 carries (3.3ypc) and 1 TD the previous 8 games. Benny Snell saw his first three snaps of the season with Warren out, but did not touch the football.
The Steelers tight ends played less than they did in Week 10, and dropped back to 1.2 snaps per play, with Derek Watt getting more snaps than Connor Heyward. Pat Freiermuth led the team in targets, gaining 79 yards and taking over the title of the Steelers leading receiver. Fifteen tight end targets compared to 16 wide receiver targets is an interesting balance, and really shows that Kenny Pickett knows the tight end position and Pat Freiermuth in specific are a key strength of the Steelers offense.
Diontae Johnson caught 4 passes on 5 targets, and George Pickens caught 4 of his 6, but their results were very different, with Pickens recording 83 yards and a touchdown and Diontae Johnson managing only 21 yards. And now George Pickens has passed Johnson in receiving yards on the season despite Johnson being targeted 62% more times than Pickens. Johnson dropped from the Steelers leading receiver to third place in this game.
Steven Sims struggled in this game, failing to catch either of his two targets and running for -3 yards to go with some rough plays on returns, and Gunner Olszewski saw more snaps as the game went on, where he was more effective, catching two of three targets for 39 yards.
The Steelers offense was by far the best it has been this season, and yet there are problems that are easy to point out. The Steelers have young talent that is growing together and playing better right now, they need to fill in the gaps with better support players and. . . you know...maybe...a better scheme?
The Steelers finally got to show their three safety sets, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all playing in the same game for the first time this season. They were joined by Levi Wallace and Arthur Maulet as the main defensive backs.
That’s not an inspiring group of cornerbacks. Sutton and Wallace are fine No. 2 corners, but have both shown they struggle to cover high end talents like Tee Higgins, who torched the Steelers for 148 yards on 13 targets. Arthur Maulet similarly is a depth piece more than a good nickel back.
It also stands out that Kazee played almost the same percentage of snaps as Tre Norwood did in Week 1. I’ll need to see the All-22 film to see how he was used, but in pure snap counts, it looks like the Steelers addition of Kazee is just an upgrade on Tre Norwood.
With the problems the secondary has, upgrading Tre Norwood wouldn’t make my list of needed improvements.
Beyond the Steelers inability to cover Higgins, the linebackers being torched by the Bengals running backs stands out as a serious problem from this game. The Bengals backs combined to gain 94 yards and score 3 touchdowns on 7 targets. Those 242 yards and 3 touchdowns from Higgins, Mixon, and Perine represent almost 60% of the Bengals total yards and 75% of their touchdowns.
It makes sense when you look at the snap counts and see their best cover linebacker, Devin Bush, playing less than either Myles Jack or Robert Spillane, who are much better defenders against the run. The Bengals run a lot of receivers in their offense and the Steelers run a lot of dime against the Bengals. With the Steelers consistently using Robert Spillane as their dime linebacker, it isn’t hard for the Bengals to reliably get a back matched up on Spillane and it worked in this game a lot.
The best part of the Steelers defense in this game was the front. Cameron Heyward played another great game, Larry Ogunjobi struggled, but not too much, and while the effort and talent was obvious all day from Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt, the Bengals tackles played great and kept them in check most of the time. T.J. Watt is still on a snap count, playing significantly fewer snaps than Highsmith did.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12 on Monday Night Football.