Sunday afternoon's season defining home loss perfectly encapsulated the 2022 NFL season for the rebuilding Pittsburgh Steelers. While I believe that the majority of Steelers fans realized that there was bound to be growing pains after the face of the franchise for nearly the past two decades sauntered into his well deserved retirement, I highly doubt many saw the Steelers enduring such a precipitous decline.
Great players have a tendency to make those around them better. Ben Roethlisberger was an all time great player, and the ultimate competitor. It's easy to take exceptional ability for granted when you see it regularly, and for an extended period of time. Roethlisberger's unique abilities, especially his unmatched clutch factor, disguised and minimized multiple shortcomings within the organization. Issues ranging from personnel evaluations and development, to coaching staff inadequacies, remained obscured by the very large shadow his HOF talent created.
As the sun sets on the Steelers 2022 season, all issues are clearly visible. The Steelers struggling offensively in the second half against the Bengals on Sunday was easily predictable, as I had already mentioned in the BTSC staff prediction article earlier in the day. The Bengals defense has been one of the best second half units in the NFL this season, and they have consistently dominated their opponents after making any necessary halftime adjustments.
The Bengals made effective halftime adjustments on Sunday, the Steelers did not.
Steelers Stock Up: Kenny Pickett
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers young signal caller. The Bengals tried to rattle Pickett with an aggressive defensive game plan in the first half, seeing if the rookie would crack under the pressure. Much to Pickett's credit, he produced the best half of football of his professional career. Pickett was accurate and decisive as he efficiently spread the ball around the field to multiple receivers, standing tall in the pocket until the last split second before delivering the pass. His touchdown toss to fellow rookie George Pickens was just such a throw, offering further evidence of their growing connection.
In the second half, the Bengals wisely adjusted. They mixed up their coverages and pass rush concepts. The Bengals did a much better job of disguising their intentions, and in disrupting Pickett's rhythm. Pickett struggled to find open options, and to fit throws into the tightened throwing windows. His teammates contributed to the second half struggles with missed assignments, penalties, and dropped passes. The play calling definitely left much to be desired, which has become a reoccurring trend.
At least for one half of football, Pickett gave us a glimpse of what the Steelers offense could potentially look like in the not too distant future, with him at the helm. At the very least, it was an encouraging performance from which to build.
Steelers Stock Trending in both directions: George Pickens
Pickens performance against the Bengals ran the gauntlet of emotions for this old Steelers fan; as I went from being excitedly encouraged to extremely disappointed all within the same game.
Now we get a glimpse of precisely why the freakishly talented young receiver lasted until the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Pickens sullied a breakout performance with some immature moments late in the game.
His fourth quarter dropped pass of a perfect throw from Pickett that should have been a touchdown was very Limas Sweed like. That miscue escalated into Pickens spearing Tyler Boyd with his helmet after an unsuccessful onside kick attempt, and getting ejected from the game. That will prove to be a costly mistake.
Pickens already has WR1 abilities, but lacks the maturity and focus to harness them. That's understandable for such a young player. It's OK to burn hot, as long as you can contain the blaze.
There seems to be a correlation between being overly demonstrative after making a positive play with failure to control one's emotions when things don't go according to plan. If things go according to plan with Pickens, improvement in this area will be a part of the maturation process.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Pat Freiermuth
As I mentioned in a recent article, the Pickett to Freiermuth connection is growing by the week. Freiermuth has become a much bigger part of the Steelers offensive focus, as desperately needed to happen. His 12 targets against the Bengals was a new career high, a trend I expect to continue. As I also mentioned in the aforementioned article, the offense running through Harris, Pickens, and Freiermuth would be ideal, and could prove to be special.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Najee Harris
In all honesty, keeping it short and sweet, Harris is finally headed in the right direction. He is running like a man blessed with his size and power should run. He showcased the impressive athleticism on his flying high hurdle maneuver on his first touchdown run that persuaded the Steelers to make him a first round selection in 2021. Back to back solid performances are an encouraging sign, both for Harris and the offensive line.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Defense
I received more than a fair share of criticism for pointing out that the Saints offense wasn't the best barometer to measure future success for the defense, and that the Bengals would be a truer test. Sunday's defensive performance wasn't befitting a Steelers defense, much less the highest paid unit in the NFL.
The only positive: struggles reveal shortcomings, and the Steelers issues that have plagued them all season were on full display against the Bengals.
The Steelers defense has been solid against the run this season, a Top 10 unit actually. That's a huge improvement from their league worst ranking last year. But the Steelers have deficiencies on all three levels of the defense, and they were glaring against the Bengals.
Cameron Heyward still has moments of dominating play, but not as consistently as before. His fellow linemates were seldom noteworthy against the Bengals.
T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were nowhere near as dominant in this Bengals matchup as they were in Week 1. Outside of a shared sack, and another unbelievable hand eye coordination interception on the line of scrimmage for Watt, the Bengals did a much better job of limiting the damage of the Steelers Dynamic Duo.
The middle of the field was once again the devil's playground for the Bengals; as Myles Jack, Robert Spillane, and Arthur Maulet took turns getting exploited in coverage. Spillane singlehandedly gave me flashbacks of the Steelers getting destroyed by no name running backs in coverage against the New England Patriots back in the day. I hope that backup running back for the Bengals sends Spillane a Jelly of the Month gift card for Christmas.
Finally, the Steelers showed exactly why they need a proven number one cornerback. The lack of speed and coverage abilities for the Steelers current group of corners allows top level quarterback/receiver combos to easily exploit the inevitable mismatches repeatedly.
The Steelers front office should be gaining improved clarity in regards to their biggest areas of need in the next offseason. Hopefully further clarity is obtained during the remainder of the 2022 season, with a renewed focus solely on an improved future.