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Jekyll-and-Hyde Steelers come up short to Joe Cool and the Bengals

The up-and-down Steelers were unable to finish the job vs. Burrow and the Bengals.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports-The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Steelers lost to the Bengals 37-30 on Sunday. The game was a tale of two halves, particularly on offense. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at Kenny Pickett’s progress, why the offense faltered in the second half and how Joe Burrow carved up the Pittsburgh defense.

Pickett’s Progress

It was an uneven contest for quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett played some of the best football of his young career over the first 30 minutes. At the break, the Steelers had scored 20 points and accumulated 213 yards, both season highs for a half. Pickett was 14-19 for 141 yards and a touchdown. He’d also rushed for 14 yards, converting a 3rd down on a zone-read play where he pulled the football and scampered to the edge courtesy of a great block from Pat Freiermuth:

The second half was a different story. Without the benefit of the All-22 film, which comes out after this article is published, it’s hard to pinpoint the root of Pickett’s regression after halftime. At a glance, though, he showed improvement overall, especially in areas where he’d previously struggled.

Specifically, those areas have been coverage recognition and a willingness to hang in the pocket and let routes develop. His progress in both regards was noticeable. Below, we see a good example of the former. On this 3rd-and-7 play to open the 2nd quarter, Cincy tried to fool Pickett with a single-high safety look before rotating late to cover-2. Pickett, though, knew he had an option route to tight end Pat Freiermuth in the left slot, and that the corner to that side, who was positioned outside the numbers, would not defend it. Nor would the linebackers, who were showing blitz. The backers bailed into coverage at the snap, but Freiermuth located the hole between the corner and the backers and sat down in it. Pickett hit him with a decisive throw to move the chains:

There were several examples of plays like this throughout the game. Pickett did not seem fooled by the looks Cincinnati presented, and in the first half at least, he was confident with where to go with the ball.

Pickett also showed improved pocket presence. He hung tough and took hits at times, like on this 22-yard completion to George Pickens in the 1st quarter. Pickens ran an Over route, where he crossed the field from his alignment on the right of the formation to catch a pass outside the numbers on the opposite side of the field. Pickett stood confidently in the pocket as Pickens crossed, then took this hit while delivering an accurate ball:

Pickett took another shot on a 3rd-and-9 snap near the end of the first half that resulted in Pittsburgh’s longest scoring play of the season. This time, he stood tall as Pickens ran a corner route. Rather than bail out as the rush closed in, Pickett leaned back, adjusted his release and lofted a perfectly thrown ball off his back foot for the score:

When Pickett moved from the pocket, he did so with his eyes up, scanning the field to find a receiver. I had some fears prior to Sunday that Pickett was starting to look at the rush as it closed in, which is the ultimate sign of a quarterback who has lost confidence in his ability to process through chaos. Plays like the one below, however, restored my belief that Pickett will improve in this area with experience.

I like how Pickett felt the rush to his blind side here, and rather than spin out from it and attempt to flee, he stepped up through the pocket, allowing him to keep his eyes down the field and his body in good throwing position. Pickett also knew where his outlet receiver was and got him the ball in space. The receiver was Jaylen Warren, whose run-after-the-catch ability is stellar. By finding Warren, Pickett virtually assured the Steelers would convert this 3rd down.

Another encouraging sign from Sunday was Pickett’s developing relationship with Pickens. The two rookies have struggled to find a connection so far, but they are showing signs of improvement. Pickens had four catches on six targets for a team-high 83 yards. He and Pickett hooked up on this play in the second half, which sparked hope that the Steelers’ long-dormant vertical passing game might finally come to life:

One good deep ball doesn’t re-write the narrative. Still, as per the Next Gen hit chart below, you can see Pickett pushed the ball downfield more than he did early in the season, and attacked the middle of the field more frequently as well. Both represent progress.

Pickett did not sustain his success in the second half. Part of that was his fault — he missed some easy throws, and as Cincy ramped up the pressure, he was slow to process. But, as we’ll discuss next, coordinator Matt Canada didn’t help much, either. Pickett finished 25-42 for 265 yards with one touchdown and no turnovers. After throwing eight interceptions in his first five games, he’s gone two straight without one. Pickett should not be judged by his stats this season but by the improvement he makes from a comprehension and execution standpoint. In those regards, he’s progressing. Not by leaps and bounds, but progressing, nonetheless. That, right now, is all that really matters.

Halftime (Mal)adjustments

Pittsburgh rolled into the locker room at halftime feeling good about themselves. They had a 20-17 lead and had just authored their best half of offensive football all season. They were receiving the second half kickoff, which meant Canada had time to digest how the Bengals were defending his offense, anticipate their adjustments and plot an effective opening drive.

The Steelers gained one yard and punted.

Their next drive gained five yards. As did the one after that. Then, following a miraculous T.J. Watt interception that set them up at the +21-yard line, which I’ll post below so you don’t punch yourself in the face after reading this paragraph, they went three-and-out again. All told, they ran 13 plays, gained 23 yards and didn’t make a first down in the 3rd quarter. Momentum turned, the defense tired, and despite Watt playing Superman, the contest slipped away.

What in the name of Joe Walton went wrong?

For starters, Canada could not find good openers. The Steelers gained 1, 3, -3 and 0 yards on their first-down snaps in the 3rd quarter. Those plays put the Steelers behind the chains and made things hard on Pickett. Canada’s openers included a quick screen to Diontae Johnson that went nowhere, an inside zone run for a modest gain and a play-action pass that fooled no one. His worst call came on the drive after Cincinnati had scored to take a 24-20 lead, when he ran a jet sweep to Steven Sims despite the fact Cincinnati had an unblocked alley defender to that side. Predictably, the alley swooped in and dropped Sims for a three-yard loss.

Canada also made a curious call on the play after the deep ball to Pickens, opting for a flea flicker from the +40-yard line that Cincinnati sniffed out. It’s easy to criticize calls in hindsight, but with the Bengals on their heels, running core plays the Steelers execute well, rather than hit-or-miss gadgets, seemed prudent.

It wasn’t just poor calls that hurt the Steelers. Pickett came up small at times, too, most noticeably on a 3rd-and-4 play after Watt’s interception. Trailing 24-20 at the time, with the ball in the red zone and a chance to re-take the lead, Pickett threw this pass into the ground at Johnson’s feet when an accurate throw would have set up a goal-to-go situation. If the jet sweep to Sims was Canada’s worst call of the night, this was Pickett’s worst throw:

The Bengals deserve some credit for stopping Pittsburgh, too. They got more aggressive in the second half, blitzing Pickett regularly and making him less comfortable. They also played more man coverage, crowding Pittsburgh’s receivers and giving them less space in which to operate. Canada has struggled for two seasons now to find answers in the passing game against man-to-man. Sunday was no exception. It didn’t help that Johnson was a non-factor. His most noteworthy contribution was another pre-snap penalty for a false start. Penalties were ubiquitous and derailed several drives. Freiermuth drew a hold on a 1st-and-10 with the Steelers at the Cincinnati 37 in the 4th quarter, down 27-23. The following play was a botched exchange that produced an ineligible-man-downfield. The offense devolved into self-destruct mode.

Minus the scoring drive the Steelers authored in the final few minutes that Cincinnati basically conceded, Pittsburgh ran 26 plays for 51 yards in the second half. Their performance could not have provided a starker contrast to the ease with which they moved the ball over the first 30 minutes.

Joe Cool

While the offense was a story of two halves, the defense was fairly consistent. Unfortunately, its consistency came in the form of an inability to corral Joe Burrow.

Burrow played most of the contest from a clean pocket. This was a far cry from the first meeting between these teams, on opening day, when Pittsburgh sacked him seven times. On Sunday, they got to him twice. Often, Burrow was able to take his drop and scan the field before delivering a strike to one of his receivers. Tee Higgins inflicted the most damage. With Ja’Marr Chase out with an injury, Higgins did his best Chase impersonation by hauling in 9 passes for 148 yards, including this 33-yarder in the 3rd quarter where he dusted Levi Wallace to set up Cincinnati’s go-ahead touchdown:

The Steelers played a fair amount of zone in the first half. In the second half, they switched to man-to-man in order to generate more pressure. While they did record a couple of sacks, their defenders couldn’t hold up in coverage. Cincy’s receivers continually won on their releases, like we saw Higgins do above. Here, Burrow found him on an in-cut against Arthur Maulet (35), who was beaten throughout the day. The Bengals smartly used empty sets against Pittsburgh’s man-to-man to open up the middle of the field. With time to set his feet, little pressure in his face and no defender to disrupt the route, it looked at times like Burrow was playing catch with his receivers:

No play epitomized how comfortable Burrow and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan were in attacking Pittsburgh’s defense than this touchdown to running back Samaje Perine in the fourth quarter. On 2nd-and-goal from the 6-yard line, the Bengals aligned in a compressed 2x2 formation, with Perine set to Burrow’s right. Cincy knew the Steelers would be in man-coverage, so they ran a pick play where receiver Trenton Irwin (16) aimed for linebacker Myles Jack, who was assigned to Perine. Perine ran a swing route, and Irwin forced Jack to go underneath him, where he lost his pursuit angle to the ball. Meanwhile, tight end Hayden Hurst (88) boxed out Devin Bush with his route, keeping Bush from pursuing Perine as well. That left Wallace to tackle the 235-pound Perine on his own, which led to a predictable result:

The fact the Bengals knew this would be man-coverage, knew which Steeler would be assigned to Perine and knew how to get Perine open all indicate a familiarity with Pittsburgh’s scheme that is troubling. Burrow threw for 355 yards in the game and rarely seemed uncomfortable or confused. While Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t consistent enough to win the contest for the Steelers, they did score 30 points for the first time all season. Another subpar effort by the defense was the most disappointing element of the day.

And Out...

Najee Harris has quietly produced his two best games the past two weeks. Harris had 99 yards on 20 carries against New Orleans, and 90 yards on 20 carries (with two TDs) against Cincinnati. Harris had his two longest runs of the year as well, including this touchdown on Sunday on a well-executed outside zone play:

With all eyes on Pickett this season, it’s been easy to forget Harris was the team’s offensive MVP last year. A more productive Harris has meant better production from the offense. That’s not a coincidence, and hopefully signals a big closing stretch for No. 22.