The Pittsburgh Steelers played their best half of football on offense this season in the first half of their season crushing loss to the division rival Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday. They produced possibly their worst in the second half.
What happened? Was the Bengals halftime adjustments that good, and the Steelers outcoached that bad? Probably, but there were a couple of absent performers for the Steelers that had a profound impact on the Steelers lack of second half production on offense.
Rookie backup running back Jaylen Warren has become a dynamic and dependable weapon for the Steelers, particularly on third downs. He utilizes his elusiveness, contact balance, and powerful lower body to consistently convert difficult third down situations. That keeps the chains moving and the Steelers offense on the field. Kenny Pickett has grown comfortable with Warren, both as an outlet, and in pass protection.
Those are underrated and underappreciated qualities that positively impact a young signal caller's development. Warren was lost for the game early in the first quarter due to a strained hamstring, ironically on a play where he utilized the attributes I mentioned earlier to pick up a first down. Pickett missed Warren's reliable prescence, especially when Najee Harris dropped a sure conversion later in the game.
The other proven performer lost in the game that few seem to be talking about was starting center Mason Cole. Cole missed the second half due to a foot injury. His abscence was even more impactful than Warren's. It should shock absolutely no one that the Steelers struggled in the second half offensively.
The Steelers offensive line is young, and has some talent. They are most definitely a work in progress. They need more talent, not less. The talent level drops precipitously from Mason Cole to J.C. Hassenauer. That's not a knock on Hassenauer, who has worked diligently to transform himself into a quality backup, but the execution dropped off with Cole's departure.
Yet again, Kenny Pickett was most effected. Negatively, I might add. Pickett depends on Cole's leadership and communication skills, as much if not more than his fundamentally sound blocking.
There is a special bond between a quarterback and his center. A trust factor if you will. Roethlisberger/Pouncey, Bradshaw/Webster, and Peyton Manning/Jeff Saturday to name a few. Friend, protector, enforcer; these are just some of the accolades earned by trusted centers during their work tenure.
There is an underrated level of confidence gained the moment a quarterback steps behind such a center. A trust factor often taken for granted until it's gone. Losing your starting center can be unnerving for any QB, much less a rookie.
Thus far in this discussion we have focused on how the absence of two vital offensive pieces impacted the product on the field, particularly Kenny Pickett, but what about behind the scenes? Specifically, Matt Canada's play calling.
As my colleague and Know Your Enemy podcast partner Geoffrey Benedict has been pointing out for awhile now, Canada's offense is only successful if the Steelers can effectively and efficiently run the football between the tackles. The Steelers were able to do just that in the first half, and they scored their most points in any half this season. The Steelers seemed to lose their blueprint for success in the second half, moving away from what worked so well in the first half.
The Steelers endured a second half of bad execution, ill timed play calls, penalties, and dropped passes. What changed? Was it the Bengals defensive adjustments, forcing the Steelers to abandon the effective first half strategy? Or did Matt Canada move away from what was working too soon in anticipation of the Bengals adjustments? Maybe a little of both, but possibly due to the aforementioned extenuating circumstances.
It stands to reason that Canada was overly concerned that the Steelers would struggle to maintain their first half success rushing the ball in the interior without Mason Cole's steady experience leading the way, and he adjusted his second half offensive attack accordingly.
It also seems entirely reasonable that some of Kenny Pickett's struggles in the second stanza was due to the loss of his trusted check down in the midst of the chaos created by the Bengals myriad of defensive alignments. Pickett also relies on Cole's steady demeanor and excellent communication skills.
After getting the opportunity to re-watch the game for clarity, I wholeheartedly believe that Jaylen Warren and Mason Cole would have been able to make a substantial impact during the second half, maybe even enough to change the final outcome.
Thankfully neither player's injuries sound serious enough to warrant extended absences, because their presence is definitely needed for sustained improvement during the remainder of this season, with an eye on a brighter future.