The 2022 NFL season for the Pittsburgh Steelers has already been full of surprises, and the Steelers road victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football definitely fit the bill. Not only because I fully expected the Steelers to lose, as I confidently described in our BTSC pre-game prediction article, but also because of the manner in which the Steelers went about winning the game.
For the first time this season, the Steelers played complimentary football. Well, almost. Both the offense and defense played above-the-line football consistently throughout the game. Especially if you don't factor another disappointing third quarter performance into the equation, plus the fact the kick coverage teams failed to show up for the game, but more on that later.
The young rebuilding Steelers have now won two of their three games since their bye week, which has been enjoyable. A win beats a loss anytime, but there is something much bigger than wins and losses at play for the Steelers. All wins are not created equally, as some are flukish, resulting primarily from poor play by the opposition or a fortuitous turn of events. That type of success isn't sustainable or reliable.
The Steelers recent improvements have been encouraging, and potentially could become habitual, because they are being achieved predominantly by the Steelers impressive collection of young talent on the roster, which is a stark contrast to recent seasons. That bodes well for a brighter future for the franchise.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Kenny Pickett
Not sure if everybody is paying attention, but Pickett looks less and less like a rookie quarterback as the season progresses. His development has been intriguing, and speaks volumes about his character and toughness, after the less than ideal circumstances he faced to begin his professional career. Plenty of young signal callers have been negatively impacted under similar conditions, sometimes permanently. To the point they hear footsteps, or see "ghosts".
The NFL community was fortunate enough to witness Jacksonville Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence's breakout performance on Sunday as he led his team to a fourth quarter comeback upset victory over the Baltimore Ravens. More than a few impatient talking heads have wondered aloud if the number one overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft was going to prove worthy of the pick. Lawrence is proving this season that he just needed a little patience, a competent coaching staff, and an improved supporting cast to show his full potential.
Pickett's progress and statistics have been impacted and stunted at times this season by poor play calling, inconsistent efforts by the supporting cast, and dropped passes. Those issues were once again apparent on Monday night against the Colts, none more evident than when Pickett took a shotgun snap on third and one in the third quarter. The Steelers tried unsuccessfully to convert in that situation by running seldom used practice squad running back Anthony McFarland Jr. on the play, a player known far more for his speed than power.
The Steelers left power back Benny Snell, who was already enjoying an effective debut performance of his season as a runner, standing on the sidelines, alongside fullback Derek Watt, who had been perfect converting in those situations this season. Pickett has excellent mobility, and has converted numerous short yardage plays from under center already this year, many via the QB sneak.
That was without a doubt a disastrous play calling decision all around. The kind of bad decision that can potentially lose a game. Thankfully, Pickett and company were able to overcome the incompetence of that decision.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Alex Highsmith
Everybody knew heading into the game that Highsmith would need to have a strong game for the Steelers defense to be effective, with T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward going head-to-head with the Colts’ best offensive linemen, RT Braden Smith and LG Quenton Nelson. With his two senior Steelers stalwarts effectively neutralized, Highsmith stepped up his game when it mattered most, especially in the fourth quarter.
On the Colts final game-deciding drive, Highsmith recorded a huge strip sack of Matt Ryan, and followed that up with a tough open field tackle of star RB Jonathan Taylor on third down, forcing the Colts eventual failed fourth down attempt.
The best players regularly take advantage of advantageous situations, often saving their best for last, when it matters most. Highsmith showed he has become that type of player.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Kick Coverage units
I believe that it is safe to assume that the Steelers kick coverage teams desperately missed the presence of Miles Boykin and Robert Spillane, two of their best special teams performers. Boykin in particular, as he utilizes his elite level size and speed to it's fullest on both coverage units, regularly the first defender downfield with apparent ease.
Without two of their standouts, the Steelers struggled all night with their lane integrity, especially on the Colts momentum changing 89-yard return to open the second half. Based on what we saw Monday night, Boykin and Spillane need to get healthy sooner rather than later.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Running game
The beginning of the game was concerning, particularly the left side of the Steelers offensive line. Dan Moore was badly beaten for a sack, and Kevin Dotson was completely ineffective. Thankfully, both players settled in and played better after those early struggles.
The Steelers did something against the Colts that I haven't seen in years: they ran the ball consistently against one of the top run defenses in the NFL. What made their success even more surprising was that they achieved the majority of it without their top two running backs. After Jaylen Warren was forced to miss the game with a hamstring injury, Najee Harris was knocked out of the game in the first half due to an abdominal injury.
No starters, no problem. Seldom if ever used replacements Anthony McFarland Jr. and Benny Snell at your service. All kidding aside, both players gave above the line performances at a time when the Steelers really needed them to step up and ball out. The epitome of a professional performance.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Third Quarter struggles
This has become a disturbing trend for the Steelers. The third quarter has been a struggle this year for the Steelers, but it has reached a crescendo in the past couple of games. The Steelers have followed an impressive first half of action with an atrocious third quarter performance in back-to-back games now.
I gave plenty of credit to the Bengals for their tendency to make optimal halftime adjustments after last week, as they easily outcoached the Steelers, but this week was different, as the Steelers issues were two-fold.
Against the Colts, the Steelers continued to struggle with their play calling, but also with their execution. Missed assignments and blocks, coupled with numerous dropped passes, doomed the Steelers chances at sustaining their first half success into the second half.
Regardless of who is most at fault for these reoccurring struggles, this is a disturbing trend that must be addressed immediately. The Steelers are finally starting to show real growth on offense under the guidance of Kenny Pickett and company, and they must alleviate or eliminate any potential potholes on the road to sustainable improvement.