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Steelers’ new cast of characters upstages the Colts

In perhaps their grittiest effort of a difficult season, the Black-and-gold got winning performances from newbies and backups to snatch their fourth win.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Imagine someone telling you last Monday morning that the Pittsburgh Steelers would go on the road to defeat the Indianapolis Colts, but without a single sack by T.J. Watt and losing the services of Najee Harris for a major portion of the game. Despite the usual chorus of naysayers, the Steelers prevailed with an uncanny, 24-17 victory on Monday Night Football at Lucas Oil Stadium — while Matt Ryan walked away still looking for his first career win against Pittsburgh.

After surprising Steelers Nation by playing a nearly flawless first half — jumping out to a 16-3 advantage — the Black-and-gold seemed to shut off their power switch and revert to their familiar pattern of falling down after the intermission. On the second-half kickoff, they surrendered an 89-yard kick return to set up the Colts’ first TD. Despite consistently moving the sticks in the first half, the Steelers’ offense became suddenly dormant throughout the third quarter. What had been a fairly comfortable, 13-point lead evaporated as the Colts scored 14 unanswered points to surge ahead 17-16.

At this point, a collapse seemed imminent while many fans were ready to write the Steelers off. We heard plenty of the usual “trade everyone” and “fire all the coaches” narratives before Pittsburgh managed to right its ship in the final quarter with an impressive, clock-killing TD drive and 2-point conversion. While the Colts made a late bid to tie the game, they botched any opportunity they might have had with abysmal clock management. As it turned out, the Steelers had generated just enough offense in the final quarter to secure the victory.

So how did this team which many fans had given up for dead manage to rise up and boost its record to 4-7? The star performer of this prime-time show clearly was rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Passing for a modest-but-efficient 174 yards, Pickett was a standout chiefly in his continuing ability to take care of the football (only one interception and no QB fumbles in the past four games). He also sustained scoring drives, most importantly in the final quarter when the game was on the line. To the surprise of some of his early doubters, Pickett also demonstrated pro-level arm strength and accuracy.

Overall, Kenny took some of the major strides forward that Steelers fans have anticipated ever since his selection last spring in the 2022 NFL Draft. Perhaps most tellingly, Pickett’s average quarterback rating (QBR) for the past two games has increased to 62.5, representing more than a 20-point jump from his 39.3 QBR average for the three prior games against the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints.

This substantial boost in QBR reflects a young quarterback whose efficiency and leadership continue to grow week by week at mid-season. Contrary to the scenario typical of many other rookie NFL quarterbacks, Pickett hasn’t yet experienced the utterly disastrous game which might have relegated him to a seat on the bench. On the contrary, he’s shown remarkable maturity and leadership in only his first pro season.

And in fairness to Kenny, he wasn’t on the field when the kick coverage team surrendered that monster kick return. Nor was Pickett responsible for a Steelers defense that seemed to fall asleep throughout the entire third quarter. This was a game that never should have been close enough for the Colts’ last-ditch drive to matter.

As NFL insiders Troy Aikman and Ryan Clark both mentioned following the game, this victory looks very much like a breakthrough performance for Pickett. Kenny showed precisely the kind of progress suggesting he has only begun to scratch the surface of his talent. If Pickett extends this progress through the season’s final stretch, the Steelers will go into the offseason with confidence they’ve found their QB. By itself, this would check the most important box on the list of needs for a team playing its first transitional season after losing a Hall of Fame quarterback.

But Pickett’s play was only the most significant aspect of the Steelers’ overall performance in Indianapolis. We also saw considerable improvement from an offensive line that had been written off by fans and pundits alike. With their backup RBs playing the majority of the game, the Steelers nevertheless managed to rush for 172 yards with a 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Amazingly, Benny Snell and newly activated Anthony McFarland chewed up chunks of yardage enabling the Steelers to control time of possession throughout most of the game.

While the Steelers receivers dropped a couple of key passes, they still managed to deliver the big plays that kept the offense moving. Despite missing a couple of opportunities, George Pickens continued to demonstrate his impressive athleticism, grabbing three passes for 57 yards (19-yard average per catch). It seems only a matter of time and better coordination until the Pickett-to-Pickens connection will be registering bigger numbers. Pat Freiermuth (three receptions for 39 yds) and Diontae Johnson (five receptions for 49 yards) also made significant contributions to the victory.

It’s always risky to read too much into any single game and, as witnessed during a dismal third quarter, this win clearly doesn’t mean the Steelers have solved all or even most of their nagging problems. For the time being, Steelers Nation must practice some patience and accept the reality that this team likely will continue to experience periodic lapses which create the impression they can’t do anything right.

But these are normal growing pains of a youthful team only starting to build a stronger identity. Regardless of the likelihood that Pittsburgh will miss the playoffs this season, the kind of toughness and effort on display in Indianapolis was an inspiration for this team. It was a game that justified, at least to some degree, the comments of Steelers players and coaches that they are seeing continuing improvement as the weeks go by and regardless of their record.

Steelers fans certainly understand things can go wrong just as easily as they’ve gone right in the team’s other wins over the Saints, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in Week 1 against the Bengals. At this point in the season, the Steelers’ faithful doesn’t widely anticipate any quick or complete turnaround. But the progress fans have been waiting to emerge definitely made its appearance in this gritty win over the Colts.