“Deserve has nothing to do with it!”
That's one of my favorite lines from the Clint Eastwood movie classic Unforgiven, in response to a whining antagonist claiming that he didn't deserve to die. That's when Clint Eastwood uttered the unforgettable reply.
The Pittsburgh Steelers deserved to win that game Sunday afternoon in Paycor Stadium. The Cincinnati Bengals did not. I wholeheartedly believe that statement, but as I mentioned earlier, deserve has nothing to do with it.
The Steelers defense turned in one of their best, and most complete, efforts in years. They dominated the high powered Bengals offense, limiting them at every turn. The Steelers sacked Joe Burrow seven times that counted, intercepted him four times, forced a couple of fumbles, and knocked down several of his passes. Joe Cool looked anything but on multiple occasions, often left shaking his head in disbelief.
Many of the Bengals most successful offensive plays were perpetrated by the men wearing vertical white and black stripes, armed with tiny yellow flags, especially in the Bengals fourth quarter rally. Five times Bengals offensive drives were extended as first downs were obtained via penalty.
The Bengals remained in the contest because the Steelers defense created a substantial lead, and the Steelers offense seemingly reverted to a protect the ball, and lead, mentality.
Teams that lose the turnover margin five to zero shouldn't even be in the game, much less win it, but the Bengals almost did. It's back to the drawing board for the Steelers offense.
Let's take a look at whose stock is trending in the right, or wrong, direction.
Stock Up: Minkah Fitzpatrick
Talk about setting the tone for the game, and hopefully a trend for the season. Fitzpatrick's pick-six on the Bengals first possession was definitely a tone setter for the Steelers defense on the day. Fitzpatrick was flying around the field like a man possessed, playing like a man that despised the opponent, like he confessed earlier in the week. It was the most physical performance of his career, as he repeatedly delivered crushing blows, often separating man from football. His extra point block saved the game for the Steelers.
Stock Up: Alex Highsmith
Now that's what we have all been waiting to see. All of Steelers Nation witnessed the breakout performance of young Alex Highsmith's career. He was the definition of controlled chaos throughout the afternoon. He repeatedly set a dominant edge against the running game, overpowering tackles and tight ends alike. Highsmith looked explosive in his pass rush repertoire, but maintained the integrity of his rush lanes, allowing him to repeatedly stop Burrow from scrambling for first downs. He tallied three sacks and a forced fumble for his efforts. The importance of Highsmith's breakout is imperative, in light of T.J. Watt's injury.
Stock Down: T.J. Watt's availability
The defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year opened the 2022 season determined to produce a repeat performance, almost predestined to add a second DPOY Award to his trophy case. Watt somehow appeared even more dominant than last season: stronger, faster, even more mentally focused. His interception displayed his elite level athleticism and hand-eye coordination. He almost decapitated Joe Mixon when he instantly exploded into the backfield after the Bengals inexplicably left him unblocked on a running play. Sadly, Watt's season of dominance may have already ended just as it was getting started. Watt suffered an apparent pec injury in the final seconds of regulation, after tossing a Bengals offensive tackle aside like a rag doll, prior to accumulating his second sack of Burrow, only to see it wiped out by a questionable penalty. Talk about adding insult to injury. All Steelers fans should be praying that the injury isn't of the season-ending variety.
Stock Up: Chase Claypool
Claypool saw his future in Sunday's game, and the future is now. Once reports started leaking out of training camp about Claypool taking the majority of snaps out of the slot, I was intrigued. The perfect marriage between skill set and responsibilities. Talk about instant mismatch. Claypool is big, fast, and strong; but he struggles to gain separation on his routes. He prefers to try and gain positioning, then shield the defender with his large frame, like a rebounder in basketball. This style, coupled with his size, plays ideally in the slot. It also allows him to easily go in motion, making him a constant threat for an end-around or jet sweep, where his running ability shines through. Corner fade routes are on the way.
Stock Up: Pat Freiermuth
The sky is the limit for Freiermuth, but he will need improved quarterback play and play calling to reach his full potential. Freiermuth came open on multiple occasions, but Mitch Trubisky struggled with anticipating open throwing lanes as they develop. He caught everything within the realm of possibility, including his huge catch and run in overtime on the game-winning drive. That was the Steelers’ best offensive play of the day, and it was an off schedule pitch and catch between Trubisky and Freiermuth. Hopefully that signals a growing connection between the two, and is a positive sign of things to come.
Stock Down: Play calling
I am not yet ready to panic, even if a lot of last year's issues have apparently carried over into this season. No running lanes, passes short of the sticks, and more of the unsuccessful heave and a prayer deep passing attack. The Steelers started the game with some creative, albeit conservative, play calls. Canada appeared determined to ease his inexperienced troops into the fray. Suddenly the Steelers grabbed the early lead, thanks to a defensive score and multiple takeaways. Then the Steelers appeared to go completely conservative, trying to protect the lead, and the football. The offense was never able to find their rhythm.
Stock Up: Newcomers and other pleasant surprises
Jaylen Warren blocks exactly like he runs the football, powerfully and passionately.
Although there is still plenty of work left to do, the Steelers offensive line continued to show baby steps of improvement from their preseason performances. Mason Cole and James Daniels are definitely improvements over last season's versions at their positions.
Jamir Jones appeared comfortable and confident in his return. Still sets a mean edge against the run, and looks like a competent rotational piece, potentially more.
Kudos to Zach Gentry for his continued impressive growth at the tight end position.