During more than three quarters of their prime time matchup with the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be anything but a playoff-caliber team. Despite staging a series of impressive drives that moved the ball into Ravens’ territory, the Steelers were unable to come away with anything beyond two FGs in three attempts. By all indications and midway through the final quarter, the Steelers seemed to be facing yet another hard-fought but narrow defeat at the hands of their chief divisional rival.
But with time ticking away and for the second consecutive week, something magical happened. The same offense which repeatedly failed to close the deal against a staunch Ravens defense suddenly began playing with the urgency of an NFL contender. They drove methodically down the field behind a tough running attack and some of the most clutch passing seen yet from Kenny Pickett. Finally, on a crucial 3rd-and-8 play from the Ravens’ 10-yard line — when nothing but a touchdown would suffice — Pickett narrowly escaped the grasp of blitzing linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and sprinted out to his left to deliver a perfect throw to Najee Harris for the game-winning score.
This spectacular play was more than just a thrilling footnote to a 2022 Steelers season which, after all, still might be heading nowhere. Pickett’s heroics made an unequivocal statement that, while the Pittsburgh Steelers might be rebuilding, they are definitely not a team to be taken lightly. The clutch win also served notice to many of those who have sold the team short in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement at the end of the 2021 season. By the time the final whistle blew at M&T Bank Stadium, the remarkable brand of football which Steelers Nation has known and loved for so many years had emerged in plain view. When power-back Najee Harris made his leaping grab of Pickett’s perfect pass for the winning score, it placed a holiday bow upon exactly the kind of dogged Steelers victory which had defined the career of Franco Harris.
Like Steelers teams of the early-to-middle 1970s — the years leading up to their first Super Bowl — the Black-and-gold used a powerful running attack to slash the Ravens defense for 198 total rushing yards. Compiling 111 yards on the ground for a 5-yards per carry average, Najee Harris showed a national TV audience why he’s become one of the league’s most punishing and athletically gifted running backs. Najee’s sidekick Jaylen Warren added 76 yards rushing for a 6.3-yard average per carry including some crucial carries to move the chains. Kenny Pickett passed for a modest 168 yards but he once again avoided interceptions while making several clutch throws into tight coverage.
Perhaps most impressively, Pickett was making the kind of throws seen only from a QB blessed with a pro-caliber arm. In so doing, Pickett might have silenced at least some of those still not convinced he’s franchise-QB material.
But while fans revel in the strong statement these Steelers have made during their stretch run, this thrilling victory represents only a precursor to many more special moments that lie ahead for Steelers Nation. It’s no secret that an offense scoring only a single touchdown in 60 minutes of play probably won’t be able to hang with offensive powerhouses like the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs or Cincinnati Bengals. But at the same time, the Steelers have demonstrated not only that they match up very well against most of the teams in the middle of the NFL pack, but also that they can compete against a playoff team like the Ravens, albeit one missing its starting QB.
While this might not mean very much for the remainder of this season (especially given the Steelers’ unlikely playoff odds), it bodes quite well for the 2023 regular season and beyond. Overall, it’s important to recognize that this Steelers team is fundamentally different than the one we watched during the last decade of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. With its newfound power-running attack and a judicious passing game, today’s Steelers are more in the mold of the team during its early years of the 1970s when Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were teammates with a young Terry Bradshaw. This offense also is more akin to the early years of Big Ben’s career which leaned heavily on outstanding RBs like Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis.
In their present form, the Steelers haven’t yet developed the quick-strike, offensive capability which characterized the careers of Bradshaw and Roethlisberger as they matured. This is partially due to Pickett’s relative inexperience, but also because of some lingering-but-improving issues with pass-blocking. Thus, today’s Steelers are a team heavily reliant on avoiding turnovers while grinding out tough running yards on long, time-consuming drives. It’s a team that mainly uses passing strategically when necessary to keep the chains moving and control time of possession.
Against the Ravens, the Steelers continued their dominance of possession time (34:14) while converting an impressive 10 of 16 third-down situations (13 of the Steelers’ 22 first downs were by rushing and nine were by passing). By contrast to the norm during the Roethlisberger Era, Kenny Pickett’s distribution of targets was roughly equal among all of his receivers and RBs.
Most importantly, Pickett firmly established that, while he’s capable as a runner, his first preference is always to find the open receiver. The game-clinching pass to Harris was a prime example of a play on which Pickett might easily have opted to run the ball but instead threw a remarkably precise pass to Najee. In particular, Pickett has shown a surprising ability to nail passes to his receivers while rolling out and in full stride.
Recognizing the old-school nature of this developing Steelers team suggests avoiding comparisons to the latter half of the Roethlisberger Era, particularly in terms of Ben’s substantial focus on deep passing. While this distinction might spur some impatience among fans and pundits accustomed to Ben Ball, Steelers Nation can nonetheless find the happy medium of rooting hard for a team which obviously still has plenty more growing to do. As far-fetched as a Steelers’ playoff berth might remain — let alone any prospect of advancing through the playoffs — the 2022 regular season must nevertheless be viewed as a success.
During this season of transition, the Steelers appear to have found their next franchise QB while bouncing back in their stretch run to post a respectable record. This accomplishment is especially impressive because the Steelers hardly can claim to possess the best overall talent in the league.
With many in Steelers Nation expecting the worst last summer, and especially after the team dropped to 2-6 at the season’s midpoint, very few could imagine how strongly the Black-and-gold would finish. And regardless of whether the Steelers beat Cleveland at home in their final regular-season game to preserve Coach Tomlin’s record of zero losing seasons, this overall season undoubtedly should be considered as mission accomplished for the Steelers organization.