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Steelers superlatives: Steelers lucked into a win in Week 7, Pickett as a ‘game-flow’ QB and more

This and other dispatches from the Behind The Steel Curtain community heading into Week 8...

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Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) congratulates Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) after a Steelers victory in an NFL regular season game on October 22, 2023, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers defeated the Rams 24-17 last Sunday, pushing their record to 4-2 on the season and keeping pace in a crowded AFC playoff field. Let’s hear the thoughts of the community here at Behind The Steel Curtain, courtesy of the very active and lively comments section:

“The reality is the Steelers lucked into a win” SportsFans01

This is reflective of the glass-half-empty pessimism inherent to vast swathes of the fan base. I don’t mean for that to come across as entirely dismissive, by the way. Preconceived notions tend to inform assumptions, so the idea that the Steelers “lucked” into a close win on the opposite coast in a game in which they were largely outplayed for two and a half quarters isn’t altogether defeatist if they didn’t look the part of a convincingly superior outfit. And they didn’t.

My counterpoint would be that margins in the NFL are razor-thin. The average margin of victory last season was less than 10 points per game, so most games are more likely to be determined by a handful of key plays than end in multi-possession blowouts. The Steelers won on Sunday because they made fewer mistakes than the Rams did. That’s not a consequence of luck, but rather preparation, game planning, in-game adjustments, capitalizing on the opposition’s missteps, and execution. And also Brett Maher snap-hooking three eminently makeable field goals.

That win against the Ravens, though—that was luck.

“The Steelers are the Minnesota Vikings from 2022.” goldenslumbr

As a refresher, the 2022 Vikings were 11-0 in one-possession games and, hilariously, actually finished the regular season with a negative points differential despite winning 13 games overall. All this begged to question: Are the Vikings unserious and fraudulent, purely benefactors of statistical anomaly, or does Kirk Cousins and the gang have that dog in them? This question was quickly addressed in the Wild Card round, where the Vikings were dismantled by the same version of the Giants that are currently 2-5. Yikes!

The Steelers have won four games this season by a combined 19 points, putting their average margin of victory at a cozy 4.75 points per game. They’re fortunate to boast a winning record, but parity is rampant in the NFL so it’s not as if their success this season has been bestowed upon them by some divine means. Every team in the NFL is built to win close games, and all the platitudes from color commentators about teams “abandoning the script” when they fall behind and start throwing the ball more come across like assumptions that game plans are designed to be static. This is, of course, manifestly untrue, as coaching staffs make many hundreds of adjustments during a single game, even when they’re comfortably in the driver’s seat. Mike Tomlin and his staff will never find themselves completely beyond reproach, but they’re doing enough to win games, which is the only outcome that matters. If the Steelers do win 11 close games, those’ll count just the same as 11 convincing blowouts.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Vikings made the playoffs last season. If the Steelers do the same this year, the season should be considered a successful one.

“This is a crazy year. most people reading this wouldn’t be surprised to see this team collapse under the weight of their awful offense. but don’t be surprised if they start to get stronger and stronger too.” cassidy977

It’s rare for a team to achieve success despite its offense. Two recent-ish examples that stand out are the 2016 Broncos, who dragged the rotting corpse of what used to be Peyton Manning to the finish line, and the 2006 Steelers, who were so talented on defense that Ben Roethlisberger playing the worst game a quarterback has ever played in a Super Bowl did not phase them. The 2023 Steelers have a good defense, perhaps even a very good defense, but relying entirely on any defense to hold teams like the Bills, Ravens, Dolphins, Bengals, or Chiefs under 20 points isn’t a sustainable winning formula: the offense must bear more of a burden.

And in that vein, the last two wins have been promising, at least in the sense that the offense has limited mistakes and come through when it’s needed to. Diontae Johnson in particular seems to have injected some added vitality into the offense, which isn’t surprising considering his dynamism and penchant for always getting open. Having Johnson back should also precipitate indirect benefits like taking pressure off George Pickens and aiding in the run game (either by forcing defenses to take greater accountability for him or taking some handoffs himself). We’ll see how it goes moving forward.

As an aside, I’m aware that the Bengals are 3-3 and relatively toothless on offense this season. I would not count on that remaining the case for much longer.

“This was the team’s most complete game this year by far. By the end all phases were firing on all cylinders, even the much maligned offense. There are still some issues to iron out…mainly the rushing defense, slow starts, and the combination of Peterson and Wallace…but this was an impressive showing.” JV2K13

This is a pragmatic view of last Sunday’s proceedings. There will always be issues to iron out, but as a foundation to build upon for the remainder of the season, the win against the Rams will do just fine.

“Slow starts” do stand out as a hallmark of Steelers teams under Mike Tomlin’s tutelage, and what’s interesting is how these starts have been applicable to both individual games (like Sunday) and entire seasons (like last year). With the very notable exception of 2020 when the Steelers won their first 10 games (hot take: that entire season, including Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl victory, should contain a giant asterisk), they tend to stumble out of the gate only to regain their footing once the autumnal hues that imbue the landscape turn to shades of pewter and taupe. They invariably remain in the hunt until the final week of the regular season. The suspect early-season performances haven’t always translated to poor records, but they have evoked questions about the Steelers’ longer-term prospects. I’ve always been curious about the lackluster early season performances, as well as the Steelers’ consistent inability to score points on their opening drives. These are all pre-Pickett concerns. I’m not really going anywhere with this—just genuinely intrigued.

“What’s insane is that the team average league-wide is 22 a game Offense at a premium every weekend outside of less than a handful of games.” deepelem blues

Not really a Steelers-specific comment, but an interesting talking point, nonetheless. So far in 2023, the league-wide scoring average is 21.7 points per game, which would be the lowest total since 2017 and the second-lowest since 2006. Touchdowns are down, too, with teams averaging 2.31 touchdowns per game in 2023; should that hold, it’d be the lowest total since 2005.

One explanation for this is that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift. I started watching football at a time when Shaun Alexander and Brian Urlacher were among the most valuable players in the NFL; today, the idea of expending a high draft pick on a running back or off-ball linebacker is considered regressive. The last decade saw the implementation of myriad rule changes making it generally easier to throw the football, and that, coupled with a proliferation of freakish tight ends and receivers, bore witness to a passing revolution; of the 16 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, 14 have come since 2011. The fact that scoring is down nearly two points per game since 2018 suggests that defenses are catching up to offenses. This is a welcome development. To be clear, nobody wants to watch a defensive struggle, but seeing cyborgs like Sauce Gardner or Micah Parsons do cool and exciting things on a weekly basis makes for a better product. Imagine putting Fred Warner in a time machine and sending him back to 1955. He’d turn Otto Graham into a cloud of pink vapor.

Another explanation is that many teams are playing a more conservative style, both offensively and defensively. Defenses are playing more zone schemes like Cover 3 and 4 to help mitigate chunkier plays, and offenses are largely taking what they’re being given, content making shorter throws, dumping off to the running back or audibling into draws. For offenses, conservatism can also be directly tied to inexperience. The average age of starting quarterbacks is as young as it’s ever been, and players like Kenny Pickett and Jordan Love are not afforded the same degree of offensive autonomy as Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers.

(This isn’t related to anything I said above, but an interesting factoid: scoring peaked at 24.8 points per game in 2020, which is more than a full point higher than the second-highest mark indexed by Pro Football Reference. This serves as a pretty compelling testament to the outsized importance of crowd noise.)

TL;DR: Offense is a passing fad; defense wins championships. Thirty-two is the age at which Steelers fans become their fathers.

“I’m starting to see Pickett as a ‘game flow’ type QB. A lot like Stafford actually. The more pass plays he gets, the more he heats up and the more confidence he seems to gather. I would entertain starting a game off just airing it out and see what happens.” - jockeyjockey

Big fan of this idea. I’m not sure if I fully buy into the narrative that Kenny Pickett is Tom Brady incarnate when the game clock dips below 10 minutes, but I do think it kind of stands to reason that professional athletes have the capacity to selectively elevate their play and Pickett, in particular, has demonstrated a proclivity for stepping up in crunch time. I think there’s also an argument that high-pressure situations allow players to set aside all the minutiae floating around their brain space and focus on slangin’ that thang, and that Pickett has benefitted from the added freedom that comes with the absence of rigid structure. But those are depths to be plumbed in another blog. For this point, yes, I strongly favor implementing opening-drive heat checks for Pickett.

“Week 9, I’m more concerned about Etienne than I am Lawrence when the Jags come to town. Our run defense has been worrisome.” - p-squared

Travis Etienne is an extremely talented running back who will impact the game in manifold ways: he’s powerful, elusive, good in space, good in tight spaces, capable as a receiver and an adept blocker. And the Steelers' run defense has been objectively bad. Etienne is a safe bet to eat heartily this weekend. If I were a betting man (I am), I’d put money on him scoring against the Steelers (I intend to).

But Trevor Lawrence is an outrageously talented quarterback. His primary role this season has been that of game manager, which isn’t the pejorative it sounds like. He’s usually making the correct throw, he’s not turning the ball over, and he’s scrambling for yardage as necessary. The Jaguars are 5-2 and that’s largely the result of Lawrence’s play. If the Steelers do manage to choke off running lanes and shut down Etienne, there is little to suggest that Lawrence won’t simply carry the load himself.

“What do you predict the Steelers’ record will be in these three games? If I were a betting man I’d wager we go 4-0!” Blkgldtom

3-1. But I appreciate Tom’s enthusiasm.

“Never ceases to amaze me how much more casual fans know about the game of football than coaches in the NFL.” SteelerBuddha

I cannot overstate how much I love this take. The reasonable and practical part of my brain realizes how absurd this sentiment is, but the animal part is like, “Heck yeah, brother.”

I’m not so cynical that I think every NFL coach is a sociopath. Meathead coaches are way out of style (hence why someone like Joe Judge, who thoroughly sucks, will never get a head coaching job ever again), and there are numerous coaches who strike me as interesting, thoughtful men. Robert Saleh is one. Mike McDaniel is another. Mike Tomlin, Dan Campbell, DeMeco Ryans, and Arthur Smith, too — all the antithesis of Urban Meyer. However, I do think most coaches are united in their steadfast adherence to their own ways, and that has a way of shrouding their perspective when things get hairy.

Of course, beyond the two or so hours a week that Mike Tomlin or any other coach spends talking to the media, they are breaking down film, holding meetings, devising game plans, liaising with coordinators, etc., so it isn’t like they’re running it back on Madden and calling it a day. I get the knee-jerk tendency to assume the worst of the head coach, but if you or I coached the Steelers for an entire season, they’d go 0-17.