The Cleveland Browns somehow out-Steelered the Steelers on Sunday, leading to a 13-10 loss for the Black and Gold in what was yet another ugly game this season. As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. Not a surprise
As much as I want to say the Steelers disappointed against the Browns, I’m not exactly surprised with their rough performance. Despite coming off a two-game winning streak, the Steelers looked very similar to how they’ve played in their prior victories this season. The only difference was the glaring lack of the fourth-quarter heroics that have defined their six wins this year. As they’ve shown all season, the Steelers trotted out a solid (and occasionally brilliant) defense, a burgeoning run game, and a passing offense that’ll make you regret wasting your afternoon to watch it against the Browns. In short, it was more of the same on Sunday — just this time, it didn’t result in a win. This is who the Steelers are this year: not entirely bad, but light years away from being good.
It’s validation for the Steelers’ critics this year who have claimed Pittsburgh needs a more sustainable winning formula. Even though the Steelers have had a habit of pulling last-minute wins out of nowhere this season, true playoff contenders don’t need to “come alive” in the fourth quarter to win every game. They stay alive the entire time.
2. The Steelers need to overhaul their passing offense
Another week, another disappointing performance from Kenny Pickett. Against Cleveland, Pickett went 15/28 for just 106 yards and no touchdowns. Although Browns rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was similarly underwhelming (24/43 for 165 yards and one interception), the latter ultimately out-dueled the former when it came to crunch time. What’s worse is that the Steelers defense gave Pickett plenty of chances to take control of the game in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers’ quarterback simply couldn’t get it done. Yes, the lack of turnovers in Pickett’s game is a legitimate strength of his, but he doesn’t do close to enough otherwise. There’s still seven games left in the regular season to turn things around, but this game should be the nail in the coffin to Pickett’s chances of being the Steelers’ quarterback of the future.
Of course, offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been a major detriment to Pittsburgh’s offense as well. His play-calling, after being solid the past few weeks, was abysmal against the Browns: short, ineffective boundary runs and passes, and a refusal to use the middle of the field. But I’m tired of pretending that it’s an either/or issue between Canada and Pickett. It’s both. As bad as Canada has been, he’s not the one missing open receivers and spinning into pressure. It’s pretty simple: the Steelers need to overhaul their passing offense — both quarterback and offensive coordinator — before Week 1 next season.
3. ...But don’t bench Kenny Pickett
This may seem like it contradicts the prior point, but it really doesn’t. The Steelers need to move on from Kenny Pickett next year, but jumping the gun and benching him this late in the 2023 season does the team no good. Pickett is a leader on the offense, and we’ve seen Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph under center for the Steelers before, and the results are not pretty. Trubisky or Rudolph will not make this team any better over the season, and their play in the past have yielded equally inept offenses to the one the Steelers are fielding right now. Beyond that, the Steelers owe Pickett one full year as the starter before officially making their decision to move on or not, even though I believe that decision should be all but made by now. As far as I’m concerned, the Steelers are Kenny Pickett’s team in 2023, even though they shouldn’t be in 2024.
The Steelers can’t do better than Kenny Pickett at this point in the season, but they can do better than Matt Canada. Or at least, they can’t do much worse. While I believe the Steelers should stick with Pickett in 2023, there should be nothing stopping them from moving on from their offensive coordinator mid-season, much like the Bills did last week.
4. Jaylen Warren is the best player on the Steelers’ offense
Is this a hot take at this point? The only player on Pittsburgh’s offense that has been able to consistently provide a spark at this point is Jaylen Warren. He rushed just nine times on Sunday, but amassed 129 rushing yards and a touchdown on those limited touches. His speed, quickness, and north-south running style are well-documented, but he’s also a very powerful running back despite standing at 5’8. For as consistent of a playmaker as Warren has been, the Steelers need to be giving him the ball more. He doesn’t need all the carries — Najee Harris is a good player in his own right and bell cow running backs are a thing of the past — but he definitely deserves a good bit more than nine. Jaylen Warren is playing like the best player on the Steelers’ offense right now, and his usage needs to reflect that.
5. Cam Heyward is still very good
The 34-year-old Cam Heyward recorded five tackles on Sunday, constantly clogging run lanes and proving he’s still one of the most important players on the Steelers’ defense. Whether it’s his run-stuffing ability or nonstop hustle, Heyward was the main reason why the Steelers’ defense was able to hold a strong Cleveland run game to under 100 yards. Heyward’s understudy, the rookie Keeanu Benton, is coming along nicely, but make no mistake — the Steelers will have a very tough time replacing Heyward’s presence on the defensive line once he finally hangs up his cleats.
6. A surprisingly strong cornerback duo
You know who’s been playing really well over the past few weeks? Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson. After a very rough start to the 2023 campaign, the veteran corner’s name has been called less and less in coverage, and he’s even made some splash plays. On the other side of the field, rookie Joey Porter Jr. has had his struggles with penalties and crafty route-runners like Amari Cooper, but he’s more often than not held his own. Of course, the Steelers didn’t exactly play one of the NFL’s stronger quarterback or wide receiver rooms on Sunday, but it was still a promising performance. With the Steelers’ safety room as painfully thin as it is right now, good cornerback play could not be more essential for success on defense for Pittsburgh.
7. Odds and ends
- The Steelers fielded a bunch of reserves Sunday on defense, from the likes of Mykal Walker at linebacker to Trenton Thompson at safety. Overall, the undermanned unit performed very well.
- It was another rough game from punter Pressley Harvin. The Steelers may have a franchise punter problem on their hands as well as a franchise quarterback one. At least this one seems like an easier fix.
- The Steelers cannot be starting Dan Moore Jr. at tackle next year.
- From a fairly clear safety that was never called to a Browns touchdown run that never clearly crossed the goal line, it was a rough day for the referees in Cleveland. And those are only a few of the puzzling calls that permeated the game.
- Only one sack from TJ Watt and the Steelers’ defense despite going against two back-up tackles. There’s more that matters than just sacks (their run defense was good), but you’d hope to see better numbers from a very talented (and expensive) pass-rush.
- I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a team run screens as bad as the Steelers.
- Elandon Roberts had a really good game against the Browns. Hopefully it’s a trend that continues as the Steelers need all the help they can get in a very thin linebacker room.
- The Steelers’ above average run game seems to be here to stay. If they can have success running against Cleveland, they can run on anyone.
- If there was one thing to smile about in Pittsburgh’s dismal loss, it’s this Myles Garrett/Broderick Jones interaction involving a loose Steelers helmet. Jones wasn’t even on the Steelers when the first Garrett/Steelers helmet incident happened, but he had clearly watched the tape and was prepared.
In the words of Bill Belichick: “On to Cincinnati...”