16-10 isn’t exactly an out of the ordinary final score for the 2023 Steelers. But something was definitely different for Pittsburgh on Sunday. They improved to 7-4 with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and as always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. The Steelers are better without Matt Canada
Well, duh. Just about every Steeler fan who follows the team knew this heading into the season, much less in Week 12. But as obvious as it might’ve seemed, there was no way of knowing how the Steelers would look once offensive coordinator Matt Canada was fired until it actually happened. Canada was relieved of his duties on Tuesday, and the Steelers on Sunday looked almost comically different. On their first play of the game they attacked the middle of the field, hitting a big tight end seam pass for over 20 yards after years of ignoring what’s between the hashes. But more importantly, the Steelers finally out-gained their opponent’s yardage in a game this year, even hitting over 400 yards of total offense — a number they never hit once with Canada running the offense. Let’s make one thing very clear: the Steelers offense is still very far away from a finished project, but it couldn’t have been more obvious on Sunday that the Steelers were an improved team without Canada.
2. The yards are there, but not the points
Let’s talk more about Pittsburgh’s 421 yards of total offense, which is an impressive number in its own right, but it didn’t result in many points. Ironically, the 16 points Pittsburgh put on the board was slightly under the team’s per-game average when Matt Canada was still the coordinator.
Matt Canada’s Steelers averaged 16.6 points per game.— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) November 26, 2023
Today they scored 16.
But it felt and looked WAY better.
But box score watching doesn’t tell the whole story. The Steelers may not have scored a lot of points, but they put themselves in positions to score more often. They had three drives that ended in field goals and one that should’ve resulted in a Diontae Johnson touchdown but instead ended in a Jaylen Warren fumble.
They left a lot of points on the board, but showed that they were capable of doing much more. Encouragingly, the team showed a better propensity for converting third-and-longs and maintaining time of possession than they have all season. Again, the points weren’t there, but Pittsburgh showed major improvements in a number of offensive categories on Sunday, and in sustainable categories, no less. If the Steeler offense continues to trend in the direction they went against the Bengals, expect that change to be reflected on the scoreboard more often in the future.
3. Playing to their strengths
The post-Canada Steelers pivoted to a more collaborative effort in piloting their offense, with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner being named the interim coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan taking over play-calling duties. The result was seemingly a better feel for what the Steelers’ players are best at, with the coaching staff putting them in better positions to succeed. Running back Najee Harris was used as more of a downfield, powerful runner, and he responded with a season-best 99 rushing yards, including this highlight. Tight end Pat Freiermuth was used less as an unwilling in-line blocker and more of a downfield threat, recording a career-best 120 receiving yards. And while Kenny Pickett didn’t exactly have a career day himself, there’s no denying he looked more in-command, comfortable, and willing to use the entire field than he has all season.
You can argue that some of the Steelers’ statistical milestones on Sunday were due more to their matchup against the Bengals’ defense than coaching personnel — and sure, that could be true in some cases. But the Steelers simply improved in too many aspects of their game on Sunday for it all to be a coincidence. Give credit where it’s due to Faulkner and Sullivan for turning the Pittsburgh offense around.
4. Struggling in the middle of the field
The Steelers’ offense showed a lot of promise in the middle of the field on Sunday, but the Pittsburgh defense didn’t do the same. After losing starting linebackers in back-to-back weeks earlier this season, the Steelers really started to miss the pass-coverage ability of Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander in the interior, with the Bengals relying heavily on middle-of-the-field pass concepts to move the ball. It’s clear that linebackers Elandon Roberts and Mykal Walker, as well as slot corner Chandon Sullivan, are the weak links in the Steelers pass defense.
But it wasn’t all bad. The Bengals used the middle of the field a lot due to the Steelers’ boundary corners playing very well. And Roberts and Walker make up for their lack of athleticism in pure effort, not allowing many yards after the catches they allow, and playing stifling run defense. Even though they struggled at times against the pass, the Steelers’ run defense was stellar on Sunday, only allowing 25 total yards on the ground.
5. Trenton Thompson could be a diamond in the rough
The Steelers might have something in young safety Trenton Thompson, who made his second consecutive start on Sunday with the Steelers down safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Keanu Neal. The former undrafted free agent made a splash in the preseason due to his physical style of play and penchant for big hits, but he’s shown he can be a ball hawk as well. Thompson dropped what looked to be a sure interception last week against the Browns, but he made sure not to make that mistake again versus Cincinnati. Down 7-3 in the third quarter, Thompson intercepted a Bengals’ pass, stopping what looked like a scoring drive and turning the tide of the game for the Steelers.
But it hasn’t just been splash plays with Thompson — he hasn’t been a liability in coverage at all despite being a midseason practice squad promotion. The Steelers might’ve really found a gem in “T2,” who should be able to stick around on the roster as a special teamer or rotational player once Fitzpatrick returns to the lineup.
6. The Steelers are in a good spot
With their win on Sunday, Pittsburgh jumped to second in the AFC North with a 7-4 record, leapfrogging the 7-4 Browns but still behind the 9-3 Ravens. Pittsburgh has now beaten every team in their division once and they still have a game each against the Ravens and Bengals to come. Baltimore still is (and should be) the favorites to win the AFC North, but the Steelers have a fighting chance. And it’s not the end of the world if they end the season in second place, either. The Steelers currently hold the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture with a favorable schedule ahead of them. Pittsburgh’s next four opponents are the Cardinals, Patriots, Colts, and Bengals — all very winnable games. If the Steelers’ defense can continue to stay relatively healthy and the offense can continue to make strides, Pittsburgh is looking at a surefire playoff spot.
I still feel similarly about the Steelers as I did before they fired Canada — Kenny Pickett still doesn’t look like the quarterback of the future and despite likely earning a playoff slot in 2023, Pittsburgh probably won’t do much when they get there. But the Steelers, despite an ugly, 16-10 final score on Sunday, played well enough to give their fanbase the most hope and optimism they’ve had since the preseason. Even though a Super Bowl win is always the goal for the Steelers, just a playoff victory would be a big success this season. And after Sunday’s results, and in a wide-open AFC, does it seem that out of the question?
7. Odds and ends
- Joey Porter Jr. might have already ascended to lockdown corner status as a rookie. He wasn’t perfect against the Bengals, but he shut down a truly elite talent in Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase for much of the game.
- Steelers fans are incredible. I heard “MUTH” chants all game and even a “Here we go Steelers” break out as the clock hit zeroes — all at an away game in Cincinnati.
- I’ve been very critical of Kenny Pickett all season, but his turnover-less streak is inarguably one of the main reasons why the Steelers are able to win games. And Pickett actually made some splash plays against the Bengals, making his ball security even more impressive.
- The Steelers seemed to use play-action more often against the Bengals after years of being a team known for avoiding it. I think it’s a welcome addition to the offense.
- It was nice to TJ Watt and co. return to dominant form on Sunday.
- It’s hard to know just how good the Jake Browning-led Bengals are with such a small sample size. The Bengals’ future performances will show how quality of a win this is for Pittsburgh.
- Your weekly reminder: Chris Boswell is very good.
A 16-10 win against an opponent without their best player... and yet, for once this season the Steelers feel like a better team than the final score shows. We’ll get to see if the Canada-less magic can continue on this season, with the Steelers’ next game being against the Arizona Cardinals in Pittsburgh on December 3.