I don’t need cardio. I watch the Steelers every week. Pittsburgh won another low-scoring nail-biter Thursday night in their 20-16 victory over the Titans, and as always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. Sit back and enjoy the ride
Look, I couldn't be more aware that the Steelers are not a great football team. They have major issues everywhere, and by continuing to eke out winning seasons they may be simply perpetuating mediocrity rather than embracing the change they so desperately need.
But as fans, is it okay to just be happy with a 5-3 start?
The Steelers are somehow second in the AFC North with a good shot at making the playoffs. Their style of winning continually spits in the face of both statistics and football conventions, which is as hilarious as it is infuriating.
The Steelers are the 34th team in NFL history to be out-gained by their opponent in each of their first 8 games of a season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 3, 2023
They are the first to have a winning record through those 8 games. h/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/m8dSrzERkT
And sure, the feel-good story will come crashing down the moment Pittsburgh falls short yet again against an actual Super Bowl contender — but for the time being, let’s just buckle up and enjoy this crazy, best-worst season ever.
2. Matt Canada isn’t the only problem
I know I’m hardly the first person to say it this season, but the Steelers’ offensive ineptitude doesn’t just boil down to coordinator Matt Canada. Offensive execution has arguably been an even bigger problem than play-calling over the past few weeks. Once again, the Steelers had some open receivers on possible big-play throws that Kenny Pickett flat-out missed. Pickett finally did hit George Pickens on a corner route for what should’ve been a routine touchdown, but the Steelers’ receiver failed to get both feet in bounds on what is a run-of-the-mill toe tap catch for most NFL pass-catchers. I’m certainly not advocating for a Canada extension, but it’s fair to say he’s taking an inordinate amount of blame for the Steelers’ problems on offense. He’s called decent games the past few weeks — the offense just hasn’t been executing.
3. The Broderick Jones effect
Rookie Broderick Jones is the best tackle on the Steelers’ roster. In his start earlier this season on the left he looked better than incumbent Dan Moore Jr., and against the Titans on the right, Jones outplayed usual starter Chuks Okorafor by leaps and bounds. He has a combination of physicality and athleticism that really pops off the screen — Jones was a puller leading the way on Najee Harris’ first quarter touchdown run. Coming out of Georgia as a rookie, Jones was primarily lauded as a run-blocker, and he was certainly as-advertised on Thursday night. But he looked rock-solid in pass-protection as well.
The Steelers are actively hurting their offense if Jones is forced to ride the bench any longer this season. If you spend the fourteenth overall pick on a player who’s ready to be in the starting lineup, you’d be foolish not to play him accordingly.
Jones was called for a costly, unnecessary penalty that almost cost the Steelers late, but besides that, it was a stellar performance for the rookie — especially considering he was playing out of his usual position from left to right tackle.
4. Joey Porter Jr. will be a star
But... but the penalties.
If you’re expecting perfect play from a rookie cornerback at the NFL level I don’t know what to tell you. And to be honest, I greatly prefer coverage that can be too aggressive at times over playing it safe with cushions that give up short completions for free. Steelers rookie corner Joey Porter Jr. was hit with a number of penalties throughout the game, and his subpar tackling popped up yet again, but he largely shut down Titans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who the rookie shadowed all game.
Joey Porter Jr. lined up against DeAndre Hopkins on 26 of 36 routes (72.2% shadow rate), aligning in press coverage on 20 routes (76.9%).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 3, 2023
Hopkins caught just 1 reception for 17 yards on 5 targets with Porter as the nearest defender.#TENvsPIT | #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/AxDVjlubmY
It’s worth noting that although Hopkins may no longer be in his prime, he’s still an effective veteran wideout who recorded 128 yards and three touchdowns last week. It wasn’t a flawless game from Porter, but he’s already showing signs of being a true lockdown corner. The rest will come with time.
5. Flipping the run game script
Stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Steelers’ run game disappointed while their run defense was somehow even worse. That’s been the story of this Pittsburgh team this year, but that issue didn’t occur on Thursday. The Steelers outrushed the Titans 166-105, holding Derrick Henry to 75 yards while the duo of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren rushed for a combined 157 yards, averaging 4.3 and 8.0 yards per carry, respectively. Much of the credit is due to the running backs themselves, who ran with energy and drive all game. But it really comes down to the offensive line, who had perhaps their best game of the season moving defenders and opening up running lanes.
On the other side of things, the return of defensive stalwart Cam Heyward to the Steelers’ defensive line was an immediate upgrade to the teams’ run-stopping. He was in on a run-stuff on the Titans’ first offensive play of the day, and despite limited snaps, Heyward provided a noticeable boost to the Steelers’ defense. It was nice to see the Steelers win the ground battle for once this season.
6. A hit to the linebacker depth
Steelers’ starting inside linebacker Cole Holcomb suffered a grisly knee injury against the Titans. Word isn’t out on the severity of it yet, but anyone who caught a glance of how his leg bent on the play knows the diagnosis likely won’t be encouraging. It’s a big hit to Pittsburgh’s inside linebacker room, as Holcomb was tied for the team lead in tackles and having a good season. The Steelers just can’t seem to avoid the worst injury luck at the position. Here’s hoping that Holcomb can make a full and quick recovery.
If there was a silver lining, it was Steelers general manager Omar Khan’s foresight to sign three starting-caliber inside linebackers this offseason in Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, and Kwon Alexander. With Holcomb’s injury, Alexander stepped right up and ended up securing the game-sealing interception. Good depth is essential for success in the NFL, and the Steelers’ inside linebackers showed why on Thursday.
7. Thursday Night Football is bad product
I’ll admit that it’s nice to come home on a Thursday night and be able to turn on an NFL game. But that’s about the only upside of Thursday Night Football. Week after week it’s a low-scoring, penalty and injury-ridden slog between two underprepared and beat-up teams. Besides just being a bad TV product, there’s added health risk for players due to the short week. And as much as I still love Al Michaels, there’s no getting around that he doesn’t put much effort into adding any excitement to the few noteworthy plays that do occur in these boring nights of football.
The Steelers do have a habit of dragging their opponents into ugly games, but I’m certain that TNF played a role as well against the Titans. And I doubt Panthers-Bears next week will do anything to prove that theory wrong.
8. Odds and ends
- 20 points doesn’t really seem like something to cheer about, but Matt Canada on the sidelines does seem to be a good thing for the Steelers’ offense.
- Darnell Washington may not be the pass-catcher we hoped he’d be, but there’s no denying that he’s earned his snaps with his ability as a blocker.
- It was great to finally see Diontae Johnson score a touchdown.
- Levi Wallace may have been benched, but he actually looked like a viable NFL corner this week.
- Darius Rush had a dropped interception, but he’s already looking like a great pickup for the Steelers.
- Penalties were the Steelers’ biggest issue against Tennessee. Some were sketchy calls, but overall, it was far too sloppy a game from Pittsburgh.
- Offensive line coach Pat Meyer’s dismissive swat at a Kenny Pickett throwaway is the funniest thing I’ve seen all season.
- Even though they hit a bit of a lull in the second half, the Steelers’ pass-rush was the motor behind the Steelers’ defensive success on Thursday. That’s been the case all season.
- Yes, he plays well in the fourth quarter, but the other 75% of the game is generally not a good showing from Kenny Pickett. I’m really starting to have my doubts about if the Steelers should give him another year as the starter.
- Two catches for -1 yards is an unacceptable stat line for George Pickens. His production should not be dropping off this ridiculously despite Diontae Johnson being back in the lineup.
- Prayers up for Treylon Burks. A rough injury to watch.
It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless. The Steelers now get a few extra days of rest between now and their Week 10 matchup against the Packers.
What are your overreactions and takeaways from Steelers vs. Titans? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!