The Steelers didn’t just lose on Sunday. They were blown out — by a 2-10 Arizona Cardinals team. It’s a loss most fans would rather forget, but for now, there’s plenty of takeaways to be had from the Steelers’ 24-10 loss.
1. Back to the dark ages
Against the Bengals last week, the Steelers won ugly with a score of 16-10. But it was still a promising game overall with the Steelers reaching over 400 yards in total offense and the game not being as close as the scoreboard showed. Having finally fired the most-hated man in Pittsburgh in offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the Steelers seemed to be free from the shackles of inept play-calling and ready to start looking like a capable NFL offense.
The overwhelming sentiment, shared by yours truly, was that the Steelers would finally be able to put all the pieces together in their upcoming stretch of winnable games and start earning victories by more than one score.
But while Canada was definitely the biggest problem, he was far from the only one. And the Steelers’ putrid offensive results on Sunday (three points and an additional touchdown in garbage time) were proof of that. To rub salt on the wound, starting quarterback Kenny Pickett went down with injury and will miss some time, resulting in Mitch Trubisky taking over as the Steelers’ signal-caller. Yes, Pickett has struggled this year, but he’s still the best quarterback on the Steelers’ roster, and Trubisky’s play on Sunday left no doubt as to that. After seemingly surfacing for air last week against the Bengals, be prepared for the Steelers offense to plunge back into the dark ages.
2. The Steelers’ mistakes cost them the game
Maybe I’m a stupidly optimistic Steeler fan, but as Pittsburgh confidently rolled down the field on their first drive of the game, my first thought was how this might finally be a stress-free Steelers victory this season.
I could not have been more wrong.
But something still rings true in that statement. The Steelers entered the game as the better team, and despite their loss, they had all the tools to emerge with a victory. Yes, the injuries they suffered played a sizable role in their defeat, but it’s still not a valid excuse.
The Steelers have won this year by playing low-penalty, mistake-free football, but they did the opposite on Sunday. They had a whopping nine penalties for 77 yards, and they lost the turnover battle 0-1 with a costly fumbled snap from Mason Cole to Mitch Trubisky. Despite the injuries, the Steelers still out-gained the Cardinals in total yards, time of possession, and yards per play on Sunday, but they couldn’t do anything with it. It was the costly mistakes, red zone and third-down inefficiency, and overall team attitude that lost the Steelers the game. Yes, injuries and the Cardinals’ efforts played a role in the loss, but ultimately, it was the Steelers’ mistakes that were the biggest factor.
3. The Steelers are losing players they can’t afford to lose to injury
If you had asked me to make a list of Steelers players they absolutely couldn’t afford to lose for the remainder of the season, my top three would’ve been something along the lines of TJ Watt, Kenny Pickett, and Elandon Roberts, in that order.
All three were injured on Sunday.
The Watt pick doesn’t need much explanation. To quote Mike Tomlin, he’s the best defensive player on the planet. We’ve seen what the Steelers look like without Watt — he’s the MVP of the team in the most literal sense. Pickett’s value to the team might be debated, but as mentioned above, he’s still far and away the best quarterback on this team even if he hasn’t had the greatest season. Quarterback is the most important position in football and you want your best guy out there.
Finally, while Roberts may not be on the same level as Steelers like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward, and others, he’s manning the Steelers’ thinnest position on defense at inside linebacker. Roberts has had a good season, and once he went down, the Pittsburgh run defense took a massive hit.
If Watt, Pickett, and Roberts had been able to play the entire game versus the Cardinals, would it have made a difference? Probably, but I’m not confident it would’ve changed who won with how flat Pittsburgh played collectively. The injuries matter more for next week, where the Steelers face the Patriots on a short week in what is suddenly an incredibly important game for their playoff chances. They’ll certainly be without Pickett, but if Watt and Roberts are limited or out, the Steelers’ chances at a win are surprisingly small. Oh, and I forgot to mention: add Isaac Seumalo and Minkah Fitzpatrick to that list, who also suffered injuries against Arizona. It was a rough day for the Steelers.
4. The Steelers have no right to be an arrogant team
I’m a pretty staunch supporter of Mike Tomlin. I think he gets too much flack when the Steelers are losing and not enough credit when they’re winning. But wow — this postgame interview from Jaylen Warren showed a pretty bad look at the Steelers’ mindset prior to the Cardinals game.
Jaylen Warren said that the Steelers may have taken the Cardinals lightly. Added they may have gotten too high off their win in Cincinnati.— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) December 3, 2023
"I guess just taking them lightly -- lighter than we should have.""
"We let the highs get too high." pic.twitter.com/MszskhGh3q
Sure, the Steelers’ 7-4 record was a lot better than the Cardinals’ 2-10 entering the contest, but let’s not exactly pretend that the Steelers have been blowing out anyone this season. Even the most optimistic fans knew that the Cardinals had a shot at beating Pittsburgh this weekend. The Steelers have done absolutely nothing this season to prove that they’ll have anything better than close wins this year. How in the world were the Steelers overlooking the Cardinals?
Beyond that, this is professional athletics. Trap games should not even be a thing. Maybe I’m overblowing one postgame comment from a disappointed running back looking for answers as to why his team lost, but hey, look at the title of this column. The Steelers have not earned the right to overlook anyone on their schedule this year, and the fact that the team was acting this overconfident following a 16-10 win over a Joe Burrow-less Bengals squad is a terrible look for head coach Mike Tomlin.
5. A bad look for Diontae Johnson
Unfortunately, arrogance seemed to be an issue this week on more than one level of the Steelers. Quite frankly, I’m more annoyed by Diontae Johnson’s over-the-top celebration down two scores in the fourth quarter this week than his lack of effort recovering a fumble last week.
Diontae Johnson celebrating the Steelers late TD pic.twitter.com/B5OqbTAwOt— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) December 3, 2023
Both were undeniably bad showings from the veteran receiver, but his poor effort versus the Bengals had some plausible deniability — maybe Johnson honestly didn’t see the ball? But there’s no way he didn’t see the scoreboard against the Cardinals. And it’s a worse look after Johnson apologized after last week’s gaffe and promised to do better.
Diva wide receiver and locker room cancer are buzz phrases and I won’t use them, but it’s clear that Diontae Johnson has an attitude problem. Accuse me of pearl-clutching over a harmless celebration or being a not-really-old-man-yells-at-cloud, but that one play exemplified everything wrong with the Steelers in Week 13.
6. The weather delays should’ve been a good thing
I’m spreading my distaste with the coaching in this game over two points so there isn’t one disproportionately long one. I write more productively when I’m mad, I guess. Let’s jump into it: there was not just one, but two weather delays on Sunday. As the broadcast team mentioned, and as anyone who’s ever sat through a delay as a participant in a sporting event would know, those delays are a mental battle between the two teams regarding who can keep their edge through the break.
The delays should’ve helped the Steelers more than anything. The team was clearly unprepared heading into the game and the poor weather gave them a chance to regroup and retake the field with the right mindset. Again, they are a better team than the Cardinals and they should’ve played like it. But instead, they came out flatter each time the game clock resumed.
Mike Tomlin is at his best as a motivator. He’s a leader of men who should thrive in scenarios like the Cardinals game. Instead, he fell flat as did his entire roster. This is an abysmal loss for the Steelers. There’s no other way to put it.
7. Tight end troubles
Cardinals tight ends Trey McBride, Geoff Swaim, and Elijah Higgins combined for all but two of the Cardinals’ total receptions on Sunday. The positional group, McBride especially, ate the Steeler defense alive.
After containing tight ends surprisingly well this season after struggling in years past, the Steelers are starting to regress back to their old ways. It’s hard to blame them, though. They’re scraping the very bottom of their depth chart after injuries to their top three inside linebackers this season. It’ll take a good scheme from Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to prevent this from continuing to be a problem the rest of the season. Next week, the Steelers face a very poor Patriots offense, but it does contain a solid tight end combination in Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki. The Steelers will have to get better at defending the middle of the field over the short week.
8. A few positives
Let’s end with a few quick-hit positives as I’m getting depressed reading my own article.
For one, the Steelers’ rushing offense is not just good, but consistent. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren ran all over the Cardinals, averaging 3.9 and 6.6 yards per carry, respectively. They would’ve put up much better numbers if the Steelers hadn’t been forced to pass more late. In addition, the Steelers’ offense as a whole didn’t look that bad until Pickett left the game with injury.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ defense was much better than the final score shows. They held Kyler Murray and the Cardinals passing offense to only 145 yards. The run defense numbers aren’t as good, but the Steelers were stuffing James Conner for most of the game until injuries and fatigue set in late.
In short, we’ve all seen that the Steelers have the pieces to win games. They’ve even managed to do so seven times this year. They just need to continue to put it all together if they want to do anything meaningful this season.
9. Odds and ends
- He didn’t have the greatest game, but it was nice to see the Steelers give Trenton Thompson a solid number of snaps on defense despite Minkah Fitzpatrick’s return. Thompson has played well over the past few weeks and deserves more playing time.
- Joey Porter Jr. gave up one big pass play to Greg Dortch and a costly pass interference penalty, but he held his main assignment, Marquise Brown, to zero catches.
- The television analyst who claimed the Steelers have been “incredibly healthy” this season clearly hasn’t followed the team much this year. And even worse, it was a darkly ironic preview of what was to come for the team.
- T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were exceptional on Sunday.
- The unnecessary roughness call on Elandon Roberts was the right one, but it was clearly not a dirty play. He still made late, head-to-head contact, but you can clearly see him trying to let up on the hit. Just an unfortunate mistake.
- Miles Killebrew had a very rough game with three special teams penalties. Not calling for his head or anything, but it’s not what you want to see from a veteran special teams captain. It was that kind of game for Pittsburgh.
- I still can’t wrap my head around the Steelers’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal in a 3-3 game. I’m all for being aggressive, but the smart choice there is to take the lead on a chip shot field goal. What’s worse is the fourth down play was Trubisky’s first of the game, all but telegraphing it was going to be a run to Najee Harris, which was promptly stuffed.
- I’m surprised that Trey McBride’s first touchdown catch was ruled incomplete. I guess that means the Steelers were correct not challenging Diontae Johnson’s dropped touchdown last week.
- It was another great game for Keeanu Benton.
If the Steelers lose to another 2-10 team at home next week, BTSC might collectively implode. The good news is that the Steelers tend to win following embarrassing losses. Let’s hope that’s the case on Thursday night.