Sunday was the most highly-anticipated Week 1 matchup in recent Steelers memory. It was the first home opener in years, the team had incredible momentum, and it was against a contending 49ers squad with enough question marks for Vegas to label Pittsburgh the favorite.
The Steelers showed up, but they didn’t show up to play.
Although all feels like doom and gloom, there are some positive takeaways in the swirling sea of negativity surrounding Sunday's loss. And, of course, there is plenty of negative to go around. In this write-up, I’ll be running through the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from Sunday’s blowout loss to San Francisco.
Trent Jordan Watt
As per usual, TJ Watt looked absolutely dominant. The All-Pro linebacker notched three sacks in the opener, tying James Harrison’s franchise record of 80.5 in just the first game of his 7th season. Unbelievable numbers from an unbelievable player.
Beyond just sacks, Watt stuffed the stat sheet Sunday. He finished with five tackles, five QB hits, two forced fumbles, one tackle for loss, and a pass defensed. Although the latter player participated on a limited snap count, Watt certainly outshined newly-extended 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa.
DPOY #2 may be in the cards for Watt if he can stay healthy this season.
While it was a relatively quiet game from the Steelers’ marquee WRs, Diontae Johnson (3 receptions for 48 yards) and George Pickens (5 receptions for 36 yards), Allen Robinson and Calvin Austin III erased any lingering doubts about the team’s WR3 and WR4 spots.
A veteran trade addition prior to the draft, Robinson finished Sunday’s contest first in receiving (63 yards), first in targets (8), and second in receptions (5). Robinson also hauled in the longest catch of the game, and was a key target on third down. He shook off the rust from his Rams tenure quickly, and is looking like a steal.
Austin, who missed his rookie season due to an ankle injury, led all Steelers with six receptions, most of which came after Diontae Johnson exited with an injury. The sophomore showed good separation and as much RAC ability as you’ll see in a Matt Canada offense. Couple that with his burst from the preseason, and Austin looks to be a versatile weapon for Kenny Pickett.
Both players passed the "eye test" and look to be real contributors in the offense, especially if Johnson’s hamstring lands him on IR.
New faces in the trenches
In addition to Robinson and Austin, at the line of scrimmage, a few new faces contributed early.
On offense, Darnell Washington logged 24 snaps in relief of Pat Freiermuth, who injured his chest in the game. Though not targeted, the 6’7 265lb 22-year-old showed more than a little promise in the blocking department, pancaking Nick Bosa and prompting the DE to shake his head in disbelief. He really is like a sixth lineman out there.
On defense, two new linemen made the most of their debuts. Veteran FA Markus Golden performed admirably in run support, and rookie Keeanu Benton was a force in his 29 snaps. The 2022 second-rounder proved his mettle against both the run and pass, and PFF graded him the highest out of any Steeler not named TJ Watt, on both sides of the ball.
In his fourth season with Pittsburgh, Anthony McFarland has finally carved out a consistent role on the team- as a kickoff returner and third-down back. McFarland flashed in the preseason and carried the momentum into Sunday’s opener, returning three kickoffs for 91 total yards.
Credit Danny Smith’s special teams unit for creating holes for McFarland- on two of his three excellent returns, the back was a block away from breaking loose for a score. After years of ineptitude at the KR spot, McFarland is a breath of fresh air.
Sigh. New year, same Steelers O-line struggles. After a full offseason of earnest efforts to sure up the "Pickett Fence," the Steelers offensive line is back to square one.
Against San Francisco, Kenny Pickett was sacked 5 times, tied for third in the league behind Daniel Jones (7) and Sam Howell (6). Moreover, the Steelers’ rushing attack was near-nonexistent. The team finished with just ten carries for 41 total yards, nearly two-thirds of them coming on Najee Harris’ 24-yard scamper at the end of the first half. I’d say they gave up on the run game, but there was hardly anything to give up on.
The line’s performance doesn’t improve much when evaluated individually- position-by-position, little has changed since last season. Last year’s issues were at LT, LG, and C. This trend will continue in 2023-24. Despite admirable contributions from right side mainstays James Daniels and Chuks Okorafor (the latter of whom entered concussion protocol in the second half), the OL play from leftward from them was putrid.
Mason Cole and Isaac Seumalo combined for six pressures, five hurries, a sack, and a penalty, and neither excelled in the run game. After the hype Seumalo got in the offseason, to say I’m disappointed in his performance is an understatement. I’m sure some of his issues were due to picking up slack for Dan Moore Jr., but Seumalo himself looked bad on several key plays.
Speaking of Moore, two players logged snaps at LT, and neither looked like the answer. Moore got the start, and rewarded the Steelers with a showing for the books- nine pressures, six hurries, two QB hits, and a sack… at LT, that is. After Okorafor’s injury, Moore slotted into the RT spot and immediately surrendered another sack.
In Moore’s defense, Broderick Jones, who took over at LT for the rest of the game, would have allowed a sack on the same play, had Moore held his block for half a second longer. Jones, too, looked lost in his limited playing time. Although a bad performance was to be expected from a project LT, it was still, you know, bad.
In general, I have this to say about the OL: it’s going to be a bad day when your best lineman is Chuks Okorafor. When he’s your best lineman and he gets hurt? Well, y’all watched the game.
Second level defense
New year, same defensive issues. I always struggle to criticize this side of the ball because they’re on the field the whole game, but outside of rushing the passer and stuffing runs up the middle, this unit is consistently outclassed. The second level is (and always has been) their problem, and that isn't changing anytime soon.
As we rediscover annually, trotting out a bargain-bin ILB corps is a moronic strategy. On Sunday, Pittsburgh’s trio of veteran retreads (Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, and Kwon Alexander) continued the storied tradition of Steelers linebackers in the post-Shazier era: missing tackles left and right, taking poor angles to the ball, and getting stiff-armed into oblivion, all while shouldering the Sisyphean burden of shadowing the best WRs in the NFL. Roberts finished with 2 TFLs, which is nice, but no Pittsburgh ILB finished with a PFF grade above 65 (average). If the eye test means anything, these guys suck. What else is new?
In a similar vein, all-too-familiar issues resurfaced in Pittsburgh’s secondary. At corner, both starters looked outclassed. Levi Wallace was eaten alive in coverage and bullied as a tackler. Maybe it was the customary 15 yards of cushion Steelers CBs are forced to give by default, maybe it was Wallace himself lacking talent and preparation. Hard to say for sure! Starting opposite the pile of ashes formerly known as Levi Wallace, Patrick "When I get my pick Sunday" Peterson tallied zero interceptions and two touchdowns allowed, including a high-flying end-zone baptism by Brandon Aiyuk. Who knows, maybe Peterson was talking about a different Sunday.
Safety play wasn’t much better, either. Damontae Kazee let up several long gains by air, and the sound of his skull whacking the dirt on McCaffrey’s third quarter stiff-arm registered on the Richter scale. Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t play all too terribly, but if he has a few more games like this, his face may end up on a milk carton. All-around poor showing from the back four.
After a preseason where Pickett posted a perfect passer rating and scored on every drive, expectations were optimistic for the second-year pro. On Sunday, Pittsburgh’s golden boy looked more like pyrite than the real thing. Pickett finished the blowout loss 31/46, with 232 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. His QBR (23.9) and passer rating (68.4) were good for 22nd and 26th amongst 32 qualifiers, respectively.
In his fairly large sample size (52 dropbacks), Pickett looked consistently flustered and inaccurate. While his 67.4 completion percentage was good for 11th in the league, at just 5 yards per attempt, that percentage means next to nothing. Most of Pickett’s completions were at or behind the LOS, putting little (if any) pressure on the defense. Pickett targeted beyond 10 yards of the LOS just 11 times the entire game, completing just 4 passes and throwing two interceptions. Over the middle, Pickett threw 16 passes for just 8 completions. He also gifted a third interception to Fred Warner on a routine perimeter throw, but Warner politely dropped it to avoid rubbing salt in Pickett's wounds.
To the eye test, Pickett looked horrible. He missed several receivers on critical throws (including Diontae Johnson for a would-be touchdown), bailed on the few clean pockets he actually had, and caused multiple sacks by holding onto the ball too long. His line and OC didn’t do him any favors, but 4/11 with two INTs on downfield throws is a hard statline to write off. He missed low, high, and behind, and of the passes he connected on, multiple were of the "hospital" variety. Pickett also burned an early timeout, harkening back to one of Big Ben’s most notable recurring faults.
In the interest of fairness and context, Week 1 was a bad week for quarterback play league-wide, especially in the AFC North. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m picking on Pickett. Everybody has bad games, and KP is no exception. Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, and DeShaun Watson all looked bad on Sunday, and Pickett looked better than at least one of them, maybe two. However, the comparison stops there. All those guys have had elite games before. Pickett hasn’t. He’s shown very little in the way of passing prowess over his career.
Last year, the league average passer rating was 89.1. Kenny Pickett has matched or exceeded this rating one (1) time in 14 games. The league average for completion percentage was 64.2%. In Matt Canada’s dink and dunk offense, Pickett has matched or exceeded this rate just seven (7) times. The league average for yards per game was 218.5. Pickett has matched or exceeded this output five (5) times. The league average for yards per attempt was 7.0. Pickett has matched or exceeded this output two (2) times. Pickett has never thrown for two TDs in a game. Pickett has never accounted for more than two total TDs in a game. Pickett has a 2:3 TD-turnover ratio. He has eclipsed 300 yards in a game just once, on 52 attempts.
I’m not saying Pickett hasn’t developed, can’t develop, or won’t develop, but he hasn’t shown anything that tells me he WILL develop into even an average NFL QB. He’s looked like a jittery version of my pre-draft comp for him, Andy Dalton. Games like Sunday’s echo the red flags in his scouting report - Pickett has nervous feet, scrambles instead of stepping up in the pocket, holds the ball too long, has trouble leading receivers, and struggles to put touch on his passes. He’s an antsy, inaccurate, scrambler bolstered by moxie, arm strength, and a solid cast of pass-catchers.
Pickett can’t get by on preseason highlights forever. A couple plucky game-winning drives against bottom-feeders won’t raise a Lombardi. At some point, the guy has to show that he can carry the team as a passer. Otherwise, the Steelers may have to come to grips with the reality that their young QB is not be the answer.
Do I even need to mention this? This game was riddled with the same coaching failures we see from the Steelers every season. No one should be surprised.
Pittsburgh got a thimbleful of "dark horse" hype in the offseason, so naturally, they came into the game overconfident and underprepared. Mind you, this was against a team that was a backup QB away from a Super Bowl appearance.
Each phase of the game had its own flavor of failure, and it was thanks in good part to the perplexing, obstinate hubris of the team’s coaching staff.
Coaching - Offense
On offense, the playcalling was effete and counterintuitive. Mike Tomlin’s mantra throughout Pittsburgh’s soft rebuild has been simple- "play good defense, and run the damn ball." Every major offensive roster move, from the first-round reach on Najee Harris, to the acquisition of touted offensive linemen like James Daniels and Isaac Seumalo, to the early selections of tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Darnell Washington, has been to build the team into a bully-ball rushing juggernaut. In their home opener, Pittsburgh dialed up NINE rushes on SIXTY-ONE plays. It didn’t work, and it didn’t change throughout the game. I understand that San Francisco is an excellent run-stopping team, but if you want to talk about "living in your fears," take a good hard look at the run-to-pass ratio from this game.
The plays they did dial up weren’t any good either. As we have seen since Big Ben’s elbow injury in 2019, Pittsburgh’s passing offense is comprised almost entirely of short perimeter routes. Explosive plays and RAC aren’t options when the routes are all shallow hitches and outs. Defensive coordinators feel comfortable stacking the box because Pittsburgh won’t test them downfield, and against SF, there wasn’t even a run game to keep them honest. It was brutal. Going into its final drive of the first half, Pittsburgh had zero first downs and negative yards.
In contrast to SF’s offense, which broke huge gains on the ground and sprung free for extra yards after nearly every catch, Matt Canada’s offense looked junior varsity. It was a game full of lazy dumpoffs, predictable gimmicks, and head-scratching calls. They literally ran Four Verticals on a 4th and 4 at SF's 8 yard line. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Matt Canada game without a first-quarter jet sweep getting blown up in the backfield, and they got that out of the way just two plays into the game. Outstanding! Not that it affects the game too much (other than consistently losing yards), but every time Matt Canada calls a jet sweep, it’s like he’s holding up a giant, blinking sign reading: "I dare you cowards to fire me."
Speaking of firing, I am barely clinging to the "fire Canada" bandwagon at this point. The case for a punitive firing (i.e., holding him accountable for being a terrible football coach) is pretty convincing- in 36 games, his offense has NEVER accrued 400 yards, and has cracked 20 points just NINE times. Even if we ignore his resume and stick to the present, the prognosis is no different. The offense was an abject failure in Week 1, and I have no reason to believe it’ll look any better against a stout Cleveland defense on Monday.
However, firing Canada isn’t the panacea people think it is. The Steelers’ offensive issues predate Canada- the entire unit has been subpar since Todd Haley was fired. The Steelers hate hiring experienced (translation: expensive) coaches as coordinators, and Tomlin can’t stand to be anything but the center of attention, so we can reasonably assume Matt Canada’s replacement (Mike Sullivan or Glenn Thomas) is already in the building. Frankly, I don’t think another Tomlin lackey moves the needle. Another order of jet sweeps, please!
Last thing I will say about the offensive coaching: they are horribly mismanaging Kenny Pickett's career. Reaching on a feel-good hometown QB is one thing. Failing to surround him with a single successful, NFL-caliber coordinator is another. Seeing the 2022 draft's QB1 get outshined by the 2022 draft's Mr. Irrelevant should be a wake-up call, but it won’t be.
Coaching - Defense
Let me preface this by saying Teryl Austin’s unit was hamstrung by an offense that couldn’t possess the ball for an entire half. Moreover, because I spoke at length about Teryl Austin and his resume when he was elevated to DC (he was a horrible coach in all of his prior stops), I won’t pile on him individually.
Here’s what I will say: maybe 15 yards of cushion shouldn’t be the standard coverage against teams which melt soft zones like butter. Maybe slow ILBs shouldn’t cover #1 WRs. Maybe there should be a contingency plan for when TJ Watt doesn’t get a sack.
I don’t know, I’m just spitballing.
We tend to give Pittsburgh's outdated, ineffective offense a pass because they have a defensive head coach, even though offensive coaches like Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid routinely field top defenses, and defensive coaches like Sean McDermott and John Harbaugh routinely field top offenses.
Even if it's silly, the narrative exists- as long as Tomlin's defense performs, we can ignore the complete ineptitude of the other side of the ball. Well, the Steelers aren't playing good defense anymore. They're now at a disadvantage on both sides of the ball. In 2023, building your team's entire identity around defense is like building a house on a foundation of sand. The rains have descended, the floods have come, and the winds have blown. How's the house looking?
Coaching - Special Teams
This is a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, but we got another classic showing of Dr. Pressley and Mr. Harvin on Sunday. This guy cannot kick anything other than a 60 yard bomb or a shank. Field position matters, and Harvin costs them field position all too often. Consistently NOT messing up is basically all you can ask for from a punter, and Harvin is anything but consistent. He has had plenty of time with Pittsburgh’s illustrious coaching staff by now. He’s not improved. It's well past time for this punter to get the boot.
Coaching - Challenges
It really wouldn’t be a Steelers game without Coach T queueing up a challenge he can’t win. A two-second glance at the Jumbotron would have alerted any person with working use of both eyeballs to the fact TJ Watt did not recover Purdy's fumble. After all these years, Pittsburgh STILL does not have a dedicated replay technician advising Tomlin through his earpiece on challenges. You have to wonder, is it a decade-long organizational oversight, or has Tomlin resisted installing a failsafe?
Coaching - Summary
Once again, the Tomlin-era Steelers faced a contender with weeks to prepare, and once again, they were embarrassed. Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers are a perfect embodiment of what Tomlin’s Steelers claim to be: a run-first, defensive juggernaut led by a game manager sophomore QB. The actual Tomlin Steelers, on the other hand, looked like the store-brand version of the 49ers. Go figure.
We all used to gripe about Ben "playing himself into shape" every season, calling him lazy, fat, and selfish. At what point is it fair to level the same criticism at Mike Tomlin? His teams are rarely ready to start the season, and have to rattle off improbable cinderella runs just to bootstrap their way into their annual Wild Card blowout. The Steelers are like the smart kid who scrambles to do all his homework in first period, and then wonders why he can’t get over the B+ hump. Maybe instead of sleepwalking through the first six weeks, Tomlin and Co. could use the offseason like a head start to prepare for the early games, and ease their way into a division title or playoff bye.
Just a thought!
The last and shortest entry in the "Ugly" column relates to Sunday’s ramifications for the rest of the season.
The injury bug bit early and often. Pittsburgh lost Cam Heyward to a groin injury for an estimated 8 games, and Diontae Johnson’s hamstring tweak could cost him anywhere from 1-5 games. Chuks Okorafor is in concussion protocol, Pat Freiermuth injured his chest, and James Daniels is in a walking boot. For perspective, 5/22 starters are already in jeopardy of missing next week’s game.
In addition to injuries, Pittsburgh has to deal with the intangible downstream effects of this loss. Regardless of who they beat, and how they beat them, the Steelers had built some serious momentum over the final stretch of last season into the preseason. Omar Khan made outstanding offseason moves to bolster an upward-trending roster, and fans reached a level of excitement and optimism they haven’t had in years. This was the most deflating way to open the season. Whatever momentum they had is gone. That matters.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All in all, this game left a sour taste in my mouth. I bought into the hype when I should have known better. The Steelers are who they consistently are: a middling NFL team. Until they're consistently good, hyping them is a fool's errand.
That being said, there is hope for improvement. The Steelers don’t play the 49ers every week, and players can improve over the course of a season. Moreover, with so much youth and talent on both sides of the ball, I think it’s fair to say they will improve over the course of this season. Whether that means a playoff berth is anyone’s guess, but regardless, I’ll be along for the ride.