A generous interpretation of Week 1 of the NFL regular season is that it’s largely a de facto extension of the NFL preseason: the results count, sure, but mostly everyone is still in the process of getting used to the flow of things. In the spirit of that mindset, then, it’s not unreasonable to view any unfavorable outcomes as symptoms of happenstance and not outgrowths of some sort of broader, more systemic disease.
Or! Or you could luxuriate in the catharsis of screaming thermonuclear takes into the void, or here in the comment section at Behind the Steel Curtain dot com. This, too, is not unreasonable. The NFL preseason can certainly be a bit of a red herring, but for the Steelers, their 3-0 record this preseason—and how they achieved it, chiefly with strong, efficient quarterback play and characteristically robust defense—looked less like an aberration and more like confirmation that their 7-2 finish in last year’s regular season wasn’t a fluke.
For the Steelers, the preseason functioned as a case study of what they could achieve this season, which according to numerous reputable publications was a spot in a loaded AFC playoff field. That, uh—haha—wow. Yikes. Not looking great!
It’s not all bad, though. Here’s who’s trending up (and down) ahead of the Steelers Week 2 matchup against the Cleveland Browns.
Stock down: Optimism
There’s no point relitigating the particulars of the 49ers loss in this space, but losing by three touchdowns, getting outgained 391-239 in yardage (with a sizable contingent of those yards coming in garbage time), and allowing five sacks against only 3.9 yards per play at home is a bad look, and one that should justifiably not inspire much confidence in any sort of meaningful turnaround.
The Steelers were manifestly awful on both sides of the ball, and not a single coach or player (save for T.J. Watt) is beyond reproach. While the Cleveland Browns (who the Steelers will face in Week 2) did not attain success in 2022 on par with the 49ers, you’d have to be blind or a cynic to deny the level of talent strewn about their roster. Worth noting, too, are the parallels between the Browns and Niners, which include a heavy emphasis on the run and scheming receivers open with play action as well as dominant pass rushers and interior defensive lines, so it isn’t like Pittsburgh is going to see a script much different from what it just saw.
Cleveland dog-walked Cincinnati in Week 1, holding an eminently dynamic Bengals offense to 142 total yards, 6 first downs, and 0 red zone trips. The Browns will travel to Pittsburgh fully cognizant of what exactly an 0-2 start tends to entail, and with numerous prominent Steelers beat up from the meeting with the Niners, Cleveland will smell blood in the water and attack with a primal sense of urgency.
Stock up: Pragmatism
The 49ers won 13 games last season, and had Brock Purdy’s elbow not detonated in the NFC Championship Game, they might’ve played in the Super Bowl. They galvanized what was already a stunningly talented defense by adding Javon Hargrave, himself a former Steeler who has since blossomed into a top-10ish interior defensive lineman anywhere in the NFL. Kyle Shanahan could scheme me open against the 2010 Steelers, so it isn’t altogether surprising that Brandon Aiyuk put up a Jerry Rice stat-line playing against flotsam like Keanu Neal and Patrick Peterson’s corpse. This is all a sort of roundabout way of saying that, despite their lofty preseason aspirations, the Steelers weren’t likely to beat the 49ers. Losing 27-24 in overtime might’ve been more palatable (though less economical; I made major headway in knocking out the rest of my weekend to-do list the moment McCaffrey scored to open the third quarter, a luxury a closer game wouldn’t have afforded) than what we witnessed last Sunday, but it would’ve yielded the same result. Most people—including those who picked the Steelers to make a run at the postseason—probably expected them to lose this game (I definitely did), so although the mechanisms by which they lost engendered a vast array of questions about whether or not the Steelers do in fact have that dog in them, the loss itself is not a massive setback. It’ll be fine!
Stock down: The youth movement
DB Joey Porter Jr. and OL Broderick Jones collectively played 11 snaps against the 49ers, which is either the result of suspect, over-cautious coaching, or an indication that the players who played more snaps are at the moment better options. If Dan Moore Jr. represents the best hope for keeping Kenny Pickett’s bones intact, it’s gonna be a long season.
There is an argument to be made that integrating rookie players is a delicate practice that requires a keen sense of intuition: holding them out too long might stunt their development, but a trial by fire might rattle their confidence beyond repair. And for Porter and Jones, who both looked kinda shaky and raw during the preseason, perhaps a slower integration is warranted. It is, after all, more encouraging to hear the media apparatus and fanbase openly pine for you to replace a deficient veteran than be labeled a bust because Nick Bosa transmogrified in your backfield and vaporized your quarterback’s ribcage. But still, it would’ve been nice to see anything from Porter or Jones, if only to create a rosier outlook for the future.
Stock up: Thicc bois
Cam Heyward is out multiple weeks with a groin injury, so a defense that allowed 152 yards to Christian McCaffrey is now without its best run stopper. That’s grim news even under ideal circumstances, and a date with a Browns team that can and will run the ball is not what one would consider “ideal circumstances.”
Nick Chubb, who is built like a tactical response vehicle, has amassed 653 yards on 141 carries in his 9 career games against the Steelers, which is a little over 1,200 yards extrapolated over a full season. He is extremely talented and productive, but beyond those things is that his style of running lends itself to beating up teams like the Steelers, who do boast a talented defense overall but are probably considered collectively under-sized by traditional NFL standards. Even if Chubb isn’t breaking off 65-yard touchdowns a la Christian McCaffrey, he and the Browns offensive line are highly adept at grinding out drives and tilting the time of possession scales very decidedly in their favor.
On defense, some combination of Broderick Jones, Dan Moore, and Chukwuma Okorafor will be tasked with slowing down Za’Darius Smith and Myles Garrett, who looks like David of Michelangelo on a steady diet of Kodiak waffles and human growth hormone. A hungry 6-year-old could put Dan Moore Jr. in a blender on their way to an ice cream truck, so Monday’s outlook seems pretty grim.
Stock down: Matt Canada
I’m imagining the 2023 version of myself going back in time and telling the 2017 version of myself that this is the best things are gonna get on offense. I’d cry actual tears. Imagine longing for the days of Todd Haley.
Stock up: Flying under the radar
Shoutout to the Giants for thoroughly embarrassing themselves against Dallas and for Aaron Rodgers rupturing his Achilles (rub some ayahuasca on it, champ) against Buffalo to deflect some of the national attention away from the Steelers loss to the Niners. Such a luxury won’t exist this week, as they’ll be playing on Monday night. Pull up those bootstraps, fellas.