The Steelers needed just under three quarters to double their season offensive touchdown output in a 23-18 win over the Raiders. This was, in fact, the first multi-touchdown game of Kenny Pickett’s career, which could be interpreted as an encouraging sign of things to come, a referendum on Pickett’s development to this point, a reflection of the offense’s conservatism, or a combination of all three things.
Moreover, the Steelers are 2-1 and head into their Sunday matchup against the Texans as three-point road favorites. This is all pretty outrageous considering their ghoulish showing against the 49ers in Week 1. Is there peace to be found in the contentment of a budding turnaround? Reader, if you’re here to see flowery words of affirmation about the Pittsburgh Steelers, then you stumbled into the wrong blog. Optimism is the shaky foundation upon which doomed aspirations are constructed! Existence is pain! Stock report!
Stock down: Eating your cake
Pittsburgh’s offense looked better against the Raiders than it did in Weeks 1 or 2, but the Steelers were out-gained 362-333 and the 333 yards of offense they amassed is still less than what luminaries such as the Rams (!), Texans (!!), and Broncos (!!!) are averaging for the season. Josh McDaniels opting to kick a field goal down eight with three minutes ‘til the gun was an iffy decision at the time and an outright bad decision in retrospect, but it was (and is) also a damning indictment of the Steelers offense: McDaniels believed—and was debatably justified in believing—that he could take three points, kick the ball back to the Steelers, force a three-and-out, and get the ball back before the two minute warning with a chance to win the game with a touchdown.
Of course, none of that happened, and the Steelers ended up winning that game, so mewling about the mechanisms that spurred that outcome is little more than grist for the mill. Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Steelers squandered several opportunities to usher the grim reaper to the Raiders doorstep, just as they did against Cleveland—namely, they went three-and-out on each of their subsequent drives after going up 23-7 late in the third quarter, which allowed the Raiders to quickly overcome a multi-possession deficit. The final score ended up being a lot closer than most of the game felt, and the Steelers could’ve prevented hundreds of cases of rapid onset hemorrhoids simply by playing a tad more aggressively in the fourth quarter.
Stock up: Having your cake in the first place
The Steelers offense was so stagnant and threadbare in the first two games of the season that I openly speculated about the possibility of drafting Caleb Williams and suggested that Matt Canada’s brain had been infected by cordyceps. That their offense actually resembled a cohesive, functional unit against the Raiders should be taken as a resounding victory in and of itself and escaping that game with an actual win that counts toward their record is an added bonus.
Last Sunday’s game against Vegas was just the 15th start of Pickett’s career, so he’s still very much in the figuring it out stage, and the rest of the offense should eventually make appreciable strides in finding and establishing some sort of identity as he continues to figure it out.
Stock down: Conventional wisdom
Consider Player A and Player B. Player A has 14 catches for 102 yards and ranks 5th in the NFL in yards after catch (YAC). Player B has 12 catches for 101 yards and also ranks 5th in the NFL in YAC. Player A is Bijan Robinson, a running back so generationally talented that the Falcons drafting him 8th overall was widely regarded as a sensible, pragmatic selection. Player B is Jaylen Warren, who was undrafted.
Warren has played about 20 fewer snaps this season than Najee Harris, another running back selected in the first round whose draft standing looks a little, uh, suspect in retrospect, but Warren is more dynamic and seemingly more versatile than Harris, so perhaps the usage scales should tilt in his favor.
But perhaps not. Whereas Warren has seen relatively extensive usage in the passing game, Harris has been phased out almost entirely. There are two possible reasons for this: the coaching staff is operating on a strict receiving back/running back binary, or Harris’s pass-catching abilities are not quite as good as advertised. I couldn’t tell you which is most applicable, and I’d imagine to some extent both things are probably true. What I can tell you, though, is that Harris’s usage as a receiver is so minuscule that his mere presence in the backfield communicates that he’ll either be taking a hand-off or staying home to pass block, and in either case this allows the defense to send extra defenders toward the quarterback.
If opposing defenses are cognizant of the fact that Harris is a non-factor as a receiver (and they are because they’re smarter than me), this obviously informs the framework of their schematics and is almost certainly among the myriad factors mitigating the effectiveness of the Steelers run game. It’s getting to the point that seeing 2nd and 8 on the broadcast’s score bug notifies my bladder that it’s probably fine to go ahead and take that bathroom break; I know they’ll run Harris into a wall of defenders, throw a pass short of the sticks on third down, and I’ll be back in my living room just in time to see the opposing return team signal a fair catch.
Matt Canada, if you’re reading this blog: What I’d like to see is a dead-even Harris/Warren split, with Harris getting a bit more work in the passing game to promote some multidimensionality. At this point, it can’t hurt to try, especially against the Texans, who (somehow, despite the existence of the Denver Broncos) have surrendered the most touchdowns to running backs this season.
Stock up: Outlooks
It’s early, but the Texans appear to have nailed their draft, unearthing legitimate studs at quarterback (C.J. Stroud), edge (Will Anderson), and receiver (Tank Dell; A+++ name). Two weeks ago, this looked like a team that was content rebuilding (albeit atop a solid foundation), but then they gave the division favorite Jaguars the business in Jacksonville, which kind of destroyed the notion of there actually being a division favorite, and now the habitually winnable AFC South looks more wide-open than ever.
The Steelers have aspirations to win their own division, and with a Week 5 matchup against Baltimore looming, there is added motivation to position themselves to take sole possession of first place by winning that game. Taking a 4-1 record into the bye week? After that loss in the opener to San Francisco? Inconceivably fortuitous—and well within reach. Thankfully, the Steelers do not have a documented history of consistently playing down to lesser competition and losing on the road…
Week 4 picks
The stock report usually runs on Thursdays, so I thought it might be cool to throw some picks in the write-up for anyone who dabbles in any weekend degeneracy. If you’re into this kind of thing, please let me know in the comments and I can see about doing lengthier write-ups to, like, actually justify these picks. Anyway, here’s five picks (all odds courtesy of DraftKings at the time of writing; gamble responsibly, please):
2023 record: 0-0
-Lions vs. Packers (Thursday): O/46 (-112)
-Jaguars vs. Falcons (London game): Jaguars money line (-162)
-Bengals vs. Titans: Ja’Marr Chase anytime touchdown (+120)
-Steelers vs. Texans: Steelers -2.5 (-118)
-Dolphins vs. Bills: O/54 (-110)