1. 10-7 isn’t that bad
Expectations do a lot regarding how we watch the Steelers. Before Pittsburgh’s near-flawless preseason made the team look like an offensive juggernaut, a 10 to 11-win season prediction seemed to be the norm if not a tad optimistic for most fans.
Somehow, the season seemed worse than the Steelers’ final record turned out to be. My guess is because despite their winning record, Pittsburgh was really only fun to watch for about two games this year, and their late-season losing streak with Mitch Trubisky really killed any remaining hope for the season.
Still, 10-7 is 10-7 no matter how you get there, despite the Steelers’ defensive injuries, offensive struggles, and coaching letdowns. We all would’ve liked to see more from the Steelers this year in terms of growth and long-term potential, especially as a giant question mark remains at the quarterback position heading into next season. But simply in terms of record, it’s fair to say that the Steelers, against all odds, lived up to expectations this year.
2. If the Steelers make the playoffs, they deserve to be there
I’ve seen the talking point of “The Steelers don’t deserve to be in the playoffs” pop up in a few places online, and while I understand and even partially agree with the sentiment, the premise is inherently false. The NFL isn’t like college football where a committee can decide who the playoff teams are based off of subjective and controversial criteria. In pro football, you’re either mathematically in or you’re not.
Sure, we’d all rather have Pittsburgh be in control of their own destiny rather than scoreboard watching on Sunday, but if they make the playoffs, it’s because they had a better record than the other candidates and they deserve to be in. It’s true the other way as well.
There’s a worthwhile discussion to be had that the Steelers are preventing themselves from making the meaningful changes they need by consistently fielding mediocre teams, and that barely sliding into the playoffs this year will only prolong that. That’s fair. But consider what beat writers always bring up this time of year: the players on the roster don’t care about draft positioning or organizational changes right now. There isn’t some fast-forward setting like in Madden — they’ve devoted a year of their lives to their respective teams and are going to do their best to win whenever they can. If the Steelers make the playoffs, that should be seen as the achievement it is, whether or not some like the long-term implications.
3. Next man up
Enough with the big picture stuff. There will be plenty of that in the upcoming weeks. Instead, let’s talk about how well the Steelers defense played on Saturday considering their circumstances. The linebacker and safety rooms were once again decimated with injury, and star pass-rusher T.J. Watt left the game after hurting his knee.
But the reserves on Pittsburgh’s defense stepped up in a way they hadn’t yet this season, holding the Ravens to just 10 points and making a number of splash plays in the process. Linebacker Mark Robinson had five total tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack. Pass-rusher Markus Golden had a sack, two tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery. Safety Eric Rowe led the Steelers with 12 total tackles to go along with a forced fumble.
Sure, you can say that it’s not that impressive as Baltimore’s offense was missing several key starters, but the exact same could be said of Pittsburgh’s defense. For the third straight game, this Island of Misfit Toys of a defense has performed well above expectations. They’re a big reason why the Steelers are still in the playoff hunt.
4. Has Najee Harris secured his future with the Steelers?
Steelers running back Najee Harris had a rough start to the 2023 season, with Jaylen Warren outplaying him as the Steelers offense struggled to do anything right. But over the past few weeks, he’s been running like a man possessed. Harris has embraced his wrecking ball role with the Steelers and has been excelling, with 312 rushing yards and four touchdowns over his last three games, including 112 yards and a score against the Ravens. Lately, he’s been impossible to bring down at first contact, and his ball security, which has always been one of the more underrated aspects of his game, was an important part of the Steelers’ success against Baltimore in the terrible weather.
The elephant in the room is Harris’ fifth-year option decision, which is due this offseason although it wouldn’t go into effect until 2025. One thing is clear: the Steelers have a fantastic running back duo in Jaylen Warren and Harris that they shouldn’t try to break up anytime soon. But there’s also the argument that it’s a risk to pay running backs after their rookie deals, and Harris’ recent uptick in production is due just as much to his offensive line improving and some schematic changes as it is his own merit.
It’s also worth noting that this is the second straight year that the Steelers’ rushing offense has been terrible for most of the season before catching on late — can they take this hot streak into next season?
However, if it was up to me, I’m onboard with paying Harris his fifth-year option. The Steelers are just a center and a tackle away from having an elite run game for years to come, and they need to keep they key pieces they already have. Harris is also a well-respected locker room presence and the type of leader you want to stick around.
There are valid arguments as to why Pittsburgh shouldn’t use Harris’ option, but one thing we should all agree on is that it’s impressive that we’re even having this conservation at all after most Steelers fans (myself included) were ready to move on from Harris earlier this season.
5. A devastating injury
Watching T.J. Watt get injured on Saturday was rough for a number of reasons. You never want to see a player get hurt, especially when it doesn’t even have anything to do with the play. And when it’s a player of Watt’s caliber, on the week right before the playoffs, it gets even worse.
What got me is Watt’s well-publicized statistic of never having won a playoff game despite a stellar career. Of course, it’s no guarantee Pittsburgh makes the postseason, but it has to be heartbreaking for Watt to potentially miss time on the brink of what could be the Steelers’ first playoff game since 2021. There are only so many chances players get for these moments, especially when they’re at the top of their game. It’s highly unlikely, but let’s hope this isn’t the last of Watt we see this season.
6. Odds and ends
- ESPN’s camera quality in the pouring rain was comically bad. It was like watching an oil painting for most of the game.
- I get the commentators’ frustration with the Steelers not targeting George Pickens, but the non-stop reminders got on my nerves pretty fast. Yes, they should’ve tried to get him the ball a few times, but throwing 50/50 balls in a downpour to a receiver double-covered by a very good defense in a tight game is not the winning formula some seem to think it is.
- Diontae Johnson has turned into a bit of a scapegoat, but his 71-yard touchdown should be getting a bit more credit, especially the part where he slightly changed direction to avoid getting run down late in the play.
- The Steelers 100% need to find a new punter next season, but Pressley Harvin’s value as a holder should not go unappreciated.
- Speaking of special teams, Calvin Austin III and Godwin Igwebuike both had huge performances as returners in a game where field position and ball security mattered a lot. Igwebuike’s big-brain play to penalize the Ravens for a kickoff out of bounds was especially great. I know people hate that loophole but it pops up rarely enough that I’ve always enjoyed the small bit of chaos it provides, much like the fumble/touchback rule. Maybe I’ll change my mind if it happens to the Steelers.
- I’m still mad that the Steelers went into empty formation on a third-and-one in the bad conditions. I know it worked but I still hated the call.
- Mason Rudolph’s 90% completion percentage is insane when you look at how bad the weather was. He still had a near-pick and it was his worst game as a starter this season, but overall the Steelers trusted him to be efficient in his limited passing attempts and he certainly delivered.
- I don’t get the outrage over Mike Tomlin having the Steelers run another play in field goal range at the end of the first half. In those conditions, Pittsburgh was smart trying to make it as short of a field goal as they could. Unfortunately, that extra play resulted in a Rudolph fumble, but you can’t praise Tomlin for being aggressive and then criticize him the moment something goes wrong as a result.
- Jaylen Warren is a very good running back, but his ball security issues remain the biggest flaw in his game.
- Isaac Seumalo is very, very good.
- The Steelers need to get Broderick Jones back on the left side of the offensive line. His run-blocking is good wherever you put him, but he’s not comfortable in pass protection and it shows. The Steelers like to play their offensive linemen out of position and it’s a very frustrating trend. Just look at how much better Kevin Dotson has been in Los Angeles.
- In what seems like an every-game occurrence, Alex Highsmith was getting held all afternoon but it was never called. I don’t know what he’s done to referees but they clearly never forgave him.
- Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrating Markus Golden’s fourth-quarter sack on the sideline before letting the latter know to get back to the line of scrimmage because the Ravens were lining up was my favorite random detail of the game.
The Steelers have done everything they could this week. Now, they’ll be scoreboard watching like the rest of us as they hope to find a spot in the playoff picture.