BUFFALO (KDKA) – Welcome to Wednesday Alert – Every Wednesday, KDKA-TV Sports’ Josh Taylor tells you what you need to know about Sunday’s Steelers game.
There are probably dozens of creative ways to sum up the Steelers’ season so far at the quarter pole, but perhaps I could contribute one in the form of the three famous Chinese curses: May you live in interesting times, may you be recognized by people in high places, and may you will find what you are looking for.
Needless to say, a 1-3 record to start the season ahead of four games against the division leaders (two of whom, Miami and Buffalo, share the same spot in the AFC East, with Miami currently in the tiebreaker) would be classified as interesting. It also doesn’t make things any less sad that two of those three losses came by four points or less, but still, this is where the Steelers need answers and solutions in short order.
It goes without saying that the current state of the Steelers’ offense has been acknowledged by league analysts and pundits around the league, with the root of the debate dating back to training camp as to who the starting quarterback should be. Now, after making a trade after the break against the New York Jets from veteran free agent Mitchell Trubisky for this year’s first-round pick Kenny Pickett, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has handed control of the offense to the rookie, hoping to continue the “spark” that Tomlin says , which Pickett gave up in the second half in a 24-20 loss. But with that decision looms the full gravity of the third curse: maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for, or in the case of a subset of fans, may you get what you ask for.
That’s not to say that Pickett being called the signal-caller for this offense is a curse; far from it, actually. The curse is this unit’s lack of goal kicking and the ability to control the ball throughout the game. He currently ranks in the bottom third of the league in scoring, total offense, passing yards, average driving time and average yards per drive. Add to that a rookie making his first professional start against the league’s second-best defense, best overall defense and best pass defense, and it seems like an even more nefarious wish.
Let people in high positions recognize you.
Some might argue that history is on Pickett’s side, given this fun little stat uncovered by an NFL research team: The last rookie quarterback to beat the league’s number one pass defense in his first career start was Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
But those of us old enough to remember will quickly recall that rainy Sunday night in Miami with double-digit winds, the forecast that followed two hurricanes, Jeanne and Ivan, respectively. The weather conditions were far from ideal for football, and the game’s lasting image is a punt that dropped out of the air and then stuck right in the mud without bouncing.
The Steelers won that game 13-3, rushing for 153 yards (101 by Staley’s 22 carries) and throwing for 161 as a team. The Steelers defense also sacked Dolphins quarterback AJ Feeley three times and intercepted him twice, and limited Miami to 52 yards on 29 carries.
While Roethlisberger’s first win in 2004 seems like a pretty heroic achievement and makes for a fun story, it was actually more of an intervention of fate and a favorable matchup.
Pickett, however, won’t have the benefit of the league’s best scoring defense behind him, a career journeyman who has started 18 games for three different NFL teams, or the remnants of the disastrous storms that followed Sunday’s game. played at Highmark Stadium – ahem, the other Highmark Stadium – in western New York, well away from the Tropic of Cancer.
Instead, Buffalo’s offense will be led by Josh Allen, the league’s preseason MVP favorite and the catalyst for the Bills becoming a Super Bowl favorite.
May you live in interesting times.
The truth is, it’s hard to find historical evidence – recent or previous – to support the Steelers’ offense in this matchup, especially as of late.
Since last season’s playoff loss at Kansas City, the Steelers’ first touchdown has either been scored by or assisted by the defense in three of the Steelers’ last five games. TJ Watt’s fumble recovery gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead over the Chiefs during last season’s Wild Card round.
Minkah Fitzpatrick opened the season scoring with an interception for a touchdown in Week 1 against Cincinnati, and last week, Fitzpatrick’s second-quarter interception against the New York Jets put the Steelers’ offense at the Jets’ 4-yard line, setting up Pickett’s first career touchdown for one yard through three plays.
Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenge in this game isn’t Buffalo’s superior defense; it lifts his own offense off the mat, and he got off to a strong start with two rushing touchdowns in the second half against the Jets at Akrisur Stadium. But an interception in the fourth quarter gave the Jets the ball at their own 35-yard line with 3:34 left, and quarterback Zach Wilson led a 10-play drive that ended with a game-winning two-yard touchdown run by Brice Hall.
Last week was just the latest example of a Steelers offense that can’t start games (zero touchdowns in the first quarter) and also can’t close them out (two touchdowns in the fourth quarter).
It will take more than Pickett to fix both of these problems.
The Steelers should be able to rely on an increasingly efficient running back, including 92 yards on 21 carries last week by running backs Naji Harris and Jaylen Warren. If the offense can find a similar rhythm with them and then use it to open up the middle of the field, maybe we’ll see more performances like tight end Pat Freiermuth’s seven receptions for 85 yards and rookie wide receiver George Pickens’ six catches for 102 yards against the Jets.
The Steelers have invested first- and second-round picks in each of the past two seasons on their current starting quarterback, running back, tight end and one of their top wide receivers. They will need them all to work together if they have any hope of this offense going over 20 points a game, which they have yet to do.
Of the last 10 scoring offenses in the league (the Steelers are currently 23rd at 18.5 points per game), only one of those teams, the Dallas Cowboys, has a record above .500. The Cowboys’ defense also allowed the third-most points at 15.5.
Expecting to be sustainable in the future is not only practically impossible, but also very unreasonable.
The Steelers defense has drawn criticism for its inability to contain teams in the fourth quarter this season, and rightfully so.
They’ve allowed a touchdown in the fourth quarter in three of their four games so far. But the striker has also failed to score in the final 13 minutes of regulation time in all four games this season, costing them the lead in two of them.
To castigate the defense for not being able to stop the offense against close plays, while also excusing the offense for not being able to close out the plays themselves, rings both hollow and loud.
The attacker has essentially one task: to attack. This essential element has all but disappeared when it was most needed, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised if the ability to fend off the other team’s scoring attack also disappears.
The Steelers defense has had to do two things for this team this season: both prevent points and help them score. They need to be able to go back to doing just one job so that the offense can finally show up to do its thing.
Hopefully that’s where Pickett comes in, and even then he can’t do it alone.
May you find what you are looking for.