Mon, Nov 27, 2023 1:01 PM
By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin isn't getting ahead of himself. And he probably shouldn't.
For all the good vibes — particularly on offense — generated by Sunday's 16-10 win over Cincinnati, a game in which the Steelers topped 400 yards for the first time in more than three years and moved the ball at will, the reality is there was nowhere to go but up following Matt Canada's abrupt firing last Tuesday.
“I’m not trying to paint with a broad brush and act like: 'Eureka!’” Tomlin said after Pittsburgh improved to 7-4 and vaulted to the top of the AFC wild-card race. "We did what we needed to do to win today and we’ll keep pushing.”
It's not just coach-speak. Yes, Pittsburgh looked like a competent and occasionally dangerous offense for a full 60 minutes, a rarity for a half-decade.
Yet the Steelers also faced the NFL's 30th-ranked defense and failed to deliver the knockout punch, needing an onside kick recovery at the two-minute warning to exhale.
While the scoreboard looked an awful lot like so many during Canada's two-plus seasons calling the plays — all seven of Pittsburgh's wins this season have come by eight points or fewer and the Steelers haven't reached 30 points in a game they've won since 2020 — the mood in the aftermath was different.
Lighter. And decidedly more positive.
It's a shift that began basically the day after Canada's stunning — if only for the timing — dismissal. While Tomlin made a concerted effort to absorb the blows as frustration mounted, the tipping point came in the 24 hours following a 13-10 loss to Cleveland, when player after player — running back Najee Harris and wide receiver Diontae Johnson chief among them — said in so many words “this simply can't continue.”
And, surprisingly, it didn't. By Wednesday, running backs coach Eddie Faulkner was promoted to interim offensive coordinator with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan taking over play-calling duties. By Thursday, Faulkner was cracking jokes by facetiously pointing out his (very, very, very small) resemblance to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
By Sunday, that looseness translated into a steady stream of first downs and impressive throws — at least when not under pressure — by Pickett, who threw for a season-high 278 yards and avoided an interception for the seventh straight game. For once, the Steelers spent the postgame dancing instead of venting.
Pickett made it a point to call Sullivan his “right-hand man" and praised the new leadership structure for helping the Steelers deal with the kind of “adversity” (albeit self-created) the franchise hadn't seen in 80-plus years.
While Pickett cautioned his team still hasn't “100% put it together,” there were tangible positives. Harris ran for 99 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers didn't have a single three-and-out. And they used all portions of the field, a sign of growth for Pickett, who has largely avoided — to his detriment at times — throwing over the middle.
The Steelers offense isn't “fixed.” Not by a long shot. But for a group desperately in search of something — anything — to build on, it's a start.
The Steelers have now topped 150 yards on the ground in each of their past four games, and they’re doing it while sometimes using personnel groups so obviously run-specific that there might as well be a flashing sign over Pickett's head that reads “We’re handing it off on this play.”
Being able to run when the opponent knows it's coming is a sign of dominance. Pittsburgh is doing it at the moment, which can only lead to good things in the passing game down the road.
All special teams units that don't include kicker Chris Boswell. The Steelers twice failed to pin the Bengals deep in their own end in the first half when the gunners couldn't down the ball before it reached the end zone. A couple of penalties on returns forced the offense to go the length of the field. For a team with a small margin for error, the hidden yardage losses in those mistakes can't continue.
Safety Trenton Thompson began the season on the practice squad before injuries pressed him into service. He's responded by being a difference-maker, including snagging his first career interception when he stepped in front of a pass intended for Ja'Marr Chase that set the stage for Pittsburgh's go-ahead drive.
“We needed a turnover for sure, just to get us pumped up and get the offense rolling, and obviously it took away some momentum from their sideline,” Thompson said.
Johnson is an elite route-runner but remains a volatile presence both on and off the field. He couldn't secure a touchdown pass from Pickett in the first half and looked completely oblivious on the next snap when Jaylen Warren fumbled, turning his back to the play and walking off the field while the Bengals darted up-field with the ball.
Oh, and there was the reported heated exchange with injured All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick a week ago in Cleveland.
So far in 2023, Johnson has made more headlines for his words than his actions. That needs to change over the final two months.
Fitzpatrick still hasn't practiced since injuring his hamstring in a loss to Jacksonville a month ago. The Steelers have made do on the back end, but they are clearly a better unit when Fitzpatrick's familiar No. 39 is roaming the secondary.
2 — the number of players in NFL history with 90 sacks in their first 100 games. Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White is one. Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt is the other after getting to Bengals quarterback Jake Browning twice.
Try to continue to take advantage of a soft spot in their schedule when the reeling Arizona Cardinals visit Acrisure Stadium next Sunday.
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