PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin is correct. There is nothing “mystical” about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ straightest path to success.
No “mojo” or “juju” or other any other buzzword Pittsburgh’s longtime coach might throw out — whether he believes in it or not — required.
Get ahead early. Run the ball to control the clock. Force opponents to become one-dimensional in an effort to catch up, a frequently treacherous proposition when T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
It’s time-tested, cliche and boring.
And at the moment, seemingly unattainable too.
Not with an offense where consistency, production and cohesion — especially in the first half — are more rumor than fact. Not with a gameplan that might be worth less than the page it’s laminated on. Not with an offensive coordinator in Matt Canada who, 38 games into his tenure, can’t make adjustments on the fly with any sense of regularity.
Pittsburgh’s performance in a lopsided 30-6 loss to Houston on Sunday didn’t look much different than the opener against San Francisco, or that strange Monday night win over Cleveland, or even a somewhat competent victory against the Raiders in Week 3.
Every Thursday Canada stresses the coaching needs to be better. The plan needs to be better. And every Sunday (or Monday) the results look the same. Week after week. And — as seems to increasingly be the case — season after season.
The Steelers (2-2) have started 12 drives in the first quarter across their first four games. Those drives have ended with one touchdown, four first downs, four turnovers and three punts. Take out a 72-yard strike to Calvin Austin against Las Vegas, and Pittsburgh’s other 38 snaps on those first-quarter drives have produced a grand total of 49 yards, or 1.3 yards per play.
While Tomlin can talk about “changes” ahead of next Sunday’s visit from Baltimore (3-1), the reality is Pittsburgh’s biggest issue appears to be the decision to bring Canada back for a third season.
A strong second half to 2022 led by a run-heavy attack and quarterback Kenny Pickett’s relationship with Canada led owner Art Rooney II to retain Canada. And during the preseason, it looked as if it was the right call when the first-team offense scored touchdowns on all five possessions Pickett was in the huddle.
As October begins, August looks like a mirage.
The level of defensive game planning ramps up tenfold when the wins and losses start counting.
Opponents have exchanged checkers for chess pieces. The Steelers have exchanged nothing but puzzled looks.
The running game ... when they turn to it. Najee Harris ran for a season-best 71 yards against the Texans, averaging a solid 5.1 yards per carry on his 14 attempts.
And yet with Pittsburgh facing fourth-and-1 at the Houston 34 late in the third quarter with the game still in the balance, Canada called for a four-wide receiver set that had Pickett line up in the shotgun with Harris standing to his right.
The result was a momentum-sapping sack that ended with Pickett limping off the field after tweaking his left knee and leaving his status going forward uncertain.
The Steelers spent a significant amount of money (and draft capital) in beefing up the offensive line, signing Isaac Seumalo from Philadelphia and selecting left tackle Broderick Jones and massive tight end Darnell Washington in the first three rounds in April.
Not trusting that group to help the 235-pound Harris advance the ball the three feet necessary to get the first down was curious at best and baffling at worst. And emblematic of the Canada era.
Watt sets the bar so high on a weekly basis that when he doesn’t single-handedly tilt the game in Pittsburgh’s direction it seems as if something is wrong.
While Watt admitted he needed to be better after a quiet performance against a team featuring a rookie quarterback and a patchwork offensive line, he was hardly the only player in white who failed to produce. The Steelers were pushed around while giving up 451 yards.
Punter Brad Wing filled in capably in his return to the NFL after a six-year absence. With Pressley Harvin sidelined with a hamstring injury, Wing averaged a solid 47.6 yards per kick.
While it won’t be enough for Wing to stick around when Harvin returns, the 32-year-old Australian — who served as Pittsburgh’s punter in 2014 before beginning a nomadic football odyssey that included stops in multiple minor leagues — showed there’s still plenty of life left in his left leg.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson’s career will make the debate about his Hall of Fame worthiness a lengthy one whenever the time comes. And his leadership is vital to a secondary that includes second-round pick Joey Porter Jr.
It’s the on-field product that’s troubling.
The 33-year-old Peterson — a three-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler — is starting to look his age. Peterson has never given up more than five touchdowns in a season. He’s already been beaten for scores four times in four games in 2023.
Pickett isn’t the only one who left Houston hurting. Left tackle Dan Moore (knee), tight end Pat Freiermuth (hamstring) and defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal (knee) were also banged up against Houston.
Pittsburgh has been one of the few teams that’s had success against Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. The 2019 MVP is just 2-3 against the Steelers. Jackson’s 67.4 quarterback rating when facing Pittsburgh is his lowest against any opponent. If the Steelers want to head into their bye week with any positive vibes, finding a way to beat their rivals is a must.
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