Early returns promising for Steelers after Matt Canada’s firing

0
52
Early returns promising for Steelers after Matt Canada's firing

Mike Tomlin can’t get over himself. And he probably shouldn’t.

For all the good atmosphere – especially on offense – that is created by 16:10 win on Sunday against Cincinnatia game in which the The Steelers topped 400 yards For the first time in more than three years, he moved the ball at will, but the reality is that after Matt Canada’s abrupt shot last Tuesday, there was nowhere to go but up.

“I don’t try to paint with a broad brush and be like ‘Eureka!’ to behave,” Tomlin said after Pittsburgh improved to 7-4 and catapulted to the top of the AFC wild-card race. “We did what we had to do to win today and we will 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 in half a decade.

But the Steelers also faced the NFL’s 30th-ranked defense and failed to score the knockout blow, needing an onside kick recovery after the two-minute exhale warning.

Despite it.

While the scoreboard has closely resembled so many others in Canada’s two-plus seasons calling the games, all seven of Pittsburgh’s wins this season have come by eight or fewer points, and the Steelers have not scored 30 points in a game won achieved since 2020 – the mood afterwards was different.

lighter. And much more positive.

It’s a change that basically started the day after Canada’s stunning dismissal – if only because of its timing. While Tomlin made a concerted effort to absorb the setbacks as his frustration grew, the turning point came in the 24 hours after a 13-10 loss to Cleveland, as one player after another – including running back Najee Harris and wide receiver Diontae Johnson – said In other words: “This simply cannot continue.”

And surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. Until Wednesday, Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner was promoted to interim offensive coordinator, with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan assuming play-calling duties. On Thursday, Faulkner cracked jokes by jokingly pointing out his (very, very, very slight) resemblance to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

On Sunday, that looseness led to a steady stream of first downs and impressive throws — at least when he wasn’t under pressure — from Pickett, who rushed for a season-high 278 yards and avoided an interception for the seventh straight game. For once, the Steelers spent the aftermath dancing instead of venting.

Pickett made a point of referring to Sullivan as his “right-hand man” and praised the new leadership structure for helping the Steelers deal with the kind of “adversity” (albeit self-inflicted) that has plagued the franchise for over 80 years hadn’t experienced it anymore.

Although Pickett cautioned that his team still wasn’t “100% there,” there were tangible positives. Harris ran for 99 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers didn’t have a single three-pointer. And they used all parts of the field, a sign of growth for Pickett, who – to his detriment – has largely avoided throwing over the middle.

The Steelers offense is not “fixed.” By far not. But for a group desperate for something – anything – to build on, it’s a start.

WHAT WORKS

The Steelers have amassed more than 150 yards on the ground in each of their last four games, and they’re doing so while sometimes deploying personnel groups that are so obviously run-specific that there might as well be a flashing sign above Pickett’s head that says “We.” I could give everything in this piece.

Being able to run when your opponent knows they are coming is a sign of dominance. Pittsburgh is doing it right now, which can only lead to good results as the passing game progresses.

WHAT IS NOT

All special teams units that do not include kicker Chris Boswell. The Steelers twice failed to pin the Bengals deep in their own net in the first half as the Gunners were unable to clear the ball before it reached the end zone. A few penalties on returns forced the offense to go the length of the field. For a team with a low margin for error, the hidden distance losses caused by these errors cannot continue.

STOCK UP

Safety Trenton Thompson began the season on the practice squad before injuries forced him into action. He responded by making a difference, including grabbing 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 score.

“We definitely needed a turnover just to get us going and get the offense going, and obviously it took some momentum away from their sideline,” Thompson said.

Inventory reduced

Johnson is an elite route runner but remains an inconsistent presence both on and off the field. He failed to secure a touchdown pass from Pickett in the first half and appeared completely clueless on the next snap when Jaylen Warren fumbled, turned his back on the play and left the field as the Bengals rushed the ball upfield.

Oh, and a week ago in Cleveland there was reportedly a heated exchange with injured All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

So far in 2023, Johnson has made more headlines with his words than his actions. That has to change in the last two months.

INJURIES

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 the better unit when Fitzpatrick’s familiar No. 39 is in the secondary.

KEY NUMBER

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 TJ Watt is the other after hitting Bengals quarterback Jake Browning twice.

NEXT STEPS

Continue trying to exploit a weakness in their game plan when the struggling Arizona Cardinals visit Acrisure Stadium next Sunday.

More from CBS News