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Pretty? Never. But the Steelers prove again they're built to win
Mike Tomlin's crew came alive in four manic final minutes. We shouldn't be surprised. Meanwhile, in London, the Jaguars finally found their offense against Buffalo.
Absurd wins are the norm in Pittsburgh.
The final moments of Mike Tomlin-coached games often appear hijacked by drunken scriptwriters.
Sunday’s 17-10 win over the hated Baltimore Ravens instantly joins the 99th percentile of “What in the hell did I just watch?” affairs between these two teams. Hope was drained from this 68,400-seat stadium. On the heels of a humiliating loss to the Houston Texans — in which their 25-year-old quarterback suffered a bone bruise in his knee on a bizarre fourth-and-1 call — angst directed at the team’s offensive coordinator reached its crescendo Sunday afternoon. The “Fire Matt Canada” chants were loud. Again. With one fan on-site noting that the Steelers quickly shifted to a military tribute to quell the uproar.
The Steelers mustered all of two field goals on offense and a safety on defense the first 56 minutes of this game.
With 4 minutes and 8 seconds remaining, the power switch was turned on.
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Leading 10-8, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had a chance to strangulate the home team at the 5-yard line. The result of a fumbled Steelers punt return. Instead, he lolly-popped an underthrown ball to Odell Beckham Jr. in the end zone that was intercepted by Joey Porter Jr., the son of the linebacker who thrived in so many of these slugfests. Kenny Pickett then did what Kenny Pickett’s done his entire life. First came the 10-yard strike on third and 9 to Allen Robinson. With two free runners breathing down to his left, Pickett calmly floated to his right to find Robinson. Next, a 21-yarder to George Pickens on third and 4. The QB barked an audible at the line of scrimmage. He saw a 1-on-1 opportunity to Pickens’ outside shoulder.
And with 1:17 left, at the Ravens 41, a throw the Steelers hope will be replaying on their video board for years. Pickett noticed that Pickens was singled up in 1-on-1 coverage (again) to his right. Baltimore was daring Pickett to take a shot. Banking on this struggling team, this struggling quarterback simply trying to inch its way into better field goal range. But the cornerback across the line was also Marlon Humphrey, a veteran making his first start since foot surgery in mid-August.
Going into this game, Pickett expected the Ravens to go Cover 0 in this exact situation. He told his wide receiver to go long… scooted backward fast as he could… let it rip.
The ball landed right in Pickens’ mitts and — suddenly — Pittsburgh led, 14-10.
T.J. Watt did the rest with a fumble recovery to end one drive and a sack to end the next.
“It’s good to go into the bye sitting atop of the North. Particularly with all that we’ve been through,” Mike Tomlin said at his postgame presser. “Still very much a group in growth in development. There’s a lot out there obviously that we didn’t like but that’s life in this business as well. Our job is to win and we got the business done today.
“Baltimore had a full complement of players today. We had some significant guys inactive. So, I just appreciate the fight.”
Yes, the Steelers were embarrassed twice — outscored 60-13 by San Francisco and Houston — but it’s true. Five weeks in, the 3-2 Steelers have the pole position in this bloodbath of a division. Joe Burrow’s calf injury is a lingering nor’easter to the Cincinnati Bengals’ title hopes. The Cleveland Browns’ “big, ugly machine” plans just might’ve shattered with Nick Chubb’s leg. We’ll see. The identity of this offense must change on the fly with everything now running through its $230 Million Dollar Quarterback. And all of the exciting changes to the Ravens’ offense have produced mixed results. New weapons, a new offense and a new coordinator didn’t change anything in this date with Pittsburgh.
Tomlin owns Jackson. Against Pittsburgh, the quarterback is 1-3 with four touchdowns, seven picks and five fumbles. The only time he beat Pittsburgh was in ‘19 when Devlin Hodges was the opposing quarterback. Even then, the Ravens needed an overtime fumble by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Jackson has a 66.8 passer rating against the Steelers and a 98.8 rating against everyone else.
One source close to the Steelers once told me that Tomlin sincerely is not worried about Jackson or Watson — he believes he’ll always find a way to corral both. It’s Burrow that gives him concern. And Burrow’s calf changes the dynamic in the AFC North. There’s still a path for the Steelers to win the division if this offense can rise to C+ by November and B+ by December. That’s how fast everything changes in the NFL. This league’s ups and downs can give any player, any coach vertigo.
But that’s why Pittsburgh is always in the mix.
This sort of finish is not that absurd to Tomlin.
In trying to make sense of Sunday’s finish, the unfiltered voice of Maurkice Pouncey came to mind. He was the team’s starting center from 2010 through 2020, and we chatted at length for this piece in 2019. Back when Tomlin somehow kept the Steelers in the playoff race to the final week of the season despite…
… a beloved position coach, Darryl Drake, tragically dying in training camp. It rocked the entire organization.
… Ben Roethlisberger suffering a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2.
… the careers of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown ending for good in Pittsburgh. The players replacing them then suffered a slew of injuries.
… the backup replacing Roethlisberger getting attacked by Myles Garrett’s helmet. The center who retaliated, Pouncey, was suspended.
… a fourth-stringer in camp nicknamed “Duck” — Devlin Hodges — starting six games.
When Roethlisberger went down, the Steelers easily could’ve pivoted as a franchise. Most teams would’ve deemed this the logical course of action, and maybe they’re correct. Roethlisberger was 37 going on 48 given his rugged playing style. For better, for worse, that’s never how Tomlin can operate. Instead, he traded a first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Rather than fold on the season, the Steelers sent a loud message to everyone in the building that they were, in fact, all-in.
Players paid attention.
Said Pouncey: “He could’ve easily said, ‘Let's tank. Let’s get a high draft pick,’” Pouncey says. “No, that mother--ker wants to win. ...Everyone was happy as f--k. I was at the house like, ‘No way is this happening!’ That just showed the team that we ain't tanking. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to go out there and win. That was a big thing for the team. When Kevin Colbert and Coach Tomlin did that, we were like, ‘Alright, they're not f--king around.’”
Tomlin studied apex predators on YouTube — all of the animals at the top of the food chain — and relayed his findings to the entire team. How a lion needs to eat 20 pounds of meat each day. Once, he transitioned from showing the team clips of football plays to a massive picture of a great white shark. With everyone’s eyes fixated on the screen, Tomlin said this is exactly who they must become on the field: “great white sharks.”
They loved it.
Those who aren’t thinking as apex predators are often ejected from the room.
If we can count on anything this season, it’s this Steelers defense becoming a problem as the season wears on. Watt is still Watt. Fitzpatrick remains one of the league’s best safeties. There will always be someone on the depths of this roster bred to make a game-changing play — special teams, included. This day, it was Miles Killebrew fully-extending to block a punt for the safety. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers are the team that makes this sort of play. This was the first blocked punt of the 2023 NFL season and the third by the Steelers since the start of the 2021 season, per ESPN. Killebrew has accounted for all three.
The problem is obviously on offense, a unit that’s been offensive for stretches the last three years. Transitioning out of the Roethlisberger Era has not been smooth. And a branch from the Shanahan Tree, this OC is not. Suspect playcalling doesn’t mean the offense is utterly doomed, though. These Steelers can elevate to true contention because this Pickett-Pickens connection has a legitimate chance to be special. Last season featured a game-winning score vs. the Raiders. On Sunday, Pickett targeted the chiseled 6-foot-3, 193-pounder with the cartoonish catch radius with the game on the line.
Pickett’s never been afraid to take a shot like this with 1:17 left. Such clutch plays were routine — in this same stadium — when Pickett was leading the Pitt Panthers.
Tomlin had a feeling Steelers-Ravens would boil down to a 1-on-1 matchup somewhere on the field.
“George had to have a big game,” the head coach said. “These type of games. Hotly contested. Often it comes down to 1-on-1 playmaking on the perimeter in the end when things get a little bit tight. So it was important that we stayed engaged for 60 minutes and delivered those timely plays at the end. Which he did.”
Pickett said that the Steelers knew all week that the Ravens would likely roll with zero coverage in such a pressure-packed moment. That is, leave a receiver like Pickens all alone with no safety help. Pittsburgh set its protection and a game-winner to Pickens was easy pickings. The Steelers need to fix a lot on offense over this bye week. Whatever shape this group takes — Perhaps more touches for, one, Jaylen Warren? — the Steelers should be ecstatic about QB1, WR1 and everything these second-year pros will accomplish together for years to come.
Both genuinely relish the do-or-die moment. That’s not the case for everyone.
“I don’t think there’s any questioning my faith in 14 and how much I believe in him,” Pickett said. “Always giving him opportunities to make plays is something I’ll continue to do. That’s what I’ve been saying since I’ve gotten here. Unbelievably talented player. Shows up in big-time moments. I always want to give him those opportunities.”
Pickett acknowledged this game consisted of the “highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” and that the Steelers’ offense is “nowhere near as good as it needed to be.” He said they’re all “working tirelessly” to score more points. His own accuracy must improve.
Fixing issues is always more fun through the wins, and the Steelers have now won six of their last seven games against Baltimore. The margin of victories are all razor-thin: 4, 5, 1, 3, 2 and 7 points.
Thus, the quarterback is very much an extension of Tomlin.
This is the high school kid who asked his coach where the top recruits were going to camp in the summer. Simply so he could join their drills and show ‘em up in front of college coaches.
The college freshman, at Pitt, asking to run a naked bootleg against No. 2 Miami in this same stadium. He’d pull the ball without telling teammates in his own huddle — to truly sell the fake.
The more you hear from Pickett, the more he sounds like a kindred spirit in the sport to Tomlin. Pittsburgh will be playing relevant football to the bitter end.
Said Pickett: “We stayed together. I was preaching that all week. You get to this level and there’s so many outside factors that try to get into a team and try to pull a team apart. Whether it’s media-related, fan-related, whatever it may be. You have to stay together in football. It’s the ultimate team game. Offense. Defense. Special teams. There’s 11 guys on the field working together, pushing each other and playing their hearts out to go win the game, and that’s what we did. Incredibly proud of our team here.”
Here come the Jags
London was treated to one mess of a football game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars, teams that combined for 19 penalties. Not that it was either club’s fault. Officials sure appeared bound and determined to make their presence known on the international stage. Look closely, however, and the Jaguars just might’ve found their groove on offense.
This offense has arguably the best core of five playmakers in the NFL.
Calvin Ridley (seven receptions for 122 yards) was finally featured prominently. The Jags ruthlessly targeted Kaiir Elam — the 2022 first-round corner had a disastrous day. Travis Etienne (26 carries, 136 yards, two touchdowns) closed the game out on the ground. Zay Jones supplied another tightrope act of a touchdown that reflects everything he’s been through since his Buffalo days. Christian Kirk is one of the NFL’s best route runners. Evan Engram is one of the best pure receiving tight ends.
Trevor Lawrence has options. More options than any quarterback in the NFL.
Most importantly, head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor appeared to find their rhythm.
Two play calls stood out.
After playing footsie with the Bills for three quarters, still leading 11-7, the Jags faced a third and 5 from the Bills’ 27-yard line. There was 8:56 left. Jacksonville lined up with two receivers wide left, two wide right and Etienne next to Lawrence in the shotgun. The call: a bold off-tackle run right. The Jags double-teamed Jordan Phillips and easily whisked Kinsley Jonathan wide. To comical proportions. A Jaguar SUV could’ve driven through this hole.
The decision to run the ball here was eerily reminiscent of Jacksonville handing the ball off to Etienne to ice that thrilling playoff win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Two plays later, Etienne punched in a touchdown to increase the lead to 18-7.
And when the Bills scored, the Jaguars answered.
On third and four — Jags now leading 18-13, with 3:15 to go — the large Bills contingent got loud. And it didn’t matter. Lawrence saw that Sean McDermott was sending the house. Like Pickett vs. Baltimore, he told Ridley to go deep. Six defenders in all rushed and right before getting dinged by linebacker Tyrel Dodson from the blind side, Lawrence lofted a deep shot to No. 0 in zero coverage.
Ridley, lined up in the slot, toasted Micah Hyde in man coverage for the 32-yarder.
Pederson credited the entire staff, right down to quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy, for preparing Lawrence to make that audible.
McDermott has been praised for his aggressive nature as a playcaller.
This time, vs. Lawrence, it cost him dearly.
“That was a zero blitz, knowing we wanted to force to get the ball out, based on the options they had at their disposal at that point, third and medium,” McDermott said. “The quarterback made a good play.”
As for those Bills, this trip could not have gone any worse. Not only did they fall to 3-2, but linebacker Matt Milano reportedly broke his leg and will have an MRI done to see if the ACL is intact. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones also injured his pec. Next to Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, the first-team All Pro Milano is easily the team’s most indispensable player. There’s no replacing his playmaking in the middle of this defense. The Bills will likely be counting on their offense to light up scoreboards. Allen’s final stat line was splendid but he cost the Bills in this game, too, with two underthrown deep shots. One was a 48-yard completion. Buffalo gained zero yards the next three plays and was forced to punt from the Jaguars’ 42. The other was wrestled away for an interception.
Those 14 points obviously change this game completely.
The running game was nonexistent. Bills running backs combined for 15 yards on 10 attempts.
McDermott’s sports-science calculation also proved woefully flawed. Buffalo chose to fly over the Atlantic Ocean through the night Thursday and then stay awake to practice on Friday to get acclimated to the time difference. This backfired miserably.
“We need to evaluate everything,” McDermott said. “Because I didn’t feel like our energy was good enough early in the game. They had better energy than we did.”
The stalemate between the Indianapolis Colts and Jonathan Taylor is officially over with the star running back signing a three-year, $42 million deal that includes $26.2 million guaranteed. But how can the Colts keep Zack Moss on the sideline? “Moss Mode” was the difference in their 23-16 win over the Titans. The ex-Bill gained 165 rushing yards on 23 carries (7.2 avg.) with two touchdowns. Quarterback Anthony Richardson was knocked out with a shoulder injury but, thanks to Moss, a team expected to stammer to a 3-14 season is now 3-2. This cannot be a pretty sight for the Bills’ front office. The player they traded Moss for in the middle of last season — Nyheim Hines, as more of pass-catching threat — is shelved on injured reserve after his freak jet-ski accident. Hines expected to be the difference on offense, too. Indianapolis has itself a potent 1-2 punch.
We were treated to more wizardry from Bijan Robinson. The Falcons rookie caught a touchdown with one hand in his team’s 21-19 win over the Texans. But this game was all about Desmond Ridder. He needed to step up after a lackluster performance in London vs. the Jaguars, and completed 28 of 37 passes for 329 yards with one TD through the air and one by ground. Even Kyle Pitts was targeted 11 (!) times. Ridder beautifully steered a 10-play, 59-yard field goal drive in the final 1:49 to win. Most encouraging: He was not afraid to give his big receivers a chance to win deep.
Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have hit rock bottom. They lost 34-0 to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, one week after getting whacked 38-3 by the Dallas Cowboys. It’s hard to see where exactly this offense conceivably improves. New England has failed to score 20 points in each of its five games this season. That’s only happened three other times in the franchise’s history: 1965, 1971 and 1995. The team’s 10 turnovers through five games are also tied for the most the Patriots have had to this point since giving it away 12 times in ’95. At this rate, you have to think Robert Kraft will do the unthinkable and move on from the six-time champion coach.
The Detroit Lions’ offense is such a joy to watch. They cruised to a 42-24 win over the Carolina Panthers at home without its top threat, Amon-Ra St. Brown. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson keeps defenses guessing regardless of who’s in, who’s out. With 3 minutes left in the first half, he busted out this pitch-pitch-pitch pass to rookie tight end Sam LaPorta for a touchdown. (Yes, we firmly stand by our Jaguars-Lions Super Bowl pick on a day like this.)
Brian Daboll’s crew showed moments of fight against the overpowering Miami Dolphins. Jason Pinnock returned one Tua Tagovailoa interception 102 yards to the end zone for the Giants’ first touchdown in the first half of a game this season. But the offensive line issues are proving insurmountable. This time, Daniel Jones injuring his neck. He’s getting more imaging done Monday to determine the extent of the injury. Defensively, the track speed of the Dolphins — they averaged 9.7 yards per play — overwhelmed New York.
Jets OC Nathaniel Hackett got his win over Sean Payton and his former team. Even the team’s X account got in on the fun. A nice moment for Hackett, who was clearly shaken by Payton violating a “code.” His best maneuver as the playcaller? Simply listening to Breece Hall. Two weeks after pining for the football, Hall gained 177 yards on 22 carries.
Could Brock Purdy, the last player picked in the 2022 NFL Draft, win NFL MVP in 2023? It’s possible. What a night for the 49ers quarterback against Dallas. One skill we’re seeing out of the quarterback repeatedly? Like Tua Tagovailoa, he has a knack for throwing the ball exactly where his receivers can catch it in-stride. Passes the baton right to them. We need to give the QB credit himself for averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt.
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