Feats of Strength: Steelers offense has life after coordinator change; defense comes up big in Cincinnati
It’s not often that an NFL team scores 16 points, and the franchise’s fan base celebrates an offensive explosion.
But when that team has a 400-yard day for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic was still in full swing, it’s party time.
Such was the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 16-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
In terms of how the Steelers got there, that’s where we focus our attention in this week’s “Feats of Strength” and “Airing of Grievances.”
And let me start with one grievance right away: Why didn’t they change the offensive coordinator sooner?
Feats of Strength
Our long local nightmare is over: The Pittsburgh Steelers eclipsed 400 yards in total offense.
I’m gonna write that again just in case it was a big typo on my part, and maybe the editors can catch it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers eclipsed 400 yards in total offense.
Is it still there? They didn’t delete it? Well then, believe it or not, it must be true.
Yes, after 58 games, the Steelers managed to eclipse 400 yards of total offense. That ended the second-longest streak in the last 30 years of NFL football.
And they did it in the first game after Matt Canada was fired as the offensive coordinator. Interim coordinator Eddie Faulkner and interim play-caller Mike Sullivan combined to execute a game plan that netted 421 yards.
Coincidence? I doubt it.
I also don’t think it was a coincidence that they did so against the Bengals, who aren’t a very good defensive team. They were 28th in the NFL in total defense entering this weekend.
Along with the play-calling and play design, the execution of the Steelers on the field was much better as well. Quarterback Kenny Pickett was largely on target. He completed 24 of 33 passes for an average of 8.4 yards per attempt. He had been at 6.2 yards per attempt coming into the game.
“We spread the ball around. We changed things up schematically and did different things, launch points,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We attacked down the field early when they were in split safeties. We weren’t going to let them sit in that all day. We did what we needed to do.”
The Steelers extended drives. They were decent on third downs, converting 8 of 16 (not counting a game-ending kneel down). They ran 68 plays and stayed on the field for almost 37 minutes.
More ‘Muth: One clear change from the now-defunct Canada era is the Steelers found Pat Freiermuth a lot.
The tight end caught nine passes for 120 yards. He was targeted on 11 of Pickett’s 33 attempts. He had just nine catches on 14 targets and 60 yards coming into the game.
“I was happy that I could help in a big way,” Freiermuth told WDVE radio after the game. “We all came together after a little adversity with the sudden (coordinator) change and all of that. But we stayed together, stuck it out, met together and figured out a plan to get a win.”
The other tight ends got involved, too. Connor Heyward had two catches, and Darnell Washington had one, totaling 31 yards.
Now it’s Najee: The Steelers run game was really good for a fourth straight week. It netted 153 yards. This time, most of them were from Najee Harris.
He ended up with 99 yards on 15 carries. One of them was a 22-yarder, where he refused to be denied, moving a full pile 17 yards after he was jammed up. Harris also scored the lone touchdown of the day for the Steelers.
Najee Harris gives Pittsburgh the lead.
— NFL (@NFL) November 26, 2023
“He was awesome today. He was running downhill. He was hitting the holes hard. It was great to have Najee and (Jaylen Warren) doing their thing the way they usually do,” Pickett said of the running backs.
It wasn’t quite as good a day for Warren as in weeks past. He had 13 carries for 49 yards rushing and a fumble. But, collectively, this was the fourth straight game with the Steelers rushing for over 150 yards.
Ramming the run: The Bengals ran only 11 times. Three of those were runs by quarterback Jake Browning. So that means Joe Mixon got only eight handoffs.
That’s surprising, seeing as how Browning was playing in just his second NFL game. But the Steelers discouraged the run, yielding just 25 yards on those 11 attempts.
“We came in with a game plan from our defensive coaches. We were able to execute it from a defensive standpoint. We just kept playing. We played a 60-minute game,” linebacker Elandon Roberts said.
The Steelers have allowed only 121 yards rushing over the last two weeks.
Individual standouts: Trenton Thompson’s interception midway through the third quarter was huge. It happened with a little over nine minutes to go on the clock and Cincy snapping the ball from the Pittsburgh 18-yard line.
Trenton Thompson with the INT ????
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 26, 2023
That snuffed any scoring opportunity for the Bengals. Even a field goal there makes the game a touchdown deficit for the Steelers. A touchdown for the Bengals would’ve made the game a two-score margin. And even with the Steelers offense humming better than it had all year, who knows how things would’ve gone if the score was 14-3?
Also, give a tip of the cap to T.J. Watt and his two sacks and Joey Porter Jr. and the Steelers secondary for keeping receiver Ja’Marr Chase in check. Two of his four catches were on tipped passes. Another was just a great grab over Porter in tight coverage.
Airing of Grievances
Diontae’s day: After reportedly causing a sideline and locker room scene in the wake of last week’s loss in Cleveland, Diontae Johnson did little to win anyone over with his play this week.
On the first drive, Johnson did his typical backward running after a catch. It lost 5 yards on a second-and-7.
Johnson appeared to catch a touchdown on the second drive. But he lost control of the ball as he went to the ground out of the end zone. It was probably a bad call and one that should have been challenged. But the way the NFL stupidly interprets the end zone versus any other part of the field, I bet the incompletion would have been upheld. So that ended up being a drop for Johnson.
Then, on the next snap, Warren fumbled, and Johnson made zero effort to help on the tackle.
Johnson ended with four catches and 50 yards.
First drive frustration: The first drive without Canada sure ended with some residue from many that we saw under him as coordinator: with a third-down pass completed short of the sticks.
This time, it was to Connor Heyward. It gained 10 yards on a third-and-12. Before that, Johnson had his minus-5 yards on a wide-receiver screen.
In the first half, the Steelers were just 3 for 8 on third downs.
Opportunities lost: The Steelers’ red zone sequence that resulted in Johnson’s drop and Warren’s fumble was an early gut punch.
The defense also deflected two passes — one by Mykal Walker and another by Damontae Kazee — that resulted in receptions for Chase. Walker’s was sort of a fluke. But Kazee’s could’ve been an interception.
Also, at Cincinnati’s own 12-yard line, Steelers defensive back Chandon Sullivan had Browning dead to rights on a blitz but couldn’t bring him down. The play resulted in a 25-yard reception to Trenton Irwin, plus a roughing the passer call against Watt. It should’ve been a sack inside the Bengals’ 10-yard line.
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