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Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Bills

Well, that certainly was a performance to forget, and forget quickly.

Things went from bad three plays into the game to worse on the ensuing kickoff, and never really got much better for the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday on the road at Highmark Stadium against the Buffalo Bills. Turns out, I picked a good time to miss my first Steelers game in the last decade live due to a friend’s wedding in Wisconsin.

Good timing on my part, I’d say.

Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett showed some serious fight and promise in the loss, the run game remains abysmal leading to questions about Jaylen Warren compared to Najee Harris, the offensive line struggled again, and the defense had no answer for anything the Bills threw at them — literally — Sunday on the road.

Special teams was a dumpster fire, too. This feels like rock bottom for the Steelers…for now. It could get worse.

Let’s get into some grades.

QB — C

Pickett did a lot of damage in garbage time, that much is true. But I liked the way he handled himself throughout the game, going through his progressions, hanging in the pocket to make throws, displaying strong accuracy and overall touch, and really showing that competitive fire throughout the game, especially late in that dustup with Shaq Lawson.

You never want to see your quarterback mixing it up with a defensive lineman like that, but that showed a lot about who Pickett is what he’s all about when he’s between those white lines.

He was let down quite a bit on the day as the Steelers dropped numerous footballs. He also made a poor decision on his interception late in the first half. Outside of that though, he showed good command of the offense and really was on time and accurate throughout the day.

Completing 34-of-52 passing attempts for 327 yards is a nice start to a career, especially in his first start on the road in a tough environment, but a lot of it came in garbage time. It’s something to build on though.

RB — C-

Things seemingly started out rather well for Najee Harris on the ground on Sunday, but after that the Bills adjusted and really shut down the second-year running back, holding him to just 20 yards on 11 carries on the ground, the second worst performance of his career. Some of it was due to a lack of room created by the offensive line, some of it was due to Harris’ hesitation behind the line of scrimmage.

He just doesn’t look healthy right now, and it’s hurting the Steelers offense. He was able to add three catches for 16 yards out of the backfield was he was used as a receiving option to take what was there.

Behind Harris, Jaylen Warren had a nice showing in the fourth quarter in clear garbage time, racking up five carries for 24 yards on the afternoon, including a long of 12 yards. He was decisive, ran hard and really stayed north-south, which worked, at least while the Bills were playing soft defensively with the game in hand.

Out of the backfield, Warren added four catches for 39 yards, including a tough 13-yard catch-and-run, bowling through a defender along the sideline at the end of the play. He was strong in pass protection too, but it’s still not good enough from this group overall.

WR — D+

Guys like George Pickens and Chase Claypool had strong days, especially Pickens, who flashed that true No. 1 wide receiver ability in Pickett’s first start, finishing with six catches for 83 yards, including an impressive 29-yard catch down the left sideline over Buffalo cornerback Kaiir Elam.

Pickens flashed strong hands throughout the game and had a strong rapport with Pickens.

Claypool had some good plays throughout the game as well and really showed some strength after the catch to pick up some additional yards. Outside of that though, he still doesn’t have much feel for how to find the soft spot in coverage and work his way into space to make things easier for his quarterback.

Diontae Johnson, for all his special traits he possesses, continues to struggle to catch the football and make plays when they matter most. If he gets his second foot down on that spectacular one-handed grab in the first half, that might be a different game in the first half. Later, he had one go right through his hands that should have been a third-down conversion and was instead nearly intercepted.

Finally, he had a massive drop on third down along the far sideline on a play where he clearly caught the ball but had it punched out by a Buffalo defensive back. He’s coming up small, and he’s getting frustrated. Something to watch.

Gotta make plays when they count. It’s just not happening.

TE — C-

I am beginning to get VERY worried about Pat Freiermuth’s health moving forward. The concussion he suffered in the third quarter Sunday was his third in the NFL in just 22 career games. That’s extremely concerning. He wasn’t used much in the game prior to the shot he took to the helmet, finishing with just two catches for 12 yards on two targets. The Steelers aren’t utilizing the middle of the field properly again, and with Freiermuth now in concussion protocol it could get worse.

Zach Gentry had a decent game as a receiving option, finishing with a career-high five catches for 43 yards on six targets. He showed strong hands and lumbered after the catch. He’s not the option you want as TE1 moving forward though, depending on Freiermuth’s health. He just doesn’t offer much as a receiver.

Gentry was poor as a blocker on Sunday though, which shouldn’t be a surprise when the Steelers asked him to block Von Miller at times one-on-one in pass protection, one of which resulted in a holding call that was plain as day. Not great!

Rookie Connor Heyward got some run late due to the Freiermuth injury and finished with two catches for 12 yards. He has a strong rapport with Pickett in training camp and the preseason. Something to monitor moving forward, should he see more playing time.

OL — D

The offensive line knew it had a tough test in front of them on Sunday in Buffalo. They didn’t respond well to the questions on the test, allowing three sacks of Pickett, seven quarterback hits and held the Steelers to just 54 rushing yards on 17 total carries, good for a 3.2 yards per carry figure in the loss.

Granted, the game got out of hand in a hurry, which made the Steelers one dimensional, but even when it was a 10-3 game the Steelers couldn’t really run the ball and had to rely on rollouts, RPOs and quick throws to the boundary to move the football.

Through four weeks the Steelers offensive line wasn’t really the problem. They weren’t truly the problem Sunday either, but they weren’t performing well enough to help out a stagnant offense.

Penalties hurt again as well, as Dan Moore Jr. was called for a false start, and James Daniels had a roughing penalty that was well worth it but also hurt the Steelers and put them behind the chains, resulting in a turnover on downs.

DL — D

Outside of James Cook’s long touchdown run late in the first half, the Steelers defensive line, for the most part, played the run well.

Cameron Heyward finished with five tackles and a pass deflection, DeMarvin Leal flashed against the run and also batted a pass at the line to open the game, and Chris Wormley had good push against the run though he didn’t land on the stats sheet.

Losing Larry Ogunjobi in the game to a back injury certainly didn’t help as the Steelers defensive line generated no pass rush whatsoever on Josh Allen, allowing him to sit back and pick him apart.

Then, when the Steelers started playing more sub-package football, the defensive line couldn’t get off blocks against the run, allowing Devin Singletary and Cook to rip off long runs. Everything went wrong for the Steelers defense on Sunday.

LB — D-

Coverage really hurt the Steelers linebackers on Sunday. That isn’t much of a surprise.

Devin Bush struggled in coverage, though the completion up the seam to Khalil Shakir, there’s not much Bush can do there. His arm was in between Shakir’s hands, but he still made the catch. Perfect coverage, great throw, great catch. It happens. He struggled throughout the rest of the game though, and even had a woeful play as a blitzer on Allen in space, running right past him allowing Allen to rip off a good run on a scramble.

Myles Jack was fine coming downhill against the run, but he was a mess in space as well, as were a lot of defenders on Sunday.

The best play from the inside linebackers on Sunday may have been Robert Spillane getting hit in the back with a throw from Allen into the end zone intended for tight end Quintin Morris. Sums up how the day was inside.

At outside linebacker, the group didn’t generate a pass rush at all. The Bills did a nice job chipping Alex Highsmith, throwing him off of his speed rushes, while Malik Reed was an absolute zero on the other side. This group desperately needs T.J. Watt back as quickly as possible. Highsmith and Reed combined for two tackles and one tackle for loss, which came from Highsmith.

DB — F

This group was carved up time and time again. Too many free receivers running open, receivers bullying defensive backs at the catch point, breaking tackles and creating after the catch.

It was all awful.

Minkah Fitzpatrick had a game to forget, missing a tackle on Cooks’ 24-yard touchdown run and had the football ripped away from him by Gabe Davis for his second touchdown of the day. He also took a horrible angle on a Shakir catch and run that resulted in a huge splash for the Bills.

Cameron Sutton battled through a hamstring injury before taking a seat for good, but he was cooked by Stefon Diggs throughout.

Levi Wallace had a great interception on Allen on a play that he was perfect on, saving a touchdown. However, he was beat inside by Davis on the 98-yard touchdown even with him expecting some safety help, and later was beat deep by Davis again on his second touchdown.

Tre Norwood was really rough in his first game in place of Terrell Edmunds, poorly playing Davis’ 98-yard touchdown. Same for Josh Jackson, who was elevated from the practice squad for the second week and allowed a touchdown to Shakir on a play in which he just missed making a play on the football.

You know what they call almost making a play in coverage, right? Touchdowns.

James Pierre and Arthur Maulet were fine in their roles throughout the game. Maulet played well in the first quarter, playing primarily in the box, while Pierre flashed a few times in garbage time in coverage.

Special Teams — F

Two missed field goals by Chris Boswell in windy conditions, a fumbled kickoff by James Pierre who was in the game due to an eye injury to Steven Sims, and some awful punts by Pressley Harvin III led to a disastrous day for the Steelers under Danny Smith on special teams.

Boswell had a really tough time kicking in the wind Sunday, missing from 33 and 45 yards. Chalk that up to the wind. That won’t happen again. Still, it hurt the Steelers.

Pierre completely misplayed the kickoff and had it bounce right off of his chest to the Bills on the first play after the 98-yard touchdown to Davis. Ugly, ugly rep. He did make up for it later, a bit, on a Harvin punt that he dove and kept in play to down it at the 2 yard line.

Harvin averaged just 40.8 yards per punt on the day. Sure, he had a 69-yarder that Pierre downed inside the 2, but that was aided by the wind. He then had punts of 34 and 26 yards against the wind. Not good whatsoever.

Cameron Heyward did block a Tyler Bass field goal in the first quarter, which kept things at 7-0 for Buffalo.

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