Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Jets

What should have been a day of celebration following the start of the Kenny Pickett Era that provided the Pittsburgh Steelers with a real spark instead turned into yet another early-season disappointment for the black and gold as the Steelers blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead to the New York Jets at Acrisure Stadium, falling 24-20 to drop to 1-3 on the season.

The defense continues to struggle in the second half of games, can’t generate pressure and has really struggled to stop the run as of late, while the offense — despite getting a spark from the move to Pickett — still put up just 20 points and turned the football over four times in the loss.

Outside of Chris Boswell on special teams, Danny Smith’s unit is mostly a mess.

It hasn’t been pretty for the black and gold, and the drop to 1-3 leaves very little room for optimism for Pittsburgh as it enters a rather difficult stretch of football before the Week 8 bye.

Let’s dive into some grades.

QB — C- 

What a shot in the arm the decision to transition to Pickett coming out of halftime was for the Steelers. There was a noticeable boost from the crowd inside Acrisure Stadium as the Pickett Era finally started. Though he provided the shot in the arm, he did have a hand in three turnovers in the second half, which played a part in the Steelers’ collapse late.

That said, it was clear the moment wasn’t too big for him. He displayed that “it” factor right away and really gave the much-maligned offense a jolt. He utilized his legs, rushing for two touchdowns, showed really good ball placement at times, and stared down some pressures to take shots in the pocket and complete throws over the middle of the field.

In just the second half, Pickett completed 10-of-13 passes for 120 yards and added six carries for 15 yards and two scores, becoming the first quarterback in his debut to rush for two touchdowns. Still, the turnovers were costly. He badly underthrew Chase Claypool on the deep shot on his first career pass, though Claypool needs to make that play.

His throw to Pat Freiermuth on the sideline that resulted in his second interception should have been thrown out of bounds to live to fight another down, but it bounced off of Freiermuth’s hands and it’s a play he should make. The third and final interception is one to write off, as it was on a Hail Mary.

As for Mitch Trubisky, I thought he was playing rather well until late in the first half. He did miss some throws though, putting too much air under the deep shot to George Pickens early in the game after seeing it late, and his accuracy on a third-down throw to Jaylen Warren out of the backfield was poor, leading to him being tackled short of the sticks.

His throw into the back of the end zone to Diontae Johnson was an absolute dime, but Johnson couldn’t get his left foot inside the end line, resulting in an incompletion. After that, Trubisky fell apart. He showed very poor pocket presence, taking some very bad sacks. He drifted into pressure, failed to see lanes to step up into and generally did not look confident or comfortable within the pocket, which undoubtedly made the decision to transition to Pickett a bit easier.

RB — B-

For the second straight week I though the Steelers ran the football really well.

Najee Harris looked as good as he has all season, finishing with 74 yards on 18 carries, running right through the gut of the Jets’ defense on some carries, while also taking advantage of some toss plays running behind fullback Derek Watt to rip off chunk yards.

He ran with power, good vision overall and looked rather healthy overall, putting together his highest yardage output of the season.

It was a bit surprising he wasn’t used as a receiver out of the backfield, which might have limited the Steelers offense overall.

Behind Harris, Jaylen Warren looked solid once again, ripping off 18 yards on three carries on the ground, including a long of 14 yards on the ground on a toss play, much like how Harris had success. Warren was part of the botched toss play in the fourth quarter from Pickett, though it resulted in gain of three yards.

I was very pleased with the work Derek Watt put in as a lead blocker as well. He got out in front of Harris, Warren, and even Diontae Johnson the jet sweep well and won at the point of attack, taking out the key defenders.

WR — D+

Twice on Sunday balls bounced off of receivers hands resulting in interceptions. Further proof that there should be a pass catcher INT stat, since it wasn’t the quarterback’s fault.

Diontae Johnson had the first gaffe of the game as on the first play of the second drive a well-thrown ball from Trubisky tipped off of Johnson’s finger tips resulting in an interception from LaMarcus Joyner. Johnson had just two catches for 11 yards in the loss, and he also wasn’t able to get his left foot inbounds on the back of the end zone throw from Trubisky in the second quarter, resulting in the Steelers settling for a field goal.

Chase Claypool failed to catch either of his two targets on the day, and while the deep shot from Pickett early in the third quarter was well under thrown, that’s a ball that Claypool was drafted to win on, and he couldn’t. The ball was then bobbled into the air, resulting in an interception for Jordan Whitehead.

George Pickens was the lone bright spot at receiver for the Steelers. He finished with a career-high six receptions for 102 yards, consistently winning downfield for the Steelers, whether it was in contested-catch situations or over the middle. He showed off his impressive body control on the back-shoulder throw from Pickett in the fourth quarter, too.

Overall, just not a great day for the Steelers receiver, considering the inability to make plays that resulted in interceptions.

TE — B-

Finally, the Steelers utilized Pat Freiermuth in the middle of the field, and it turned out to be quite the success. Freiermuth finished with a game-high seven receptions for 85 yards one nine targets, consistently working himself open in the middle of the field, utilizing an area of the field the Steelers had failed to consistently attack through three games.

He showed off his ability to get open and make those contested catches. That said, his misplay on the second Pickett interception in the fourth quarter was costly as the ball bounced off of his hands and resulted in the interception. Outside of his work as a receiver on Sunday, I thought Freiermuth blocked rather well in the run game once again, helping the Steelers get to the perimeter and attack the Jets’ defensive front.

Behind Freiermuth, Zach Gentry had some decent reps as a blocker offensively, but I did not like his usage on the shovel pass near the goal line. That’s not his game.

OL — C+

I really liked what I saw from this group in the run game throughout the afternoon. They really moved defenders off the spot and worked well in tandem climbing to the second level, getting hats on hats, opening up significant lanes for Harris and Warren overall. I loved seeing guys on the move on the toss sweeps, getting hats on smaller defenders in space, winning on the ground over and over again.

Pass protection was a bit of another issue.

While I don’t put all of the sacks allowed on Sunday (three on Trubisky) on the Steelers offensive line, it wasn’t great overall. Dan Moore Jr. struggled with pressure in this one, as did Kevin Dotson, who really had his hands full against Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankings. Chukwuma Okorafor also struggled in pass protection at times as well.

Outside of struggling with protection, the Steelers’ offensive line was charged with four penalties on the afternoon, two by Dotson, one by Moore and one by James Daniels.

DL — C-

If this grade were strictly for the second half, this grade would be much, much worse than it already is. Of course, grades are for the full game though, and in the first half the Steelers defensive line was solid overall, led by Chris Wormley and rookie DeMarvin Leal.

The two reserve defensive linemen recorded four tackles and one tackle for loss each, helping the Steelers turn the Jets one-dimensional in the first half. Leal has looked very good early in his career, especially at the point of attack. He’s really coming into his own.

Larry Ogunjobi quietly was effective on Sunday, recording two quarterback hits, while two run stops in his first start of the season. Cameron Heyward was rather quiet again though in a game in which he was really banged up with the elbow and ankle issues he dealt with. That said, he keeps saying he has to step up, and it’s time for him to do so. He recorded three tackles in the loss, but he needs to generate more pressure.

I understand he is facing a lot of double teams overall, but he has to get back to playing at the high level he did last season, and especially the level he showed in Week 1.

LB — D+

This group really, really struggled on Sunday, especially late against the run.

For all the hype Myles Jack is getting as a linebacker for the Steelers, he’s slow to come downhill, has struggled to get off blocks and is missing opportunities to make plays in the hole. Granted, he finished with a team-high eight tackles, but he was pretty poor down the stretch, allowing guys to reach him at the second level and essentially wipe him out of the play.

Same for Devin Bush. I liked what I saw from Bush in the first half. He was attacking downhill, showed off his impressive closing speed was was around the football quite a bit. That changed in the second half as the Jets got rolling. They really stressed him in the run game and got him and Jack to bite hard on some play-action throws into wide open windows behind them.

Robert Spillane continues to be a massive liability on the field, especially in sub packages. He’s easily manipulated in zone coverage, gives up far too much room and doesn’t get enough depth in his drops, and just generally is a mess on the field. It’s getting harder and harder to understand why he gets so much run.

Outside, Alex Highsmith had a really strong day overall with a sack and tackle for loss, but he left at least two sacks on the field and is undoubtedly kicking himself this morning for plays that could have been. He’s playing at a very high level, but needs to finish off some of those great pass rushes.

Opposite Highsmith, there’s just not much there overall. Malik Reed has looked decent against the run at times and has generated some pressures that should have resulted in holding calls, but he’s not making the impact he was expected to when the Steelers traded for him. Jamir Jones is nothing more than a special teams piece, which is fine, but he has to play a handful of snaps right now with T.J. Watt on the sideline.

Ryan Andersen was elevated to the 53-man roster Sunday from the practice squad and made no impact whatsoever. Watt can’t get back fast enough.

DB — C-

Two interceptions is great to see, but in the end it wasn’t good enough.

The Steelers secondary struggled in zone coverage overall throughout the afternoon as Zach Wilson and the Jets picked them apart. In fact, in the fourth quarter Wilson was 10-of-12, carving up the Steelers secondary down the stretch. While the secondary was missing Ahkello Witherspoon, far too often guys were running free.

Then, Terrell Edmunds left with an injury and Cameron Sutton was battling through a hamstring issue. Minkah Fitzpatrick is also being evaluated for a knee injury. Not great!

It was nice to see Cameron Sutton again make a great play in coverage on the football, resulting in the interception. Same for Fitzpatrick on his interception, setting up Pickett’s second career rushing touchdown. Arthur Maulet had a decent game but missed a great opportunity for an interception on a ball that hit him square in the chest, and later gave up a crucial 36-yard completion to Garrett Wilson on third and 6, while Levi Wallace flashed at times in coverage and defended the perimeter well against the run.

Overall though, it wasn’t good enough, especially in the fourth quarter.

Special Teams — C-

Without Chris Boswell, this might be one of the worst special teams units in football.

Boswell set the new Acrisure Stadium record for field goal distance with his 59-yarder to close the half, and also made his 51-yarder look easier earlier in the second quarter. However, he did have a kickoff go out of bounds in frustrating fashion, giving the Jets great field position, though the defense bailed the Steelers out.

Punting with an issue though. Pressley Harvin III again struggled with consistency, averaging a putrid 39.5 yards per punt on Sunday, though he did have two downed inside the 20 yard line in the loss.

Then, there was the return game. Gunner Olszewski coughed up the football again on a punt return deep in his own end, which the Steelers were fortunate to recover. He also made some very questionable decisions with catching/not catching punts, hurting the Steelers’ field position in the process.

He was brought in for one task and is performing very poorly there.

The Steelers also had a leverage penalty called against them on the Jets’ extra point, resulting in a short field to kick off from for the Jets.

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