Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Bengals

Things looked so promising after one half of play Sunday night at Acrisure Stadium for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then, it all came apart.

A disastrous second half on both sides of the football Sunday led to a frustrating 37-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in AFC North play, dropping the Steelers to 3-7 on the season, putting the 2022 season on life support entirely.

The offense overall looked pretty solid for the first 30 minutes of action, putting up a season-high 20 points in the first half — the most they’d scored in a game all year to that point. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and rookie wide receiver George Pickens were firing on all cylinders, second-year running back Najee Harris looked strong for the second straight week, and the offensive line played relatively well overall.

Defensively, the Steelers struggled to get stops or generate any type of pressure against Joe Burrow and the Bengals, but ultimately did record two takeaways that gave the Steelers offense short fields. The result? Two field goals. Not good enough.

The second half was worse for both units, especially offensively as Matt Canada’s unit went three-and-out three straight times to open the second half, and before the final scoring possession had just 52 yards on 27 plays in the second half.

Let’s get to some grades.

QB — C

The first half against the Bengals was the best Kenny Pickett has looked in his young career as the quarterback of the Steelers. He pushed the football down the field, threw with great accuracy and made plays with his legs. He was dialed in early with fellow rookie George Pickens and had a strong rapport with second-year tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Coming out of the half though, things completely fell apart, including his accuracy.

Pickett had some woeful misses, including two bad ones after T.J. Watt’s interception gave the Steelers the football deep inside Cincinnati territory. He bounced back late, making some strong plays with his legs to find Gunner Olszewski and Freiermuth, and was let down by a late drop from Pickens on arguably the best ball of his career to date.

For the second straight week, Pickett avoided the turnover-worthy plays and pushed the football down the field with some success. The second half was a real concern though because one of his strongest traits — accuracy — seemingly disappeared in big spots.

RB — B-

Two weeks removed from a much-needed bye week, second-year running back Najee Harris continues to look better and better.

Against the Bengals, Harris cracked 90 rushing yards for the second straight week, finishing with 90 yards on 20 carries. Without the services of Jaylen Warren after the first quarter due to a hamstring injury, Harris handled the full workload and responded in a big way.

Harris added a 19-yard rushing touchdown — giving the Steelers their first 15+ yard touchdown of the season. He showed great burst and decisiveness throughout the game and was able to break tackles throughout the matchup, later adding a garbage-time touchdown for his best output of the season.

As a receiver, Harris was a factor again, adding four receptions for 26 yards, taking advantage of some space underneath to make plays after the catch.

Without Warren, Benny Snell Jr. had to step up and he did nicely in pass protection, picking up some blitzes to give Pickett time to make plays in the pocket.

WR — B

The Steelers really have something special in Pickens. It’s still hard to believe he fell to the second round.

Pickens finally had that breakout game people were waiting for, finishing with four catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. He was a factor throughout the night and was targeted early and often by Pickett. Pickens consistently won on his routes throughout the night, hauling in throws of 33 and 24 yards, the latter of which went for a touchdown.

While he was really good throughout, including a key block on Najee Harris’ 19-yard touchdown, he had a crucial drop late down the left sideline on Pickett’s best throw and then was ejected a few minutes later following a late hit on the onside kick and a scuffle on the Bengals’ side of the field.

As Pickens dominated for stretches, Diontae Johnson was extremely quiet, which had a lot to do with how the Bengals decided to deal with him. Johnson had just four catches for 21 yards and wasn’t targeted until late in the first half. His first touch came on a jet sweep on 3rd and 1 late in the second quarter.

Olszewski took advantage of more playing time in the second half and finished with two catches for 39 yards, including a terrific second-effort diving catch near the goal line that set up Harris’ second touchdown. He and Pickett seem to have a strong rapport, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him get more run moving forward.

TE — B+

One of the great bright spots of a rather difficult season is the development of Freiermuth into a high-level receiving option in the middle of the field.

That development was noticeable in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints and continued Sunday against the Bengals. Freiermuth finished with eight catches for 79 yards and was a real security outlet for Pickett throughout the contest. His 27-yard catch-and-run on a Pickett scramble late in the first half set up Matthew Wright’s field goal, giving the Steelers a halftime lead.

It was all effort.

He still leaves some to be desired as a blocker, but the effort is there and that’s all you can ask for.

Zach Gentry had a key block sealing the edge on Harris’ touchdown run and also added two catches for eight yards. He’s not going to make much of an impact as a receiver, and quite frankly the shovel pass to him needs to be removed from the playbook. Pickett also tried to target him in the end zone one play after Watt’s interception, but the throw was far too high and into triple coverage. Not exactly the player you want to be looking for in that situation.

OL — C

Another strong week in the run game for the Steelers’ offensive line, but pass protection left a lot to be desired in the second half, which contributed to some offensive issues overall.

The group really got after the Bengals in the first half on the ground, moving people off the line of scrimmage and opening up lanes for Harris. Dan Moore Jr., James Daniels and Mason Cole looked rather strong as run blockers, while Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor were serviceable.

The group held up well in pass protection in the first half too. Coming out of the halftime break though, they fell apart much like the offense as a whole. That said, I thought JC Hassenauer held his own in place of Cole in the second half.

Moore and Okorafor struggled against Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard in the second half as the Bengals’ standout pass rush duo really got after Pickett. The Bengals also adjusted against the run, taking one element away from the Steelers for a stretch in the second half.

DL — C+

The Steelers defensive line was rather stout against the run, holding the Bengals to just 2.6 yards per carry on the night, holding Joe Mixon to just 20 yards on seven carries before he exited with an injury, and holding Samaje Perine to just 30 yards on 11 carries.

Cameron Heyward had a big tackle for loss against the run and also added a sack of Burrow in the loss, finishing with seven tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. Montravius Adams added a tackle for loss for the Steelers, while Tyson Alualu batted a pass at the line of scrimmage.

That said, the Bengals were able to run late when it mattered most, which remains a real concern for the Steelers.

While they were stout against the run, there was very little pass rush presence. Heyward was a game-wrecker at times in the trenches, but Larry Ogunjobi was the only other defensive lineman to record a quarterback hit for the Steelers in the loss.

LB — D

T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith had a sizable impact for the Steelers, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Even with Watt’s interception, six tackles, half a sack and a quarterback hit, along with Highsmith’s half a sack and three quarterback hits, there wasn’t enough of a pass rush from the Steelers, which allowed Burrow to sit back and pick apart the Steelers.

Inside was a real concern for the Steelers, specifically Robert Spillane. It remains absolutely puzzling what the coaching staff sees in Spillane to keep giving him a bunch of snaps. He’s a real liability in pass coverage and is a poor tackler in space. He missed a big tackle on Perine’s second touchdown catch and also had a facemask penalty on a third and short that extended the Bengals’ drive.

Myles Jack returned to the lineup but really struggled in coverage. He was beaten by Hayden Hurst early on an option route for a huge gain, and later was the responsible party on Perine’s game-sealing touchdown, unable to get out into the flat in time.

Devin Bush got off to a strong start, but he regressed as the game continued, failing to get off of a block on Perine’s first touchdown on the 29-yard screen pass and eventually wasn’t on the field much down the stretch as the Steelers turned to Spillane with the Bengals throwing the football more and more.

A very forgettable night for the linebackers.

DB — F

Without Ja’Marr Chase in the lineup, things were coming together nicely for the Steelers to have a real shot at sweeping the Bengals on the year. Instead, Tee Higgins dominated from start to finish, Tyler Boyd made some clutch catches once again, and a guy named Trenton Irwin came through with a pair of big plays for the Bengals in the win.

The Steelers know they have a real problem at cornerback, but it’s not going to get fixed this season.

Higgins was dominant throughout, finishing with nine catches for 148 yards, essentially telling the Bengals what routes to call for him based on what he saw in coverage. He was too much to handle for Cameron Sutton and Levi Wallace throughout the matchup. Wallace did have an interception on a great play off of a tipped pass from Spillane, but outside of that, he wasn’t good enough.

Same for Arthur Maulet, who played far too much in coverage. Boyd made the key catch on the final drive for the Bengals over Maulet in coverage. Then, Irwin beat Wallace down the right sideline for the explosive play.

In his return to the lineup, Minkah Fitzpatrick played rather well throughout. He had a pass breakup and made three tackles and was able to move around a bunch within the defense as the Steelers rolled out the three-safety set. That three-safety set had issues at times though as Terrell Edmunds was beaten by Higgins on a third and long in the first half, and Damontae Kazee didn’t make much of an impact when on the field as he did last week.

Special Teams —C-

Without Chris Boswell in the lineup, it’s hurting the Steelers more than just on field goals.

Wright just does not have the leg to reach the end zone on kickoffs and the Steelers paid for it on Sunday. Trayveon Williams averaged nearly 25 yards per kick return on Sunday, including a 42-yarder that gave the Bengals the ball near midfield. Coverage has been lacking in recent weeks, but kicking the ball so short is a real problem that’s not going away for the next few weeks.

Outside of kickoffs, each field goal and extra point feels like an adventure. Not sure how you get a delay of game on an extra point, but the Steelers did that.

Punter Pressley Harvin continues to struggle with consistency. He did average 45.5 yards per punt on Sunday, but he had a bad 39-yarder from deep in his own end that the Bengals bailed him out on when Trent Taylor called fair catch off of a bounce. The numbers look decent for Harvin overall, but the consistency has to be better.

Steven Sims had quite the rollercoaster for the Steelers on special teams. He muffed the first punt of the game and didn’t take a knee in the end zone, which would have resulted in a touchback. Instead, he tried to scoop and return it and was tackled near his own 5-yard line. Not great.

Then, he bounced back, ripping off a 37-yard kickoff return that sparked the Steelers.

Just wanted to give a quick shout-out to Marcus Allen. He’s been playing some great football on special teams lately and Sunday was another example of that. He plays with his hair on fire on special teams and really brings much-needed energy and physicality. Hats off to him.


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