Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Colts

It wasn’t pretty, but it doesn’t always have to be in the wonderful game of football. The Pittsburgh Steelers will take a win any way it comes, and the one earned on Monday Night Football over the Indianapolis Colts felt like it came straight out of the 2019 season.

A great run game, some timely throws from a young quarterback, and clutch plays down the stretch from the defense proved to be the difference Monday night inside Lucas Oil Stadium in a 24-17 win over the Colts, seeing the Steelers improve to 4-7 on the season.

While the raw numbers in the box score might not be eye-popping, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett had the best game of his young career to date, and third-string running back Benny Snell Jr. seized upon the opportunity given to him against the Colts to rush for 62 yards and the game-winning score, showing just what he can do with an increased role.

Defensively, Alex Highsmith made a pair of clutch plays late, and a fourth-down pass breakup proved to be just what the doctor ordered from Minkah Fitzpatrick to seal the win.

A win is a win, and now the Steelers have to get ready on a short week for another road trip to take on the Atlanta Falcons.

Let’s check out some grades from Monday night’s win over the Colts before moving on to Week 13.

QB — A-

One week after putting together a good half of football in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pickett put together a complete game against the Indianapolis Colts for the best start of his young career.

Right away, Pickett came out dealing, making a handful of big throws to the likes of George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth. While he had some painful misses, he was dialed in throughout the night and really took over late in the game where he was in complete control offensively.

Drops killed Pickett’s numbers on the night though. While the box score says 20-of-28 for 174 yards and another 32 rushing yards on six carries, Pickett’s night could have been even bigger if Pickens could have held onto two or three passes, and Johnson comes down with the ball in the end zone.

Even with the drops, Pickett played really well. He avoided the turnover-worthy play, used his legs to pick up free yardage instead of forcing things downfield, and had some terrific ball placement down the stretch as the Steelers shook off a terrible third quarter and rallied for the win.

It goes down as Pickett’s first career fourth-quarter comeback, too. Here’s to many more.

RB — B+ 

Early on it looked like it was going to be another solid night for second-year pro Najee Harris as he was running hard and moving the pile consistently. Eventually, he found the end zone, dragging two Colts’ defenders with him. Then, he suffered an abdominal injury and was forced to leave the game right before halftime.

That put a ton of work on the plates of Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland and boy, did they deliver.

Snell rushed for 62 yards and the game-winning touchdown on 12 carries, ripping off chunk plays left and right, including a long of 16 yards off left tackle. He ran hard, fell forward consistently and really provided the Steelers with a spark. So, too, did McFarland, who finished with 30 yards on six carries and added two catches for 11 yards out of the backfield.

McFarland ripped off a 14-yard run in the first half and helped combine with Snell in the second half to give the Steelers a solid rushing attack, keeping things balanced offensively as Pittsburgh mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter.

They were two unlikely heroes, but much-needed ones in the win. Hats off to those two for stepping up and seizing upon the opportunity.

WR — D

The raw numbers don’t look ~that~ bad for the wide receiver room. However, the group dropped roughly five passes in the loss, including at least two by Pickens and one by Johnson in the end zone. That simply can’t happen.

Pickens dropped two key ones in the third quarter, with both resulting in quick three-and-outs for the Steelers, leading to scoring drives for the Colts. He had a big 35-yard contested catch down the right sideline in the first half, twisting his body to get both feet in and did a decent job of making a defender miss on one other catch, but the drops were killer.

Johnson had a nice bounce-back game overall with five catches for 47 yards, getting involved early, but the dropped touchdown really hurt as that’s a play he’s paid to make. Earlier on that drive, he ran backward again after a catch and passed up two opportunities to pick up the first down. It’s rather frustrating and something he needs to be broken of, quickly.

Outside of Johnson and Pickens, Steven Sims had two catches for nine yards and was mostly a non-factor, while Cody White — elevated to the 53-man roster for the game due to Miles Boykin’s injury — finished with one catch for two yards.

While the Chase Claypool trade made sense, this team has a serious WR3 problem at the moment.

TE — B-

Pat Freiermuth was targeted just four times in the win, but he did haul in three passes for 39 yards, coming up in big spots consistently for the Steelers on Monday Night Football.

He has arguably the best hands on the team and is really becoming one of Pickett’s favorite targets overall. His 17-yard catch along the left sideline on a dart from Pickett was a thing of beauty. More of that moving forward, please.

Zach Gentry was targeted on a failed tight end screen for a loss of four yards, but in the run game, he was strong again, helping the Steelers rush for 172 yards and two touchdowns as a team, doing largely whatever they wanted up front on the ground. He’s really made strides as a blocker.

OL — B-

Yes, Pickett was sacked three times, but one came on a free rush that was designed due to the look the Colts gave on the blitz. Pickett should have gotten the ball out hot to McFarland in the flat but failed to do so. On another sack, Pickett stepped right up into the rusher.

Overall, it was a solid night for the offensive line. Dan Moore Jr. had a tough night giving up the sack and getting called for a holding penalty on Yannick Ngakoue in the first quarter, but outside of Moore’s issues at times, the group played rather well.

The Steelers rushed for 172 yards and two scores on the night and kept Pickett clean throughout, allowing just three quarterback hits in total. Against a strong Colts’ front four, that’s a win for the Steelers offensive line. Penalties will need to be cleaned up. Moore was called for holding and so was James Daniels, though that one was declined in the end.

DL — C

Though the Steelers held the Colts’ run game in check, allowing Jonathan Taylor to rush for just 86 yards on 20 carries, adding a touchdown, the defensive line was a bit of a disappointment. While Larry Ogunjobi recorded five tackles, it felt like he was slow to get off blocks throughout the night and wasn’t that impactful.

Same for Cameron Heyward. He struggled to get off blocks in the run game, recording just one tackle. However, he was good as a pass rusher, recording three quarterback hits in the win. Outside of Ogunjobi and Heyward though, most of the defensive line was non-existent.

Chris Wormley saved a rough night with a clutch fumble recovery, and Montravius Adams had three run stops. Still, not enough production up front from a group that was so keyed in on stopping the run.

LB — B

Don’t look now, but Devin Bush is playing some really solid football.

Against the Colts, Bush recorded eight tackles and broke up a pass. He was sound in coverage and played well downhill against the run, taking on blocks and getting off of them to make stops. Same for Myles Jack, who recorded seven tackles in the win.

However, Jack was flagged for defensive holding that was ultimately declined after allowing a big catch to Colts’ rookie tight end Jelani Woods. Overall though, the inside duo was rather strong against the Colts on the ground, which helped make Indianapolis one-dimensional outside of the third quarter.

Outside, it was a rather quiet night for T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, at least until the fourth quarter.

Highsmith made two game-changing plays on the Colts’ final drive, sacking Matt Ryan and forcing a fumble that the Colts ultimately recovered, before then tackling Taylor for no gain on a third down run, forcing a 4th and 3 that the Steelers held on for, picking up the win. With Watt back in the lineup, Highsmith is playing great ball.

Watt is still trying to find his way, though. On the night he recorded just three tackles and one quarterback hit, though he did force a fumble that went out of bounds on a catch by Woods near the sideline. The Steelers’ OLB duo was getting closer and closer to making a play on Ryan in the pocket with speed rushes. They just couldn’t get all the way home though.

DB — B-

While it felt like the Colts did pretty much whatever they wanted in the passing game in the second half, overall, the Steelers’ defensive backs had a strong night, holding Indianapolis to just 199 passing yards, including shutting out promising rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce.

Levi Wallace had a strong game overall, finishing with five tackles and two pass breakups. He was all over Colts receivers throughout the night and really did a good job making plays on the football. He was flagged once for pass interference on a jump ball to Michael Pittman that the Colts’ receiver hauled in for a 26-yard gain though.

Cameron Sutton had an up-and-down night overall. He paired with Minkah Fitzpatrick on the game-winning pass breakup, but overall was hit or miss in coverage against Pittman and Parris Campbell. He was able to shift inside at times in the slot role and was solid overall. He did miss a sack on Ryan, though, in the first half after coming in untouched on the cornerback blitz.

James Pierre started the night off great with a terrific play to pick off Ryan, reading his eyes and jumping the route. But he faded down the stretch, allowing a touchdown to Pittman after getting beat off the line of scrimmage.

Arthur Maulet, who struggled in recent weeks in coverage, saw his role reduced a bit, but he thrived in the process finishing with a team-high 10 tackles, playing rather well in run support, adding a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit in a very strong effort overall.

At safety, Fitzpatrick was very good once again, which is no surprise. He was jumping a lot of crossing routes, playing with great physicality overall and was all over the field for the Steelers. However, his pass interference penalty in the third quarter turned a third and goal stop into a first and goal for the Colts at the one. Fortunately, the Colts fumbled the football on the next play.

Terrell Edmunds had another good game as well, playing good football in the box for the Steelers against the Colts, adding six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit in the win.

Special Teams — C-

There was some good on Monday night on special teams, but a lot of bad for Danny Smith’s bunch.

Isaiahh Loudermilk blocked the Colts’ field goal attempt just before the half, keeping it a 16-3 game, but in the second half, Cameron Sutton jumped offsides on a field goal attempt, giving the Colts a first down. Sloppy.

Matthew Wright did very well in the kicking game, drilling all three field goals, including a long of 52 yards, but the kick coverage unit was a disaster, allowing an 89-yard kickoff return to open the second half from rookie Dallis Flowers that sparked the Colts. In the first half, Isaiah Rodgers added a 45-yard kickoff return. It was an ugly night from that unit, one that drew the ire of Mike Tomlin after the win.

Punter Pressley Harvin III was terrific on the night, averaging 45.5 yards per punt in the win, downing two of his punts inside the 20-yard line, and realistically should have had a third if Cody White makes the play on the ball near the goal line in the first quarter. He added a huge 54-yard punt late in the game, flipping the field for the Steelers in a key spot.

Overall though, the special teams feels like a bit of a mess right now, especially on kick coverage. That has to get better.

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