Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Saints

It sure must feel great when a plan comes together and results in a much-needed win.

That’s exactly what happened Sunday at Acrisure Stadium as the Pittsburgh Steelers got back on track in a 20-10 win, taking advantage of the bye week to correct things on both sides of the football, get some key players back in T.J. Watt and Damontae Kazee and get back to the  style of football the franchise wanted to play all season, which was suffocating defense, an elite pass rush, and a strong run game.

Second-year running back Najee Harris had his best performance of the season on the ground, rushing for 99 yards on 20 carries, including a season-long run of 36 yards, while rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett shook off a rather poor first half to rebound in the second half and make some clutch throws.

Defensively, Alex Highsmith got after the Saints in a big way on Sunday, recording two sacks, while Watt was impactful right away. Kazee recorded an interception and Levi Wallace had his best game of the season, adding an interception in the process.

Special teams remains a bit of a concern at the moment with the struggles from Matthew Wright in the kicking game Sunday, but overall it was a strong win for the black and gold, a much-needed one in the process.

Let’s get to some grades.

QB — C

The first half of Sunday’s win over the Saints from Pickett was rather poor overall. There’s no skirting around that one.

He missed a lot of throws and generally looked like he had no clue where the football was going on the afternoon. That started right away on his first throw of the game. The good news in the first half though was the use of his legs from a mobility standpoint, chewing up yardage on the ground as a runner when the play broke down.

To his credit, he bounced back nicely in the second half, finishing the afternoon 18-for-30 for 199 yards, adding 51 yard and a touchdown on eight carries for the Steelers.

He made some big-time throws as well, hitting Diontae Johnson down the right sideline for 36 yards and threw a perfectly-placed football to Najee Harris on a wheel route that went through the running back’s hands in the end zone. That said, he still struggled to see the field some and missed some opportunities to pull the trigger over the middle of the field.

It was great to see the Steelers utilize the middle of the field much more against the Saints and it was great to see Pickett connect on a deep shot, but the first half was just very poor overall. Hard to get past that overall. The second half was a lot better, but his overall performance left much to be desired.

It’s a process for the rookie first-round pick, one that’s going to have bumps along the way like Sunday’s game. Most importantly though, the Steelers got the win.

RB — A-

If not for a Harris fumble that the Steelers recovered in the win over the Saints, this grade would be higher.

Finally, the run game got on track for the black and gold.

Harris, facing some criticism in recent weeks, bounced back in a massive way Sunday, rushing for 99 yards on 20 carries. He was targeted just one on the day but recorded a drop when the ball went right through his hands. As a runner though, Harris was very good. He was decisive, running north/south with power and finally ripped off an explosive run — a 36-yarder in which he bounced off of a Saints defender to get to the outside.

Seems like he took the message to heart during the bye week and got back to who he truly is as a running back.

Behind Harris, Jaylen Warren had another strong game, rushing nine times for 37 yards, adding three receptions for 40 yards in the win. Warren ripped off an explosive run late in the game with a 21-yarder to close out the win, and added an explosive catch-and-run on a 26-yarder in the second half to get the Steelers into scoring position.

With a roughly 60/40 split on snaps, the duo of Harris and Warren complemented each other very well on Sunday. More of that moving forward, please.

WR — B

Finally, some slants into the middle of the field and a deep shot down the sideline that was completed. Progress!

George Pickens flashed on his five touches offensively against the Saints, finishing with three catches for 32 yards and two carries for 23 yards and a score, ripping off an explosive run of his own on a 22-yard jet sweep. He also showed great vision and heads-up ability on his 1-yard touchdown, darting inside on the jet sweep instead of continuing it outside, diving across the goal line for the score.

I’d like to see him utilized a bit more down the field, but Pickett did miss him early on in the game on the deep crosser.

Diontae Johnson played rather well too, finishing with four catches for 64 yards. He was able to win vertically on his 36-yard catch down the right sideline and showed off his ability to create separation on in-breaking routes throughout the game, though he did have a puzzling play in which he lost yardage on a catch in which he had the first down.

Steven Sims and Gunner Olszewski got more run after the trade of Chase Claypool. The two had one catch each, with Sims picking up 15 yards and Olszewski four yards. Sims looks like the guy in the slot moving forward, for the most part. He made a nice play on the screen pass and picked up some key yards on two carries, moving the chains on one.

TE — B-

In more of an expanded role in utilized more in the middle of the field, Pat Freiermuth had a strong game from the tight end position for the Steelers. Freiermuth finished with four catches for 36 yards, including a spectacular one-handed snag over the middle away from his body in the first half.

He was targeted seven times on the afternoon. More usage in the middle of the field with a continued route tree that sees him downfield more, he could unlock another level to his game.

Zach Gentry and Connor Heyward got some run in the game as well, with Heyward leading the way with two catches for nine yards.

Heyward took a massive shot on his first catch of the game from Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor, but bounced back on his next catch, making Taylor miss in space to pick up eight yards and make it a third and short situation.

The group was decent as run blockers overall on a great day from the Steelers’ run game, but nothing to write home about in that aspect from the tight ends. It remains a developmental process there.

OL — C

Yes, the Steelers had their best rushing output in a single game since the 2016 season, rushing for 217 yards as a team.

Guys like Dan Moore Jr., Mason Cole and James Daniels played very well in the run game overall, helping create a ton of room for Harris and Warren, but pass protection was a significant issue overall.

On the day, the Steelers allowed six sacks of Pickett and seven quarterback hits. Granted, at least one sack Pickett ran into himself, but it wasn’t a great day overall from a pass protection standpoint. That said, Pickett was given ample time throughout the game, but too often the rookie quarterback was under siege.

According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett was pressured on 17 of 40 drop backs against the Saints. That’s far too high of a percentage.

DL — A-

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Saints, much of the attention was on Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill for the Steelers’ defense.

Consider it a job well done Sunday against the Saints. Pittsburgh held the Saints to just 1.9 yards per carry as Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams had great days in the win.

Heyward was a force up front against the run, finishing with three run stops, including one on Kamara on third and short in the third quarter before playing a key role in stopping Andy Dalton on the fourth down stop on a failed QB sneak.

Ogunjobi added three tackles in the win, while Adams added two run stops. All three were able to consistently get off of blocks and make plays in the run game.

LB — B+

The return of T.J. Watt certainly provided the Steelers with a massive spark defensively, none bigger than Alex Highsmith.

With his friend and running partner back opposite him, Highsmith played at a ridiculously high level once again, finishing with five tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and one forced fumble in the win. He was a force throughout the afternoon and was seemingly unblockable.

Watt had a strong game in his return too, finishing with four tackles and a quarterback hit, making an impact right away with a tackle on the first play of the game. He was a factor as a pass rusher too, getting after Dalton throughout the afternoon, forcing the Saints to chip him, opening up opportunities for others.

Inside, with no Myles Jack, the pairing of Devin Bush and Robert Spillane played well working downhill against the run, combining of 10 tackles and a tackle for loss. Pass coverage was another issue though.

Spillane was picked on throughout the afternoon in coverage, allowing 51 yards and three first downs on 6-of-8 attempts. It remains puzzling as to why the Steelers believe he’s their best option as the coverage linebacker.

DB — A-

Two interceptions without the services of Minkah Fitzpatrick certainly boosts the grade.

Making his regular season debut with the Steelers, Damontae Kazee was a factor right away, picking off a Dalton pass off of a deflection, helping turn the game in the Steelers’ favor. He did have a hard hit on rookie Chris Olave called for an unnecessary roughness penalty, extending the Saints’ touchdown drive late in the first half. Overall though, he was a positive factor for the Steelers.

So, too, was Levi Wallace, who had his best game as a Steelers. Wallace picked off a pass in the win, outmuscling Kevin White for the pick after high-pointing the football. He added five tackles and broke up two passes in the win, helping the Steelers hold the Saints to just 6-of-11 passing for 66 yards when targeting receivers lined up out wide.

Arthur Maulet also had a strong game, breaking up a key pass in coverage downfield, ripping the football out to wipe out the deep completion. He finished with three tackles in the win.

Cameron Sutton, Tre Norwood and Terrell Edmunds were all solid as well. Edmunds really helped erase some of the underneath stuff to his side of the field, which is to be expected from the fifth-year veteran at this point in his career.

Special Teams — D+

With Chris Boswell on Injured Reserve, the Steelers turned to kicker Matthew Wright. He really struggled, missing two kicks in ugly fashion on the day. He also struggled mightily on kickoffs, struggling to reach the 10 yard line consistently in those situations.

Granted, the process of snap to hold to kick was slow at times on Sunday, which could be due to the guys getting used to each other, but Wright was mostly a mess, missing his final kick in woeful fashion. He did connect from 33 yards twice in the win though.

Pressley Harvin III quietly had a strong game, punting three times, averaging just under 42 yards per punt, downing the football inside the 20 yard line twice. Hopefully he can keep stacking good performances in the second half.

Coverage was a bit of an issue though as Rashed Shaheed ripped off a 31-yard kickoff return for the Saints. Penalties were problem too as Marcus Allen was called for a holding penalty on a punt return by Steven Sims, putting the Steelers deep in their own territory.

Gotta clean some things up on special teams this week.

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