It looks like winning is back on the menu, folks, as the Pittsburgh Steelers advanced from desperate despair to hope and a prayer with their recent victory over the New Orleans Saints by the score of 20-10.
It was a scrappy performance by a scrappy rookie quarterback and a much-maligned Steelers coaching staff who put their Bye break to good work.
Are you sayin’ we have a chance, Mister?
With a record of 3-6, chances are slim for this team to muster an NFL Playoffs ticket. Somewhere along the odds Qatar will win its own World Cup this year. Or getting a good seat at a Taylor Swift concert. Or that she’ll sing nice things about former boyfriends.
Yet, with the exception of the AFC East which features four real contenders, there is enough mediocrity in the conference to make Wildcards more attainable.
Besides. Don’t they let every team into the playoffs these days?
There is still an opportunity for the Steelers to be relevant in the AFC North division as they have four of their last eight games against their most bitter rivals.
Still, all of this talk is utterly nonsensical if Pittsburgh can’t find a way to defeat their guests this Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals. The striped ones arrive with a vengeance minded Joe Burrow who threw four interceptions in their opening day defeat against Pittsburgh.
Let’s be clear. If the Steelers lose on Sunday, you might as well put this turkey in the oven. It will be stuffing to write about from here on out.
How will the Steelers perform under such pressure? Let’s give it a Spin.
What Do We Have Here?
Is there a possible script where the Steelers become NFL championship relevant again this year? Let’s be real here, and we’re all about being really real here in the Spin…probably not.
And even if we do miraculously eke our way in through a side door because one of our buddies leaves it ajar for us, we can’t expect much joy at the dance before the bouncer spots us as an interloper and kicks us out.
Which brings us to the real dramatic plot of the 2022 season. That is, “What do we have here?”
Is Kenny Pickett the future in Pittsburgh or is he another Bubby Brister type of a bump in the road?
Many of the NFL pundits have been generous with their proclamations, “It looks like the Steelers have found their quarterback” and it seems like the Pittsburgh brass agrees.
What is the tale of the tape?
Let’s start with the obvious. Don’t look at the statistics. If you do, you’ll find it to be rather depressing. With two touchdowns and eight interceptions and a quarterback rating of 68.8 compiled over five complete games, the numbers are far below unimpressive.
And those numbers aren’t distorting the truth. His accuracy has been suspect, his reads have been one dimensional and there hasn’t been a single throw in the strength category of a Patrick Mahomes or a Josh Allen.
He’s not that kind of quarterback.
Although he’s been making some timely scrambles and has shown a quickness on his feet, he also isn’t going to have a Justin Fields or Lamar Jackson type of explosive day running the ball.
He’s not that kind of quarterback.
But as far as a tough, scrappy, incredibly focused and competitive team leader, he’s already demonstrated that and more. Shockingly well for a rookie.
Still, his greatest quality displayed thus far? It’s an incredible confidence and calm in the huddle. It was mesmerizing watching his face during these on-the-field board meetings during the New Orleans Saints game (and the several before).
Here is this young player, with tens of thousands of highly demanding customers screaming at him from their stadium seats, and his composure was remarkable.
If you’re looking for player comparisons, he reminds more of Joe Montana than he does of Terry Bradshaw.
One of Montana’s most retold stories is his conversation with tackle Harris Barton in the huddle in Super Bowl XXIII with 3:20 minutes left on the clock and the San Francisco 49ers behind in the game and on their own eight yard line.
He famously looked to the stands and said, “Isn’t that John Candy?”
That was enough to loosen up his team to the task of heading down the field in a historic game-winning drive.
Have the Steelers found their quarterback?
Leading By Example
If there is one reason why the Steelers are beginning to find their groove with a running game it can be summed up in one name…Jaylen Warren.
The rookie running back lacks the “pedigree” that Coach Mike Tomlin so favors, yet he’s been top of the class on the team in terms of proving yards are “earned not given”.
Warren has been willing to run through the concrete walls all season long regardless of whether his offensive line has been doing their job or not.
His runs this season have not only been displays of burst and power and will, but he’s shown he has plenty of dance and style in his steps as well.
At pre-draft numbers of 5’ 8” in height and a 40-yard-dash at 4.55, he might be yet another example of why tape and time metrics aren’t the measure of a man.
His quiet leadership in this role even inspired team captain and last year’s number one draft pick Najee Harris to experience his first breakout game of the season.
The Steelers are desperate to provide their rookie quarterback with a ground game, and if they begin to find success here, you can thank the undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State.
This Team Has Guts
T.J. Watt took all about of the first thirty seconds on the field to announce to the National Football League and his teammates, “I’m baaaacckkkk!”
The before and after looks of Watt being part of the defense are staggering. He clearly demonstrated he was the “Missing Link” all along as it was the first time in weeks the Steelers defense hasn’t been…offensive.
Probably the critical element in all of this is nicking that fraction of a second off of the clock that an opposing quarterback has to think, and in this league it makes all of the difference.
Yet, it wasn’t only the passing game, his athleticism was displayed prominently against the run as well.
This week also signals a rapid return of his partner in defensive stardom on the team…Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick had surgery for appendicitis and apparently it will only cost him one game in absentia. He bravely is returning to the field on Sunday to add more optimism to the sense of a Renaissance on the defensive side of the field.
As much as this year is about Kenny Pickett and whether he is the future of the team…if this team is to have any hope of a sniff of success, it will be the defense that leads the way.
Regardless of anything that has been on display negatively by the Steelers defense (and there has been plenty), one thing holds significantly true…there has been no quit.
And with both T.J. and Minkah hastening their returns to the field of battle for the benefit of their teammates, coaches and fans, the team’s defensive toughness will be more fully on display on Sunday than on any other game.
They Found Their Teeth
The Bengals rose to the top levels of NFL prominence last season with their participation in the Super Bowl, falling just short of earning their first ever Lombardi Trophy, losing to the Los Angeles Rams by the tally of 20-23.
They started this season with a bit of a hangover, dropping their first game surprisingly to the Steelers and then following that up with a loss to a tough Dallas Cowboys team.
Since then, they have turned things around having beaten this season’s upstarts of the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. They took care of business against the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and most recently against the Carolina Panthers by a score of 42-21.
However, they are 0-3 in the division having lost to the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and were crushed by the Cleveland Browns. In other words, they’ll be absolutely desperate to win this Sunday. This is no easy out for the Steelers even with the Bengals superstar wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase still out with injury.
In other words, the Steelers players and coaches are up against a formidable foe with a powerful hunger to win. A victory against the Bengals will constitute a legitimate argument that the Steelers are once again a contender in 2022.
A loss? The rest of the season becomes all about 2023.