Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Eagles

Let's start with this: the Philadelphia Eagles are good. Very good. A legitimate Super Bowl contender. Right now, the best team in the NFC and quite possibly the best team in the NFL.

With that out of the way, the Steelers' performance in their 35-13 loss to the Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field was embarrassing, the second time in the last four games where that description is appropriate. Some of it was confounding, some of it was annoying, and all of it was frustrating.

After back-to-back games where the Steelers defense seemed to be coming around, at least to the degree where it was stingy in allowing points, the bottom dropped out. One week after doing a representative job against the Miami RPOs triggered by Tua Tagovailoa, the Eagles' version operated by Jalen Hurts did what it wanted when it wanted. One week after keeping a lid on the combination of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the Steelers were barely a speedbump for A.J. Brown and Zach Pascal, both of whom averaged over 25 yards per catch.

The offense was back to doing, and not doing, the things that has made it one of the worst performing units from a statistical standpoint in the league so far in 2022. After the Eagles won the toss and elected to defer, the Steelers got the ball first. Their opening series then followed the same disturbing pattern – run (by Najee Harris for no gain), run (by Kenny Pickett to escape the pass rush for 1 yard), pass (attempt by Pickett only to be sacked), punt. It was the fourth time in their eight regular season games that the Steelers went three-and-out on their opening possession.

Their play along the lines of scrimmage in Philadelphia can be summarized by two plays, one on each of the game's first two series. On first-and-10 from the 25-yard line on the game's first play, Harris had to fight to get back to the line of scrimmage for no gain. On third-and-1 from their 41-yard line on the Eagles' third play of their opening possession, Miles Sanders ran for 5 yards before encountering any Steelers defenders on the way to a 7-yard gain and a drive-extending first down.

Then the element that led to the 38-3 rout in Buffalo reared its ugly head again. Remember, Bills receiver Gabe Davis, known primarily as a deep threat, caught touchdown passes of 98 and 62 yards. In Philadelphia, A.J. Brown did his thing to the tune of 39, 29, and 27-yard touchdown catches, plus a 43-yard reception that set up an 11-yard touchdown run by Sanders that completed the scoring. The Steelers failed miserably to keep a lid on Brown, and the resulting explosion obliterated whatever chance they might have had.

"We're not positioning ourselves to win games. We didn't today," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Some fundamental things are falling short. We got to keep a lid on it. If you don't keep a lid on it in the NFL, you don't give yourself a chance to play. We didn't do that. I thought it was a domino effect from there. I thought our eyes weren't in the right place defensively. It's capable of happening when you're not keeping a lid on it. You got to keep a lid on it."

The Eagles had no such difficulty with the Steelers offense, because Philadelphia held a significant edge in plays that gained 20-plus yards, 7-2. Or to make the point a different way, the Eagles scored touchdowns on drives of 60 yards in three plays, 75 yards in five plays, and 54 yards in two plays; the Steelers touchdown and two field goals came of drives of 84 yards in 13 plays, 55 yards on 12 plays, and 74 yards on 15 plays.

"When you're on the field for 14 plays, you're leaving yourself open to make mistakes whether that's physically, mentally," said Kenny Pickett. "Some things happen like that, so we need more explosive plays. We had opportunities today and didn't connect. Penalties again hurt us. When you're running 14 plays, 16 plays, something (bad) is going to happen sooner or later. Guys get tired up front. It causes problems. It's a double-edged sword. It's good to stay on the field and control the football and chew some clock. We have to finish with points. If we're not getting points, it's really not doing us any good."

And Bill Cowher, the former Steelers coach and now an NFL analyst for CBS, doesn't believe the team is doing Pickett any favors with the way it's handling his rookie season. Pickett's fourth NFL start was Sunday in Philadelphia, and in those starts, he has attempted 52, 18 (in slightly more than a half before leaving with a concussion), 44, and 38 passes. That's 152 pass attempts in 3.5 NFL games, which is a lot of exposure to sacks/hits from the defense, and Cowher also doesn't believe the 7 interceptions Pickett has thrown in his starts (10 total in his rookie season) are doing anything for his mental well-being either.

"You're transitioning into a new quarterback, OK?" said Cowher during the CBS studio show on Sunday. "Right now, I get worried about his confidence, because I've seen this happen to other quarterbacks.

"Take the ball out of his hands. Don't ask him to do as much as you're asking him to do. I know we have these receivers and everything else. It's not about the receivers … You have to somehow shorten the game with this quarterback, and it goes back to running the ball. I'd put him back under center. Don't subject him to being back there (in the shotgun) and getting sacked six times.

"You're 2-6. Understand it's a period of transition. What's in the best interest of developing this quarterback who is your quarterback of the future without destroying his confidence?"

Based on how Pickett has handled things since being a No. 1 pick in late April, it seems unlikely his psyche is overly fragile, but Cowher's approach nevertheless has validity solely for the reduction of the physical pounding on the rookie quarterback's body. But trying to sustain offense under those parameters would require a reliance on a running attack that came into the game ranked 27th in the NFL and then managed 144 yards in Philadelphia, but a good bit of that total either came in garbage time or on scrambles by Pickett and reverses to wide receivers.

Najee Harris, a first-round pick just 18 months ago, has become a picker and a dancer in his second NFL season to the extent that undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren looks and produces more like a feature back should. "I'm not a big east-to-west guy. I've been taught to just get downhill," said Warren. "I'm not a big dance guy. That's what I've been taught."

Exactly, so teach Harris, or refresh those lessons. I spent hours and hours on the practice fields at Saint Vincent College summer after summer hearing former running backs coach Dick Hoak yelling, "hit it up in there" to veterans and draft picks and free agents alike. Harris is a hard worker who wants to be great, and it defies logic that he wouldn't respond to a constant reinforcing of that message.

As Cowher said, the Steelers are 2-6 and in a period of transition. Their bye is the weekend of Nov. 6-7 with their next game vs. New Orleans on Nov. 13 at Acrisure Stadium. The Collective Bargaining Agreement mandates players be given four consecutive days off during the bye, so there won't be an extended opportunity to hammer away at the issues dogging the team. But there should be some accounting of where they are and what they need to do to turn what remains of this season into a positive.

"Either you learn and are accountable, or you're not going to play," said Cam Heyward. "We're going into (the bye), and we've all been given chances to see that. If you can't do it, you won't play. That goes for everybody. I'm not singling one guy out. We've all got to be accountable, myself included. As a leader, I've got to take most of the blame. It's easy to point (fingers). It's better to look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I've got to get better.' So, I'm going to use this time to truly do that."

Those who follow Heyward's lead will be the ones worth keeping. As for the rest, well, as Cowher said, this is a period of transition.

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