It was Alumni Weekend, a time when players from the Steelers' past are brought back to town for a celebration that includes a lavish dinner and speeches in a sold out banquet hall on Saturday night, and then a halftime ceremony during the following day's game where all attendees are introduced to the crowd.
On this Alumni Weekend, the Steelers not only honored a group of players from their past, but the current team played the style – especially on offense – those former players knew very well.
The Steelers capped their 2023 Alumni Weekend with a 23-19 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, and of all the reasons why that outcome was achieved none was more significant than the 205 yards rushing on 36 attempts (5.7 average) and two touchdowns the offense produced.
Leading the parade vs. the Packers was Jaylen Warren, the second-year pro who posted his first NFL regular season 100-yard game with 101 on 15 carries (6.7 average) and a touchdown, and he was followed closely by Najee Harris with 82 yards on 16 carries (5.1 average) and a touchdown. It was the first time the Steelers had rushed for over 200 yards in a game since Nov. 13, 2022, vs. New Orleans when they had 217 on 43 attempts (5.7 average) and two touchdowns in a 20-10 victory over the Saints.
"I think (it comes from) some continuity with the guys up front, getting a chance to have some more reps together," said Kenny Pickett. "You know, having a positive game, having another opportunity to stack another positive game, which they did, and Najee and Jaylen ran great. It was kind of a mix of the line and the backs getting into a good rhythm."
It cannot be a coincidence that since the Steelers added No. 1 pick Broderick Jones to the starting group at right tackle the offense has produced 166 yards on 30 attempts (5.5 average) against Tennessee on Nov. 2 and then the 205 yards in Sunday's win over Green Bay. Jones is far from a finished product, he lacks experience, and right tackle might not even be his best position, but since he has been a starter things have looked different. Better.
"Young with great energy, man," said Pickett about Jones. "He approaches the game the right way. He brings a fire into the huddle, which you love to see as a quarterback. I think he's nasty in the run game."
Jones is 311 pounds of agility and mobility spiked with a healthy dose of hostility, and since he's been starting it hasn't taken long to see a snapshot of him pulling around to the left side, or firing off the line of scrimmage, or getting in front of a receiver on a quick pass and taking off in search of a defender to engage. Jones isn't the only offensive lineman mixing it up in a positive way over the last couple of games, but his energetic aggressiveness has been contagious.
And Harris and Warren have been taking advantage of the creases the unit has created, their success has led to more opportunities, it's been lather, rinse, repeat, and the Steelers discovered a two-pronged rushing attack that has been a winning edge.
But even though they rushed for 100 yards in the first half and ended their first three possessions in the game with two rushing touchdowns and a Chris Boswell field goal, the game was another nail-biter that again came down to the final play as time expired. The reason for the suspense this time was the defense's inability to take advantage of a Green Bay offense that to this point in the season had been middle of the pack in third-down efficiency.
Green Bay answered the Steelers offensive output with two touchdowns in its first three possessions, with quarterback Jordan Love converting a couple of third downs in scoring territory to turn what could have been 3 points into 6 both times.
On a third-and-7 from the Steelers 8-yard line, Love found wide receiver Romeo Doubs for a touchdown in a situation where the defense making a play would've persuaded Coach Matt LaFleur to opt for a field goal. The second time was even more egregious because the Packers were facing a third-and-16 from the Steelers 35-yard line when Love hit wide receiver Jayden Reed for a touchdown.
"Let's talk about why it was tight," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We lost some significant possession downs early in the game. A couple third downs, they not only converted them but they turned them into scores, those two touchdowns in the first half. We gotta be able to win those downs and fight for those four points, make people settle for field goals. We weren't able to do it, and so the game got tight. They played on the back of those two touchdown opportunities, and so it was game-on from there."
Through the first nine games of this regular season, the Steelers have revealed themselves as a team with an offense that's neither high-powered nor quick-striking and a defense that through bouts of dynamic playmaking has been soft vs. the run. But when it became game-on, the team did enough things to win by making difference-making plays down the stretch in each of its six victories.
"They've quickly shown that they're not scared of big moments," said Tomlin about his team a couple of days before playing the Packers. "And let's be honest, all teams don't run to big moments. This group seems to have a collection of guys who want to make the splash play at the critical time. We've been in some tight ballgames, and I don't feel fear. I feel guys who are playing to win in the weighty moments or in the waning moments of games. And that's fun to be around."
This process began months ago on the Saint Vincent College campus when Tomlin manipulated "seven shots" or hand-crafted matchups in backs-on-backers or pitted the first-team offense vs. the first-team defense in spirited sessions of two-minute. There were winners and losers even then, and even though the stakes were minor compared to what they'd face when the games began to count in the standings, there were stakes, nonetheless.
"I've worked my tail off to nurture it in terms of the situations that I put him in, and how transparent we are about competition and so forth," said Tomlin. "But you know, that's a God-given thing from an individual perspective – that desire to compete, that strong will we look for in the acquisition of players because we just realize how important it is."
As has happened in each of their two most recent games, a defense playing without free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for the second game and without inside linebacker Cole Holcomb for the first of many games was presented with the opportunity to secure victory, and it delivered both times.
Possession downs were a problem for the Steelers defense throughout the afternoon, with those early failures turning the game into a nip-and-tuck affair, and then in the second half the Packers converted a fourth-and-4, a third-and-3, a third-and-7, a third-and-10, and a fourth-and-2 to end the game 10-for-18 (55.6 percent) on possession downs. But in the midst of that came two takeaways in the final four minutes that took touchdowns away from Green Bay with the Steelers protecting a 23-19 lead.
The first was an interception in the end zone by Keanu Neal on a pass intended for wide receiver Christian Watson, but the play was made by Patrick Peterson who got himself into position to tip the ball away from Watson and into a spot where Neal could grab it. The second was the game-clinching interception at the goal line by Damontae Kazee with three seconds left on another pass intended for Watson.
"I mean, as a defense we always want to be out there when the game's on the line," said T.J. Watt. "Obviously we don't love close games, but if we have to, we want to be able to dictate what happens at the end of the game. And we've had so much built-in adversity through the whole process. Coach Tomlin's all about that. So, it's just a matter of not blinking in those moments."
Their resolve will be tested once again, because a group of inside linebackers already dealing with the loss of Holcomb for the rest of the season to a knee injury now looks to be facing an immediate future without Kwon Alexander, who is feared to have sustained a lower leg injury that potentially would end his season as well.
"Being able to walk away with a win is huge, and we know it sucks when guys go down," said Watt, "but like I've said since the beginning, everybody in here practices every week. Everybody's in the same meetings. Everybody knows what the standard is. It's all about stepping up in those moments. We don't have time to sit around and sulk while we have a football game going on. We just need to take it in stride, and I feel like we did a good job of that today."