Here's the thing about the NFL:
Success isn't measured based on performing to a predetermined standard of what proficiency is supposed to look like. Instead it's determined by the numbers on the scoreboard after 4 quarters vs. a specific opponent. The Steelers are fortunate that's the way the NFL decides games, because while their level of proficiency on Sunday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium left a lot to be desired, they were better than the other guys.
Being better than the other guys yesterday meant they went home with a 17-10 victory over the Baltimore Ravens that left them at 3-2 and as the improbable leaders of the AFC North.
There certainly was enough that went wrong for them to give the fan base plenty to grumble about, but no matter how bad it looked and how loud it got in Pittsburgh, it had to be worse in Baltimore. The Ravens dropped several passes that should have been caught, forfeited 3 gimme points at the end of the first half and then couldn't score at all in the second half, had a punt blocked for a safety, and were minus-2 in turnover ratio, one of which was an interception in the end zone.
Looking at those same sequences through black-and-gold-tinted lenses, the Steelers gave as good as they got along the lines of scrimmage, they stayed in the fight, used their defense and special teams to hold things together until the offense could get it together with back-to-back scoring drives in the fourth quarter, and benefitted from their stars playing like stars in several critical situations at opportune times. Which is how a lot of NFL teams win games in October.
"Just appreciative of the effort, it's good to go into the bye sitting at the top of the North, particularly with all that we've been through," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Still very much a group in growth and development. There's a lot out there obviously that we didn't like. But that's life in this business, as well. Our job is to win, and we got business done today."
All of that is true but so is the continued below-the-line scoring output by the offense. Gaining yards and scoring points are not easy in the NFL by any means, but it shouldn't be as difficult as the Steelers have been making it look. Yes, the offense got itself up off the deck by going 49 yards in 9 plays for a 25-yard field goal from Chris Boswell and followed that with an 8-play, 80-yard possession ending with a touchdown thanks to a 41-yard throw and catch that was a big-time NFL play. So far the proficiency on offense has been limited to snippets, though, and it's going to have to become more than snippets. Sooner rather than later.
The glass-half-full perspective is that it was a game against a rival you love to beat played on a perfect day for football, and for 3 hours it was suspenseful and frustrating and aggravating and thrilling capped off by the happy ending that is an NFL regular season win. And remember, it ended with a win over a rival you love to beat.
The quarterback still is learning when it's the proper time to use his mobility, and the offensive line isn't always able to stop penetration on running plays, and the wide receivers miss having somebody who can get himself open with pure route-running (Diontae Johnson). All legitimate factors, but the immediate task has to be to figure out a way to score more and to score more often.
Twenty-one points in a game is not that high of a bar in today's NFL but is something the Steelers have managed just 7 times in their last 22 games. The recipe they've used to get to their bye at 3-2 and atop the AFC North Division simply is not sustainable over a 17-game regular season, not with an offense that has produced 5 touchdowns in 5 games
But these Steelers also have some attributes.
Their defense is opportunistic and at times dynamic, with the 4 sacks and 3 takeaways it recorded vs. the Ravens upping the 5-game total to 17 sacks and 11 takeaways. They have some rookies who have showed they belong and are earning expanded roles as a result. Their placekicker is money. They are very dangerous when backed against a wall. They don't finger-point. They're teammates.
There are no quick fixes, no white knights coming over the horizon, nothing realistic to do at this stage of the process other than to work with who they have, and their A-players have to bring their A-games.
T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith combined for 3 sacks, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery vs. a very slippery opponent in Lamar Jackson. George Pickens had 6 catches for 130 yards (21.7 average); twice he threw critical blocks downfield to create more yardage for a teammate; he took a reverse for 16 yards, which tied for the team's longest run in the game; and he won a 1-on-1 matchup and turned it into the 41-yard touchdown that provided the decisive points.
"George had to have a big game," said Tomlin. "These type of games, hotly contested, a lot of one-on-one matchups, we talked about it throughout the week. Oftentimes it comes down to one-on-one playmaking, particularly on the perimeter at the end when things get a little bit tight. And so it was important that we stay engaged for 60 minutes and deliver those timely plays at the end, which he did."
And their quarterback now has two fourth-quarter game-winning drives against the Ravens – in Baltimore last season in his 11th career start, and in Pittsburgh yesterday in his 17th career start. Pickett's numbers look pedestrian on a stats sheet, but he's a gamer, a fierce competitor, a guy who has a lot of the intangibles that allow a quarterback to lead a team.
In Houston the previous week, Pickett had a knee injured on a sack in the fourth quarter, but he got a positive outcome after the medical testing, and three days later he practiced. Pickett told anyone who asked that he planned to start against the Ravens, and he showed Tomlin and his teammates that he meant it by progressing through the week and doing more each day.
When Tomlin was asked on the Friday before the game whether the juxtaposition of the injury, the bye, and his quarterback's struggles within the offense tempted him to give Pickett a week off to sit out and re-set himself by watching Mitch Trubisky, the answer was definitive. "Absolutely not. This is a competitive business. If he's healthy enough to play, you send him back out there and you allow that competitor an opportunity to compete."
Pickett did not shrink from the challenge of playing in a physical game vs. the Ravens at less than full health, and his performance through most of three quarters reflected both of those realities. But he stuck with it. Kept competing. Ultimately, he delivered. And that's the cherry on that sundae.
"There's ups and downs in the season. There's ups and downs in games," said Pickett. "We found a way to win down the stretch; that's all that matters. It's nowhere near as good as it needs to be, speaking from an offensive standpoint. We understand that – all the players do, all the coaches do. We work tirelessly at it to get better and score more points. But at the end of the day we went down and got the 'W.' We're going into the bye week, get healthy."
They also go into the bye with some significant issues to work on, and with some tools to do it.