On Sunday at Acrisure Stadium against New Orleans, the Steelers won a football game, and maybe more significantly they should have learned how to play if they want to win more of them over the course of the final eight weeks of this regular season.
Usually, when an NFL regular season works its way into mid-November, teams have a good handle on the style of play that's most likely to result in victories, or at the very least which style of play will end up more often than not in defeat. But with the Steelers transitioning to a new quarterback and a different style of offense in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger's retirement, and then having their backup plan of winning via a dominant defense derailed by the loss of reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt for seven weeks, that process wasn't progressing as well or as quickly as necessary to prevent them from falling to 2-6 heading into the bye.
Following the period of rest and reevaluation that byes provide, the Steelers began their second half with a visit from a team of Saints presenting themselves as a rather accommodating opponent by their own transition to a new quarterback complicated by the additional upheaval of a new head coach to go along with a roster that arrived every bit as depleted by injury as the Steelers.'
The 2-6 Steelers hosting the 3-6 Saints belonged on the opposite end of the must-see-TV spectrum, but it was a matchup that provided each of the combatants the same opportunity to get well, albeit briefly, at the expense of the other. The Steelers did that, to the tune of a 20-10 victory that got them to 3-6 with a style that should be sustainable and seems to fall within the reality of their current limitations.
The most obvious improvement came to the offense currently quarterbacked by rookie Kenny Pickett, who arrived for work on Sunday averaging right around 40 passes and two turnovers per four quarters. Both of those totals were too high, and while concerns about what continuing along that path might do to his confidence seemed to be misplaced, what didn't seem debatable was how those totals were adversely affecting the team's chances to win games.
One obvious proposal involved limiting Pickett's exposure to opposing defenses by leaning more heavily on the running game instead of relying on passing an inordinate percentage of the time to possess the ball, as had been the case.
The Steelers were better in those areas vs. the Saints – passing accounted for 42.7 percent of the total yardage and 32.1 percent of the first downs – and as Coach Mike Tomlin likes to phrase it, "there was still a lot of meat on that bone."
As a team the Steelers rushed for 217 yards, the first time they had gone over 200 yards rushing in a game since Le'Veon Bell singlehandedly rushed for 236 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-20 win in Buffalo on Dec. 11, 2016. Against the Saints, it was more of a group effort, with Najee Harris leading the way with 99 yards on 20 carries, Pickett adding 51 on 8 scrambles, Jaylen Warren chipping in with 37 yards on 9 attempts, and 23 more coming on a couple of jet sweeps by George Pickens.
"The O-line, man. The O-line was unbelievable," said Pickett about the reason why the running attack was successful. "Those guys stuck with it. They worked hard on the bye week and obviously this week getting prepared for it. Najee and Jaylen do what they do best. We have two really talented backs. We lean on those guys. I thought we had good balance today. They did a great job in the pass game as well. In all phases, I thought we took a step in the right direction today."
The Steelers might have ended the game with "good balance," but it took a while to attain it. Twelve of the first 18 plays were passes, and at the end of the first quarter, it was 15 passes to 9 runs. At the end of the first half, it was 23 called passes vs. 17 runs, the at no point during those 30 minutes of football did the Steelers ever trail. As the game progressed and the offense was allowed to rely more on the running game, the opportunities for Pickett to make the kinds of mistakes that previously had led to turnovers diminished significantly. In fact, the Steelers finished with no turnovers for just the third time in nine games this season.
"First and foremost, we took care of the ball," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "As a young quarterback in competitive circumstances, that's a difficult thing to do. We don't discount his ability to do that. Take care of the ball, give yourself a chance to win, and make yourself a tough group to beat. So, it started there for us."
On defense, the Steelers limited New Orleans to 29 rushing yards and 157 net yards passing. They sacked Andy Dalton twice and intercepted him twice. Maybe there wasn't anything spectacular about the defensive performance in terms of splash plays, but the unit was stingy overall, it won the majority of the possession downs (New Orleans converted 3-of-12 on third down and 0-for-1 on fourth down), didn't allow a single play that gained as much as 20 yards, and the Saints possessed the ball for only 21 minutes and 4 seconds.
"It starts with stopping the run," said Cam Heyward. "When you can make a team one-dimensional and they have to pass the ball to go down the field, it's huge."
Added Tomlin, "We were more concerned about minimizing (running back Alvin) Kamara and some of the things they did with Taysom Hill and the wildcat things. I thought we did a great job of minimizing those things, and it cleared out the clutter for to us do other things. The rush was sufficient, but anything we did defensively started with working to minimize Kamara and the things they were doing with (Hill) at quarterback."
Not only did Sunday's win represent the Steelers' first of the season where the margin was more than one score, had Matthew Wright not missed a couple of field goal attempts he is expected to make, the margin of victory could have been 16 points.
"A lot of positive contributions in all three phases," said Tomlin. "Obviously, things we can do better and things we need to work on, and we'll take those lessons and move forward and get ready for our next opportunity. We'll be right back here next week. We've just got to keep digging."
And if they use the tools that worked for them against the Saints – limiting Pickett's exposure by leaning on their running game, while being stingy against the run and not allowing chunk plays in bunches – maybe they can make some real progress toward digging themselves out of that 2-6 hole.