Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Titans

The Steelers are the 34th team in NFL history to be out-gained by the opponent in each of the first 8 games of a season, but they are the first of those 34 to have a winning record through those 8 games.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers.

As this team hits the veritable halfway point of its 17-game regular season, figuring it out is as difficult for us as scoring offensive touchdowns has been for them. Just when you think you see a light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be an oncoming train. Just when you decide their recipe for winning is not sustainable, they defeat another opponent with a defensive touchdown or two combined with a splash play on special teams and just enough offense that usually waits to show itself until the fourth quarter. And then it's still white-knuckle city until the defense makes one last splash play that seals the outcome.

It makes no sense. It looks nothing like the way the top-echelon teams go about their business on a weekly basis. It leaves the audience feeling like Vince Lombardi did when NFL Films captured him stomping along the sideline and screaming toward the field at his players, "What the hell is going on out there?"

But here they are, 5-3, and a legitimate playoff contender. I know, I know, that's not what all of the other playoff contenders look like, it's probably not what any payoff contender ever looking like, but in the AFC this year that 5-3 record is good enough because the Steelers are undefeated vs. division opponents and 4-2 in the conference.

Again, this is not a sport where the outcome is judged by a panel weighing the artistic composition of the performance; it's one ruled by the scoreboard, and each game counts one. The ugliest is weighted no more than the prettiest, and then at the end the only question that matters is, "how many?"

And you have to admit, these Steelers are not boring. Frustrating, infuriating, sometimes an affront to the way the sport is to be executed on the professional level, criminally inconsistent sometimes, but never boring.

Four days after their loss to Jacksonville was so complete it had the feel of a backbreaker, the Steelers came back and defeated Tennessee, 20-16, because they generally were more physical, and their defense picked the perfect spot to be dynamic. And if anyone had chosen to patronize any of the betting services with which the NFL does business, the parlay that ended up being the winning combination for the Steelers this week would have had astronomical odds.

A Steelers offense that had been averaging 79.7 yards rushing per game and 3.4 yards per carry finished with 166 yards rushing and 5.5 yards per carry. Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren snapped off a run of 20-plus yards, and Harris' 10-yard touchdown was the team's third rushing touchdown in the last three weeks.

Conversely, a defense that had been allowing 137.1 yards rushing per game and 4.5 yards per carry limited the Titans to 105 yards rushing and 4.2 yard yards per carry. And no, those numbers aren't Steel Curtain-esque, but Tennessee was handing the ball to Derrick Henry and its per carry average had been top 10 in the NFL.

Maybe the big gain offensively can be credited to the change at right tackle that had rookie Broderick Jones replacing Chuks Okorafor, and maybe the defensive gains were the direct result of the return of Cam Heyward. But as with most things about the ebbs and flows of professional football, the actual cause and effect rarely is traceable to one lineman on each side of the ball.

In addition to the switch at right tackle, which I have to believe is permanent barring injury, the Steelers seem to have found the right mix of playing time and play-calls to take advantage of what they have in the backfield tandem of Harris and Warren, both as runners and receivers. Johnson has added juice to the passing attack and is improving since returning from a stint on IR, but he does still leave plays on the field. And Pickens needs to be able to deal with a low-volume four quarters but still come up big when he gets a chance to make a routine play in the end zone but doesn't get a second foot down inbounds. For example.

Kenny Pickett has settled into a pattern where he's inconsistent in every area of in-game quarterback performance except grit and resiliency and relentless competitiveness.

After he went 5-for-7 for 62 yards in masterfully leading a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive on the game's opening possession, he would finish the other 25 minutes of the first half completing 3-of-8 for 16 yards and the offense was 2-of-5 on third downs.

During the second half, Pickett completed 11-of-15 for 82 yards and the offense was 4-of-7 on third downs, and during the 11-play, 92-yard drive that ended with him throwing the decisive 3-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson, which was his first receiving touchdown since the 2021 Wild Card Round game in Kansas City, Pickett completed 3-of-4 for 41 yards.

There have been times when Pickett was inaccurate and seemed indecisive, but he also has been dynamic in the fourth quarter of three games – against Baltimore, in Los Angeles vs. the Rams, and on a Thursday night vs. the Titans.

The defense took a hit when inside linebacker Cole Holcomb sustained the kind of knee injury that had Coach Mike Tomlin say afterward, "Obviously Cole Holcomb has got a serious injury. Our thoughts and prayers are with him." And that certainly doesn't help a unit already having to compensate for the loss of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is out for an undetermined period with a hamstring injury.

The offense's task is solely what Art Rooney II said back in January: "Score more points" and the method is secondary to the desired outcome. Run it, throw it, whatever, because this is a team that entered the game vs. Tennessee ranked 30th in the NFL with 9 offensive touchdowns, and the two scored in the win that got them to 5-3 won't shoot them up that list. Remember, the offense hasn't score three touchdowns in a game this season.

The defense's task really comes down to: Tighten up everything that's not the pass rush. The run defense still must be better, and now it has to find a way to get there without Holcomb. The pass defense allowed completions covering 24, 29, 23, 21, 29, and 23 yards to six different Tennessee receivers, and hamstring injuries can be delicate and unpredictable.

But hey, the Steelers are 5-3, and the 65,969 paid attendance sure looked and sounded as though they were having fun. Undoubtedly there were pockets of fans elsewhere riding the same rollercoaster, and now that we're halfway through, it's realistic to believe it's going to be more of this over the next 9 weeks.

They're not going to lead the league in many individual categories, and their units are still in development, which means inconsistency is inevitable, there are no quick fixes or magic personnel moves to accelerate the process, and there's no guarantee that any of it will be a finished product by the end of this season.

But they compete fiercely, don't blink, and more often than not (so far) do enough to find a way to win. This Steelers season won't be a smooth journey, but it still can be fun. Thursday night against the Titans was.