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Five for Friday: Assessing the Steelers' first half

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Five for Friday, a new addition to the site, where we'll take a look at the week that was, as well as what's ahead for the weekend.

The Steelers head into their bye at a disappointing 2-6. It's not what anyone on the team envisioned when the season began, to be sure.

And blowout losses to the Bills and Eagles on the road make it feel worse than it actually probably is.

No, the Steelers aren't in the class of the Bills or Eagles right now, especially not in their buildings. But the reality is that, thus far, no team has been in the class of those two teams in their home stadiums, where Buffalo and Philadelphia are a combined 7-0 this season and winning by a combined average score of 31.4-15.4.

Included in their victims have been the 5-2 Titans, who lost 41-7 to the Bills, the 6-1 Vikings, who were hammered 24-7 by the Eagles, and the 6-2 Cowboys, who were handled, 26-17, by Philadelphia in a game that wasn't as close as the final score might suggest.

So, the Titans, Vikings and Cowboys, who have five combined losses, saw three of those defeats come at the hands of the Bills and Eagles.

This doesn't excuse the Steelers getting blown out in those games. If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best. And right now, the Bills and Eagles are the two best teams in their respective conferences.

Losing those two games to those two teams in the fashion the Steelers did in the first half of this season shows them just how close – or far – they are from being one of those teams.

But so do wins over the Bengals and Buccaneers, a pair of playoff teams from last season. And outside of those two games against the Bills and Eagles, the Steelers have been within one score in every other one of their games this season at the two-minute warning of those games.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, they either couldn't close out a win in the closing minutes against the Jets, or complete comebacks in one-score games against the Patriots, Browns or Dolphins.

They headed into the bye week knowing they let some games slip out of their grasp. Figuring out ways to close those games out and put together better overall performances was the key to the team's bye-week work.

"We had a couple of days of fundamental work in all three phases and did some things behind the scenes in terms of the evaluation of our schematics and the quality of our work," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Hopefully, we take the lessons learned and we still, as a staff, even though the field work is done, have some more workdays ahead of us in the bye week. We'll continue to gather that information and let that information be a component of our next plan and the subsequent plans to follow. But obviously, the most important one is the next one."

Win one or even two of those early games which were within their grasp, and there's a completely different feeling about this team heading into the bye. A 3-5 or 4-4 record, which was within reach, sounds a lot better than the current 2-6 mark.

And in each one of those games, it was one or two plays here or there that made the difference. A dropped punt against the Patriots. Some missed opportunities at interceptions against the Dolphins. An inability for the defense to keep the Jets out of the end zone on their final two possessions. And so it has gone.

But that is usually how things go in the NFL when a team is losing games. Rarely do teams get blown out week after week.

The Steelers are a young team, particularly on offense, where the only starters with more than three year's experience are offensive linemen Chuks Okorafor, James Daniels and Mason Cole, along with wide receiver Diontae Johnson.

The defense has struggled with the loss of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt for all but one game, along with seeing each of the team's top five defensive backs, safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, and corners Cam Sutton, Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon all miss at least one game each.

The Steelers also have played the NFL's hardest schedule in the first eight weeks of the season according to's metrics. Their schedule for the remainder of the season ranks as the league's 21st-most difficult by those same metrics.

In other words, there are better days ahead for the Steelers – if they learned how to better close out games and continue to get more healthy coming out of the break.

* Getting Watt back after the bye week will be a big deal for this team.

And it goes way beyond just his ability to sack the quarterback – though he does that better than anyone in the league.

Before leaving with a pectoral injury late in the fourth quarter of the regular season opener against the Bengals, Watt had recorded one of the Steelers' seven sacks in that game. But that didn't tell the full story of how he had affected that game.

Three of Watt's six tackles in that game were for a loss. He also batted two passes down at the line of scrimmage.

Watt's not only effective rushing the passer, as evidenced by his NFL record–tying 22.5 sacks last season. But he's also led the NFL in tackles for a loss with 23 and 21, respectively, while also batting down seven passes at the line of scrimmage in those two seasons.

The Steelers have been in the top four in the NFL in tackles for a loss in each of the previous three seasons. They had 94 last season, to rank second behind the 49ers (98).

This season, they have 32, which is tied for 13th-most in the NFL, but well behind Dallas' league-leading 52.

The run defense has been much-improved in the first half of this season. After allowing a league-worst 5.0 yards per carry last season, the Steelers are giving up 4.2 yards per rushing attempt this season, which ranks in the top 12 in the league.

But there have been too few negative plays in the running game – at least not what the Steelers are accustomed to getting.

Alex Highsmith has seven tackles for a loss to rank among the NFL leaders and go along with his 6.5 sacks. Cam Heyward has five to go along with 3.0 sacks.

But it's been a little spotty from the rest of the defense. Getting Watt back will help that.

Thanks to a number of explosive big plays allowed to the Bills and Eagles, the Steelers rank last in the NFL in yards per catch allowed at 12.7.

That's a big reason the Steelers acquired cornerback William Jackson III at the trade deadline earlier this week. Jackson might not be the complete answer to the issue -- at least not perhaps as getting Watt back -- but he does increase the competition on the back end of the defense. And competition tends to lead to an increased level of play.

Future opponents will be much less likely to try as many deep balls if they have to contend with both Watt and Highsmith coming off the edge and Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi coming up the middle.

"If you don't take care of him and let him wreck the game, he will," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Watt. "He's kind of that guy for us. If they don't take care of him on offense, he'll wreck the game. So obviously they can direct their energy somewhere else when he's not in the game.

"We obviously didn't do a good enough job when he was out of creating some energy, creating some turnovers, and creating some rush and doing that stuff. ... But we're glad to have him back, and we're going to go from here."

• Speaking of future opponents, the Steelers have faced the NFL's No. 2, 4, 5, 6 and 9 defenses this season, according to's metrics.

The only defensive unit currently in the top-10 they face in their final nine games belongs to the Bengals, a team the Steelers beat 23-20 in Week 1 in Cincinnati.

In his four starts, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has faced the Eagles (No. 2), Bills (No. 4), Buccaneers (No. 6) and Dolphins (No. 25).

In three of those four games, the Steelers had 300 or more yards three times, averaging 318.8 yards per game. In the first four games of the season before he became the starter, the Steelers had one game with 300 or more yards offensively – against the Browns – and were averaging 278.8 yards per game.

The Steelers face one top-10 defense, Cincinnati, the remainder of the season, though their Week 10 opponent coming out of the bye, New Orleans, is ranked 11th in defensive DVOA.

But they also have six games remaining against teams currently ranked 16th or lower in defensive DVOA.

The early results for Pickett, two touchdown passes against eight interceptions, haven't necessarily been there. But better days are ahead.

"I think it's a combination of everything," quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said. "There are instances where we need to make a better throw. We need to have a better route. There are other times we need to have better protection. It's just the luck of the draw. And it can be frustrating. Things get compounded when you're looking at 2-6 like we are. But those things are going to come."

He's also had some bad interception luck.

Pickett has been credited with eight throws in his four starts by Pro Football Focus that have been considered "turnover-worthy throws." Now, that doesn't include the interception he threw on a Hail Mary attempt in Week 4 against the Jets, but that's not many to have eight interceptions.

In fact, it's the same number of turnover-worthy throws as Dallas' Cooper Rush, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo and Denver's Russell Wilson. The difference is that they have 11 combined interceptions on their 24 combined turnover-worth throws. Pickett has eight interceptions on eight turnover-worthy throws.

That's just bad luck. And that tends to even out over the course of a season.

• That said, the young quarterback has been lacking in a couple of areas.

The first is in red zone passing. He's 7 of 16 for 34 yards and two touchdowns in the red zone. Inside the 10, he's 4 of 7 for 19 yards and two touchdowns.

Mitch Trubisky was 4 of 5 for 19 yards and three touchdowns inside the 20, with the same stats inside the 10.

That's a common problem for young quarterbacks. Windows get tighter inside the 20 when the field compacts.

Given Pickett's overall accuracy, he'll get better there.

His other issue is converting deep passes. In 4 ½ games, Pickett has completed nine passes of 20 or more yards. He has one completion of 30 or more yards and none of 40 or more.

Trubisky has 12 20-yard completions, four 30-yard completions and one of 40 or more.

That's not just having receivers run go patterns. The Steelers' lone 40-yard gain this season was a catch-and-run by tight end Connor Heyward that was about a 15-yard pass he turned into a 45-yard gain.

Johnson has been one of the top wide receivers in the league the previous three seasons in run after the catch. He was eighth in the league last season with 527 yards after the catch on his 107 receptions. That means he averaged 4.9 yards after the catch on every reception.

This season, he's got 83 yards after the catch on 43 receptions, an average of 1.9 yards after the catch.

Johnson hasn't suddenly forgotten how to get yardage after the catch. The Steelers just aren't doing a good job of getting one of the league's most dangerous receivers with the ball in his hands in a position in which he can catch the ball and go.

"The more we can try to get guys the opportunity to catch the ball in space, get some of that run after the catch, that's where we see a lot of (big plays)," Sullivan said. "Certainly everyone when they think about splash plays, it's those shots down the field. We've come up short on some of those. We've hit a couple of them. I think a lot of the splash plays you see around the league aren't necessarily balls in the air for 25, 35, 45 yards. It's a guy being able to catch the ball without a defender close to him, to use that natural elusiveness, speed and acceleration to create something. That's what we're looking for."

Johnson is that guy. And with the trade of Chase Claypool to the Bears earlier this week for a second-round pick, the Steelers' pass targets should be a little more focused. The passing game should be funneled through Johnson, exciting rookie George Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth.

All three are excellent playmakers. As Pickett gets more comfortable working with that trio, the positive results should follow.

• The Steelers also have to figure out a way to get Najee Harris going.

Harris is averaging 3.3 yards per rushing attempt and 4.7 yards per catch.

His backup, Jaylen Warren is averaging 5.3 yards per rushing attempt and 7.3 yards per catch.

Now, a lot of Warren's yardage is coming on third downs when he's facing nickel and dime defenses, but the difference is astounding.

In Pickett's three starts in which he also finished the game, he's attempted 52, 44 and 38 passes.

That's putting a lot on the plate of your young quarterback. And the Steelers have been forced to do so because they're not generating enough of a rushing game with Harris.

Now, if the plan is to have Pickett come out throwing a lot because the coaching staff feels he can handle it and it will accelerate the learning process for him, that's one thing. But having him do it out of necessity is another.

The Steelers need to find a way to cobble together a more consistent rushing attack and make things easier, not harder, on their rookie quarterback.

They're averaging 94.9 rushing yards per game, but Pickett and Trubisky have already added 127 yards on the ground this season -- more than twice the 58 rushing yards the quarterbacks had all of last season -- meaning it should be markedly better.

Harris was dealing with a foot injury during training camp, but he hasn't missed any time because of it during the season. He's looked better in recent weeks, but still isn't looking like he did during his rookie season, when he rushed for 1,200 yards.

He's on pace for 767 rushing yards this season.

"Obviously our running game has to be more efficient, we have to stay on schedule," Canada said.

If Harris doesn't show improvement in his decision-making, perhaps getting Warren more carries would help. It doesn't matter who runs the ball, only that the Steelers run it more effectively.