Steelers at the bye: What went right in the first half

No NFL player will ever turn down a bye week. But they do come in different situations and challenges.

In 2022, the Steelers' bye just might have come at the perfect moment in Week 9. After all, the team was off to a 2-6 record to open the season and needed a reboot.

As it turned out, the team went 7-2 in the second half as rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett grew into the role of being a team leader and the Steelers rode an improved running game and defense.

There was plenty of belief in the locker room the Steelers would be able to carry some of those things over into the 2023 season. But opponents study film, as well, and re-establishing that physicality at the line of scrimmage offensively and defensively has been a struggle early this season.

Take a look at the best photos from before Bye Week of the 2023 season

As the Steelers head into their bye this weekend, at 3-2 and atop the AFC North stangingthey've shown glimpses of the formula that helped them finish strong in 2022. But finding that level of consistency they had in the second half of last season still hasn't happened.

On the other hand, one of the reasons they were forced to play to that formula was because the offense lacked big-play ability. That hasn't been lacking early in this season as the team has seemingly gotten chunk plays on offense in every game, even though the Steelers have played three of the better defenses in the league in their first five games.

While the offense has struggled to find that consistency, the defense has been a big-play unit, with the exception of a Week 4 loss at Houston.

With team captain Cam Heyward missing from the defensive line, the rushing defense hasn't been up to snuff and the pass defense has allowed too many long completions, but the Steelers have overcome some of those issues with sacks and forced turnovers.

Though the Steelers are 30th in total defense, they're allowing 22.0 points per game, largely thanks to blowout losses to the 49ers and Texans. A big part of that has been the 11 turnovers the team has forced – tied for second in the NFL – and a pass rush that has produced 17 sacks.

When the defense is good, it's been very good. When it hasn't been good, it's been really bad.

Much like the offense, finding consistency from week to week would help settle some things down.

The best both units have looked at the same time came in the second half of the team's 17-10 win over the Ravens in Week 5. After being outgained 244-88 in the first two quarters, the Steelers flipped the script on Baltimore, posting a 201-91 advantage in total yards in the second half as they turned a 10-3 deficit into a victory.

With all of that in mind, here's a look at some of the highlights of an uneven first five games:

Week 1, 5:41, third quarter vs. 49ers at Acrisure Stadium
T.J. Watt sacks San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy and forces a fumble, which he also recovers, taking the ball away from Purdy. After an injury-plagued 2022 season, even though it came in a losing effort, Watt announced to the league that he's going to be a force with which to be reckoned in 2023. Watt finishes the game with three sacks in the loss.

Week 2, 14:51, first quarter vs. Browns at Acrisure Stadium
With the defense smarting coming off a 30-7 loss to the 49ers, the tone needed to be set early in the Steelers' Week 2 game against the Browns. That came via Minkah Fitzpatrick and Alex Highsmith. On the first play from scrimmage after a touchback on the kickoff, Deshaun Watson fired a pass to his left intended for tight end Harrison Bryant. But the ball tipped off the hands of Bryant and into the usually steady hands of Fitzpatrick. As Bryant went to the ground, however, he inadvertently knocked the ball out of Fitzpatrick's hands and into the waiting arms of Highsmith. Highsmith scooted down the sideline for a 30-yard touchdown return – the first score of his career – and a tone-setting score for the Steelers.

Week 2, 6:51, second quarter vs. Browns at Acrisure Stadium
Trailing 11-10, the Steelers showed off their big-play ability as George Pickens caught a pass over the middle 15 yards downfield and then raced through the Cleveland defense for a 71-yard touchdown that was the longest in the NFL over the first two weeks of the season.

Week 2, 10:46, fourth quarter vs. Browns at Acrisure Stadium
With the Browns leading 22-19 and driving, tight end David Njoku catches a 13-yard pass, only to have linebacker Cole Holcomb come in from behind as safety Keanu Neal took Njoku to the ground and knock the ball free. Safety Damontae Kazee recovered the loose ball at the Pittsburgh 44, ending the Cleveland threat.

Week 2, 7:06, fourth quarter vs. Browns at Acrisure Stadium
Highsmith was at it again as his sack of Watson following a Steelers punt stripped Watson of the football. Watt scooped up the loose ball and returned it 16 yards for a go-ahead, game-winning touchdown. Like Highsmith earlier, it was the first touchdown of Watt's career.

Week 3, 6:21, first quarter vs. Raiders at Allegiant Stadium
On third-and-7, Pickett drops back to pass and finds a streaking Calvin Austin III down the middle of the field behind the Las Vegas defense for a 72-yard touchdown pass, surpassing Pickens' touchdown by one yard. The score tied the game at 7-7 and answered a 32-yard touchdown from Jimmy Garoppolo to Davante Adams on fourth down on the Raiders' previous possession.

Week 3, 7:25, third quarter vs. Raiders at Allegiant Stadium
With Watt bearing down on him, Garoppolo lofts a pass toward Jakobi Meyers that is over the receiver's head. Patrick Peterson easily picks it off at the Pittsburgh 19, giving the Steelers the ball back up 16-7. From there, Pickett completed a 17-yard pass to Pickens, followed by a 4-yard run by Jaylen Warren and then a 16-yard pass from Pickett to Warren. Pickett then completed a 14-yard pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth before Najee Harris broke off a 17-yard run. Now at the Las Vegas 13, Pickett made a play-action fake and connected with Freiermuth for a 13-yard touchdown pass and a 23-7 lead.

Week 5, 13:37, fourth quarter vs. Ravens at Acrisure Stadium
Trailing 10-3, the Steelers needed a spark as the Ravens had the ball at their own 20. On first down, Justice Hill rushes for a 5-yard gain, but fullback Patrick Ricard is called for holding Watt, Baltimore's first penalty of the game. Backed up to the 10, the Ravens gain 4 yards on first down, but linebacker Kwon Alexander drops Hill for a 5-yard loss on a second-down reception. The Ravens are forced to punt and Miles Killebrew breaks through the middle of the Baltimore line and records his fourth career blocked punt, which is nearly recovered by Rodney Williams in the back of the end zone. Williams couldn't quite gather the ball in time, but the safety cuts Baltimore's lead to 10-5 with 11:18 remaining.

Week 5, 4:10, fourth quarter vs. Ravens at Acrisure Stadium
With the Steelers trailing 10-8, the Ravens recovered a Gunner Olszewski fumble on a punt and returned it to the Pittsburgh 5. But on third-and-goal from the 4, Jackson dropped back to pass and immediately lofted a pass to his left toward Odell Beckham Jr. Rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr., however, screens off Beckham and easily intercepted the pass, the first of his career, to turn the Ravens away without points.

Week 5, 1:12, fourth quarter vs. Ravens at Acrisure Stadium
Highsmith and Watt strike again, with Highsmith beating left tackle Ronnie Stanley at the snap and stripping Jackson of the ball on a sack. Watt scooped the loose ball up and returned it to the Baltimore 18, setting up a Chris Boswell field goal for a 17-10 lead.