The preseason is just that — the preseason.
Still, in their 30-7 season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Pittsburgh Steelers hardly resembled the team that went 3-0 in preseason games, or the offense that seamlessly moved the ball, albeit against undermanned opponents.
The Steelers’ offense scored just seven points, marking the fifth time in their past eight regular-season games they’ve failed to score at least 20. The defense didn’t fare much better, giving up four straight scores to the 49ers on their first four possessions.
By Sunday night, the hype train that steadily picked up speed throughout training camp and the preseason started to veer off the rails after one game. Is it time to panic? Absolutely not. There are areas of concern — but there’s also plenty of reason to believe the Steelers can get back on track, beginning with Monday night’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
Cause for concern No. 1: The secondary
The Steelers let cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Arthur Maulet walk in the offseason, but appeared to plug the hole by signing Patrick Peterson, drafting Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr. and signing nickels Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley. After one game, though, the early return on Peterson isn’t quite what the Steelers had hoped — despite saying on his podcast prior to the game that Brock Purdy and the 49ers’ offense had tells that would help him notch an interception.
Peterson was in coverage on both of Purdy’s touchdown throws. As valuable as Peterson is as a veteran mentor in the locker room, he was a liability at times on the field and often a step slow. On Purdy’s first touchdown, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk beat Peterson coming across the end zone, and to add insult to injury, Peterson slipped on the route, giving Aiyuk even more space to make the play. As a unit, the Steelers gave up 220 passing yards.
The silver lining: Porter can play more
Giving the rookie more snaps doesn’t solve the problem, but it could put the cornerbacks in a better position to cover receivers. Porter played just 10.6% of defense snaps to Peterson’s 98.5%. Porter is going to have growing pains, but he’s dynamic and showed a knack for making plays on the ball in training camp and in the preseason, where he had an interception in his first game action.
Cause for concern No. 2: Run defense
Christian McCaffrey ran all over the Steelers’ defense, and it doesn’t get easier in Week 2, when the Steelers host Nick Chubb, or Week 3, when they travel to Las Vegas to meet Josh Jacobs. McCaffrey gained 152 yards on 22 carries, averaging 6.9 yards per carry — and ripped off a 65-yard touchdown run to open the second half. The Steelers ranked 31st in rushing yards over expected (55), per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Compounding the issue is a groin injury to defensive captain Cameron Heyward. The Steelers are preparing to be without him for a significant amount of time, sources told ESPN. The defensive line was one of the deepest position groups in camp, but Heyward is the kind of presence that will require multiple players to replace him. Rookie defensive tackle Keeanu Benton along with second-year defensive ends Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal are the top contenders for expanded roles.
It also doesn’t help that Larry Ogunjobi, one of the team’s biggest wins in free agency, started out the season hampered by a lingering foot injury. Though he was limited in practice leading up to Week 1, he still played 62% of snaps. For what it’s worth, inside linebacker Kwon Alexander said Monday part of the defense’s problem can be solved by better tackling.
“We just had to finish plays, man,” Alexander said. “Just finish tackles. It wasn’t nothing too crazy about it. We just got to tackle. That’s the only thing. We got all the pieces, we need to be the best that we want to be. So all we got to do is just go out there and just finish.”
The silver lining: Elandon Roberts was a thumper
Roberts played less than half of the defensive snaps, but he recorded two tackles for loss and was the Steelers’ best line of defense against McCaffrey. And though the tackle needs improvement, Alexander said he was pleased with the communication between the new group of inside linebackers and the rest of the defense.
Cause for concern No. 3: Run game
The Steelers were deliberate about the preseason plan for Najee Harris, keeping him from physical contact so he would be as fresh as possible in the regular season. Well, Harris should still be plenty fresh after getting just six carries and two targets against the 49ers. The Steelers ran the ball only 10 times for 41 yards. Coach Mike Tomlin said the biggest issue was the lack of conversion on third down to sustain drives and give the offense more opportunities to get the run game going. The Steelers ran 61 plays to the 49ers’ 66, but converted just 5 of 15 third downs and 1 of 3 fourth downs.
“It’s just that you don’t have enough snaps, man,” Tomlin said. “You are going three-and-out. You can talk about run game, but the run game issues were not enough snaps, but we were three-and-out. We got to win the weighty downs. Everyone has to win the weighty downs. That’s the lifeblood of ball possession, and we didn’t do a good enough job today on either side, but particularly how we started offensively, not good.”
The silver lining: It should only get easier from here
Right? Maybe? Yes, this is the NFL, and every week is its own unique challenge, but the 49ers had the NFL’s best run defense a year ago. As a team, the 49ers held opponents to 3.4 yards per carry, tied for the league’s lowest with the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers’ run game got off to a slow start a year ago, too, but by the end of the season, Harris and Jaylen Warren developed into a complementary tandem. During their 7-2 finish to the 2022 season, the Steelers rushed for over 100 yards in eight of those nine games.
Cause for concern No. 4: Kenny Pickett’s accuracy and field vision
Pickett was remarkably accurate during training camp and the preseason, throwing only a handful of interceptions during training camp. The second-year quarterback and his offense were unanimous in their feeling that the group was further ahead in learning the offense and in being a cohesive unit at the end of this training camp than they were a year ago. Pickett’s coaches praised his poise and progress in mastering the offense.
Yet against the 49ers, Pickett was a shell of the confident, accurate quarterback who led the offense to five touchdowns in five preseason drives. Not only was Pickett inaccurate, he also lacked the downfield vision to see open receivers. He missed all four of his attempts of more than 20 air yards and completed just 5 of 10 intermediate attempts (10-19 air yards). In the preseason, Pickett completed both attempts of more than 20 air yards and 4 of 5 intermediate attempts.
“We just didn’t execute, honestly,” Pickett said. “I think it was more us than them. I felt comfortable with what I was seeing, what they were doing. We just didn’t execute.”
Despite heralding their offensive cohesion during training camp, Pickett and tight end Pat Freiermuth were on different pages for their fourth-down miscue that resulted in a turnover on downs in the red zone.
“That happens,” Pickett said. “Pat saw one way. I saw it the other way. It needs to be a fix, but obviously you put a lot of time in, but we will get it right. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about us staying together, playing balanced football, being able to do what we put a lot of time in to do.”
The silver lining: Pickett’s improvement after the 2022 bye
Pickett began his tenure as the Steelers’ starting quarterback with eight interceptions in five games, but he threw only one in his final eight games. Pickett was also at his best in the two-minute offense before halftime on Sunday, orchestrating a 95-yard scoring drive and looking more like the quarterback that led two game-winning drives late in the 2022 season. Those closest to Pickett point to his mental toughness as one of the intangibles that make him a talented quarterback, and he’ll have an opportunity to prove it with how he responds to this game.