Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) is tackled by Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Jordan Elliott (96) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin has spent the better part of the season — actually, check that, the past four-plus seasons — glossing over the Pittsburgh Steelers relentlessly stagnant offense by pointing to the scoreboard.
Now, that might not even be enough.
Frustration internally seems to be mounting with each passing week, even with the Steelers (6-4) in the thick of the playoff mix as Thanksgiving looms.
Three weeks ago, right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor lost his starting job — likely for good — for popping off late in a listless loss to Jacksonville.
Two weeks ago wide receiver George Pickens had to be consoled when he wasn’t the one who caught the game-clinching touchdown pass against Tennessee.
On Sunday in Cleveland, wide receiver Diontae Johnson had an extended exchange with Tomlin on the sideline between the third and fourth quarters of what eventually became a 13-10 loss to the Browns.
In the subdued postgame locker room, running back Najee Harris brushed off the team’s media team and continued to take questions in a compelling session filled with pregnant pauses where he seemed to be searching for the right thing to say mixed with candid revelations such as he’s getting “tired of this (stuff).”
And while Tomlin has tried repeatedly to downplay any sign of dissatisfaction — likening things such as Pickens momentarily scrubbing his Instagram account of all Steelers-related posts recently as so much “reality TV,” the reality is it’s fair to start wondering how much longer he’s going to keep it all together.
While offensive coordinator Matt Canada has taken the brunt of the criticism as the weeks pass and Pittsburgh continues to sputter, the truth is there is plenty of blame to go around.
The offensive line couldn’t contain Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. Canada’s play calls — such as a first-quarter swing pass to running back Jaylen Warren in which no player in an orange helmet seemed the least bit fooled — flip-flopped between bizarre and ineffective.
And Pickett seemed to act as if there was a forcefield 15 yards downfield, opting for short and (in theory) safe throws that went nowhere. He didn’t top 100 yards passing until the game’s final snap and has two touchdown passes since the calendar flipped to October.
Tomlin has steadfastly protected the former Pitt star since promoting him to the starting job a month into the 2022 season. He has pointed to the intangibles Pickett provides — toughness and grit chief among them — as proof of progress even as Pickett’s numbers hint that just the opposite is true.
There was no scoreboard to hide behind on Sunday. No magic in the final moments that “Fourth Quarter Kenny” has summoned semi-regularly (if always briefly) to avert disaster.
Instead, the Steelers were exposed yet again by a team in playoff contention, this one an AFC North rival that happened to have a rookie quarterback at the controls.
Squint and there’s no reason to panic. The upcoming schedule looks manageable, particularly with Bengals star Joe Burrow out for the rest of the season.
Yet at some point, the Steelers will need to look like a playoff team when the offense is on the field. They haven’t for any sustained stretch since the height of the “Killer B” era led by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell in the mid-2010s.
Pickett continues to say all the right things. And plenty of long-term NFL starters have needed more than 22 games to find themselves.
Yet most of those starters didn’t play on a team with a top-10 scoring defense that features potential Hall of Famers at all three levels, a defense built to win right now.
That’s part of the frustration that’s starting to creep in.
Pittsburgh doesn’t need Pickett to turn into Patrick Mahomes, but a little sustained competence would go a long way. The list of players with more touchdown passes this season than the six Pickett has mustered through 10 games include Bryce Young, Jimmy Garoppolo and Mac Jones.
More is expected. More is required. Merely not costing his team games is no longer good enough.
And while there is no reason to believe Tomlin would turn to backup Mitch Trubisky or fire Canada in midseason — moves that are antithetical to “The Steeler Way” — it might be time for Tomlin to stop looking the other way and take his not-so-young 25-year-old franchise quarterback in name only to task.
The running game. The Steelers have piled up 543 yards on the ground over the past three weeks, the team’s most in a three-game span since Weeks 1-3 of the 2007 season.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
It feels unfair to criticize a defense that hasn’t allowed more than 20 points since Oct 1., but the late-game “bend but don’t break” philosophy — see Green Bay’s final two drives in Week 10 — didn’t work against the Browns. The Steelers were oddly passive on Cleveland’s final drive while rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson guided the Browns into field-goal range with relative ease.
Warren’s feel-good rise from former undrafted rookie free agent long shot to legitimate NFL-quality starter seems to be gaining momentum by the week. He’s the first Steeler to go over 100 yards rushing in consecutive games since James Conner did it in 2020.
On a team with a little wiggle room, punter Pressley Harvin III needs to be a weapon and not an occasional liability.
All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) could return to practice this week after missing each of the past three games. … One of Fitzpatrick’s replacements, S Elijah Riley, tweaked an ankle against the Browns and was placed on injured reserve.
0 — the number of teams the Steelers play over the next five weeks that are currently over .500.
Another week, another largely unknown first-year quarterback awaits on Sunday in Cincinnati, where Jake Browning — a 27-year-old who has been a career practice squad player until this season — will make his first NFL start.