PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense can be summed up by the first play during Sunday’s 20-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
On the play, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett launched a deep ball to Diontae Johnson, who had gotten past the defense. But the two could not connect on the throw, and the Steelers ultimately punted the ball away.
So close, yet so far away.
Pickett and Johnson had another chance to make a big play later in the half. But Pickett threw behind Johnson on what could have been a go-ahead touchdown pass. Pittsburgh settled for three points instead of a touchdown.
So close, but again, so far away.
Halloween might be coming up, but the way the Steelers’ offense is playing, it may as well be Groundhog Day. The unit continues to move at a snails pace early in games. Sometimes, they overcome their slow starts with a frantic finish, like they did the previous two games. But that didn’t happen on Sunday, much to the chagrin of the team’s No. 1 receiver.
“I was pissed,” Johnson told CBS Sports when asked about the Steelers’ offensive struggles, especially early on. “I had a lot of stuff going through my head. ‘Why aren’t we moving the ball? What’s the issue?’ But at the end of the day, like I said, we’ve just got to keep playing, keep believing in one another.”
Sunday’s loss will only increase the criticism surrounding offensive coordinator Matt Canada. “Fire Canada” chants were again heard on Sunday from Steelers fans who have run out of patience.
Johnson, however, doesn’t think the finger should be pointed at Canada. It should instead be pointed at the players.
“It’s on us, it’s not the coaches,” Johnson said. “We’re the ones out there that’s got to play at the end of the day. All they can do is just call the play. Obviously, it’s got to be the right play for the right defense or look or whatever it is. But it’s on us at the end of the day to start fast and stop making excuses all the time. Just find a way to turn it around, regardless.”
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Johnson’s return from a hamstring injury should help the Steelers’ offense moving forward. Despite missing a good chunk of the season with the injury, Johnson had five catches for 79 yards in last week’s win over the Rams and eight catches for 85 yards on Sunday.
“Really, just staying around the team,” Johnson said of his quick turnaround from the injury. “Making sure I’m on top of my plays and not letting my mind wander. Just being around the team, they kept me sane, kept my mind right and on the right path. Once I got back, it was like second nature again. Really, understanding the game and understanding leverages and stuff like that. That helps you out as a receiver, knowing what release to use and how to run your route. Little stuff like that.”
How does Johnson’s return help Pittsburgh’s offense?
“It takes the pressure off and allows us to have a lot of one-on-one matchups,” Johnson said. “If they go zone, [Allen Robinson] can work the middle, either one of us can work the middle based off the formations.”
Making a big play early, Johnson said, could also help the Steelers get off to a fast start. Specifically, he said that he and George Pickens need to do more early on to help Pittsburgh’s offense get on track.
“We’ve got to make a play,” he said. “We feed off each other, then everybody starts rolling.”
Johnson knows how to help the offense, but he echoed an oft-heard response when he was asked why the offense isn’t doing those things, especially early in games.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Johnson said.
Making things more complicated is Pickett’s rib injury that held him out of the second half. Mitch Trubisky, who provided a temporary spark by hitting Pickens for a touchdown, threw two ill advised interceptions while forcing the ball downfield.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, though, the Steelers’ other offensive players know that it’s on them to make plays while eliminating mistakes.
“In this league, it’s next man up,” said running back Jaylen Warren. “Cant’ focus on those variables.”
Speaking of Warren, he and fellow back Najee Harris were practically invisible on Sunday. They had a combined 12 carries for 32 yards as Pittsburgh rushed for just 70 yards, which played right into the Jaguars’ hands.
“Really, just going into the game, we were just trying to be as aggressive as possible,” said Jaguars defensive lineman DaVon Hamilton. “Just impose our will on them, and that’s what we did. We stopped the run. They had a hard time passing the ball, too. Just trying to be as effective as possible.”
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the Steelers will be forced to put Sunday’s game behind them, what with the Titans coming to Pittsburgh on Thursday night. While the short turnaround provides obvious physical and schematic challenges, it can benefit a team that is looking to erase the stink of a bad game.
“We play Thursday, so we’ve got to go in there tomorrow, lock in, get our feet back from that game and get ready for this next game,” tight end Connor Heyward said. “They just won. No other way to put it. Not going to make an excuse. They just beat us. We’ve got to learn from this and get better.”
While Sunday’s game was just one loss, it in some ways is a microcosm of what the Steelers have been since they started the 2020 season with 11 straight wins. Pittsburgh finished that season 1-5, went 9-7-1 in 2021 and were 9-8 last season. The Steelers, a team that prides itself on competing for and winning championships, is 23-24-1 (including the postseason) since their 11-0 start three years ago.
That record is not lost on Steelers fans, who have grown frustrated with their team’s inability to move up the AFC’s proverbial food chain despite fielding a roster that includes some of the NFL’s biggest stars, including defensive studs T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Sunday’s game could have been a statement game. Instead, it was another frustrating afternoon for a team and specifically an offense that is still trying to find its way.
Until they find whatever is missing, there’s really only one thing the Steelers’ offense can do.
“I just think we just need to keep fighting,” Warren said. “At times, we’re moving the ball and all that. It’s unfortunate that sometimes we don’t get the seven points we need. It is what it is.
“Put it behind us right now. Just realize the game is over and just have to move onto the next one.”