Kaboly: Steelers’ offense was never going to be perfect, so stop expecting it to be

Sep 18, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) throws a pass under pressure from the Cleveland Browns defense during the second quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports
By Mark Kaboly
Sep. 19, 2023

PITTSBURGH — It’s eight quarters into the new season, and it’s time to let it go: The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense isn’t going to be much better than it was last year, and it is in no way going to come close to approaching what it did in the preseason.

Those five drives and five touchdowns on 17 plays might as well be a million miles away.


There is no big second-year jump from Kenny Pickett and George Pickens ready to happen. The offensive line isn’t going to be markedly better, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada isn’t going to learn how to come up with a game plan all of a sudden.

At best, this unit will be a click better than it was a year ago, when it was at its best as a run-heavy team down the stretch, as the Steelers won seven of nine games to get within an eyelash of the playoffs.

That would be more than acceptable, in most cases — to have a young offense gradually get better from the first year to the second year. A lot of times, that is how the NFL works. Rarely do you see seismic jumps from year to year. Yet that is what we expected to see from the Steelers this year.



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And you know what? They have nobody to blame but themselves. They set such a high bar in the preseason that it is now the gauge of what this offense is capable of.

But in the preseason …

The Steelers’ offense was a little bit better than miserable on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium, and nearly as far away as possible from what it accomplished in the preseason — an offense that could put more than one touchdown on the board.

The bar they set against the Buccaneers, Bills and Falcons (Sure, the Bucs and Falcons were awful and not playing their starters, but how do you explain the Buffalo game?) is unattainable in the regular season. The quicker people convince themselves of that, the quicker they will see the subtle growth within this offense.

Pickett threw for 222 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Browns while completing only 50 percent of his passes. If it wasn’t for a 71-yard catch-and-run to Pickens and a busted coverage that allowed Jaylen Warren to ramble 30 yards untouched, this offense would have looked just as bad as the week before against the 49ers.

The Steelers won, 26-22, without much help from their offense. They entered the fourth quarter trailing by three and gained minus-7 yards in the final quarter. Per TruMedia, that’s the fewest yards gained by a team that overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win this century.



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This is the offense this group has turned into.


“Winning is hard in this league. It’s really hard,” Pickett said. “It feels like when you watch around the league, it always comes down to one possession at the end of the game. However we had to get it done, I’m happy that we got it done as a team.”

Pickett was better than in Week 1, but it would have been hard to be worse. Some of the same things popped up against the Browns as they did against the 49ers — penalties, falling behind the chains, struggling on — as Mike Tomlin calls them — “weighty” downs.

“Staying on the field, third downs, putting points up,” Pickett said. “Very ABC stuff. Playing better offensively. Period.”

But a win is a win, and the Steelers are in second place in the AFC North as they head on the road for games against the Raiders and Texans.

“As much as there were negatives, there are positives,” Pickett said. “George made some great plays. We’ll get the run game going here and get balanced and continue to do some things play-action wise.

“We have to execute at a much higher level.”

The Steelers got a pair of defensive touchdowns and were much more stout defensively after Browns running back Nick Chubb left with a gruesome leg injury in the first half. Chubb was unstoppable before Minkah Fitzpatrick’s tackle bent the running back’s knee in the opposite direction. You have to figure that if Chubb remained healthy, the Steelers — who played without Cam Heyward and part of the second half without Fitzpatrick — would have fallen to 0-2.

“We aren’t going to apologize for winning,” Tomlin said.

And they need to stop apologizing for having a run-of-the-mill offense two weeks into the season based on a couple of preseason series, albeit flawless ones.

Hey, I understand.

It was not only the preseason for Pickett and the offense. It was seeing significant growth in Pickett from the start of spring ball leading up to the first snap of Week 1. This fan base is so thirsty for a winner that it will take what we all know is a false prophet (the preseason) and project it as some sort of deity.


What is done is done, and this offense’s best is something it will chase all season long. Sort of like a dog chasing his tail. Once in a while, he will catch it, but not often.

“We don’t feed into those expectations from the preseason,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said.



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That is this offense, though — chasing its tail feverishly. You can blame Canada, and the 67,000-plus fans did just that late in the game with a “Fire Matt Canada” chant, but that’s not going to happen, so get that (along with the preseason) out of your mind.

“I tried to tell you guys that the preseason doesn’t mean a whole lot,” center Mason Cole said. “For whatever reason, they are so different, and we knew that. We know how good we can be and how good we are. It’s not like it is back to the drawing board.”

Maybe it should be back to the preseason drawing board for Canada.

He has been enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh for three years now and is really in a no-win situation. If this offense succeeds, it will be because of Pickett. If it doesn’t, it’s Canada’s fault. So he does not go without blame.



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Canada put together a solid preseason himself by massaging the offense to a point where it looked like a professional unit. He allowed Pickett to throw the ball down the field, used Pickens as a deep target, sped up the jet sweeps, dialed down the presnap motions and incorporated more play-action. We haven’t seen that in the regular season now. It almost seems like he’s intimidated by the expectations that he created in the preseason.

Where were Freiermuth and Connor Heyward against the Browns, especially with Diontae Johnson out? Where was Darnell Washington on the two-point conversion failure? How many fancy throwback plays did we see Monday night? Better yet, how many worked?

Right now it is a mess, and there’s no real escape from it because we all bought into the preseason hype. When the national media jumped on the bandwagon late, it created something unattainable for this offense.


It is something they will chase all season long, and there’s no chance they will catch it. They just have to deal with it. Moreover, the fans have to deal with it.

“We have to continue to find our rhythm and find our groove, but a win is a win,” Freiermuth said. “We are going to be in a positive mood moving forward.”

That’s one way to deflect the obvious.

(Photo of Kenny Pickett: Philip G. Pavely / USA Today)

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Mark Kaboly

Mark Kaboly is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Pittsburgh Steelers. He joined The Athletic in 2017 and has covered the team since 2002, first for the McKeesport Daily News and then the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Mark, the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America, has covered the Steelers in three Super Bowls (XL, XLIII, XLV). Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkKaboly