Feats of Strength: Kenny Pickett, reserve running backs, timely defense erase Steelers shortcomings in win over Colts

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin did what he needed to do.

Maybe better said, he avoided doing what he couldn’t allow himself to do.

That would have been a loss to the Indianapolis Colts (4-7-1) and their human publicity stunt of an interim head coach, Jeff Saturday.

It was just Saturday’s third coaching game — ever. On any level. So if the Steelers (4-7) lost this game, the wolves would’ve been howling at Tomlin…and Tomlin specifically.

No amount of Matt Canada angst or Kenny Pickett concern would’ve bailed him out of this one.

But Tomlin and his staff at least had a better plan than Saturday and his assistants. And his players executed better (barely) on the way to a 24-17 victory.

Here’s your final course of Thanksgiving weekend football gorging with the week’s “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength” on the heels of an all-too-rare Steelers win in 2022.


FEATURES OF STRENGTH


Kenny canKenny Pickett played his best game as a starter in his “Monday Night Football” debut.

The rookie quarterback was 20 of 28 for 174 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown, but he did convert a clutch two-point try to George Pickens after leading an 11-play scoring drive to retake the lead 24-17 after the team fell behind on the previous possession.

Pickett ran for 32 yards as well and kept a few throws alive with his legs. While Pickett didn’t throw any interceptions for a third straight game, he did take three sacks. But some couldn’t be avoided.

Generally the offense moved a lot better than it has previously this season. There were no pre-snap penalties. He made throws when he needed to extend drives. The Steelers held the ball for more than 34 minutes. They converted seven third-down attempts and were two of three in the red zone. The ball was evenly distributed between Pat Freiermuth, Diontae Johnson and Pickens.

It’s getting better and better each week. These guys do a great job of working hard and staying after (practice) with me. Getting extra reps and doing the little things to make us successful,” Pickett said on the ESPN broadcast after the game.

None of the numbers are gaudy for Pickett. But his increased ability to protect the ball while keeping the offense on the field — and using his feet to extend plays or break the pocket — was worthy of note.


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Stout startThe defense was excellent in the first half. In fact, the Colts didn’t get a first down until the 7:13 mark of the second quarter.

The Steelers outgained the Colts 232-71 in the first half, taking a 16-3 lead into halftime. James Pierre had an interception. Terrell Edmunds had a sack as well.

Also, credit the defense for containing All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor. His 86 yards on 20 carries could’ve been worse if the Colts gave him the ball more often. But the Steelers defense limited the temptation to do so.


There when it counted: When things started to unravel in the second half, a number of defenders made big plays in some weighty moments. Chris Wormley wrestled a loose ball away from quarterback Matt Ryan for a red-zone turnover after Taylor fumbled a handoff.

On the last drive, Minkah Fitzpatrick had a huge open field tackle that limited damage on what what could’ve been a longer gain on a third-down snap before the two minute warning.

Two plays later, Alex Highsmith came up with a sack with 1:35 remaining. Then Highsmith helped stuff Taylor on third down, setting up a pass breakup by Cameron Sutton and Fitzpatrick on fourth down to wrap up the game.


Backup backs upStarting running back Najee Harris only got 11 touches and left the sideline before the end of the second quarter with an abdominal injury. Top backup Jaylen Warren was already active. But the other running backs did a nice job filling the void.

Benny Snell picked up 62 yards on 12 carries, a 5.2-yard average. He also scored a touchdown.

Anthony McFarland carried the ball six times for 30 yards. He also caught two passes for 11 yards.

“I’m just appreciative of both guys’ efforts. Sometimes you get promoted battlefield,” Tomlin said.

Pickett added those 32 yards on the ground, and Derek Watt picked up a four-yard first down run, too.


AIRING OF GRIEVANCES


Kick crisisThe kick-off coverage unit was bad.

Dallis Flowers had a return that went for 85 yards to open the second half. It led to a touchdown, pulling the Colts within six points.

“Our starting unit has got to be better,” Tomlin said. I thought that was a catalyst for whatever got going with them in the second half. The field position component of it was a big negative. We have got to get better there.”

Isaiah Rodgers also took one back 45 yards. In all, the Colts returned five kicks and averaged 45 yards per return.


Third-quarter concernsSome apparent halftime adjustments by the Colts made the Steelers look shaky coming out of the locker room, just as was the case against the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago.

In fact, at one point, Ryan was 14 of 16 for 139 yards and a touchdown in the second half.

Guarding the tight end was an issue. Jelani Woods had eight catches for 98 yards. Mo Alie-Cox added two more for 14 yards.


Low Watt-age: TJ Watt is still looking to find his All-Pro form since returning from his pectoral and knee injuries. He was quiet during the game, with just three tackles, no sacks, and one quarterback hit.

It looked as if Watt was being kept on the perimeter fairly easily by right tackle Braden Smith. Perhaps that was somewhat by design to force Ryan up in the pocket. But he was only sacked three times (two from defensive backs) on what ended up being 40 dropbacks. Although, Highsmith’s sack proved vital.

Watt has accounted for just half a sack since his return three games ago.


Diontae’s dayJohnson had some erratic moments.

On the plus side, he had 49 yards on a team-high five catches. But he dropped a potential touchdown pass prior to Snell’s score. And he ran backwards after a catch — again — costing forward progress yardage. That has been an annoying recurrence with him over the last few years.

Pickens wasn’t exactly perfect either. He dropped a few catchable balls. But he did grab the two-point conversion and made at least one highlight snag.

The rookie from Georgia had three catches for 57 yards.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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