The Buffalo Bills have begun final preparations ahead of this Sunday’s home tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Injuries are a major headline for both teams through the first quarter of the season. But so, too, is the inefficiency of their running games. But similarities end there, with Buffalo focused on a much bigger prize and Pittsburgh looking to turn the page with the team’s next franchise quarterback hopeful. Last week against the New York Jets, head coach Mike Tomlin made a change during halftime. He’d seen enough of quarterback Mitch Trubisky—and he felt rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett would give the team the spark it needed. So, the Kenny Pickett era officially begins—and he’ll be a wanted man in Buffalo this weekend. A rookie QB making his first start NFL start on the road against a Super Bowl-hopeful team is a very daunting task.
To get caught up with all things Steelers, I connected with Jeff Hartman, managing editor at SB Nation’s Behind The Steel Curtain.
1. Running back Najee Harris is a man amongst boys even in the NFL, but his numbers are pedestrian so far in 2022. What’s behind his apparent struggles?
The answer to this question depends on who you talk to. Some suggest Harris hasn’t fully healed from a Lisfranc injury suffered early in training camp, combined with another injury suffered in the Week 1 win over the Bengals. Others will tell you it is the fact he has yet to even get 20 carris in a game this year. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, in my opinion. I think Harris is just starting to get back to health, and the offense is starting to lean on him, and the running game, more as the year progresses. Throw in the fact the offensive line is starting to gel, and it is something where the Steelers are going to start seeing a heavier dose of Najee Harris, and that’s never a bad thing. Harris has proven when given the workload, he can handle it, but rookie Jaylen Warren has helped spell Harris and take some of that workload off the 2021 first round pick.
2. Who would you say are the team’s x-factors on offense and defense?
On offense the X-Factor is by far Kenny Pickett. The offensive line has done a great job this season improving by the week, but the quarterback play has left a lot to be desired. When the quarterback isn’t finding the open receivers, is being too safe with the football and not willing to do what is necessary to put points on the board, you make a change. In his first NFL start, Pickett has a tough task ahead of him, but he certainly has the swagger and “it factor” fans love in a quarterback.
On defense, the X-Factor is Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is dealing with a knee injury, but has three interceptions in four games so far this year. He is a force in the back end, and has proven he is one of the most well-rounded safeties in the game today. If Josh Allen is going to test Fitzpatrick, I expect Fitzpatrick to get his hands on the football...because that’s what he does. If the Bills avoid Minkah like the plague, which isn’t a bad strategy, it will neutralize his impact on the game.
3. With a history of so much consistency and sustained success at the quarterback position, has Steelers Nation embraced what’s likely to be the ups and downs with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett?
The Steelers fan base is more than happy with ups and downs with a rookie quarterback if they believe Pickett is the next “guy”. When you consider the team’s fortunes, it really is wild. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t supposed to be available with the 11th overall pick in 2003, but the Browns took Kellen Winslow Jr. 10th, giving Roethlisberger to the Steelers. After Roethlisberger retires in 2021, the quarterback no one thought would be there at No. 20 in 2022, Pickett falls and is their guy. If the Steelers found their next franchise quarterback for the next decade and a half, the year after the previous franchise quarterback retired, it would be an incredible act of grace from the football gods. If Pickett is that guy, the fan base will be patient with his progression and overall development.
4. Like the Bills, the Steelers are facing a mountain of injuries at key positions. Aside from the loss of the irreplaceable T.J. Watt, what are your chief concerns as it relates to players’ availability this Sunday?
All of the concerns reside on the defensive side of the football, mainly the secondary. CB Ahkello Witherspoon is likely out for the second straight week with a hamstring injury, Cam Sutton (groin/hamstring) and Levi Wallace (foot) have been limited this week, Terrell Edmunds (concussion) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee) have all been limited as well. These injuries against the high-powered Bills offense could be a death knell for the team. While I expect all but Witherspoon to play Sunday, are they able to play at a high level? We’ll have to see, but fans are unsure about how successful this banged up unit will be.
5. Until this week’s line, The Pittsburgh Steelers were the only NFL team nevert to be tabbed a 14-point underdog since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. That’s an incredible feat, to have avoided this sort of line deficit for 52 years. Does the DraftKings line ( Steelers +14) give you pause for any reason, and how do you see things playing out Sunday afternoon?
While I realize this is an uphill battle for the Steelers, having Pickett in the game will inject some confidence in the offense. In the second half vs. the Jets last week Pickett was able to move the ball. Now I know the Buffalo defense is much better than the Jets’, but I think the Steelers will be able to move the ball with the weapons they have. However, can they put touchdowns on the board and not just Chris Boswell field goals? That will be a key factor in this game, from a betting perspective. In theory, could the Steelers win Sunday? Yes. Is it likely? There’s a reason they are 2 touchdown underdogs. With all that being said, I’ll take the Steelers getting the points.
Our thanks to Jeff Hartman for participating in this week’s Q/A session. Be sure to head over to Behind The Steel Curtain to read my responses to Jeff’s questions about the Bills.