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Flavell's Five Thoughts: Steelers Bring Back Last Year's Problems

The Pittsburgh Steelers looked a lot like they did before the hype started.

Surely, it feels good to consume NFL football again. Sundays, from now until February, are stuffed with football for our viewing pleasure. What doesn’t feel good is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ performance against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday as they were trounced 30-7 at Acrisure Stadium.

The Steelers’ hype train quickly got derailed as the team’s preseason success couldn’t quite translate into the first week of the regular season. The offense was putrid, and the defense spent entirely too much time on the field because of the offense’s deficiencies. Not the greatest look.

Lucky for me, I am back for year three of “Flavell’s Five Thoughts” and will dissect five things I observed about the Steelers in this loss. If you’re reading one of these for the first time, welcome aboard. If you’re following along for another season, I am glad to be able to take up even the smallest portion of your day with my thoughts. As per usual, let’s get to it.

Offense’s 2022-Like Performance a Huge Red Flag

Pittsburgh’s offense was not good in 2022. Quarterback Kenny Pickett improved as the season went on, but the offense still struggled to do anything of substance. Despite five touchdown drives by Pickett and Co. in the preseason, the offense looked like the 2022 version on Sunday.

Diontae Johnson went down with an injury early on that didn't look good Chuks Okorafor entered concussion protocol late in the game. Sandwiched in between that was an offensive performance that didn't see the Steelers even get a first down until late in the second quarter.

Pickett looked rattled and antsy throughout the game. Receivers were slipping all over the field. The running game the Steelers wanted to establish never got used because of how much time they spent playing catch-up. George Pickens didn't get thrown to nearly enough despite becoming the de facto number one wideout upon Johnson's injury. Any of these sound familiar?

Well, it was eerily reminiscent of last season. Seven whole points were scored. They looked incredibly out of sync and unprepared. Just a "JV showing" to borrow a Tomlin-ism.

Another criticism I have stems from the Steelers' inability to move the ball when Matt Canada calls the plays. However, when the offense has to draw it up in the dirt in the no-huddle, they seem to move it pretty well. That can't be the lone way to move the ball on offense. Something has to give there, even if it means Canada's job eventually being in true danger.

Watt Right Back At It

T.J. Watt joined Steelers history by tying James Harrison for the franchise sack record at 80.5 sacks. When you truly sit back and think of all the legends who have played for the Steelers on the defensive side of the ball over the years, Watt now stands above them all. That's nothing short of impressive.

Watt spent the entire afternoon wreaking havoc on the 49ers. You'd have thought such a dominant performance would've seen the Steelers lose a close game. Despite three sacks, a forced fumble, and a pass deflection, the Steelers' offense didn't hold up their end of the bargain to score points.

Regardless, Watt entered his name in the early conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, an award he is perennially up for. He'll more than likely break the franchise record next week or the following week and put his name above Harrison's. Watt will continue to mentor and push Alex Highsmith to be a wonderful foil on the opposite side.

Even in a blowout, Watt gave his all and that shows the kind of player he is. The Steelers are fortunate to have him, and it is a big deal that he started this season off by getting through week one unscathed.

Steelers Fail Early Litmus Test

Opening up the season at home against a team that made the NFC Championship Game last year is a big deal. It wasn't hard to get up for. I find it hard to believe the Steelers were unprepared for the 49ers, as they had two weeks to prep for them. I think it comes down to one simple fact: they just aren't on the 49ers' level yet.

The 49ers are seen as a threat again in the NFC. Brock Purdy has question marks but is capable of giving the ball to the star-laden offensive players and getting out of the way. They're coached by a wonderful football mind in Kyle Shanahan. It's a well-rounded, nearly complete football team.

Pittsburgh has a bunch of new starters on the offensive line, a few new receivers, and an overhauled secondary. While you could argue they are deeper than they were in 2022 on both sides of the ball, they still have a lot of guys who didn't play with each other last season. That gelling as a unit takes time and I think they're certainly capable of getting there.

Pickett has a chance to redeem himself next week at home again against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football. Watt has a chance to dominate again. Tomlin has been stellar on MNF throughout his career. A home game against a team coming off a huge divisional win after the Steelers lost by a large margin? Oddly enough, Tomlin might have the Browns right where he wants them.

It's Week 1. Maybe the Steelers aren't on the 49ers' level just yet. They may not even get there. However, they've got 16 more games to show what kind of team they are. I think they're going to be just fine. Even the best teams run into a brick wall over the course of a 17-game NFL schedule. The Steelers' brick wall unfortunately happened to occur in the opening week.

Special Teams Mixed Bag for Steelers

On a positive note, Anthony McFarland Jr. put together three nice returns on kickoffs in what unfortunately became a forgotten footnote of the game.

Pittsburgh's offense never got going. McFarland, however, averaged 30.3 yards on three returns on Sunday. Those are welcomed numbers after a hodgepodge of nothingness last year in the return game. His blazing speed can turn into a problem for defenses if he finds the hole. All three of his returns today looked dangerously close to being something more than just a typical kick return.

The negative? Pressley Harvin III.

Harvin booted a 57-yard punt late in the game that helped flip the field. At that point in the game, the Steelers didn't have much chance. In the early portion of the game, Harvin failed to pin the 49ers deep into their zone. He had just one punt inside the 20-yard line.

Harvin struggled mightily last season. Extenuating circumstances likely played a role in that. This season, he has a clean slate and didn't really look all that impressive in the preseason and training camp. Braden Mann just didn't do enough to force the Steelers' hand on the decision.

Unless things drastically change, the Steelers' decision to draft Harvin looks worse by the day instead of using that on a depth guy who could help at a position where the difference between Harvin and your other favorite team's punter is marginal.

Purdy, 49ers Picked on Pat Peterson

Everyone knows that Pat Peterson decided to make a comment on his podcast about Brock Purdy this past week. Purdy's response was to throw at Peterson repeatedly this week, and he was largely successful.

Peterson did get his hands on a ball that Purdy threw, as he made sure to point out in the postgame. That's all well and good, but it's also a ball that, if he picks it, the momentum of the game could've switched completely. Instead, Brandon Aiyuk went for 129 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches. Most of that damage was done with Peterson covering Aiyuk.

Peterson had two pass breakups, so he wasn't a complete dud. The 49ers did have their way with him, however, which is something to watch.

I think the Steelers wanted Joey Porter Jr. to outright win a job on the outside so that Peterson could maybe slot inside. Peterson will be 34-years old in November and that isn't a great number for a cornerback. They're typically losing a step by then. A move to inside corner would probably be a good move for the team. However, if they can't trust Porter, then it ultimately won't matter.

I'm not here to say Peterson is a step slower. I think he proved enough in camp and preseason games that he can still get around the field. But the fact that Shanahan and Purdy devised a game plan that picked on Peterson and ran it to perfection bears monitoring as the season churns on.

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