Steelers' offense enjoys prolific day in wake of OC's firing

CINCINNATI -- With 5:17 remaining in the Pittsburgh Steelers' first game since offensive coordinator Matt Canada's dismissal, running back Najee Harris took a handoff from quarterback Kenny Pickett and cut to the outside.

With a 13-yard run, Harris carried the Steelers over 400 yards, a threshold they hadn't seen in 58 regular-season games. Not only did the Steelers break that streak in their 16-10 win against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday -- they also outgained an opponent (424 yards to the Bengals' 222) for the first time all season.

"We all know what we're capable of," Pickett said. "We know we're capable of putting that kind of offense out there every week. We just weren't able to do it in these previous weeks, but it was awesome. It feels good to come together like that and put out a great game."

The 424 yards was also the most gained by the Steelers' offense since they put up 429 against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 of the 2018 season.

It was a welcome sight for an offense that ranked 28th in yards per game entering the pivotal AFC North matchup.

"I think we just kind of all looked at each other and knew that when some of this happened, we got to play for each other," center Mason Cole said. "We all had a hand in Matt's firing. We didn't play well enough for him to keep his job, and we felt like we had to make it right now, for the guys that are still here."

Following Canada's firing, running backs coach Eddie Faulkner took over day-to-day offensive coordinator duties, while quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan called plays Sunday.

Pickett, who's close with Sullivan, said it took time to adjust to Sullivan's play calls.

"It's definitely different," Pickett said. "It's a new playcaller, so you kind of get used to the flow of how he likes to call things, and that's something that we're going to continue to iron out, but felt like every drive we were having productive drives, moving the ball really well."

And in the first game with a new coaching structure, wide receiver Diontae Johnson said, the offense had a tangibly different feel.

"The flow of the game," Johnson said, describing the differences. "Everything. The calls that were just coming in. Everybody was on their job today. Just seeing the energy was different. We was just moving the ball, playing and going and we was able to get the job done today."

While players such as Johnson said they noticed differences in the offense, others said it wasn't anything drastic.

"I said earlier in the week we weren't going to have a wholesale change of the offense," Cole said. "You just can't do that. But hats off to Sully and Faulk, man, just super happy and proud of them. They deserve a lot of credit. It was good to see this team and this offense come together -- and on the road in kind of crappy weather and just come out here with the W."

Coach Mike Tomlin cautioned that Sunday's win didn't signal that all of the Steelers' offensive woes were fixed. While the Steelers did break one streak of mediocrity with their yardage total, they still scored only 16 points. Entering Sunday's game, the Steelers averaged just 16.6 points per game, ranking 28th in the league.

"I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush and act like, 'Eureka!'" Tomlin said. "We did what we needed to do to win today, and we'll keep pushing."

Pickett also showed improvement from his recent outings, completing 24 of 33 attempts for 278 yards in Sunday's win.

"He did what we needed to do to win," Tomlin said. "Guys like myself and Kenny, we're judged based on winning and losing, and we don't run from that. We run to that. He and I are winners today."

"I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush and act like, 'Eureka!' We did what we needed to do to win today, and we'll keep pushing."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin

Pickett opened with a near-perfect first quarter, completing 6 of 7 attempts for 66 yards.

The lone first-quarter incompletion came on a throw to Johnson in the end zone. Johnson caught the ball and took three steps before going out of bounds. Once out of bounds, a Bengals defender knocked the ball loose, and officials ruled the pass incomplete. Tomlin elected not to challenge the call.

"[The officials] were definitive, and I lost vision of it," Tomlin said. "There were some people between me and him, I couldn't count steps. They didn't give another look at it in the stadium, and we didn't get a quick enough look at it up top."

A big boost to the offense was the inclusion of the tight ends. Pickett had a career day targeting tight ends Sunday, completing 12 of 14 passes for 141 yards -- his most completions and yards to the position group in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Tight end Pat Freiermuth set a career high with 120 receiving yards, the most by a Steelers tight end since Jesse James had 138 in Week 2 of 2018.

On the Steelers' first play from scrimmage, Pickett threw a 24-yard completion to Freiermuth over the middle off play-action, jump-starting the offense. Pickett went back to Freiermuth frequently, also hitting him for completions of 29 and 16 yards. Thanks in large part to that connection, the Steelers had season highs of eight third-down conversions and six explosive plays (gains of at least 20 yards). The Steelers also averaged 6.9 yards per play on first down, their best mark since Week 16 of the 2020 season, which predates Canada's tenure as offensive coordinator.

"Obviously we knew that we had to move the ball more," Freiermuth said. "As an offense, you want to set up field position for the defense, obviously, end points and stuff. It was a big day for us. It felt nice moving the ball at will and we just continue to move from here and build on it."