You probably had the Pittsburgh Steelers being 2-1 at this point in the season. How they arrived here, however, is likely the surprising part.
After a sizzling preseason elevated expectations, the Steelers' offense failed to deliver during the season's first two games. Specifically, Kenny Pickett, after generating a perfect passer rating during the preseason, underwhelmed as Pittsburgh split its first two games. The Steelers' defense also looked flatter than an open soda can during their season-opening loss to the 49ers.
The Steelers team most everyone expected to see in Week 1 finally showed up on Sunday night. After a so-so win against Cleveland in Week 2, they posted a pseudo convincing 23-18 win over the Raiders that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Pickett and the rest of the Steelers offense played winning football, while T.J. Watt and the defense picked up where it left off six days earlier.
That brings us to Pittsburgh's current state entering this weekend's game in Houston. While Mike Tomlin's team begins breaking down the Texans, here's a few overreactions and reality checks regarding the black and gold through three weeks.
The Steelers offense's early struggles are behind them
Not many people actually believe this to be true, and for good reason. Yes, the Steelers had their best offensive game of the season Sunday night. They finally rushed for over 100 yards as a team, Pickett had his first game with multiple touchdown passes and the offense was a respectable 6 of 15 on third down. More so, offensive coordinator Matt Canada called a mostly solid game that led to his offense finding a rhythm after a bit of a slow start.
But the offense still has several things to improve upon. The running game continues to be a problem. Pittsburgh averaged just 3.38 yards per carry against a defense that entered Sunday night's game 27th in the NFL against the run. They are also just 26th in the NFL on third downs and had just one trip inside the Raiders 20-yard-line on Sunday night.
Kenny Pickett is the Steelers' long-term answer at QB
- Reality check
Sure, Pickett didn't look great in the season's first two weeks, and there's not much one can say in his defense other that he faced two of the NFL's best defenses right off the bat. As noted above, Pickett could have used more support from his running game in both contests, as he was often faced with obvious passing situations on third down.
To Pickett's credit, he stayed the course and continued to work on his craft. His persistence paid off on Sunday night with one of his best games as a pro to date. He looked more decisive than he did in the previous two weeks while throwing mostly accurate passes, including his 72-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Austin III that shifted the momentum of the game. Pickett also spread the ball around more while also strengthening his rapport with George Pickens.
The Steelers have an elite defense
For now, this is an overreaction. Through three weeks, it's clear that the Steelers have a very good defense. It's trending toward being Pittsburgh's best defensive unit since 2019, when the unit literally dragged the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers to an 8-8 record. It could even turn out to be the Steelers' best defense since the early 2010s when Troy Polamalu and James Harrison were still in uniform.
Pittsburgh's elite pass rush and their penchant for committing turnovers are the two biggest reasons why this Steelers' defense could be Tomlin's best unit in over a decade. Through three games, Pittsburgh's defense has seven forced turnovers and 13 sacks. Both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith scored touchdowns in the Steelers' Week 2 win over Cleveland. Applying pressure, forcing turnovers and turning those takeaways into points yourself is the stuff of a great defense.
Yes, there's a but coming, and the but is Pittsburgh's pass defense. The unit is currently 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed after being chewed up by Brandon Aiyuk in Week 1 and Davante Adams on Sunday night. Sure, Levi Wallace (two) and Patrick Peterson had key picks on Sunday night. But the unit as a whole has to do a more consistent job against the pass, especially when it comes to covering the other team's top wideout.
T.J. Watt is NFL's best player
- Reality check
Watt convinced me this past Sunday that he holds the mantle as the NFL's best player, a title I recently gave to Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons. When healthy, no defender in the NFL makes more of a consistent impact on a game than Watt, who currently leads the NFL in sacks (6) and forced fumbles (2).
Watt was easily the Steelers' best player in each of the team's first three games. He had three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery against the 49ers, a sack and a scoop and score against the Browns and two sacks in Las Vegas. The 2021 DPOY recently broke Harrison's franchise career sack total and is on pace to smash the NFL's single-season sack mark, a record he currently shares with Hall of Famer Michael Strahan.
Pittsburgh's special teams is one of the NFL's top units
- Reality check
Since kickoff returns are largely a thing of the past, we'll focus more here on the work Chris Boswell and Pressley Harvin III have done so far. A former Pro Bowler, Boswell hasn't missed a kick this season after an injury last year led to him suffering a career low in accuracy. Boswell has regained his form and is once against one of the league's best kickers.
Harvin, the Steelers' third-year punter, stepped up after being publicly challenged by Tomlin two weeks ago. He had seven punts inside the opponent's 20-yard-line over the last two weeks that included a 56-yard boot that all but sealed Pittsburgh's win in Las Vegas.
Sunday's game vs. 1-2 Texans should be an easy win
Similarly to the offense, most Steelers fans probably aren't chalking up Sunday's game in Houston as a win. Pittsburgh fans know firsthand that no win is guaranteed in the NFL after watching their Steelers lose games over the years they were "supposed" to win. One such game occurred this time last season, when they lost at home to a Jets team that finished with a 7-10 record.
Anyone who was writing Sunday's game off as a win likely changed course after the Texans won in decisive fashion this past weekend against the Jaguars. Houston represents the perfect challenge for Pittsburgh at this point in the season. The Texans have a young quarterback who has enjoyed early success in C.J. Stroud. Defensively, the Texans aren't ranked very high in most categories, but they do have several promising young players No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson Jr., who picked up his first career sacks against former league MVP Lamar Jackson.