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Lowly Cardinals embarrass Steelers in a slow burn

Brian Batko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers were blown out by a 2-10 rebuilding team with a rookie head coach, lost three starters to injury — including their No. 1 quarterback — and fell another half-game behind the resting Ravens for the AFC North lead while the Colts and Texans won to gain ground in the playoff hunt.

But on the bright side, the entire mess took nearly 4½ hours because of two lengthy weather delays, filled with torrential downpours, gusty winds and lightning. That’s the kind of Sunday it was at Acrisure Stadium: Cardinals 24, Steelers 10.

Kenny Pickett’s right ankle injury looms large, though it’s not as if the offense was doing anything more with him in charge than Mitch Trubisky, who replaced him late in the first half. Starting left guard Isaac Seumalo was sidelined, too, with a shoulder injury, and they lost leading tackler Elandon Roberts to a groin injury for a linebacker group that already was undermanned.

Former Steelers running back and Pitt star James Conner ran hard for 105 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns. In an ironic twist, the Steelers actually outgained their opponent for the second game in a row, and this time, they lost. Nine penalties for 77 yards didn’t help, nor did a minus-1 turnover margin.

It was over when: Conner punched in a 9-yard touchdown with 8:28 left, making it a three-touchdown deficit for the Steelers, whose defense left the field to boos and whose offense returned to it with more jeers raining down from the diehard fans still in the stands.

Player of the game: Trey McBride. Unless you're an astute fantasy football manager, you probably aren’t all that familiar with the second-year tight end who was a second-round pick out of Colorado State. But McBride posed a more significant mismatch for the Steelers’ banged-up inside linebacker bunch than Cleveland’s David Njoku or Cincinnati’s Irv Smith. McBride cooked the Steelers defense for eight catches, 89 yards and a touchdown on nine targets. He did a lot of damage against Mykal Walker, who became the No. 1 linebacker when Elandon Roberts left with a groin injury. If Roberts is out next week, the Steelers must assess the situation with Walker, Mark Robinson, inactive veteran Blake Martinez and long-lost Myles Jack on the practice squad.

 

Trending up: Alex Highsmith. Quiet at times this season, Highsmith hasn’t always produced as much in the traditional box score as he does with pressures or hurries. But it didn’t take any advanced metrics to gauge his impact in this one. Highsmith finished with eight tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. It was actually Watt who had the better one-on-one matchup on paper in rookie right tackle Paris Johnson Jr., but Highsmith was often toying with veteran left tackle DJ Humphries. Watt certainly was good, too, sharing one of those sacks with Highsmith in addition to six tackles, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss and a batted pass.

Trending down: Mason Cole. His play at center had been much improved the last four games, right in line with the re-emergence of the rushing attack, but Cole’s struggles resurfaced in a major way against the Cardinals. He had two bad snaps on the first two drives, the second of which led to a sack on Pickett and a three-and-out deep in their own territory. That was a sign of things to come. On the first possession of the second half, with Trubisky in, Cole fired another low snap. Trubisky couldn’t corral it, failed to fall on it and the Cardinals recovered at the Steelers 21. It didn’t take them long to punch it in for a touchdown and get points off the turnover.

Up next: A short week leading into the Steelers’ second and final Thursday night game of the season, this time against another team at the bottom of the NFL standings, the walking-shutout New England Patriots (2-10).

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