Welcome to a new column series here on Still Curtain: The Steelers Why. Football is an emotional game. As the season ebbs and flows, those emotions unravel the story written by the team. The triumph of victory or the sour taste of defeat, each contest makes its own impact on the team, determining why the Steelers are where they are, why the Steelers are playing as they are, and why there should be hope, or panic, on the horizon for the Black and Gold's fanbase.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-1. A lot of fans and analysts probably pegged that to be the Steelers' record through the first three games, but they probably didn't expect it to look like this.
I mean, look at the shiny sports cars on this team. A sophomore quarterback that was nearly perfect in the preseason. A third-year, first-round running back spelled by a stellar undrafted rookie. A second-year wide receiver who has the swagger and ability to potentially be a top-10 player at his position. A legitimate top-8 tight end. One of the league's top pass-rushing duos. One of the league's best free safeties. A draft class praised from top to bottom.
Somehow, even with the existence of the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears, it's hard to argue with all those pretty, shiny toys that the Steelers aren't the NFL's ugliest team.
But, with the team at 2-1 and showing steady improvement week to week, it's still hard to tell what, who, and why this team is what it is.
Is that a soothing light at the end of the tunnel, or a freight train coming our way?
Were the San Francisco 49ers really that good? Were the Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Raiders really that bad? Are the Steelers still stuck in 9-8 purgatory?
One proof of our collective delusion, fans, writers, and analysts alike, is overlooking Matt Canada's role in the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers. The preseason flashed before our eyes and fooled us into thinking he had completely revamped the playbook. He has not.
Did he call a better game in Las Vegas? Yes. Would calling that game against San Francisco or Cleveland change the outcomes of those games or change the perception around him? Absolutely not.
One source of excuse that can be relieved from Canada is how young his offensive skill players are. But with the momentum the team displayed late last year, albeit against an easier schedule, it's hard to afford him that.
And if Matt Canada has to be on the brink of being fired to get his offense into a somewhat productive state, he doesn't need to be here.
At some point, Canada has to stop being a spoiled child with every toy imaginable with no clue how to play with them all, pick the best ones every once in a while, and play with them. It does not get more simple to state that Canada has to put his players, all 11 of them, in a better position to succeed. While the players are young, it's his negligence to find nuance and commit to his star players that has derailed those players' potential and confidence.
Another proof of our collective delusion was assuming the defense would gel instantly. The Steelers have a dangerous defense, that isn't surprising nor a stretch to claim. But it's largely because of two players: TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith.
Patrick Peterson and Cole Holcomb are strong pieces to the puzzle, but even with their performances getting closer to expectations as the weeks pass, the painfully obvious poor communication on the defense is tough to watch.
And the scheming on that side isn't much better either. The Steelers have allowed Brandon Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Amari Cooper and Davante Adams to absolutley torch them in these first three weeks. Elite players all, sure. But the inability to adjust to any of these players or slow them down in any significant way is alarming.
But here's where we can have a collective optimism
The Steelers offense is clicking better. The playcalling is bland, yes. But the execution is getting better. The rhythm is starting to form. Most importantly, nearly every player on the offense exudes the willpower to overcome the hurdles that are put in their way from the second Canada sends the play to Kenny Pickett's ears.
Najee Harris still runs like a madman, breaking an obscene number of tackles behind the line. He's got more explosive runs this year already than he did last year. His total numbers and efficiency still need to improve drastically. But he's not washing away into first-round bust territory without a fight.
George Pickens is still playing with the swagger that makes him a fan favorite. Maybe we haven't seen one of those insane sideline catches, but he's playing the part of a number-one receiver well, even if he still isn't getting as many clean targets as he should.
The brightest spot is how pissed off Pickett is. He's a good quarterback. I've yet to see a reason that he can't be even better. But it's clear in his approach and in his face that he's sick of not playing to a higher standard. He isn't making excuses. Instead, he's tightening up and demanding of himself that he play better.
The Steelers defense gives us reason to be optimistic too
The Steelers are third in the league in turnovers. Sure, the yardage isn't pretty. But the game-changing plays are coming, and often at just the right moment. More importantly, they're resulting in points: 17 total out of 56 for the team.
The communication will build with time. With so many new faces, it should have been more of an expectation that this side of the ball would be a bit more malleable to the opposing offense. The expectation now, with solid individual performance from most of those new faces, is that things should click soon.
Are there still personnel decisions to be made? Yes. But they'll come with time and under the right circumstances. Mike Tomlin has never been one to jump to rash decisions (unless it involves a challenge flag).
One thing that probably shouldn't be expected is scheme improvements. It's the same Steelers defense. Conservative zones, questionable man coverage alignments, and splash plays to make up for the yards lost. It's one of those things that Steelers fans will have to live with.
Whether you choose to be optimistic is up to you. I try to be, and boy is this team testing my patience. I won't tell you to have faith, it's not really my place. I'll just provide my insight and you can draw your own conclusions.
The Steelers may be the ugliest team in the NFL, but they are not the worst. And they are, empirically, getting better.
Are we 'playoffs' better? Well, maybe don't squint at the light in the tunnel too closely.