Through nine weeks, the Pittsburgh Steelers have scratched and clawed their way to a 5-3 record in an incredibly tough AFC North.
They've done so without coming close to realizing their offensive potential. After finally finding some consistency in last week's win over Tennessee, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett has reason to feel encouraged about his team's outlook heading into the back half of the 2023 season.
The main reason for Pickett's newfound optimism: Pittsburgh's rushing attack has finally materialized.
"It was huge," Pickett said of the Steelers' 166 net rushing yards in the 20-16 victory over the Titans, via the team's official site. "I thought the balance was there. You know, (Najee Harris) and (Jaylen Warren) ran the ball great. The line was firing off the ball. They're protected really well. I stayed clean the majority of the game. So, that's kind of what we're trying to get to here."
It's been a slog to get to this point for Pickett and the Steelers. Pittsburgh currently ranks 29th in total offense, including 25th in rushing and in passing yards per game, and they've been outscored and outgained by opponents in 2023. Their -30 point differential is the worst among any team with a winning record entering Week 10, and their -790 differential in total yards ranks 31st in the NFL.
And yet, the Steelers have continued to find ways to win games. All five of their victories have been decided by one possession. And like the rest of their AFC North counterparts (save for the 7-2 division-leading Ravens), they're right in the thick of the AFC playoff race with a 5-3 record.
An optimist would look at these statistics and believe the sky is truly the limit for the Steelers. Pickett seems to feel the same way, but if he's learned anything from this season, he knows the Steelers' fortunes will rest on how reliable they can be offensively.
"We want to be a really balanced attack that can put up points and you know, we've shown it in spurts and it hasn't been consistent enough," Pickett said. "So we need to get consistent there."
Pickett and Co. have been able to stay afloat by producing in key moments, even in games in which they've been dreadful otherwise. Their late offensive outburst led to a stunning comeback win over Baltimore in Week 5. The same was true about their Week 7 triumph over the Los Angeles Rams.
Week 9 marked a potential shift for the Steelers, who finally found an offensive rhythm that carried them to a late go-ahead touchdown and another home victory. Even more impressive, they did so without a contribution from rising star receiver George Pickens, who finished with -1 receiving yards on two catches.
Pickens was frustrated by his performance, appearing disinterested when teammate Diontae Johnson scored the aforementioned fourth-quarter touchdown to give the Steelers the lead. His social media conduct -- in which he briefly scrubbed his accounts of anything related to the Steelers -- reflected his displeasure.
Pickens explained later it had nothing to do with football, even if logic said otherwise.
"Just clearing out my page, scrubbing it, not too crazy," Pickens said told reporters on Wednesday, via the Associated Press. "Got nothing to do with the Steelers at all."
Pickens' recent struggles have come as a surprise to those who have followed the Steelers in 2023. With Johnson sidelined by a hamstring injury earlier in the campaign, Pickens became a linchpin for Pittsburgh's offense, posting three games of 100-plus receiving yards. During much of that stretch, Pittsburgh's passing game came down to one connection: Pickett to Pickens.
On Thursday night, Pickens was a non-factor. And for the second straight game, Johnson proved to be the more important pass-catcher for the Steelers, forcing Pickens into the background, where he's caught just three of his last 10 targets.
Such results could be explained rather simply: When faced with a choice of who to eliminate from the game, opposing defenses seem to be keying on Pickens in recent weeks. While it might be discouraging for the second-year receiver, it undoubtedly helps his teammates find opportunities.
Najee Harris attempted to explain it as such to Pickens during the Thursday night win.
"I talked to him at halftime (of the Tennessee game) (and said) ... they're not just going to let you blow up the stat sheet," Harris said. "They're not going to let you be a game-wrecker."
This shift has produced positive outcomes for the Steelers, even while frustrating Pickens. But the Steelers' offense doesn't have to boil down to a choice between Pickens and Johnson. In a perfect world, both succeed, unlocking a Steelers offense that owes its defense some help.
That has yet to materialize. But at 5-3, the Steelers are in a perfect position to build on their recent achievements and make a run toward a playoff berth.
Pickens might just have to accept that he won't be the star of every game.
"All I can keep doing is just keep working to be honest," Pickens said. "I can't really express (frustration publicly) anymore, but I can just keep working. That's it."
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been constantly criticized for the Steelers' offensive struggles, and such complaints have largely been justified. There wasn't much room for negativity following Week 9, though, which could be a sign of things to come.
And if he continues to find the going to be difficult while the Steelers keep winning, well, he'll just have to accept the results.
"If that engineered a victory, that's what I'm about," Pickens said.