2023 Steelers Season Recall: Slipping from contender to pretender with loss to two-win Cardinals

Steel City Underground presents our 2023 Steelers Recall: A Look Back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.

There was a high level of optimism entering Week 13’s game at Acrisure Stadium where the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Arizona Cardinals. Things took a nasty turn on the field, and in the skies, as the Steelers found themselves in the wrong sort of rinse-and-repeat situation.

Sunday’s weather had a split personality during the game, starting sunny with the sun beating down on the gold stadium seats and ending with dark gloomy clouds. The dry field would become slick during mist and sometimes downpours of rain, while play was suspended twice for durations due to lightning.

Amidst the two weather delays, Pittsburgh floundered due to costly mistakes that were made worse when three key players suffered injuries. The result was an ugly loss to a two-win Cardinals team.

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It was a rough day for the offense. After their Week 12 performance, it was almost unthinkable that center Mason Cole would be the cause of costly errors that not only led to points for the Cardinals, but inadvertently helped set up the situation which resulted in injury to quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Cole had shown inaccuracy with snaps in the past but his poor performance in this game was devastating; that included a horrible snap to Mitch Trubisky – who entered the game after Pickett was forced out  – that led to a fumble recovery by Arizona. Trubisky was unable to wrangle the ball that went between his feet.

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That isn’t to say the lackluster performance was all on Cole, however. Mike Tomlin decided to go for it on a 4th-and-1 right after Pickett left the game, and the Steelers were unable to convert, as Mitchell Trubisky handed the ball off to Najee Harris: out of the shotgun formation.

The playcalling duties had been handed over to QB coach Mike Sullivan, but the playbook is still largely that of the previous offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Yet, the team came out of the huddle and into a formation where RB Najee Harris has had his least success. Had it been Jaylen Warren running from shotgun, there may have been a better success rate – but Harris has not been as effective from that starting position and works best as a downhill runner.

The decision to go for it was waste, but the play selection was baffling at best.

“That was a horrible day at the office. We didn’t do much right in that game… We were highly penalized, some pre-snap penalties, some operational penalties, bad snaps. Just JV football in a lot of ways.” – head coach Mike Tomlin

Follow up the previous section with this stat: the Cardinals took over from their own 1-yard-line and proceeded to run 15 plays for 109 yards on their way to a touchdown before halftime.

The Steelers hadn’t given up a third down conversion to Arizona prior to this drive, where everything unraveled as the team relinquished five opportunities to get the Cardinals off of the field on third downs.

The Steelers would enter the locker room down 10-3 at half and never recover. The offense never seemed to get in sync after, either. Offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo also left the game due to a shoulder injury, forcing Pittsburgh off tempo as they attempted to find a rhythm with substitution.

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Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts was also forced out due to injury, but the defense had flashes of its former dominance only to allow the Cardinals to take two long drives while also feeding former Pitt Panthers and Steelers running back James Conner a healthy diet of runs and two trips into the end zone.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray also hooked up with tight end Tre McBride for a touchdown pass on a long drive. The play before, McBride had made a catch similar to what Diontae Johnson had in Week 12. It was ruled incomplete, but the Steelers defense couldn’t keep him from making the second attempt a success.

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Johnson would get a late touchdown off of a nice pass from Trubisky, but it was too little, too late to mount a comeback. To add injury to insult, Johnson probably forgot the score was 24-3 when he decided to celebrate the fourth quarter touchdown, as the “bad looks” continued to pile up for the talented receiver.

The weather wasn’t the cause of the Steelers’ misery; that pain was self-inflicted. It simply didn’t help that two long delays kept Pittsburgh from getting into any type of tempo to respond to Arizona’s success.

You know things weren’t going well for the Steelers when Chris Boswell misses a field goal attempt too. Pittsburgh’s consistent kicker was 21 of 22 on field goal attempts coming into this game and had not missed an extra point attempt to date.

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His only miss until Sunday was a 61-yard field goal against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That kick would’ve been an Acrisure Stadium and career long for Boswell, so most overlooked that attempt (especially after being moved back five yards following an offensive offside penalty.)

Boswell ended up missing a 45-yarder in the elements as the ball appeared to have the mystery man in the clouds blow it from dead center to outside the uprights.

The Steelers dropped to a 7-5 record with a 24-10 loss, to a two-win Cardinals team, at home, where the visiting team had been 0-6 all season. It was the Steelers worst loss to a team with a similar record this late in a season since 1940.

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Unfortunately, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have time to think with a quick turnaround, on Thursday Night in primetime. They also had to lick their wounds, and fast. Pickett, Seumalo, and Roberts weren’t the only casualties to the injury bug, as Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand, got a cast, and returned to finish the game while T.J. Watt also got dinged up and toughed it out.

With Pickett’s status unknown, the Steelers would prepare to face another two-win team, the New England Patriots, on short rest. We will revisit that game in our our Recall series entry next week.

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