CINCINNATI -- Jaylen Warren tried to use his words carefully, but even while doing so, the Steelers running back gave interesting insight into Pittsburgh's first game since Matt Canada's dismissal as offensive coordinator.
With assistants Eddie Faulker and Mike Sullivan splitting coordinator duties, the Steelers had their best offensive performance since Ben Roethlisberger's second-to-last season. The unit rolled up 421 yards while maintaining stellar balance throughout Pittsburgh's 16-10 win over the Bengals.
"More communication," Warren said of the difference in Pittsburgh's offense. "I don't know how to say this without being too explicit, but more willing to take shots. Taking more risks."
Pittsburgh's willingness to take more shots was evident on the first play of the game, when Kenny Pickett made a quick read and hit tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 24-yard gain. It was the first of six plays the Steelers had that covered at least 20 yards.
|Steelers' big plays vs. Bengals defense
Freiermuth 24-yard reception
Freiermuth 29-yard reception
|Najee Harris 20-yard run**
|Diontae Johnson 39-yard reception**
|George Pickens 43-yard reception**
|Harris 22-yard run**
**Play occurred on drive that ended with a Steelers score
Freiermuth, who wears Lynn Swann's old No. 88, put up a stat line on Sunday similar to some of the ones Swann put up during his Hall of Fame career with 120 yards on nine grabs. Freiermuth entered Sunday's game with 60 yards on nine catches this season.
"It definitely helps," fellow tight end Connor Heyward said of Freiermuth's presence after he missed significant time earlier this year due to injury. "That and when Kenny's finding us over the middle. It helps a lot. They gave us those looks, and you've got to make the most of it, and we did today."
Speaking of the middle, that was an area of the field that Pickett attacked more on Sunday than in prior weeks. While that was surely a byproduct of what the Bengals' defense was doing, it was also probably a concerted effort on Pickett's part.
The inclusion of Pittsburgh's tight ends was also a factor in the Steelers' success. Along with catching half of Pickett's 24 completions, Freiermuth, Heyward and rookie Darnell Washington were significant components of a running game that gained 153 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. They also helped contain Cincinnati's formidable pass-rushing duo of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard.
"We talked about going three tight ends and stuff," Heyward said. "We had a lot of King and 13 personnel stuff out of the same play, just trying to give them different looks. Hopefully we continue to do that.
"I feel like this game helped us. We can run the ball, throw the ball and they have to respect everything. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things."
Pittsburgh achieved perfect offensive balance on Sunday. The Steelers ran the ball just as many times (33) as they threw it while gaining 22 first downs, converting eight times on third down and controlling the ball for over 37 yards. Pickett's early success undoubtedly set the table for the success Pittsburgh's offense had for most of the day.
Of all the good things the Steelers' offense did, their biggest moment came following Trenton Thompson's interception off Jake Browning that came with the Bengals threatening to add to their 7-3 lead. Pittsburgh's offense took the ball and proceeded to march 79 yards on 14 plays while taking nearly eight minutes off the clock. The drive, which included 6 of 7 passing from Pickett, was punctuated by Najee Harris' five-yard touchdown run.
"I'd say it was one of the biggest moments," Warren said of the drive. "It comes down to whatever it takes. We doubled down. We know what it takes. It was huge for us."
It there was any similarity to last Sunday's game in Cleveland, it was the play of the Steelers' defense. For a second straight week, Pittsburgh's defense allowed just one touchdown while also holding the opposition to under 300 yards of total offense. On Sunday, it created the game's biggest play when Thompson stepped in front of Ja'Marr Chase to pick off Browning.
"It was big," Steelers inside linebacker Elandon Roberts said of the play. "It was huge for the defense. You've got to tip your hat to Trent. He's played so well the last two weeks, and it's (because of) his preparation. ... I ain't gonna lie to you, when he caught it, I was like, 'That's 17,' because I see it in practice. He's doing good things for our defense."
It should be noted that both of the Steelers' Ohio games came against backup quarterbacks. But even so, Pittsburgh's defense deserves credit for continuing to play winning football regardless of the circumstance. Given what they've done in the season's first 11 games, one could make the case that the Steelers are playing their best defense since 2019, when the unit carried Pittsburgh to an 8-8 record.
"I agree with that, especially players-wise," outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said while referencing that this is Pittsburgh's best defensive team since he arrived in 2020. "I know that we have the players in this locker room to be the best defense since I've been here."
Communication, Roberts said, is one of the reasons for the defense's success. It also seemed to be a strength of their offense on Sunday, even though there is still room for improvement. Pickett and Diontae Johnson were not on the same page on an incompletion. And overall, the team's red zone execution could have been better. Had Pittsburgh fared better than 1 of 4 in the red zone, Sunday's game could have been on ice well before Pickens recovered Cincinnati's onside kick attempt with 2:04 left.
In general, though, Sunday's game was a big step in the right direction for the Steelers. The win not only improved them to 7-4 and 3-1 in the AFC North, it also validated Pittsburgh's faith in Pickett; on Sunday, he looked much more like the player who led Pitt to an ACC title two years ago.
"We know we're capable of putting that kind of offense out there every week," Pickett said afterword. "We just weren't able to do it the previous weeks. It feels good to come together like that and put out a great game."