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Steelers lacking offensive mojo from preseason; getting it back will be tough

AP. Steelers wide receiver George Pickens scores a touchdown during the first half against the Browns on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH — It all looked so easy for Kenny Pickett and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense in August.

The heaves downfield to George Pickens. The gaping holes that created wide running lanes for Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. The clean pocket that gave Pickett all the time he needed to do whatever he wanted.

It’s all vanished in September, lost amid a flurry of three-and-outs, missed passes and missed opportunities.

Pittsburgh’s defense has as many touchdowns as its offense through two games, both of them coming in Monday night’s 26-22 victory over Cleveland, the last on T.J. Watt’s scoop-and-score midway through the fourth quarter that allowed the Steelers to even their record at 1-1.

While Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin vowed to never apologize for winning, he’s well aware his team has a long way to go after managing just nine first downs against the Browns.

“We have to get our mojo back,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to get that mojo that we had in the preseason where we were playing fast and fluid with confidence individually and collectively. We’ve lost that.”

Tomlin made no attempt to hide the optimism he felt heading into 2023, saying during the offseason he expected Pickett to “kill it” as he entered his first full year as an NFL starter.

Two games in, the swagger Pickett exuded over the summer has been replaced by indecision and occasionally shaky throws. Pickett is 27th in the league in completion percentage and 29th in quarterback rating through eight very inconsistent quarters.

Yet the most pressing issue facing the Steelers isn’t Pickett’s very visible growing pains, but embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s game-planning.

The Steelers needed five possessions to earn a single first down in Week 1 against the 49ers. It took them four to move the chains even once against the Browns. While execution and a lack of push by the offensive line is a problem, so is the script Canada is putting together.

While Tomlin didn’t single out Canada, saying the entire coaching staff needs to do a better job, it also isn’t difficult to read between the lines.

“We have to anticipate schematics of those that we play against a little bit better,” Tomlin said.

Translation: it’s the X’s and the O’s in addition to the Jimmys and the Joes.

WHAT’S WORKING

Paying your edge rushers what they’re worth.

The Steelers briefly made Watt the highest-paid defender in NFL history two summers ago and reached into their wallet again in July to keep Alex Highsmith in the fold through at least 2027.

It certainly looks like money well spent.

For all of Pittsburgh’s defensive issues — particularly against the run with defensive tackle Cam Heyward on injured reserve — Watt and Highsmith’s playmaking can shift a game’s trajectory in a flash, giving the Steelers chances to win games such as the one they had against Cleveland.

WHAT’S NOT

Heyward’s absence put the onus on the secondary to help stop the run.

It hasn’t happened. The Steelers have given up a league-worst 386 yards rushing through two games.

Safety Damontae Kazee let Christian McCaffrey slip through his grasp in the opener, letting the 49ers star race 65 yards for a score.

Cornerback Levi Wallace lost contain on Cleveland’s Jerome Ford early in the third quarter, with Ford sprinting 69 yards to set up a short touchdown run.

STOCK UP

Tomlin was openly critical of punter Pressley Harvin III after a shaky performance in the opener against San Francisco. The team even brought back former punter Brad Wing for a look in the middle of last week.

Harvin’s job is probably safe — for now anyway — after pinning the Browns back inside their 20 four times on Monday, including one that landed at the Cleveland 2 then bounced to the right and went out of bounds just outside the goal line.

STOCK DOWN

It’s difficult to discern whether the issue with Harris’ failure to get going — he has 74 yards rushing through two games — is his fault or Canada’s. Several of Harris’ 10 carries against the Browns were wide tosses that asked the 232-pound Harris to try to beat smaller, quicker defenders to the corner.

Harris is averaging a healthy 4.6 yards per carry, a number that is skewed by runs of 21 and 24 yards. Take those two out, and Harris is averaging just 2.1 yards per attempt, one of the reasons the Steelers have found themselves in so many third-and-longs over the first two weeks.

INJURIES

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick spent a portion of early Tuesday morning at the hospital as a precaution while dealing with a chest injury.

The three-time All-Pro was back at the team’s facility by Tuesday afternoon, but his availability for Sunday’s visit to Las Vegas is uncertain.

Wide receiver Gunner Olszewski entered the concussion protocol in the second quarter after getting drilled while fumbling away a pass from Pickett.

Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts went down with a stinger and did not return.

KEY NUMBER

2 — the number of teams since 1991 that have won games they trailed in the fourth quarter despite having negative yardage over the final 15 minutes. The Steelers had minus-7 yards in the fourth quarter on Monday night.

NEXT STEPS

Fly across the country for a Sunday night primetime visit to Las Vegas (1-1). The Steelers haven’t beaten the Raiders on the road since 1995, three years before Pickett was born.

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