The Green Bay Packers’ recipe list of recurring issues bubbled up again on Sunday in their 23-19 loss in Pittsburgh: bad run defense, drops, and special teams mistakes. Throw in a head-scratching lost challenge that cost the Pack a defensive touchdown, and you have all the ingredients for another close road loss.
Following a similar script to losses in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Denver, this Packers team did just enough things wrong to lose to a team they are very similar to on paper. Ultimately, this season is less about wins and losses and more about Jordan Love’s development. And on that note, I came away satisfied that Love took another positive step in what may have been his best four-quarter performance of the season.
If you didn’t watch the game and just look at the stat sheet, you’d see a completion percentage just north of 50% and two more interceptions. Therefore, you might say it was just another mediocre performance. But Love was far better than that against a top-notch pass rush in a hostile environment. His two touchdown passes were absolute dimes, and he nearly led the Pack on a winning drive, starting inside his own 20 with less than a minute left and no timeouts.
Other positives? The offensive line protected Love well, allowing only one sack in his 40 dropbacks despite over half of the guys playing banged up. The rookie pass-catchers continue to improve, with all three – Reed, Wicks, and Musgrave – on the receiving end of explosive plays. It’s already looking like Reed is the best receiver on the roster. The defense was better on third downs, allowing Pittsburgh to move the chains on only four of 13 of them.
But as has become a broken record, the negatives outweighed the positives. It begins with the run defense, which a Pittsburgh Steelers rushing attack that had found its footing in its previous game against a solid Tennesee Titans defense figured to test.
Joe Barry had to come into this game with the strategy of stopping the run and seeing if Kenny Pickett could beat him. Instead, he did his unit no favors by consistently showing a light box and playing in nickel coverage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were more than happy to take advantage, to the tune of 183 yards between them. Substandard safety play and Quay Walker’s absence were the main culprits. And if Keisean Nixon and De’Vondre Campbell could have held on to a pair of interceptions, we may be having a different conversation today.
Offensively, drops continue to haunt, with virtually everyone contributing. Aaron Jones was guilty of a couple and still looks nothing like the explosive home run hitter we expect him to be. However, AJ Dillon had the biggest offensive play of the day with his career-long 40-yard scamper. We’ve reached the point where Love has to stop forcing the ball to Christian Watson. Right now, he looks like the Pack’s fourth-best receiver: the game is in his head. He’s not getting open and not making any contested catches.
Ultimately, two plays stick out that swung the game. The first was the blocked extra point, where Patrick Peterson (who authored two of the Steelers’ most clutch plays) got around Josiah Deguara to block Anders Carlson’s extra point attempt. That missed point loomed very large in the fourth quarter when the Pack was clawing back and needed a touchdown rather than a field goal to catch up.
Then there was the lateral that wasn’t. Kenny Pickett’s backward pass was dropped, scooped up by Rashan Gary, and he took it into the end zone. However, the officials ruled it an incomplete forward pass, and LaFleur challenged. Multiple replays, including one from overhead, clearly showed Pickett throwing the pass one yard backward. Analyst Charles Davis figured it was an easy overturn, and the Pack would have a game-changing defensive touchdown. But the NFL replay officials didn’t see it that way and denied Green Bay’s challenge – a total head-scratcher.
It would take a clean, mistake-free performance to end the 53-year curse in Pittsburgh, and the Packers didn’t really come close to achieving that. But they came close to winning, as they have in all four road losses this season, which have come by a combined 11 points.
Like last week, the Packers are making progress, particularly on offense. Zach Tom handled his business against TJ Watt. Love played well enough to get a win. On defense, the young corners kept Pittsburgh’s two stud receivers quiet.
Bottom line, this is a young team still figuring out how to win. The Packers haven’t cracked the safe open just yet, but the combination appears to be within their grasp.