It is beyond apparent that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a rebuilding franchise. I say franchise because the rebuilding process has to start with the proper mindset, from ownership on down.
The Steelers have inadvertently admitted to that reality by how they have been forced to approach the past couple of free agency periods and draft classes. Acquisitions are immediately required to contribute, often as first time starters. That is typical behavior for a rebuilding franchise. A franchise vigorously searching for their next franchise quarterback.
First round selection Kenny Pickett has looked promising thus far in an admittedly small sample size. If he proves to be a realistic possibility, the rebuild accelerates exponentially.
The offense is young and talented across the board. Questions abound, ranging from coaching concerns to player performance and usage, but the potential for rapid and sustainable improvement is there, especially if Pickett is the answer at quarterback.
Therefore, I believe that the offense is ahead of the defense in the rebuilding process.
The 2022 Steelers defense has issues at every level. I was encouraged heading into the preseason that the Steelers had difference makers at all three levels in their superstar trio of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Turns out my optimism was misplaced, but I was far from the only one. It took less than one complete regular season game for reality to smack us all across the face, and turn our smiles upside down.
Without Watt's prescence, a struggling Heyward can easily be neutralized. Without Watt, Heyward, Highsmith, and company creating havoc in opposing backfields, teams can easily avoid the ball hawking Fitzpatrick. Turns out NFL caliber offensive coordinators can schematically limit the Steelers defensive star power, while they exploit the supporting cast. Shockingly, without Watt, the Steelers defense is completely and utterly mediocre. Not good enough, by any and all measurables.
Thankfully, Watt is coming back at some point this season, probably after the bye week. However, the Steelers shouldn't be focusing all their attention on Watt's return, because they have far bigger issues on defense. Watt's return will fix some of what ails the Steelers defense, but fatal flaws will still remain.
The defensive line suddenly looks old and ineffective, and getting worse by the week. Heyward remains one of the strongest defenders in the NFL, but doesn't look as spry as in recent seasons. If he has truly lost some quickness, he may need to slide inside fulltime, where his strength will be maximized, and his loss of explosiveness minimized.
Tyson Alualu is struggling mightily to regain form, and meet his own standards. At 35 years old, it might be too much to ask. Montravius Adams passed Alualu on the depth chart, but has been dealing with some injuries of his own this season, and he has honestly been invisible when he has played.
A starting defensive line of Isaiahh Loudermilk, Heyward, and Larry Ogunjobi could potentially be an improvement for the Steelers current situation. Many will reference Loudermilk's lack of a pass rush repertoire, but the Steelers defensive line isn't pressuring the quarterback effectively anyway. Besides, Loudermilk might just surprise us all. He supposedly worked hard in the offseason to improve his bull rush. Nobody knows what he can do until he gets the opportunity to prove himself. He's young, and therefore a potential building block for the future. Chris Wormley and DeMarvin Leal can relieve Loudermilk on obvious passing downs, although Leal is seeing meaningful snaps at edge already.
The Steelers have a rich and illustrious history at inside linebacker, but the current group falls well short of hitting the mark. Myles Jack has been an upgrade from Joe Schobert, who was a starter in 2021, but Devin Bush and Robert Spillane have returned, and continue to leave much to be desired. The middle of the field remains a huge area of concern for the defense, particularly on third down. Even more concerning is the utter lack of intensity or urgency from the participants at the position. It doesn't matter if you know what to do on each play if you lack the physicality to make the play when you get there, or the athleticism necessary to get there in the first place.
Mark Robinson is admittedly a raw rookie who will undoubtedly make his share of mistakes if given the opportunity. He also showed enough potential during the preseason to make me believe he could be a valuable part of the Steelers defensive rebuild. Who knows, he might just be a quick learner, the kind that never makes the same mistake twice. If so, his physicality and intensity would be a real upgrade for this defense.
The defensive backfield is schematically limited by a lack of speed and athleticism at the cornerback position. The Steelers have been adding cornerbacks to the practice squad like Sally picking up seashells at the seashore, hoping to find another diamond in the rough. Truthfully, the Steelers desperately need a true number one corner, something usually only found in a first round selection, or a high priced free agent. For better or worse, the Steelers are going to ride or die with the group of quality number twos they already have on the roster this season. The Steelers must alter and adjust how they evaluate the position moving forward, and that starts with the scouting department. I don't envision a scenario where the Steelers would be aggressive enough to pursue a blockbuster trade under the circumstances, considering their rebuilding status.
There is some good news on the horizon for the Steelers defense, with experienced safety Damontae Kazee now eligible to return to the field after starting the year on injured reserve, where he also served a three game suspension. The hope is Kazee can team with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds to strengthen the Steelers pass coverage, particularly across the middle, in three safety sets. The talented trio should give the Steelers defense some real flexibility that they have been missing.
The Steelers defense needs help at all three levels, more help than even the otherworldly talents of T.J. Watt can proved. The coaches have to embrace the rebuilding situation completely. That means giving the youngsters enough snaps for them to show what they can do, enough opportunities to confirm whether they are capable of contributing to the Steelers return to relevancy.
Bottom line is this, you try to win every game, but not at the expense of player development or roster growth and improvement. If they do, it really will be a lost season.