Sunday afternoon's showdown against the New York Jets was widely considered a "must win" situation for the rebuilding Steelers, and for good reason. The Steelers first four games this season have been against teams that are considered to be average at best, bottom half of the league at worst. By losing three out of the four games, the Steelers solidified the harsh reality that they are exactly what most fans viewed them to be — a bottom half of the league, rebuilding team.
The Steelers could have won, or lost, all four of those games with a different bounce here or a healthy pectoral muscle there. The Steelers had multiple opportunities to win each game, but the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams seemingly took turns pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. The Steelers are consistently inconsistent, maddeningly so.
The 1-3 Steelers are about to embark on a four game gauntlet against division leading teams, where they will be huge underdogs in each contest. For all intents and purposes, the non-losing seasons streak for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers will be coming to an end. That should in no way be a point of focus for this Steelers team moving forward. The Steelers have to focus their efforts on player development and roster improvement moving forward, learning valuable lessons through the inevitable growing pains.
Stock Up: Kenny Pickett
Pickett was the purest definition of a spark once he took the field. You could see it reverberate through his teammates, electrify the anxious crowd, and even feel it sitting in your home watching the game. Pickett is a natural born leader. You have to believe in you before you can ever expect others to believe in you. That's a quality Ben Roethlisberger always had in great supply. Pickett has that underrated quality also.
Pickett is energetic, enthusiastic, and extremely confident. More importantly, his teammates believe in his abilities, and never miss an opportunity to say so. I have never witnessed that level of player confidence in Mason Rudolph or Mitch Trubisky. The players see what we can't. They saw it at training camp, during practice, and inside the locker room.
There are going to be growing pains, that's for certain, but the reality is this is the perfect opportunity to fully embrace the rebuild. Many of life's most beneficial lessons are only learned through challenges, both in success and failure. Pickett will struggle at times, but he will learn in the process. Another quality he shares with Roethlisberger, he is an unapologetic gunslinger. So, get ready for both head-scratchers and mind-blowingly exciting plays. At the very least, it won't be the incessantly boring version we have endured in recent seasons.
Stock Down: Pass Catchers
Please understand, I use this term loosely. NFL receivers are the best of the best, to the point one-handed circus catches have become rather routine. Basically all of the Steelers eligible receivers on the field at any given moment have at least one high degree of difficulty masterpiece on their Steelers resume, some have multiple entries.
That's why it is beyond frustrating when they take turns failing to secure catchable passes. If you can catch an off target throw with one hand, it stands to reason you should be able to catch a pass that hits you in both hands. Sadly, that is often not the case with the Steelers pass catchers.
Trubisky's interception was a perfect example that went straight through Diontae Johnson's grasp before being picked off. Then Pickett ended up with two interceptions in similar situations, one each by Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth.
NFL receivers salaries are exploding around the league, so the stakes have increased exponentially. The Steelers receivers, particularly Johnson, need to play up to the price.
Stock Down: Steelers defense without T.J. Watt
I apologize for beating a dead horse, but the Steelers defense is shockingly different without T.J. Watt. The Steelers defense is overly reliant on his otherworldly presence. The Steelers rely on their pass rush to minimize the impact of their ultra conservative soft zone coverage concepts. The middle of the field against the Steelers defense remains every mediocre quarterback's wet dream, where all of their receivers are eternally wide open.
I have watched bits and pieces of every NFL teams defense this year, and I promise you that there isn't another team whose corners play as tentatively as the Steelers. The Steelers corners lack the athleticism and speed necessary to turn and run with receivers, so they avoid man coverage like the plague. The Steelers interior linebackers, particularly Robert Spillane, faces the same challenges in coverage.
I admittedly have zero faith in the Steelers organization's ability to recognize and develop cornerback talent. That's why I, and many others, were hoping that the Steelers would aggressively pursue one of the top corners available in free agency this past offseason. Sadly, it was nothing more than a pipe dream. Until the Steelers acquire NFL caliber cornerback talent, they will remain over-reliant on their pass rush to cover their warts, and suffer the consequences when it is unable to generate adequate pressure on the QB.
Stock Up: Chris Boswell
There was a sneaky suspicion that the Steelers offensive would be overly reliant on their superstar place kicker coming into 2022, particularly in the early stages of the season, but this is ridiculous.
Boswell is arguably the Steelers offensive MVP. On second thought, I take that back. He is definitely the Steelers offensive MVP through the first quarter of this season.
Besides being one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, plus being the most clutch player left on the current roster, he is the poster child for insatiable work ethic. When Boswell first came into the league, his range barely extended to fifty yards. His success rate dropped noticeably at that range. Now he has the record for longest kicks at Heinz Field/Acrisure Stadium, and in team history.
He is the rare athlete who continues to improve and get stronger every year, regardless of contract situation. There isn't a better kicker in the league for the culture and the city.