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Pittsburgh Steelers see hope amid the agony of defeat

As dark as things might appear in the wake of their fourth-quarter collapse at home versus the Jets, the Steelers still see some rays of hope filtering through.

NFL: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

At least in the backs of their minds, even the most diehard Steelers fans suspected that the 2022 regular season might incorporate a nosedive. That free fall is precisely what we’re witnessing after the Steelers’ third straight loss — failing to protect a 10-point lead in the final quarter at Acrisure Stadium against the Jets. Considering the number of blunders committed by both teams, this game might qualify as Week 4’s poorest example of NFL football.

While it’s impossible to dress up a defeat like this, we nevertheless saw enough positives in the game to spur some hope that things will improve as the season unfolds. First and foremost among the bright spots is the overall play of Kenny Pickett, who not only completed a number of impressive throws, but also previewed the kind of toughness and leadership Steelers Nation has grown to expect at the QB position.

Pickett made some mistakes but certainly nothing beyond what might be expected from a rookie quarterback making his regular-season, NFL debut. Most importantly, during his surprise appearance in the second half, Kenny demonstrated the capability to spark the oft-maligned Steelers offense and score touchdowns.

Head Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t commit to naming Pickett as his starting QB immediately after the Jets game. Neither had he given any hints before the game that he was even considering benching Mitch Trubisky. But the fact that Tomlin made the switch at halftime of a tight, 10-6 game — combined with Pickett’s mostly successful debut — seemed to make Tomlin’s subsequent confirmation of the change self-evident. After 14 consecutive quarters of humdrum offense, Coach Tomlin was looking to generate a spark, and anyone watching the game could plainly see that Pickett filled the order.

The Steelers’ receivers were heavily criticized following the game, but perhaps unjustly because Pickett has no previous experience targeting these players in any game that counted. Nor has Kenny had sufficient time yet to learn his receivers’ tendencies in game situations or develop the crucial coordination which often spells the difference between great plays and negative plays.

This unfamiliarity likely played a role in two of Kenny’s three interceptions. But strictly in terms of talent and athleticism, the Steelers’ current receiver corps matches up well with any team in the league. It seems likely that, as Pickett continues to work with these receivers, we’ll see greater precision and more splash plays from the offense. Likewise, the Steelers’ offensive line continues its improvement — a development that bodes well for better production from Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren as the season goes on.

A larger factor for fans to consider before losing faith is that today’s parity NFL lacks the dominant teams of yesteryear. Through four weeks of play, nearly every team in the league has been up and down, while we’ve seen costly injuries to a number of NFL players including the Steelers’ T.J. Watt. As Pittsburgh demonstrated last season, it hardly takes a dominant team these days to earn a playoff berth.

Even mentioning playoffs in connection with this current edition of the Black-and-gold might seem an absurd leap of faith. But the offensive spark that brought hometown fans to their feet in Acrisure Stadium during the third quarter on Sunday at least raises the possibility that the Steelers’ arrow might be starting to point upwards despite having a very tough schedule ahead.

As some pundits have already concluded, 2022 might not turn out to be Pittsburgh’s year. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see improvement as the weeks go on and — by season’s end — a more competitive team than the one we’ve witnessed so far. Transitions never are easy or pretty, and 2022 definitely is a transitional season for the Steelers franchise.

As Najee Harris recently pointed out, it’s not quite fair to condemn a largely reconstructed Steelers team which clearly is going through some growing pains. It’s also unreasonable to expect an overnight transition from the era of Ben Roethlisberger to the next-generation Steelers offense. But if the football gods continue to smile on Rooney U. as they have done over the years, the spark ignited by Coach Tomlin’s chess move might turn out to be the precursor to a far more intriguing 2022 season than anyone anticipated.