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Why the Steelers could go on a run in the second half of 2022

Don’t necessarily count out Mike Tomlin just yet.

NFL: OCT 30 Steelers at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To say the Steelers have been one of the bigger disappointments across the NFL would not be an exaggeration.

Sure, injuries (especially that to T.J. Watt) have played a role, but Pittsburgh still has star power on both sides of the ball. Instead, the Steelers wrap up their bye sitting at 2-6 having posted 4.73 yards/play, 31st in the NFL, and a -77 point differential, the worst in pro football by over 20 points. In fact, the Steelers may be lucky to even have two wins, which came in overtime against the Bengals and by two points against the faltering Buccaneers.

Through the Steelers’ first eight games, fan concentration has largely pivoted from the rest of the year ahead to the offseason, particularly draft positioning. Pittsburgh is currently slotted to pick in the top five for the first time since 1970, when it selected Terry Bradshaw No. 1 overall.

Frankly, it would probably be in the franchise’s best long-term interest to pick that high. Pittsburgh is clearly not competitive due to poor coaching plus lack of talent – especially at cornerback, along the offensive and defensive lines and at linebacker. That combination begs for significant change, and landing a cornerstone game-changer would pay significant dividends.

However, the season isn’t officially over yet for the Steelers. If anything, it may just be beginning.

For starters, Pittsburgh is returning some major presences after its bye week. The team has indicated that Watt will play in some capacity this Sunday against the Saints, which should provide a significant jolt to a defense that has yielded 29 or more points three times already. At the very least, just having Watt healthy to loom over right tackles should strike relatively more fear into opponents’ hearts.

On top of that, free agent acquisition Damontae Kazee was activated off of injured reserve after breaking his wrist in the preseason. With Ahkello Witherspoon and new trade pickup William Jackson III dealing with injuries, it’s possible that the Steelers opt for more fewer cornerbacks and more safeties in the back-end – which has consistently been beleaguered all year.

Beyond just an influx of talent, the Steelers should have faith based on a relatively easy schedule laying ahead. Pittsburgh’s remaining strength of schedule is the ninth-easiest in the NFL, per PFF, with its opponents combining to go 29-42-1 (.402). Further, only two teams – the Ravens and Bengals – are situated within the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.

The Steelers battle the Saints this Sunday, which presents a matchup that Pittsburgh can certainly exploit. New Orleans has gone 1-3 in its last four games and has a 1-2 record on the road. Overall, the Saints are 17th in offensive EPA/play and 16th in defensive EPA/play, but also bear injuries to Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, Jarvis Landry and more.

The Steelers then face the Bengals in Week 11, a team against which Pittsburgh has not beaten at home in two years. While this rivalry has swung orange, Week One indicated that nearly anything is possible when the Steelers’ defense lives up to its potential.

A Week 12 Monday Night clash against the Colts in Indianapolis might not sound appealing from an entertainment perspective, but it could open the door for a win for Mike Tomlin’s side. With Indianapolis ushering in impromptu head coach Jeff Saturday (and new play-caller Parks Frazier) and starting youngster Sam Ehlinger under center, the Colts’ 3-5-1 record is compounded by outside factors. Plus, Pittsburgh is riding a seven-game win streak against Indy dating back to 2008.

Playing the feisty Falcons in Atlanta on a short week may be challenging given the creativity and talent in Arthur Smith’s offense. At the same time, the defense is last in the NFL in success rate, something which Kenny Pickett and the Steelers’ offense must capitalize on.

Pittsburgh also has two contests left against the Ravens, who have gained steam despite a 3-3 mark that featured a bevy of blown leads. At 6-3, Baltimore appears to be the favorite to claim the AFC North crown; however, the Steelers haven’t lost to the Ravens since 2019 and have only been swept by their primary nemesis two out of the past seven campaigns.

Week 15 offers a tilt in Charlotte against the Panthers, who very well may be the worst team in the NFL – Football Outsiders agrees, at least. Without Christian McCaffrey, Carolina has turned its attention to 2023. This matchup would especially favor the Steelers if Steve Wilks starts Baker Mayfield, whose struggles against Pittsburgh have been far and wide.

The Steelers’ penultimate home game comes on Christmas Eve against the Raiders, who have come nowhere close to living up to preseason expectations. With Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow landing on IR on Thursday, their statuses for this matchup are, at the minimum, in question. The contest will be Pittsburgh’s first on a Saturday since 2011, a day on which the black and gold haven’t lost this century. Factor in the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and Franco Harris’ number retirement, and there will be ample buzz in the 412.

That brings us to the final game of the year: Week 18 vs. the Browns. This matchup will likely feature Deshaun Watson, whose 11-game suspension via violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy for sexual misconduct will be over. The last five games in this rivalry have been decided by under 14 points, which is customary of the overall tenacity of intra-division play.

As you may have been able to glean from the descriptions above, a good portion of these games classify as “winnable” for Tomlin. It is worth noting that the Steelers have not fared especially well in November, December and January in the last few years, posting a flat 16-16-1 record from Week Nine onward from 2018-21.

If there’s any coach that’s unequivocally mastered “winning ugly,” though, it’s Tomlin. With a manageable schedule, reloaded defense and a rookie quarterback potentially gaining confidence, projecting the Steelers to win five or six of their final nine matchups is not overly unrealistic.

Granted, losing out would probably be better for draft positioning, but Pittsburgh tends to do things we don’t expect. If Week 17 rolls around and the Steelers are within two games of the final Wild Card berth and hovering around .500, maybe we shouldn’t be so stunned after all.