Prior to the start of training camp for the 2022 NFL season, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the Steelers offensive game plan for the campaign. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.
Admittedly, precious little for the Steelers has went according to plan thus far this season. Expect the unexpected. That's some sage advice, even if it's often easier said than done.
Ben Roethlisberger retired after almost two decades as the franchise quarterback, meaning drastic changes were inevitable. The Steelers did their best to plan accordingly.
The Steelers went out and signed the biggest name on their free agency wish list in QB Mitchell Trubisky, an experienced veteran with mobility and potential. They also signed a couple of proven professionals to strengthen the offensive line in James Daniels and Mason Cole. They doubled down on their commitment to improve with a predominantly offensive draft class, headed by first round selection QB Kenny Pickett.
The Steelers plans for the offense seemed pretty transparent. Trubisky would be the starting quarterback, where his experience would provide leadership for the team's extremely young offensive unit, and his mobility would prove beneficial for the restructured offensive line. His abilities on the field appeared to be a ideal fit for Matt Canada's offense, while his off the field reputation was also a great match. A valuable example and mentor for Pickett.
The Steelers offensive concepts were designed to run through the contributors perceived to be their best weapons: Trubisky, Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. To say that the results have been disappointing would be an understatement.
The Steelers offense never found any semblance of a rhythm or identity under Trubisky. The revamped offensive line, despite the obvious uptick in talent, continues to struggle in putting a complete performance together. It takes time to develop the chemistry needed for improved execution, and there are no short cuts or substitutions for hard work. The inconsistency of the offensive line permeates throughout the entire offense.
Trubisky failed to connection consistently with Johnson or Claypool. Johnson received the lion's share of the targets in the first half of the season, but was terribly inefficient with the high volume of opportunities. Claypool once again showed flashes of tantalizing potential, especially when working out of the slot, where his impressive run after the catch ability could be best utilized, but consistency alluded him.
There have been plenty of changes made to the Steelers offensive focus since the start of the season. Kenny Pickett has assumed the starting quarterback position. Najee Harris, after an injured and ineffective first half of the season, finds himself part of a potentially promising two back rotation with undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren. Chase Claypool is no more, after being traded to the Chicago Bears at the trade deadline. Rookie George Pickens has moved up a rung on the receiver ladder, as the Steelers look to better utilize his enormous skill set. Pat Freiermuth is destined for more targets in Claypool's absence.
It may have taken a little over half the season to get there, but I feel confident that the Steelers are finally headed in the right direction offensively, based solely on personnel usage, in spite of Matt Canada's presence. The Trubisky/Harris/Johnson/Claypool quartet has given way to the Pickett/Harris/Warren/Pickens/Freiermuth collective. This is a step in the right direction, consisting of a conglomerate of young players who are signed with the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Any offensive improvement achieved during the remainder of this season is predicated on the continued growth of the aforementioned offensive line. The Steelers would be wise to utilize the rest of 2022 to evaluate and identify the greatest areas of need in rebuilding their offensive foundation.
The cream always rises to the top, and James Daniels has met or exceeded my expectations. Mason Cole has been a stabilizing force in the center of the line, both in execution and leadership. Chukwuma Okorafor is having his best season, and has formed an impressive connection with Daniels. Dan Moore Jr. is still a work in progress, but he just produced the best run blocking performance in his young career against the Saints. Kevin Dotson has struggled with his health and his consistency, causing many to question his fit within the Steelers current blocking schemes. Answers are needed prior to the offseason, but the Steelers could be a stud lineman away from an offensive revival.
Kenny Pickett finds himself in a favorable position with the rebuilding Steelers. The cupboard is hardly bare, as the Steelers have plenty of untapped potential on offense. The Steelers are a young and talented offensive group, who lack the type of chemistry that only comes with experience, plus a clear and proven leader. That has to be Pickett's main objective moving forward, to prove he is the right man for the job.
The Steelers recent personnel shuffling on offense appears to have potentially created a couple of golden opportunities for some fringe level depth players working hard to find their niche in the NFL. Steven Sims and Miles Boykin both stand to benefit from the Steelers reimagining.
Sims and Boykin are already entrenched as special teams standouts; Sims as the return specialist, and Boykin as potentially the best gunner in the NFL. Both gentlemen would love nothing more than the professional security afforded to entrusted offensive contributors. The opportunity could very well be there, if they can only grasp that brass ring.
Sims has the toughness, elusiveness, and short area quickness to excel out of the slot. Freiermuth will work out of the slot on occasion, but the remaining reps are there to be had. Sims needs to develop a rapport with Pickett as a trusted outlet. He may never have a better professional opportunity than now.
Boykin should immediately step into Claypool's big receiver role. He can make extended hands catches as he shields defenders with his large frame. That is a favorable attribute to possess on an offense struggling mightily in the red zone. Somebody send Canada a memo.