Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. (Chuck Noll)
The only thing harder to bear than the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers’ current losing trend might be the incessant carping by fans that somehow expected the team to be competitive this season. Any realistic assessment of the Black-and-gold during preseason would have foreseen the fact that replacing Ben Roethlisberger was going to be quite a tall order. Likewise, it was plain to see the team hadn’t done nearly enough during the past few offseasons to shore up its offensive line, defensive line and secondary.
That’s why all of the current teeth-gnashing by fans seems like wasted effort. Rebuilding an NFL team is hardly as simple as firing the head coach or trading away key players in the hope of finding better replacements. Despite the pretensions of shock and outrage, everyone knew very well from the time when Big Ben strolled off into the sunset that the day of reckoning was coming. But as 4-time Super Bowl champion Chuck Noll recognized only too well, no matter how bad things might get for your football team, hope survives as long as the organization knows essentially what it’s doing and why. The true measure of any NFL coach is whether he stands by his overall, strategic vision and sticks around long enough to see the necessary work come to fruition.
On Sunday in Philly, the Steelers were exposed once again as a severely limited offense attempting to break-in a novice QB under extreme pressure — in addition to a defense incapable of stemming the tide of splash plays by their opponents. Perhaps most tellingly, the Steelers’ offense was able to convert only one third-down situation in 12 attempts. Forced once again to play from behind the entire game, Kenny Pickett was sacked six times. Unrelenting pressure by the Eagles’ defense throughout the game also caused Pickett frequently to dump the ball out of bounds and make errant passes. With the team trailing 21-10 at halftime principally because the Steelers secondary surrendered three long TD passes, the Eagles were able to coast to a 35-13 victory as they continued exploiting the Steelers defense largely at will in the second half.
With half of the 2022 season now in the books, it doesn’t take a football genius to understand that Pittsburgh is going nowhere in the NFL this season. It turns out that the Steelers are precisely who we thought they were from the get-go. Because cleaning up their current act appears to be a longer-term challenge, there’s no reason to suggest extreme or desperate measures for fixing the slow-motion train wreck we’ve been witnessing for the past two months. The Steelers began this season with some intractable problems which still exist today. The pair of wins they’ve so far managed were enabled by a Bengals team clearly not ready for Opening Day and a Tampa Bay team currently dropping in the league standings like the big rock Tom Brady once bought for Gisele Bundchen.
But as Coach Noll said, it’s not your current circumstances that matter but whether you’ve got a credible, master plan that’s on track. Based on many comments seen on BTSC’s Sunday game thread, it’s obvious that many fans believe the only solution is blowing up the team and starting anew at Ground Zero. The critics are convinced that Mike Tomlin has no real vision for the team’s ongoing transition and they don’t think it’s at all premature to portray Kenny Pickett and Najee Harris as a pair of consecutive, NFL Draft busts. Overall, critics don’t see the Steelers’ moves in players or coaching staff during the past few years as reflecting any particular focus on reaching the ultimate goal of a championship.
While it’s undeniable that not all of the team’s decisions during the past few years have been optimal, it’s important to grasp that this 2022 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t pretend to be a finished product. Too many holes need to be filled on this roster for fans to expect anything like quick results. Instead of trying to guess the team’s next moves — with which the constant critics invariably will disagree — it helps to at least grant the football people who operate the Steelers organization their due respect.
For example, it’s obvious that the Steelers drafted Kenny Pickett to become the heir to Big Ben’s throne. The fact that Coach Tomlin has been sticking with Pickett as his starter in recent weeks is a strong indication of the high importance and urgency which the Steelers organization attaches to Kenny’s development. While we might see Mitch Trubisky return in a starting role at some point before the end of the season, it seems obvious that Tomlin and company absolutely intend to avoid reaching the end of this season without being certain of exactly what they have (or do not have) in Pickett.
Should Kenny ultimately flame out as Pittsburgh’s franchise QB (e.g. in 2023), and particularly if the team fails during the next offseason to seriously address other key personnel needs, this would represent a huge roadblock in the team’s overall strategic plan. That circumstance also would tend to legitimize the views of those who claim that Tomlin and his staff represent the root of the team’s problems. But we’re still a long way from making that determination. Events must play out before we can answer the nagging question of whether the coaching staff and top management truly have fumbled the team’s transition to the post-Roethlisberger era. But trading Chase Claypool to the Bears this week might signal the beginning of a back-to-basics approach moving forward.
In the meantime, it’s hard to deny these Steelers will have their hands full beating any of the teams remaining on their schedule. The Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles each implemented very sound strategies for stopping Matt Canada’s offense and dismantling the Steelers’ defense. By now, every team in the league is well aware of Pittsburgh’s multiple soft spots and how to exploit them. Yet even as dark as the picture appears today, it’s still possible we’ll see tangible evidence of improvement in the weeks ahead. In particular, we need to see an offense more competent in converting third downs and scoring touchdowns. Anticipating the return of T.J. Watt, plus some anticipated help with defensive backfield personnel, we also should see some uptick in overall performance by the defense.
While it’s certainly premature to fire the entire team, it’s hardly too early for Steelers Nation to begin thinking about next season. It now seems extremely unlikely that the Black-and-gold is capable of substantially reversing their current trend this season. That’s quite a difficult thing for many fans to face with only half of the 2022 season in the books but, on the other hand, nobody should feign shock or pretend we didn’t see this coming.