A football team’s bye week provides more than just a period of rest and relaxation for its players — it offers the chance for every person affiliated with the organization to reflect upon the season thus far. Assuming Mike Tomlin & Co. are engaging in some introspection, there’s not a whole lot to be positive about in 2022.
Despite opening with an upset victory over the Bengals, the Steelers have looked like a listless football team through eight games this season. Pittsburgh is 2-6 for the first time since 2013, has scored its fewest touchdowns (11) since 1950 and is near the bottom in the NFL in certain metrics, such as being 27th in DVOA and last in adjusted net yards/attempt. Not great, Bob.
Following the Trade Deadline, which saw the acquisition of corner William Jackson III yet the trade of receiver Chase Claypool, the Steelers must turn the page to November. With nine games left this campaign, here are five things Pittsburgh must determine about the rest of the year during its two-week layoff.
1. Who becomes the new primary slot receiver?
The fact that Pittsburgh dealt Claypool, its second-round pick just two years ago, was surprising in and of itself. Then again, Omar Khan was incredibly wise to pull the trigger on the Bears’ second-round pick, which should be optimal draft positioning.
Nevertheless, that leaves the Steelers with these receiving options: Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Steven Sims, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin. Claypool had operated as the team’s primary slot man, having run a whopping 79.1% of snaps there. With the 6-foot-4 wideout gone, someone will need to fill his void.
Sims is a logical option, having 63.6% of snaps being in the slot; Tomlin alluded to as much earlier this week. With a slighter frame (5-foot-10, 176 pounds), Sims provides quickness to cross the face of slot corners and linebackers, but he must exhibit toughness at the catch point.
Regardless, Tomlin and Matt Canada will have to adjust their offense without Claypool. Don’t be surprised if we see more of a trial by fire in the next few games with the team’s Y receiver.
2. When will it be full-go for T.J. Watt?
Without question, Watt was one of the catalysts for the Steelers’ 23-20 overtime win to begin the year in Cincinnati. Racking up one sack, an interception, two pass deflections and three tackles for loss, Watt wreaked havoc against the Bengals until he partially tore his pec in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
Though initial fears suspected Watt would miss the rest of the year, he returned to practice last week and is expected to be activated from Injured Reserve before Week 10 against the Saints.
Watt is one of, if not the, single biggest difference-maker from a defensive perspective in the NFL. His return could hardly come at a better time with the Steelers having only eight sacks in seven games without the star edge rusher.
While Watt will assuredly want to remove the training wheels and trot right back along the line of scrimmage, the Steelers need to properly manage his workload and stamina after such a long time away. The star will likely reach his typical snap counts of 75-90% of defensive plays, but at what point that occurs in a season that may well be over is worth pondering.
3. How will touches at running back be distributed?
Totaling just 361 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown on 3.3 yards per carry, Najee Harris has not elevated his game as many expected this year. Sure, some of the blame can be attributed to an offensive line that ranks 21st in PFF run-blocking grade, but Harris’ jittery style is also at fault.
That’s where Jaylen Warren enters the fray. The undrafted free agent has looked much more decisive, north-south and explosive in his snaps, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt.
With Harris having battled a Lisfranc injury for much of the year, Warren has played at least 20% of offensive snaps in every game this season. That metric climbed all the way to 51% in the Steelers’ blowout loss in Buffalo.
It’s still too early to write off Harris entirely or consider him a first-round “bust,” but questions have arisen about his capabilities. In search of a spark, Canada may elect to increase Warren’s workload beyond only third down or garbage time.
4. What progress needs to be established from Matt Canada and Teryl Austin for them to be retained?
This week, Tomlin indicated that he will not change coordinators (at least at this moment). The statement was to the chagrin of anybody who’s regrettably watched the Steelers play football this year.
Averaging 15 points per game and under 300 yards per contest, Pittsburgh’s offense under Canada has been one of its worst in franchise history. What’s received less attention is the woefulness of Teryl Austin’s defense, which is tied for 24th in points allowed (24.6) and is 31st in yards permitted per game (277.3).
What Tomlin expects to see growth-wise from both units is ultimately his discretion, but some type of marked, distinguished improvement needs to be made on both sides of the ball, whether reaching 28+ points scored or three or more takeaways gained. If the Steelers’ offense and defense continue to appear this futile on a weekly basis, there is no reason to keep either coordinator entering 2023.
5. Is winning or draft positioning the primary focus?
This is far more of a meta question, but still one that bears asking.
If the season concluded today, the Steelers would select fourth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft. Though some may recoil at that fact, it reflects something unequivocally true: that this team needs foundational star power to accelerate its rebuild.
Of course, there remains the possibility that Pittsburgh could become somewhat competitive in a logjammed AFC. The team’s favorable schedule in the second half — with matchups against the Saints, Colts, Falcons, Panthers and Raiders — could open the door to the Steelers lingering on the fringes of Wild Card contention, artisanship Tomlin has effectively mastered in his career.
Tomlin, along with some corners of the fanbase, would argue that winning supersedes all. Other portions, though, would reveal that there’s no point in worsening draft positioning for the sake of getting obliterated in a playoff game, if Pittsburgh even makes it that far.
This inquiry doesn’t have an exact answer, but internal conversations are probably swirling about this very topic among Steelers brass. No team intentionally wants to lose, but does it really benefit Pittsburgh to harm its future roster and pull off the miraculous feats it has in the past?
Only time will tell regarding this taboo subject, but choices made by Tomlin — especially about lineup and/or coaching changes — may reveal the franchise’s underlying strategy in the latter portions of 2022.