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The 2022 Steelers are looking like the team we all expected

Pittsburgh’s preseason concerns have manifested themselves by this point in the year.

NFL: DEC 11 Ravens at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers have witnessed their fair share of strange, unpredictable seasons in recent years. Take 2019, when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury in Week Two — only for the team to finish a resilient 8-8 despite two backups suiting up. Consider 2020, when Pittsburgh began 11-0 but went 1-4 down the stretch and suffered an astonishing playoff defeat.

Through 12 games, the 2022 season was another rollercoaster ride. From a season-opening win over the vaunted Bengals to a four-game losing streak to climbing back to 5-7, Pittsburgh has looked anywhere from the easy favorite to pick No. 1 overall to a sneaky playoff winner.

The 13th contest of this year extended that theme of inconsistency, with the Steelers falling 16-14 at home against the Ravens. The defeat dipped Pittsburgh’s odds of making the playoffs to just 0.1%, all but ending its season.

The Steelers’ eighth loss of 2022 may have stung more than the rest in light of the circumstances, from postseason implications to backup quarterbacks to defending home turf in a stingy rivalry. In a more macro sense, though, Sunday’s outcome tells us what we suspected all along: that this Pittsburgh squad is flawed from both a roster and coaching standpoint.

Maybe the most glaring issue from this clash was the Steelers’ inability to execute on all sides when it mattered most.

Let’s begin with Pittsburgh’s offense, which suffered immensely when rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett left the game due to concussion protocol in the first quarter. Backup Mitch Trubisky moved the ball down the field well, hitting chunk plays and making some wildly impressive throws; however, the veteran tossed three horrific interceptions, which stunted three drives in enemy territory.

Given that Pickett has not thrown a pick in 129 attempts, it’s not unrealistic to think the Steelers would have won with No. 8 manning the ship. Even three field goals on those drives would have, hypothetically, translated to victory, and the narrative would’ve been starkly different in the days after.

Instead, Trubisky embodies a Pittsburgh offense that’s repeatedly shot itself in the foot all season, especially when it matters most. Miscommunication (including along the offensive line, evidenced by the play in which Pickett was injured), calls that are predictable and situationally poor, spotty blocking and bad decisions after the catch are just some of the countless issues plaguing Matt Canada’s unit, and all reared their ugly heads Sunday afternoon.

On the other side of the equation, the optics may appear more positive for Teryl Austin’s defense, which surrendered only 16 points. It’s not as if Pittsburgh’s D was absolutely awful: it allowed only 309 yards and limited Baltimore to 4-for-13 on third downs.

At the same time, 215 of those yards came on the ground. The Ravens’ lone touchdown drive occurred courtesy of the legs of J.K. Dobbins, who exploded for 48 yards on two carries. Then, with third-stringer Anthony Brown in under center and the game on the line, Pittsburgh yielded a first down on three Gus Edwards runs that sealed the away victory.

The Steelers’ defense has slowly come into its own this year, ranking 12th in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA. Yet, to be blown off the ball rep after rep — when it’s exceedingly obvious what the opponent game plan is — is an indictment of both the front seven and little coaching adjustment. That doesn’t even account for a secondary which has been inconsistent all year and which lacks a lockdown corner.

Heck, even Danny Smith’s special teams contingent erred in a major way against the Ravens. Down 13-7, Trubisky drove the Steelers to the Ravens’ 22. Following an incompletion on third down, Chris Boswell’s 40-yard field goal was blocked, curtailing any black and gold momentum. The most frustrating part? 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell, who has had a knack for getting a fingertip on kicks throughout his 15-year career, was the one to bat the attempt.

The Steelers had countless opportunities to emerge victorious from Acrisure Stadium against the Ravens, to keep their faint playoff heartbeat alive and inch to 6-7. But, due to a confluence of problems in all three phases, the team suffered a painful loss.

Quite frankly, this is the exact type of game that was to have been projected for Pittsburgh before the year even began.

With uncertainty under center, a revolutionized offensive line, an older defensive line, a thin cornerback room, questions at both coordinator spots and youth at key spots, the Steelers have looked sound on certain plays and far off on others. While sustained elite talent exists in players like T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward, Pat Freiermuth and even George Pickens, much of the team is comprised of players who display inconsistency on a snap-by-snap basis instead of bonafide stardom.

Yes, Mike Tomlin’s team was destroyed by leviathans like the Bills and the Eagles. But, for most of the season, it’s been in close affairs. Some of those contests have ended in energetic, uplifting wins, but more have left a sour taste in the mouths of all those watching and involved.

Of course, Tomlin is not to go without blame. Even with the injury to Pickett, his team had no reason not to capitalize on a second- and third-stringer for Baltimore and to make the plays necessary to win. For as much as Tomlin seeks to avoid living in his fears, his outcomes tend to do just that, scratching out wins rather than asserting dominance and efficiency across the board. That formula is inherently dangerous, and it’s started to catch up to a flawed team.

With four games to go in 2022, the Steelers are all but playing for pride and momentum at this juncture. A lot can change narrative- and evaluation-wise in four weeks, even if the team does not qualify for the postseason. Players like Montravius Adams, Devin Bush and Steven Sims Jr. are suiting up to prove they are worth retaining in 2023. Collectively, the home stretch provides a chance to shore up self-inflicted wounds reflecting poor coordination, especially on the offensive end.

Regardless of what occurs between mid-December and early January, it’s clear that the Steelers will need additional tweaks in the offseason, affecting multiple crucial positions on both sides of the ball. If it provides any solace, that concept is what we should have acknowledged before the preseason even began in August — and also what will provide the quickest path toward long-standing success in future years.