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Causes for Steelers optimism in a frustrating year

Call this the “glass half full” report.

NFL: DEC 04 Steelers at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A season like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2022 campaign reveals a lot about what fans appreciate. When I posted a sequence of “Would You Rather...” questions a few weeks back, I was surprised to discover that a sizable majority of voters preferred the team to collapse and secure a top-5 draft pick over finishing strong and sneaking into the playoffs, if it meant they had to lose in the first round again. That type of question has been discussed so often on BTSC that it seems many in Steelers Nation live in two speeds: Super Bowl contender or top of the draft, and anything else is a waste.

It turns out that I’m not one of those fans. And since I might be in the minority, I thought it might be useful to make the case for a different model. In fact, despite my throw-my-drink-across-the-room frustration most Sundays this year, I don’t think this season is going that poorly — particularly on offense. [Gasp.]

And before any trolls jump straight to the comments to accuse me of rooting for mediocrity, let me tip my hand: I think “team on the rise” is one of the most exciting things to be. And I think the Steelers offense has that look.

Let’s take stock

NFL: DEC 04 Steelers at Falcons
Get your hands off me, red.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since the departure of Chase Claypool, the Steelers starting lineup on offense has generally included two wideouts (Diontae Johnson and George Pickens), two tight ends (Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry), and one running back (Najee Harris), along with Kenny Pickett and a remarkably stable offensive line (Dan Moore, Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole, James Daniels, and Chuks Okorofor).

If you’re doing the math, that’s two rookies, three second-year players, and two free agents in their first seasons in town. That means over half the starting lineup wasn’t in Pittsburgh for the 11-0 start just two years ago. In fact, there are only three starters who were even on the roster when Duck Hodges started his last NFL game (and one of those is Gentry, who wouldn’t be considered a starter if Calvin Austin was healthy). To dot the “I”: Chuks Okorofor and Mason Rudolph are the only offensive players at all who were ever teammates with Antonio Brown.

The average NFL experience level for the Steelers offense (starter or backup) is about 2.6 years. Among starters, it’s just under 2.1 years. Of course, the two most experienced starters on that side of the ball are Daniels and Cole (the two free agents). That makes the average experience level for offensive starters on a Steelers roster a staggering 1.3 years.

In other words, this offense has had a complete overhaul — top to bottom — in a very short amount of time. And they’re not just new, they’re young (average age among starters: 24.6). Meanwhile, they churned that entire lineup under two different offensive coordinators in the last three years, one of whom installed an entirely new system. If you thought this was going to come with no growing pains, why?

Have we seen this movie before?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Hey, this guy had a pretty good stiff-arm too.
Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

If we look back at previous, perhaps more successful, Steelers offenses, we don’t have to go too far before hitting that 2018 season (Okorofor and Rudolph’s rookie year). That’s the year Ben Roethlisberger led the league with 5129 yards passing, and the offense fielded six Pro Bowlers. Randy Fichtner was the OC that year, but he really ran a variation of Todd Haley’s wildly successful offense. And Haley’s transition into running the show in 2012 — the last major overhaul of the offense — was not nearly as clean as some may remember it.

The 2010 and 2011 Steelers (with Bruce Arians as OC) both finished 12-4. The former squad landed the Super Bowl while the latter was upset in the playoffs on a freak defensive breakdown we’d all like to forget (sorry). That offseason, Arians “retired” (ha!) and Haley was brought in to replace him and prolong Big Ben’s career. The Steelers immediately responded with back-to-back 8-8 campaigns. It might not seem fair to blame the offense for this — the defense was starting to age out, after all — except that the 2012 defense was still #1 in the NFL; it was the offense that had stumbled into the mid-20s. If anything, the defensive retirements of these years should have signaled the offense to carry the team while that D reloaded. Instead, the 2012 and 2013 Steelers were rudderless ships.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they became an offensive juggernaut in 2014. Big Ben tied Drew Brees for the league lead in passing, Antonio Brown led the NFL in both catches and receiving yards, and LeVeon Bell led the AFC in rushing and yards from scrimmage — with all three setting team records up and down. The season was highlighted by Roethlisberger becoming the first man ever with consecutive six-touchdown passing games, and it was punctuated with the offense’s 2nd place league ranking in yards and 7th place spot in points. And it wasn’t a fluke. 2014 initiated a five year run of offensive dominance that is probably unmatched in Steelers history.

Manpower and Experience

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Hey guys, let’s score and then go for two, just because we can.

So how did this rebirth happen? Well, let’s take stock of those guys as well:

2014 was Haley’s third year calling the offense; the players knew the system well, and while still in their primes, they were NFL veterans. Roethlisberger was in his 11th season; Brown was in his fifth. Bell was only in year two but he’d started 13 games as a rookie, and now had the benefit of a healthy offseason, after opening his rookie campaign injured. And the starting TE was 10 year veteran (and Roethlisberger favorite) Heath Miller. All that talent and chemistry enabled rookie wideout Martavis Bryant to step in midseason as a big play machine, and Roethlisberger was in such command of his game that he could take full advantage. And let’s not forget: All Decade center Maurkice Pouncey was in year five; all-star guard David DeCastro was in year three; and the rest of the OL featured long-time starters, in their third, fourth, and sixth years respectively.

The average experience level on that starting offense was just shy of 4.5 years, and none of those starters had ever played on a different team. They had experience in the game, in Haley’s offense, and playing alongside each other. Nobody is born knowing this stuff; you learn it over time. And these guys had had the time to learn.

With the churning the 2022 team has undertaken, what looks to us like failure may simply be the interregnum — the 2012-13 seasons, where the Steelers had to adapt to a new system and new players. It didn’t happen overnight then, and it won’t happen overnight now. But the improvements we occasionally see on the 2022 squad may be genuine cause for optimism.

Not quite done with 2013 yet...

Well, there goes my drink, flying across the room again...

I’ve been focusing on 2014 above, but the 2013 Steelers are probably instructive in one more way. That team started in a giant hole (0-4 after a month), but finished with gusto, clawing back to 8-8 and the edge of the playoffs. Many of us remember the blown call in week 17’s Chargers/Chiefs tilt, which cost the Steelers the final wild card spot. But Pittsburgh shouldn’t have needed the help. Down the stretch, the Steelers lost two heartbreakers themselves — a 22-20 decision in Baltimore (in which Emmanuel Sanders dropped the tying 2pt PAT in the final minute) and a 34-28 gut-punch to the Dolphins (in which Antonio Brown Stanford-Banded his way to the end zone on a final play lateral, but stepped out of bounds, unforced, inside the 20).

Those losses might have indicated to some that “this is still a bad team” (on that over-romanticized Bill Parcells logic of “you are what your record says”). But I think it’s a lot more honest to say that was a young team and young teams screw up sometimes. Even when they’re good enough to win.

That team ended its year on the couch, and then did something very smart: they went to work solving the problems that had cost them the playoffs. Sanders was gone the next season, while the Steelers utilized Brown, Bell, and Bryant to became the best 2pt PAT team in football (five years ahead of the analytics crowd). Meanwhile, AB became the most sideline-aware receiver in the game, even picking up a dumb nickname (“Tony Toe-Tap”) to show for it.

The Steelers were young in 2013 — good, but capable of costly screw-ups. They were better in 2014. That’s how it goes.

And that’s the point: a team on the rise is an exciting thing

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts
Speaking of toe-taps, this guy is pretty good at those too...
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The 2012 and 2013 Steelers were a team on the rise. They underwent a major offensive overhaul and sputtered as they learned. But they improved steadily, kept winning after being left for dead, and wound up just a couple freak plays from a shocking playoff run. (Sound familiar?) There was only one Pro Bowler on that offense, so the cynics among us would have never allowed that they were on the cusp of a five year offensive explosion. But you don’t have to look very hard to see it coming.

Are we seeing that with this team? Hard to say. A 10 year veteran at QB makes everything easier, and the Steelers don’t happen to have one of those. But they do have a promising kid in that role, and a bunch of rough gems around him too.

I hate the predictions game, but I’m seeing a very young, inexperienced team still learning its new offense, that has improved in nearly all aspects over the course of the year. A team that seems a little snake-bit this season, but which is a couple of bad bounces from four(!) more wins — all against playoff opponents, no less. I see a team building experience with each other and in the scheme, a team that hasn’t turned the corner, but has the pieces in place to do so sooner rather than later.

Maybe Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan still need to draft a franchise LT in April (though I’d rather they go heavy restocking their aging defense). Maybe they’ll replace Matt Canada as OC (though that seems slightly less likely now than in October). But as far as I can tell, the starters are there, the depth is there, and the improvement is there. They haven’t finished the job yet, but I’d say the arrow is pointing up for this team.

If your only interests are either “win a Super Bowl” or “get a top-5 pick” a season like this probably isn’t for you. On game day, it’s not really for me either (see above, re: “throwing-drink-across-the-room”). But once the emotions come down, there’s an interesting thing happening under the surface in this town. If you’re interested in improvement that might portend good things, there’s a lot to like here. Stay tuned. Go Steelers.