The Pittsburgh Steelers hierarchy definitely formulated an intricate plan for the 2022 offseason, and we are beginning to see the fruits of their labor come to fruition.
The Steelers wanted to get younger and more explosive on offense, so they focused an abnormal amount of salary cap and draft capital on that side of the football. It was quickly apparent that the Steelers were determined to find their next starting quarterback, after their franchise QB of the previous 18 seasons; Ben Roethlisberger, retired. The Steelers free agency and pre-draft scouting focus was quarterback centric. Those efforts resulted in the Steelers signing veteran QB Mitchell Trubisky in free agency, and drafting former Pittsburgh Panther star Kenny Pickett in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
The Steelers other primarily offseason focus was strengthening the worst offensive line in the NFL in 2021. Sometimes, when you hit rock bottom, you just got to blow the whole thing up and start again. It was a tall task, but the Steelers knew they had to start somewhere, and it turned out to be on the interior. The Steelers utilized free agency to sign Mason Cole and James Daniels; two young, versatile, and proven professionals. Although there were chemistry and communication issues during training camp and the preseason, the interior of the Steelers offensive line has consistently improved exponentially in season.
As is so commonly the case in any rebuilding situation, the influx of talent didn't translate into immediate production on the field. Quite the contrary actually. New players resulted in no chemistry or rhythm as an offense. The Steelers struggled mightily to move the ball during the first half of the season, much less put acceptable point totals on the scoreboard. As Steelers fans, we were faced with an unfamiliar reality, a franchise often unable to be competitive enough to be relevant.
The truth is, seasons change. What goes up must eventually come down, and for every peak there must be a valley. The rest of the NFL, particularly the AFC North division, had better make the most of this extremely rare valley for the Steelers, because we are beginning to see signs of a potential offensive revival in the Steel City. The Steelers young collection of talented newcomers are starting to learn and improve at their roles.
Any hope for a rapid rebuild begins and ends with Kenny Pickett. The NFL is a quarterback driven league. If you have a good to great one, you do whatever is necessary to keep them. If you don't have one, you better find one, because you won't be a serious contender without one. Teams lacking a potential franchise QB have fan bases that spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the next draft cycle in the middle of the current season. Obviously, that's not optimal.
Kenny Pickett represents hope for the legions of Steelers faithful. He continues to show consistent growth and improvement as a professional with each game. The accuracy, anticipation, and poise are obvious, but there are more subtle improvements that may have gone unnoticed by many.
Pickett's decision making has improved as he has gained experience within the offense, starting with his risk assessment. He has started to manipulate the pocket better, instinctively knowing when to step up in the pocket, instead of being flushed out the back. That maneuver is seldom successful.
Pickett's ball placement has also improved. I believe this is a direct byproduct of his focus on ball security. He is utilizing his elite level accuracy to place throws where if his target can't bring it in, nobody does. Far fewer 50/50 balls, hence zero interceptions since the bye week.
Pickett's comfort level is also positively impacting the weapons he has at his disposal, starting with WR George Pickens and TE Pat Freiermuth in particular.
Pickens is still a talented but raw rookie, but he looks like a WR1 in the making. He is easily the Steelers best splash play target already. The sky's the limit for the ultratalented 21 year old rookie phenom. His intense desire to be great is unmistakable.
While I envision the Pickett to Pickens connection becoming something special in the near future, I believe that Freiermuth has the potential to form a special bond with his young QB also, as a type of security blanket if you will. The type of reliable outlet that your franchise QB looks for in the biggest moments or when under duress, kind of like Heath Miller was always there for Ben Roethlisberger. This feels almost like sacrilege to write, but I firmly believe that Freiermuth has more potential than Miller ever did to become a dynamic weapon in the Steelers passing attack.
The importance of Pickens and Freiermuth settling into these roles is imperative for Diontae Johnson's future production. Johnson is not a true number one wide receiver, but he has been forced to try to fill that role in recent seasons due to circumstances out of his control. He should be much more effective as a WR2, where he can focus on his elite level route running, and no longer be the main focus of the opposition's coverage schemes.
As these Steelers youngsters continue to improve, and fully comprehend their roles within the offense, the results will speak for themselves, both on the scoreboard, and in the standings.