What is this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers identity? Will they maintain their composure after getting hit in the mouth? Will they be a punch first/score first offense? Will the defense need to grind out low scoring wins in games a la the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens?
Well let’s take a team look into the mirror to reflect, if you will, on the state the Steelers on the cusp of the 2022 NFL campaign.
The Steelers are transitioning from a team with a never-say-die franchise quarterback legend in Ben Roethlisberger, to a team led by Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky is a gamer, with mobility and athleticism who not only won in Chicago, but took them to the playoffs twice during the 2018 and 2020 NFL seasons. How he rolls in the Black and Gold during the regular season remains to be seen.
It seems as if Kenny Pickett is fitting in well and has done nothing to diminish his standing as the team’s quarterback of the future. He’s provided solid performances this preseason and also looks to have lived up to his instant readiness label. He starts the season as QB2 on the depth chart.
If the mirror breaks when the Steelers look into it, and neither Trubisky nor Pickett are ready to lead the offense, will it lead to a similar 7 iteration (or 7-year in regard to mirrors) QB run of bad luck—like the unremarkable run of QBs after Terry Bradshaw called it a career? For example, this seven quarterback sample-cluster of Mike Tomczak, Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley, Kent Graham, Jim Miller, and Todd Blackledge that gave Steeler Nation quite more than a 7-year itch?
The failure to draft Pitt Panther Dan Marino in 1983 helped to fuel this run of inconsistent quarterbacks. I hope the drafting of Kenny Pickett is not just a day late and a dollar short make-up call. Many will point to preseason statistics, but they are only preseason statistics. They have to show us what’s up when the games count, starting September 11 against the division rival Bengals.
The Steeler’s offensive line was out of pocket at times
Mitch’s pocket was pushed, breached, assaulted and collapsed. In other words, Mitch with at least the preseason game 2 starting offensive line was under consistent and heavy duress from the Jaguars’ front seven.
There were times in which the offensive line could not get push for effective running. Tomlin recently called out the offensive line, Kendrick Green in particular, for sub-par performances. In the words of rapper Pusha’ T, “how will they respond.”
Against the Lions the line gave Steelers’ quarterbacks more time to pass. Recently named starter/captain, Mitch Trubisky, went an impressive 15/19 outing for 160 yards with no picks. His 38-yard sideline strike to Diontae Johnson and his 32-yard, down the middle connection with Pat Freiermuth were most impressive. The run game left much to be desired with only 57 ground yards on the day, this after a paltry 24 rushing yards the previous game against the Jags.
As a result of inconsistent, erratic offensive line play, the Steelers made a move on roster cut down day to snag Vikings OL Jesse Davis. The offensive line remains a work in progress and starts two offseason acquisitions— C, Mason Cole and G, James Daniels—but if it congeals it could put the Steelers offense into the upper third of the NFL.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
If the NFL knows one thing about the Steelers, its their propensity for identifying, drafting and developing Steelers-type receivers. We’re talking about talented, productive, physical receivers like Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson etc. Just ask Ed Reed and Vontez Burfict about the physicality. They mirror each other in their key contributions to high performance playoff/Super Bowl offenses. It appears the Steelers have struck gold again in this regard with rookie receiver George Pickens. He’s a starter on the season-opening depth chart.
With a simple YouTube or Google search you’ll see how Pickens rag-dolled a Georgia Tech DB when he played for the University of Georgia. He played big-time ball in the SEC and came back from a knee injury to help the bulldogs win the NCAA football championship last year. His brand of toughness is custom-built for the Steelers and the AFC North.
Diontae Johnson has seemed to have cured his case of the drops and has earned a lucrative contract extension. He’s the top dog in this receiving corps. I’d like to see him bulk up a bit to bolster his durability, because it seems that every time he hits the ground, he gets up slow.
We know what Chase Claypool sees when he looks in the mirror: “A top 3 receiver!” I’ve got two words for that—“we’ll see.”
Pat Freiermuth is definitely the real deal, and is ready to build on a productive rookie season in which he made major contributions to the offense in terms of receptions and touchdown. His trajectory should continue to climb.
Vitamin D (-Line) Deficiency
The Steelers’ defensive line needs to continue to work on stopping the run. They brought in Larry Ogunjobi from the Bengals and drafted DeMarvin Leal in the third round of his year’s draft to work towards that goal. They’ve again, looked in the mirror and seen this area as one that could use improvement to some degree. Of course this is true in part to Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt’s absence last year, as well as Tuitt’s subsequent retirement.
When this unit is healthy and has depth it puts an intensified bite into the team’s vicious front seven. Cam Heyward was ranked the NFL’s 27th best player and anchors this unit. He, with 10 sacks, contributes mightily to the Steelers defensive line playing a major role in the unit’s NFL leading 55 sacks last year. Going into the 2022 season, this group is not to be slept on. Regarding this Steelers’ defensive line, I believe the Steelers see a unit that’s on its way and ready to rock when they look in the mirror.
What makes the special teams relevant?
Mr. Danny Smith. A quick look in the mirror says it all, consistency to the tune of 9 years as the coach of this group. He’s coached kicker Chris Boswell through mostly ups and through one of his worst slumps and back to prominence. Boswell has rebounded so well from the slump of a few years back that he’s now one of the highest paid kickers in the league.
The Steels added kick-returner/wide receiver Gunner Olszewski who flashed speed and toughness this preseason. Overall this group is ready and steady.
How resilient is this team?
Mike Tomlin has raised the bar and set a new organizational standard for the Steelers. No losing seasons and mostly playoff appearances in 15 years. He is the first head coach in NFL history to establish this standard right out of his career’s starting blocks.
News Flash: This is not Tomlin’s first season coaching without Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers fans. Don’t act “brand new” (coy, naive, uninformed). This resilience was firmly tested during a season with Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges at the helm. As you recall, Tomlin and the Steelers made a valiant push toward the playoffs and acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick in the process. Tomlin’s Steelers teams adjust on the fly in a myriad of ways, all in the name of leaving NFL stadiums with wins.
As this young Steelers team begins to establish their identity, they will need to tap into resiliency, establish consistency and trust in each other. There will be ups and downs and they will delve into unchartered water. this is called life after Roethlisberger. Plain resilience is a character-trait of the Steelers organization. The 2022 Steelers will need to embrace and embody it to the full extent.
All teams want to find about themselves in the preseason while avoiding major, long-term injuries. Other than a few camp injuries and the devastating loss of veteran safety Karl Joseph the Steelers are doing just that.
Ground and Pound Offense?
With Najee Harris coming up with strong rushing and all-purpose yardage last season, he is the chief offensive weapon, make no mistake. The Steelers invested in the aforementioned offensive line free agents to bolster that unit. Consequently, Najee, and perhaps Jaylen Warren and Benny Snell, will get high volume touches.
Harris is coming off a dominant rookie campaign in which he clearly established himself as a committed, consistent and extremely tough and durable contributor. He’s back for more in 2022.
Trubisky will just need to get his play-action-fake game together and mix in some bootleg and jet sweep looks out of the offensive bag. As a result, this attack will be more ground and astound with a deep array of misdirection options out of Matt Canada’s offensive bag.
Undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren supplanted incumbent Benny Snell as Najee’s chief understudy. His tough running and receiving skills elevated him to such a status, however Snell could still play a key role in the backfield.
T.J. Watt looked good and he has help
Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the NFL Top 100 No. 7 player, Watt went out and added high Wattage to the defense. He did what he does and harassed the opposing quarterbacks. A healthy Watt and hopefully an active sack total from his OLB counterpart Alex Highsmith will make this defense one of the most dominant in the league.
The addition of Myles Jack to the Steelers defensive interior adds boom, passion, skill and an improvement from Joe Schobert.
Devin Bush, now two years removed from a season-ending knee injury has something to prove. He needs to show the reckless abandon needed for a middle linebacker to dominate. He did not have his 5th year option exercised, thus he could either play his way out of the Steelers’ price range or play himself off the Steelers’ roster. I believe that he will have a strong bounce-back season given the time his knee has had to heal and the fact he had no major injury setback last year. I believe having Jack alongside him in the interior defense will help Bush as well.
Not so much; however, if they did dance, they’d be doing “The Bump!” Fitzpatrick led the team in tackles and Edmunds always thumps opposing players that dare to enter his domain. The Steelers had a few injuries that led to Kazee and Joseph ending up on the IR, but the overall experience and tenacity of this group will keep them focused and effective.
This team, as noted in a recent Behind the Steelers Curtain article, is one of the NFL’s youngest. They will need to grow up, and do so expeditiously.
This team is Rooney run and Tomlin coached. Those constants give every Steelers team a strong chance to compete for a playoff spot. We saw that even with Mason and Duck running the show a couple of years back.
The Steelers brass will have the 2022 Steelers ready to compete. When this team looks in the mirror right now, less than a week before the start of the season, they see a team that’s ready to do whatever it takes to get win.
Men, women and even numbers can lie. Mirrors tell the truth!