It can be challenging to stay engaged to the entirety of a preseason game, especially when the contest is effectively over. Such was the case with the Steelers’ last tune-up against the Lions this past Sunday, when Detroit was down 16 points with under eight minutes remaining.
No matter if you remained locked in to every snap of Pittsburgh’s final August showcase, you probably left thinking something along these lines:
The Steelers were in control for much of this game, but the final score was only 19-9. Shouldn’t the Steelers have won by 20+?
That sentiment, in essence, encapsulates Steelers football for the year ahead.
Throughout the preseason, there were certainly uplifting signs within Mike Tomlin’s squad: strong play from rookies like George Pickens, Mark Robinson and Jaylen Warren; a defense that generally remained stout; resounding comebacks to win games; and finishing undefeated for the first time since 1997.
At the same time, all three matchups against the Seahawks, Jaguars and Lions — three teams that are expected to miss the playoffs in 2022 — were won by no more than 10. Pittsburgh eked out just enough yardage and points, and a sufficient number of stops, in order to emerge victorious.
Of course, it is only “exhibition” football, so it’s difficult to ascertain how much stock Tomlin, GM Omar Khan and the rest of the Steelers organization places on winning a preseason game, exerting full effort and displaying the legitimate capacity of the team. In a similar vein, Pittsburgh’s reserves played at least 30 minutes in every contest, so the outcomes aren’t reflective of the team’s true starters.
When the actual “ones” were on the field, though, it seemed exactly like the trademark style of recent Steelers football we’ve grown accustomed to: a stagnant offense buoyed by a top defense.
Let’s start with the presumptive starting quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.
Trubisky earned the nod in all three games, finishing with a 70.6 completion percentage, 283 passing yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, demonstrating an overall poise and aptitude. However, only two of Trubisky’s 11 drives ended in six points; though the quarterback did make some accurate strikes downfield, including a 38-yard dime to Dionate Johnson against Detroit, he also took a number of checkdowns and typically didn’t force the football into tight windows.
Trubisky wasn’t the only reason that Pittsburgh’s offense seemed to stall, however. The primary culprit was the offensive line, which reflected little cohesion in its first three games under Pat Meyer. The Steelers’ OL ranked 23rd in pass-blocking grade and 15th in run-blocking rating this preseason, per PFF, largely vacillating with the unit’s 2021 grades (15th in pass blocking, 24th in run blocking).
Behind Tomlin’s offensive line, Steelers running backs tallied 61 carries for 266 yards, good for 4.36 yards per carry. Yet 185 of those yards came against the Seahawks, meaning the team enabled a woeful 2.38 yards per tote in the final two games.
No statistic reflects the offense’s flaws more than this: throughout August, the starting O began a possession on its own 40-yard line or better on three occasions. None of those drives ended in a touchdown.
The above descriptors sound eerily reminiscent of the Steelers’ 2021 offense, which hardly looked dangerous whatsoever. The group gained just 4.8 yards per play last year, which was tied for 28th. Per Sharp Football Analysis, Pittsburgh had an explosive play rate of 7% a season ago, tied for the lowest percentage of passes that gained 20+ yards or rushes for 10+ yards. Aside from an occasional deep ball to Johnson or Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh did not consistently get chunk yards, move the chains, score touchdowns or capitalize on advantageous field position, instead relying upon the iron leg of Chris Boswell.
In spite of porous offensive play, the Steelers won all three games due to sound defense — another hallmark of 2021. Pittsburgh yielded zero points to Detroit’s “starting” offense and only six points to the Trevor Lawrence- and Christian Kirk-led Jaguars. There were some nightmarish, 2021-esque run plays with little aggressiveness or block-shedding, but Teryl Austin’s defense continued to look the part of bending and not breaking.
The Steelers ended the preseason undefeated, yet all three victories were rather unconvincing. Somehow, some way, the team had pulled a win out of the jaws of defeat, whether it be a heroic drive from a quarterback or a pivotal drop at the goal line.
Pittsburgh did just that to a t in 2021, extracting wins from the Bills, Broncos, Seahawks, Browns, Bears, Ravens (twice) and Titans in seeming inexplicable fashion. 2022 may feature a revamped coaching staff and a nascent offense, but the unmistakable trait of winning by the skin of a steel tooth is likely here to stay if the Steelers want to contend this fall.