NFL football is unlike anything else. It is a unique sport with the players playing at the highest level one can reach. It brings hours of entertainment each season as well as an unmeasurable amount of discussion in anticipation by its fan base.
Steelers’ Nation is no exception. One of the more ravenous fan bases in all of professional sports, the Steelers have great fans across the world, many of which at some point find their way to the North Shore to cheer on their beloved black and gold in person.
Like many fan bases, Steelers’ Nation is also very opinionated. They have no problem sharing what players are bound for Canton and which ones should have already been placed on the scrapheap.
Whether they are the positive or negative variety, there are constantly a number of different narratives surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers. And it’s not that they are incorrect. While which narratives come to the forefront are constantly changing, sometimes the narratives either float away into forgetfulness or get turned 180° which is exactly what they should do.
It’s perfectly fine for the narratives around the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers to constantly be evolving. Much like their roster, the Steelers themselves are constantly changing. It’s very difficult to define exactly what this team is going to be this season. Hopefully something which appears to be a glaring weakness could evolve into a strength by mid season. Unfortunately, the inverse could just as easily be true as in something thought to be a strong point cracks and crumbles.
To remember how quickly these things can change, let’s look at an example of some of these evolving narratives:
Fading into nothingness
Just over two months ago as I was working through the “Going for Two” series and outlining two players from the 53-man roster each day leading up to training camp, there was some interesting discussion when it came to Steelers linebacker Buddy Johnson. For the roster outlook, I placed him on the bubble going into his second season because he’d only appeared in four games as a rookie and only had six defensive snaps. Not knowing much about him left him in a more vulnerable position in a crowded inside linebacker room.
First, I was told how wrong I was because Johnson was a near lock to make the roster and the bigger question was if he would land in the starting lineup. I understand that’s how some people felt and I was fine with it. But then I was accused of saying something that I didn’t. As I mentioned the Steelers had a lot of players vying for roster positions at inside linebacker, I also said they must not have been completely set on them as they didn’t hesitate to take a flyer on another player at the position in the seventh round of the draft. One person went as far to accuse me of having a “hot take” of Mark Robinson beating out Buddy Johnson for a roster spot. While that was not at all what I was saying as I was merely bringing up the fact the Steelers may not be sold on many of their inside linebackers because they felt the need to take a flyer on another one in the draft, it is what ultimately came to fruition. And since I wasn’t making a “hot take” about this at that moment, I am in no way trying to take credit for calling it before it happened.
The point of this example is that this was something that throughout the course of training camp faded into the background. The fact Buddy Johnson was released may have been somewhat surprising to some Steelers fans, but it wasn’t shocking. I think the more shocking move would have been to release Mark Robinson. But the narrative of Johnson being a lock for the roster and some felt he could be an answer as a starter in 2022 slowly faded out until it was forgotten.
Going from a weakness to a strength
There are a number of examples which could be used here, but going with the most recent I’ll pick cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. Using a fifth-round draft pick in 2023 to acquire the cornerback from the Seattle Seahawks, Steelers fans were frustrated with the trade. Not only did Witherspoon come in to play in the Steelers compensatory formula and cost them another pick in 2022, the only game he appeared in in the first 10 weeks was one where he was credited for giving up a long touchdown.
With one man’s misfortune being another man’s opportunity, when Joe Haden went down against the Detroit Lions Ahkello Witherspoon found himself active on game day for only the second time in 2021 and kept his helmet for the remainder of the season. Ultimately leading the Steelers in interceptions with three, Witherspoon went from “Kevin Colbert’s worst trade ever” to “the Steelers can’t afford to lose this player next season” in a matter of weeks.
Going from strong to weak
When something like this occurs, it’s not really the narrative which is the driving force but the play on the field. Sometimes it takes a while to realize that something is sliding into a weakness and it takes some fans even longer for reality to kick in.
The Steelers 2021 rush defense is a prime example. Early in the season, the Steelers were a top 10 run defense until the wheels fell off and they came plummeting down the list to where they resided at the bottom for the last portion of the season. But this is what really occurred with the Steelers, so the narrative around it was both unexpected and justified.
These examples are all not about narrative being incorrect, but merely how they can, and should, change. Remembering how things can change can help fans understand the reality of the situation their teams are facing. Heading into the season, fans are encouraged by various things such as increased quarterback mobility and young weapons at skilled positions on offense. Some of the things that really have Steelers fans down is the production of the offensive line and the inside linebackers.
Just remember, even if it’s bad now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. How likely will these be the same narratives at the conclusion of the 2022 season?
One player currently in the majority of Steelers Nation’s doghouse is inside linebacker Devin Bush, or as some fans want to call him, Devin “Bust.” His play on the field last season left a lot to be desired, and those who were still holding out hope, like myself, that getting a full summer of training and not rehabbing would help him overcome his knee injury and get closer to his 2019 form. While this has yet to be the case, and his words to the media have not helped at all, it’s not that all hope is lost.
I seem to recall many people complaining about “Dud” Dupree for seasons only for some to even suggest keeping Dupree and allowing T.J. Watt to walk after his fifth-year option. Where the Steelers showed faith in Dupree by picking up his fifth-year option, which they did not do for Devin Bush, it still goes to show that the narrative can flip at any time.
As the Steelers prepare to enter their routine weekly preparation for the first contest of the 2022 season, there is going to be a lot of change with his team as the process goes on. Hopefully there will be more change for the good than for the bad, but things that seem to be a big deal now may fade into nothingness as other concerns creep in. Players who look poised to have fantastic seasons could be derailed due to injury or ineffectiveness, and players who seem to be on the edge of their NFL careers could break out into stars.
It’s why we watch. It’s why we cheer. And it’s also why it’s okay to change our opinions as things get better or worse. Just remember, what makes it feel like the sky is falling right now may end up being perfectly fine as something else takes its place.