Steelers 2022 Season Review – Rebuilding the Right Way in Pickett’s Rookie Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season 9-8, just barely missing the playoffs but giving the franchise its 19th consecutive non-losing campaign since 2003. The quick take away?

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

2022 was a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh. Just don’t expect Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan or even Kevin Colbert to utter the word. In fact, expect them to reject the concept. To understand why go back to the words of Bill Cowher.

After consecutive losing seasons in 1998 in 1999, reporters asked Bill Cowher the Steelers were rebuilding in 2000. The Chin rejected the idea immediately, explaining, “Anytime you say you’re rebuilding, you’re giving yourself an excuse for losing.”

I don’t know if Mike Tomlin ever rejected rebuilding so eloquently, but his actions prove that he shares his predecessor’s philosophy.

But if Mike Tomlin will not, and should not say the Steelers were rebuilding in 2022, I can and I will. In 2022 the Steelers showed right way to rebuild. Let’s look at how and why.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

The secret to rebuilding the right way is as simple: Successfully rebuilding in the NFL means doing your best to field a winning team as quickly as possible in a way you can sustain in the future.

  • But if that’s easy to write, it’s hard to execute.

The NFL certainly doesn’t lack “Get rich quick” schemes. The wisest move of the Steelers brain trust was to avoid any of those temptations, as they declined to throw draft picks and guaranteed contracts to bring Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or even Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the Steelers focused their rare salary cap abundance on shoring up weaknesses at offensive line by bringing in Mason Cole, James Daniels and at inside linebacker with Myles Jack. And they remained true to the core franchise philosophy of building through the draft.

While the success or failure of their ’22 draft will hinge on Kenny Pickett’s development, the story of the 2022 phase of the rebuild belongs as much to the rest of the Steelers 2022 draft class as it does to Pickett.

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

Other commentators have described the Steelers 2022 season as “The Tale of Two Season: Before the Bye and After.” You can muster many statistics from both sides of the ball to show how bad the Steelers were before their bye week. You can point to Najee Harris playing injured, the offensive line’s slow development under Pat Meyer and/or T.J. Watt going on injured reserve.

Those are all valid points. But the simple explanation for the Steelers 2-6 is the best one: For the first time in 18 years, Pittsburgh was playing without a franchise quarterback.

Gunner Olszewski, Brenden Schooler, Steelers vs Patriots 2022 home opener

Gunner Olszewskimakes the tackle after muffing a punt. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Watching the Steelers try and fail to comeback against the Patriots in week 2, I had no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger, at least the 2021 edition of Big Ben, would have gotten Chris Boswell into position to tie the game. I’d argue that had Roethlisberger returned the Steelers would have won 2 of the three against the Jets, Browns, Dolphins.

Instead we saw Mitch Trubisky playing not to lose and the Kenny Pickett playing like a raw rookie. The defense  struggled without T.J. Watt; although new comers Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were improving it against the run, as foreshadowed in the upset of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

After the Bye – Coming Together, Growing Together, Winning Together

The conventional explanation ties the Steelers 2nd half turn around to Kenny Pickett’s development. And be clear about it, Pickett’s growth was critical.

Heyward first “appeared” when Tampa’s defense ‘forgot’ him and Mitch Trubisky found him in the middle of the field for a 49 yard gain that set up an insurance touchdown as the Steelers secured their second win. Next, Kenny Pickett found Heyward open in the middle against Atlanta, giving the Steelers their only touchdown in a game that improved their record to 5-7. Heyward’s next big play came with 25 seconds left against the Raiders where he took a toss 21 yards before wisely taking a knee, allowing the Steelers to kill the clock and improve their record to 8-8.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Injuries forced him into the starting line up in the season finale, where he:

  • Converted a 3rd and 1 with a six yard scamper.
  • Caught 3 of 4 passes thrown on the game-closing touchdown drive
  • Those catches included a 27 yarder on 3rd and 8

Connor Heyward earns this extended shout out because his arc exemplifies the arc of so many on the team.

The offensive line gelled, allowing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to run smarter instead of just harder. Backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland did the same in Indy when injuries forced them into the game. George Pickens arrived in Pittsburgh making acrobatic catches – as the season progressed he started making them in clutch situations. Steven Sims made several clutch catches of his own down the stretch, while Diontae Johnson managed to break his nasty habit of running backwards after a catch. Pat Freiermuth played well from the get go, but continued to deliver even when limited by a knee injury late in the season.

  • On defense, the story is similar, but it revolves more around T.J. Watt’s return.

The Steelers lost T.J. Watt in the opening upset of Cincinnati, and struggled in his absence. Even if Watt wasn’t at wasn’t at full strength until December, he still forced defenses to account for him.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

And that’s why both veteran leaders like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as emerging leaders like Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton authored their biggest “splash plays” after Watt’s return.

  • But growth also fuels part of the 2022 Steelers defense’s story.

After getting embarrassed against the run at home against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin turned to rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, and the duo helped shut down several stout rushing attacks in late December.

Every player had a hand in the pile pushing the Steelers late season surge. And anatomical measurements aside, no player had a bigger hand than Kenny Pickett.

Pickett’s Progress

Drafting a first round quarterback in the NFL is pro sport’s ultimate risk-reward call. Consider this: between 1994 and 2021, Washington has drafted 5 first round quarterbacks and won 2 playoff games.

In the same timespan, the Steelers have drafted one first round quarterback and appeared in 9 conference championships and 4 Super Bowls. So the Steelers took a risk when they took Kenny Pickett.

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Even during Pickett’s interception-laden early appearances, the game never looked “too big” for Pickett the way it sometimes did for Mason Rudolph or say Kordell Stewart. After Mitch Tribuisky’s strong performances in relief of Pickett and after the trashing from Philly, there were calls for Mike Tomlin to “put Pickett on ice” for the rest of the season.

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

  • A come-from behind win against the Colts on Monday Night Football
  • A flawless two minute drive to comeback against the Raiders
  • An improvised throw on a broken play to clinch the comeback against the Ravens – on the road

Let’s be clear. Pickett has a lot to prove. He needs to play better earlier in games, use the middle of the field and improve his deep ball accuracy. But Pickett can learn those things. Pickett’s comebacks reveal traits that  quarterback’s cannot learn.

In 2021 thanks to the heroics of their aging franchise quarterback, the Steelers made the playoffs when they didn’t deserve to. In 2022 the Steelers came together as a team around their rookie quarterback and missed the playoffs even though the probably deserved to make it.

Missing out on competing for a Lombardi is always a disappointment, but that disappointment shouldn’t cloud the fact that the 2022 Steelers showed the NFL how to rebuild.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Under the Radar: Steelers Sign Anthony McFarland, 16 Others to “Futures Contracts”

What does 30 yards on 6 carries and 11 yards on 2 catches earn you today?

  • Apparently a second shot at an NFL career.

As the first week of their 2023 off season closes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already signed 17 players to “futures” contracts and none more intriguing than Anthony McFarland. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland out of the University of Maryland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

McFarland was an enticing choice, a smaller faster back, the type of back which the Steelers had tried and failed to add in Chris Rainey in 2012 and Dri Archer in 2014. And for the next two years, McFarland followed in their footsteps.

As a rookie, McFarland appeared in 11 games and had 33 carries. He was a footnote in an offense that struggled to run the ball. That dropped to two games and 3 carries in 2021, the second of which consisted of mop up duty in a blowout loss to Cincinnati.

  • The Steelers cut him in 2022 but added him to the practice squad.

But an injury to Jaylen Warren got Anthony McFarland elevated from the practice squad for the Colts game, and an in-game injury to Najee Harris helped get McFarland on the field. And while his 41 all purpose yards on 8 touches hardly makes him a Fantasy Football star, for the first time Anthony McFarland looked like he belonged in the NFL.

Perhaps that’s fitting.

  • McFarland came out of Maryland as a sophomore, so in another generation 2022 would have been his rookie year.

NFL teams routinely sign and release players to and from futures contracts at this time of year, so there’s no assurance that McFarland will still hold a roster spot when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives, let alone with the Steelers start training camp at St. Vincents.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

But the Steelers decision to resign Anthony McFarland is and under that radar signal of their commitment to running the the ball will continue in 2023.

Mike Tomlin has been infamous for rushing his running backs “until the wheels come off” (see Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and to a lesser extent Rashard Mendenhall), yet refused to staff deep backfields behind his starter.

That changed in 2022. When injuries felled both Harris and Warren against the Colts, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland stepped in, providing the foundation that allowed Kenny Pickett to stage his first comeback. This is the first sign that the change will continue.

Other Futures Signings

Anthony McFarland was only 1 of 16 players to sign or resign with the Steelers. Ten of the players who’ve inked futures contracts spent all or part of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh on the practice squad:

Cody White, wide receiver
Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver
Rodney Williams, tight end
Master Teague, running back
Jason Huntley, running back
Emeke Egbule, linebacker
William Dunkle, guard
Duke Dawson, defensive back
Scott Nelson, defensive back
Ryan McCollum, center

The Steelers also welcome several new faces to Pittsburgh:

Dez Fitzpatrick, wide receiver
Madre Harper, defensive back
Kenny Robinson, defensive back
Chris Wilcox, defensive back

If nothing else, with Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all headed for free agency, the Steelers are adding quantity to their defensive backfield.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Like It or Not: “Benny Snell Football” Was Vital to Steelers Win Over Colts

There was a lot of hype and hope surrounding running back Benny Snell after the Steelers selected him in the fourth round out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Why so much hype for a fourth-round pick? For starters, Snell had a very productive collegiate career, rushing for 3,873 yards in three seasons, while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in each one.

  • Also, Snell had a cool personality, a cool nickname — Benny Snell Football — and an infectious smile.

Lastly, Snell was drafted during the height of social media, and the bells and whistles that accompany draft choices on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc. in this day and age make every single one seem like a future Hall of Famer.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

Snell actually did show a lot of promise during his rookie season, rushing for 426 yards on 108 carries while filling in for the oft-injured James Conner.

Snell’s sophomore season got off to an incredible start when he rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries in a Week 1 win over the Giants. Snell came into the game for Conner, who was, you guessed it, injured, and the calls for him to become the Steelers’ new starting running back were quite audible.

Unfortunately for Snell, he never did overtake James Conner as the Steelers’ starting running back and would only carry the football 92 more times for an uninspiring 255 yards over the final 15 games of the 2020 campaign.

James Conner left as a free agent after 2020, and the Steelers decided to make Najee Harris their 2021 first-round pick, as well as their bell-cow running back.

  • Just how much of a bell-cow back was Harris in 2021? Such a bell-cow, that Snell had just 36 carries for 98 yards.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

As is usually the case with underperforming mid-level draft picks, the attitude of the fans toward Snell had totally soured by Year 3. Heck, it was going downhill even after 2020, as the faithful began to refer to the former Kentucky workhorse as Benny Snail.

It didn’t matter that Snell had turned himself into a valuable special teams player, the fans simply wanted him gone at the conclusion of the Steelers 2022 training camp.

  • Why did the fans turn on Snell?

He just didn’t live up to the social media hype. Also, that’s mostly how fans are. They’re a lot like college head coaches. They’ll kiss a player’s butt and charm him during the recruiting phase of the relationship, but they have no problem chewing him out and tearing him down the moment he screws up on the football field.

Snell survived the final cut in training camp, but he was dropped to third on the depth chart behind Harris and rookie Jaylen Warren.

  • Snell came into Monday night’s game against the Colts without a single carry in 2022.

Warren missed Monday’s game with a hamstring injury, but the Steelers seemed intent on using Anthony McFarland, a third-year back out of Maryland who was just signed from the practice squad, as the primary backup to Harris.

But then Harris had to leave the Colts game with an abdominal injury, and that forced Snell to be the next man up in the backfield.

Sure, McFarland had a decent night for himself in limited action, tallying 30 yards on five carries, but it was Snell who became the primary back and the workhorse to close out the game. All-in-all, Snell had 12 carries for 62 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

  • Snell looked decisive and strong during most of his 12 carries on Monday night.

What happened? Did he suddenly feel inspired? Did he feel motivated to prove the “haters” wrong?

Or, perhaps, his skills could finally shine thanks to an offensive line that has seemingly figured out a way to open holes in the running game on a consistent basis.

  • It’s critical to remember that Benny Snell came to the Steelers right as the offense was going from a strength to a weakness.
Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

The offense has been in a rebuilding phase since 2019, complete with a total overhaul on the offensive line, as well as everywhere else, including at quarterback and offensive coordinator.

The Steelers offense has been a chaotic and controversial mess during Snell’s entire career in Pittsburgh. It’s hard enough for a first-round pick to thrive in such an environment–just ask Harris–let alone a fourth-rounder.

Does Monday’s performance mean that Snell should get a bigger role in Pittsburgh’s offense? Not necessarily. I believe Warren has what it takes to be an effective backup behind Harris.

  • I am suggesting that perhaps Snell was never as bad as you think.
  • Maybe he was just a victim of circumstance.

Maybe calling him Benny Snail was a bit unfair and uncalled for.

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Colts: Going Old School Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher pleased as punch to see his students go “Old School” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for win over the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Arthur Maulet, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Colts

Arthur Maulet sacks Matt Ryan in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett authored his first comeback win by going 20 of 28 for 174 yards and no interceptions. Pickett is making progress, but still needs to perform better on third downs and in the Red Zone. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris was off to a solid start with 35 yards on 10 runs and a touchdown before getting hurt. Benny Snell stepped in and reminded everyone of why he was on the team with 62 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. Anthony McFarland, looking like he belonged in the NFL for the first time, had 30 yards on six carries plus 2 catches for 11. Derek Watt converted a fourth down with a 4 yard run. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for 39 yards while Zach Gentry had one catch for 4 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
George Pickens made some nice catches and is developing a rapport with Pickett, but he still made some rookie mistakes. Diontae Johnson continues to disappoint. He had 5 catches but didn’t bring in a catchable ball in the end zone and ran backwards on a play where he could have gotten a first down. Steven Sims had 2 catches for 9 yards while Gunner Olszewski ran a reverse for 9. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett had better protection than he’s had of late, but still got sacked on a few critical third downs. But protection improved as the game wore on and The run blocking continues to improve. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi led the team in tackles while Montravius Adams came in second with three with Cam Heyward getting three hits on Matt Ryan. The Steelers contained Jonathan Taylor well enough and that started with the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and came up with a critical pass defense. Myles Jack came in second, and T.J. Watt had a quiet night, but did help deflect a pass. Alex Highsmith had the play of the night when he strip sacked Matt Ryan during the two minute drill, costing the Colts precious time. Grade: B

Secondary
James Pierre made an excellent interception to help set the tone for the night. Terrell Edmunds made a sack in the first quarter and Arthur Maulet logged one in the 4th. Outside of the pass he defensed Cam Sutton had a quiet night which was good for a cornerback. The Colts went 3-12 on third downs. Grade: B

Isaiah Rodgers, Matthew Wright, Steelers vs. Colts

Matthew Wright helps tackle Isaiah Rodgers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams

You know things are bad when the special teams section features a photo of a kicker making a tackle on a kick return that wasn’t the worst one of the night. Yet, that’s what happened. The Steelers gave up two a 45 yard return to Isaiah Rodgers that should have set up a score and an 89 yard one to Dallis Flowers that not only set up a score, but let Indianapolis.

Yes, the Steelers had a blocked field goal. Yes, Presley Harvin boomed off two punts of over 50 yards, the second of which pinned the Colts at the 7 to start their final drive. And Matthew Wright made all of his kicks. So that keeps this unit’s grade in passing territory. Barely. Grade: D

Coaching
While many if not most fans can’t or won’t see it, Matt Canada’s offense continues to improve. Yes, the Steelers still seldom pass deep, although it is clear there are down the field options. Yes, there are puzzling play calling decisions – such as the screen ton Gentry, but it is also clear that there are execution errors. And offensive penalties are down.

On defense Terryl Austin’s unit limited the Colts to on first half field goal and to two touchdowns in the second half. Is this unit dominating at the level one would expect it to given its star power? No, it isn’t.

  • But the defense continues to give the offense chances to win.

The Steelers entered the game 3-7. But if you look at the intensity that reserves Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell played with, you’d have thought Pittsburgh was contending for a playoff bye week. That’s the environment Mike Tomlin has established to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that fumble recoveries come down to luck. And a lot of times that’s true – sometimes the ball just bounces or doesn’t bounce, your way. But even when the bounce doesn’t come your way, a heads up player can turn a lose ball into an opportunity. So after the Colts had held the ball for nearly 8 minutes and gone 87 yards they looked poised to score again. But Matt Ryan could get the handoff right, the ball came out. He tried to dive on it, but Chris Wormley out muscled him and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 MNF win over the Colts.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Time to Find Najee Harris’ Backup

Running back isn’t the glory position that it once was. Long gone are the days when a running back could serve as the focal point of an offense, let alone a franchise. This scribe wondered aloud whether Le’Veon Bell might revive the concept of “franchise running backs.”

A half dozen years later, the question seems so hopelessly quaint that’s like suggesting black & white TV sets and rotary phones will make a comeback.

But if that’s true, its also true that lack of running back depth as much as anything else derailed the Steelers chances to get Lombardi Number 3 during the Ben Roethlisberger era. The question heading into the 2022 NFL Draft is will the Steelers heed that lesson now that Roethlisberger has retired?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter

Running back has become so devalued in the modern NFL that drafting one in the first round is now concerned to be foolhardy. A year ago Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert proved once again that they march to their own drummer when they drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

One could look to Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards rushing, 73 catches and 10 touchdowns as proof that Colbert and Tomlin were right. One could bolster those arguments by pointed to the fact that the Steelers run defense was horrendous for most of the season.

  • Those are all solid arguments, but neither proves the point.

For proof that the Steelers made the right call on drafting Harris look no further than the 2021 season finale on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris got injured during the first half. He worked on the sidelines, learning to carry the ball with his left hand and made at least 3 critical plays during over time to get Chris Boswell in position to kick the game winner.

Technically, Derek Watt is also considered the Steelers “starter” at fullback, but he only average 6.5% of the offensive snaps.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Najee Harris the Steelers have Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland. Pittsburgh picked Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In that time, Snell has started 5 games and rushed the ball 255 times, scoring 6 touchdown.

His rushing average has dropped from 3.9, to 3.2 to 2.7 yards per carry, although he only had 36 attempts in 2021. And in all fairness to Snell, the quality of the Steelers run blocking has declined during his time with the team.

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Maryland to serve as a change of pace back. In 2 NFL season McFarland has appeared in just 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. He’s also caught 7 passes for 65 yards.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back

Lack of running back depth crippled the Steelers during the latter half of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin era. Yet, until 2021, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed zero inclination to altering their backfield staffing strategy. Last year the Steelers went into the season with Harris, Snell, McFarland and Kalen Ballage plus Derek Watt as their fullback.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

  • So at least the running back depth chart had quantity.

But what it lacked was quality. And the Steelers still lack that quality. Mike Tomlin has tried to staff a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett (oh, how I do date myself) with the likes of Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. Both failed miserably. Anthony McFarland appears poised to follow in their footsteps.

In contrast, Benny Snell has shown something and even at this stage of his career retains some “upside.” But in this writer’s opinion Benny Snell isn’t a true number 2 running back and is better suited as a number 3.

The absence of a DeAngelo Williams like player who could shoulder the load should Harris go down means that the Steelers need at running back going into the 2022 NFL Draft is Moderate-High.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals. Time to Give Out F’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher fearing his students are slacking off just when the end of the semester crunch as begun, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played poorly. Cincinnati scored 17 points off of turnovers. If the Steelers can even manage to get field goals on those drives the dynamic of the game shifts drastically. Beyond the turnovers, Roethlisberger missed too many makeable throws. Grade: F

Running Backs
Najee Harris did better than his 2.9 yards-per-carry average would suggest, but with 8 carries he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything. Benny Snell had 2 carries. One for 4 yards another for 1. Kalen Ballage had 3 carries for 21 yards in garbage time, but at least he did well against Cincinnati’s JV. Anthony McFarland, activated because of special teams, did nothing to show he deserves a helmet as a running back. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on 4 targets while Zach Gentry caught 1 of 2. That’s good, but this team needs better run blocking from its offensive line. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 9 catches for 95 yards on 14 targets while Chase Claypool had 3 on 8 targets for 82 yards. James Washington had 1 catch for 3 yards and Anthony Miller had 1 for 2 yards. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit two more times, but pass protection was weak with Ben unable to step into his throws. Run blocking was equally bad with Najee Harris having no daylight. Unless this group improves the Steelers will likely not win another game this season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers moved Cam Heyward to nose tackle, trying to shore up the middle, and sat Isaiah Buggs. Neither move worked and both likely hurt the run defense. Heyward had a sack, but a lone bright spot. Grade: F

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith continues to work under the radar but T.J. Watt was clearly not 100% Devin Bush is struggling leaving a lot of space for Joe Schobert to cover on his own. Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka are making Generation X Steelers fans long for the days of Carlos Emmons. Grade: F

Secondary
James Pierre might develop into a quality cornerback, but he struggled all day in Joe Haden’s absence. Minkah Fitzpatrick was back and made a phenomenal interception that ultimately went for naught. But Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 passes which tells you all you need to know. Grade: F

Special Teams
Anthony McFarland took over kick return duties for Ray-Ray McCloud and did a respectable job, whereas Cam Sutton did fare too well with his 2 punt returns. Chris Boswell made his one field goal and booted it into the end zone. Pressley Harvin III did “OK.” Grade: C+

Coaching
After showing steady progress throughout October and early November, Matt Canada’s offense is regressing towards its mean. After broaching respectability the running game is faltering. While falling behind early isn’t helping it, Canada doesn’t seem committed to establish the run.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Nor has employed creative measures, like Jet sweeps, to jump start the ground game.

  • The alternative looks frighteningly like the offense based on 3 and 5 yard passes that sabotaged the Steelers in 2020.

On defense, Keith Butler has little to work with. If Doc Brown rolled up on the South Side and out of the DeLorean strode Kenneth Davis, Donald Evans and Tyronne Stowe one can imagine Butler, Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky jumping for joy at Flux Capacitor-infused upgrades they were enjoying.

  • Let that sink in for a moment. (Google the names if need be)

It says here that the Steelers ills are rooted in talent and not in coaching or scheming, but regardless this group of players is headed in the wrong direction. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He had 9 tackles and looked good in both run support as well as covering passes via the slot while participating in just under ½ of the Steelers snaps. There’s nothing “special” about being in the right place and making a tackle when you should but those to characteristics are in short supply with the Steelers and for that Arthur Maulet wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the loss to Cincinnati.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card for Browns Win: Acing AFC Central History Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.

T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Tight Ends
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A

Linebackers
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jarvis Landry, Cam Sutton, Steelers vs Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Secondary
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-

Coaching
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.

To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.

Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”

  • Against the Browns it was not.

1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.

As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

The Contrast of Two Steelers Coaches and Incorrect Rumors about College Jobs

In case you missed it, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn’t interested in the LSU head coaching job. Or the USC one, for that matter either.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

The dynamics of how this “story” evolved to dominate the internet for the span of a few hours on Tuesday afternoon are best left to the Watch Tower, but for now here are two quick take aways:

  • First, in contrast to his predecessor, Mike Tomlin delivered a clinic on denying a rumor
  • Second, as point number one suggests, the hypothetical isn’t all that unusual.

As we all know, former Steeler and Bills front office executive Doug Whaley went on Pittsburgh radio and suggested that Mike Tomlin might be a candidate for the vacancies at LSU and USC, suggesting that either school might outbid Art Rooney II.

  • Both Ryan Clark and Carlston Palmer took that rumor and ran with it.

The storm of tweets, blog posts and Facebook likes followed. Hey, this was the bye week after all, so why not focus on something juicy instead of doing real reporting.

At his weekly press conference, Mike Tomlin answered a score or so questions about the Steelers injury situation, usage of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Anthony McFarland all in the context the Steelers upcoming game against the Browns.

Then Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review asked Tomlin about the rumor.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Mike Tomlin left no room for ambiguity in his response:

Which is refreshing. Just before Christmas during the dark days of the Steelers 1999 season, Bill Cowher was asked about returning to North Carolina to coach college ball. Unlike the Whaley generated story, this one didn’t come out of thin air. Bill Cowher had been dogged by rumors since the end of the Steelers 1997 season that he wanted out.

  • The question had arisen earlier that year with multiple national stories.

Yet, when given a chance to refute the rumors, Bill Cowher, fumbled the opportunity so badly at his weekly press conference that, at the urging of his late wife Kay Cowher, called a second press conference were he delivered an unequivocal denial.

(Where was social media when you needed it? Today Cowher could have gotten it done in a Tweet.)

But if Tomlin’s denial was clear cut, his umbrage at the question itself is on shaker ground. Several commentators have taken his cause, namely ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith:

Smith makes a lot of excellent points.

But let’s everyone should be clear: The prospect of an NFL head coach leaving the pros to go to the NCAA isn’t that far-fetched. After the Patriots fired Pete Carroll following the 1999 season, he went to coach at – you guessed it – USC.

Ah, but Carroll had tried and failed twice as an NFL coach (not that he had much of a chance with Leon Hess owned Jets) you object? OK.

To that I say, Jim Harbaugh. After the 2014 season, two years removed from a NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance, “Capitan Comeback” left the NFL behind to coach for Michigan.

Smith is right. Mike Tomlin does get a unfair criticism heaped at him from all sorts of directions and for many different reasons. Some of those critics have nefarious motives. But we can likely chalk up fact that he was questioned about a rumor linking him to a college job to nothing other than the shoddy state of sports journalism here in 2021.

The Watch Tower will shine its lights on that angle of the story very soon. Stay tuned.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.