Teacher’s Late! (Again): Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Season Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who waited until the last day before summer to get his grades in, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 season.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 7-5 completed 63% of his passes 2404 yards for 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Pickett progressed following the bye, getting stronger each week and leading 3 come from behind wins. Taken alone his work was “Good.” However, Mitch Trubisky performed poorly as a starter early in the season and, although he did well in relief against Tampa Bay and Carolina, his interceptions against Baltimore cost the Steelers both the game and the playoffs. This brings the grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
2022 marks a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. Najee Harris worked through early injuries to earn 1054 yards. Jaylen Warren’s 379 yards might seem pedestrian, but his role as a third down and rotational back saved Harris 71 touches. Beyond the numbers, the duo ran both harder, smarter and with more authority as the year progressed, forcing piles forward. Derek Watt got into the act with 8 first down runs. Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland delivered when their number was called. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth continued to build on his role as a “go to” target in critical moments. Zach Gentry was steady as a number 2 tight end. Connor Heyward only had his number called a handful of times, but he answered each of them. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Diontae Johnson lead the unit with 86 catches followed by rookie George Pickens by 52. After that there’s a steep drop to Chase Claypool who wasn’t even on the team for the last nine games. Steven Sims functioned as the 3rd wide receiver  Gunner Olszewski making cameo appearances. Much has been made of the lack of explosive plays and dearth of touchdowns from this group, but that’s largely not their fault. They executed well in the ball-control focused offense during the season’s 2nd half, and answered with clutch plays time-and-time again on game winning drives. Grade: B

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The offensive line turned a corner in 2022. By the end of 2019 it was a liability and it struggled for the next two seasons. It started slowly in 2022 but improved as the season progressed. Pass protection must continue to improve, but run blocking was an asset late in the year. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had another monster year and is the team’s undisputed leader on and off the field. Larry Ogunjobi’s stat sheet won’t make Fantasy Football owners salivate, but he was a tremendous asset in stopping the run. Montravius Adams was solid in the middle. Grade: A-

Linebackers
The evolution of Alex Highsmith has a pass-rushing, edge-setting outside linebacker was the biggest story of the year. Highsmith had 14.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. Myles Jack stabilized the center of the field leading the team in sacks. Devin Bush’s play was stable at the beginning of the year, but fell out of favor due to rookie Mark Robinson’s development. T.J. Watt missed half of the year and took time get back to full strength, but his return boosted the entire defense. Grade: B+

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Secondary
Ball Hawking. That was the Steelers secondary’s calling card in 2022. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit with 6 interceptions, followed by Levi Wallace’s 4, Cam Sutton’s 3, Damontae Kazee’s 2, while Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre all had 1. Overall, the defense was 16th on third down efficiency and struggled when matched with high power passing offenses like the Bengals, Bills and Eagles. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Danny Smith’s special teams had an up and down year. Chris Boswell was solid, until suffering an injury and then had his difficulties. Matthew Wright was excellent in relief. Steven Simms added dynamism to the kick return game, but he did fumble three times. The Steelers coverage teams also began giving up long returns late in the year. Pressley Harvin was a bit erratic early in the year, but settled down as time wore on and did a good job of pinning teams down inside the 20. Grade: B-

Coaching
Have Steelers fans vilified any other offensive coordinator more than Matt Canada? Probably Joe Walton, if you control for the absence of social media. But at least Joe Walton deserved it. Matt Canada? Not so much.

The Steelers offense began 2022 worse than it was in 2021 thanks to the absence of a franchise quarterback and overall lack of experience. Execution errors rather than schemes or play calling strategies drove many, if not most, of the Steelers early offensive woes.

  • As the offense gained experience they eliminated the errors and victories followed.

Yes, the Steelers still need a more aggressive, effective downfield passing game – but that’s largely not a product of play calling. The Steelers certainly do need to execute better in the Red Zone. But as games against Carolina and Cleveland confirmed, Canada’s cocktail of long, ball-controlling drives that end with touchdowns is lethal.

Teryl Austin, with a strong assist from  the recently departed Brian Flores turned a Steelers defense around that was headed in the wrong direction. True, the defense was a different unit with T.J. Watt in the line up. But Dick LeBeau’s defenses were far superior when Troy Polamalu was playing. While the Steelers defense wasn’t tested against an elite passer following the bye week, they were stout against the run down the stretch.

  • That brings us to Mike Tomlin.

For the second time since his arrival in 2007, his team opened the season 2-6. And as he did in 2013, Mike Tomlin turned it around and had his team in the hunt for a playoff spot until the waning moments if their final game.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

In terms of X’s and O’s Tomlin accomplished this by refusing to given into knee jerk reactions or drop into coaching by crisis mode. In terms of managing people, Tomlin convinced his locker room to believe in the Steelers Way and ultimately themselves. Grade: A

Front Office
In his final spring on the job Kevin Colbert enjoyed record amounts of salary cap space and succeeded in using it to bolster the Steelers offensive lines an interior defense. It is way, way too early to evaluate Kevin Colbert’s final NFL Draft class, but the early returns are extremely positive.

Omar Khan took over the helm in June and Kahn’s first act was to sign Larry Ogunjobi in response to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. Kahn’s next moves were to ink extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson, moves he made early in the summer, eliminating potential distractions. And Khan moved Chase Claypool for a 2nd round pick, a move that looks like an absolute coup today. Grade: A-

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
He started out 2019 as a Tennessee Titan cast off who’d bounce on and off the roster and practice squad multiple times. He began 2020 as the one player the Steelers could absolutely NOT afford to see play. Then injuries forced him in and although he delivered, during the summer of 2021 the Steelers still made a trade to shore up his position. So he began 2022 as a rotational starter, playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps.

That snap percentage jumped to 80% during the seven-game winning streak the Steelers authored to close the 2022 season and leapt to a perfect 100% in the final four games, which saw the Steelers get better week-by-week. Coincidence? I don’t think so either which is why Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award honors for  Steelers 2022 season.

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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.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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Times Change: Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave vs. Gary Jones on Don Bebbe

“Times change Myron,” was the quote Myron Cope used to lead off a chapter in his book Double Yoi. Dan Rooney supplied the quote in response to Myron’s protest over the Steelers decision to ban smoking effective January 1st, 1990 in the press room because secondary smoke had been bothering assistant coaches.

  • Cope pointed out that The Chief, Art Rooney Sr. had been a smoker, prompting the response from Rooney.

When Cope shared that story in his 2003 book, the memory of someone smoking (that’s tobacco smoking kids) in an enclosed era like a pro football press room was already anachronistic. Today its almost impossible to imagine that something like that ever occurred, let alone was ever “normal.”

  • And this week Steelers Nation got another reminder of just how much “normal” has changed on the football field.

What was the best play made last week by the Steelers defense in the win over the Saints? Levi Wallace’s interception? Perhaps Damontae Kazee’s pick? Maybe one of Alex Highsmith’s sacks? Or Robert Spillane’s stuff of Andy Dalton on 4th down?

Damontae Kazee, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints

Chris Olave gets a big hit from Damontae Kazee after a tough catch. Photo Credit: Twitter

All good candidates indeed. But you know what? If a  DeLorean burned some rubber on Carson Street, and out strut an analyst from 20 years ago, there’s a fair bet they’d have told you the best play was Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave. Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait.

Yes, that was one hell of a hit.

In another generation even though Olave held on to the ball, such a hit would have been though of as a tone setter. This isn’t hypothetical conjecture, it actually happened.

The high mark of the Steelers 1993 season came on November 15th, 1993 at Three Rivers Stadium where the Steelers shut out the Buffalo Bills 23-0. Early during the game, another Steelers reserve safety, Gary Jones, delivered this hit on long time Steelers nemesis, Don Beebe. Again, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait

It is the exact same kind of hit. The difference is that Kazee got flagged 15 yards for a personal foul, admonished on air by the commentators and then fined for the hit. Gary Jones? Well, you can hear Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford talking about what great of a hit it was.

Yes, as Dan Rooney reminded Mryon Cope, “Times change.”

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Saints: Glass Half Full Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sees his students’ glass as half full, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card from the 2022 win over at Acrisure over the Saints.

Arthur Maulet, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints 2022

Arthur Maulet breaks up a pass for Crhis Olave. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 18 of 30 for 199 yards with no touchdowns, but most importantly, no interceptions. Pickett still looks like a rookie. He’s not seeing open receivers and his accuracy was off at times. Still, the Steelers converted 9 of 17 third downs. More importantly he got better as the game moved on. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers had their highest rushing totals since December 2016 when Le’Veon Bell broke the franchise rushing record. This time it was a team effort, with Najee Harris having his best day of the year, logging 99 yards while Jaylen Warren adding 37 more, the bulk of which came during when it was needed to kill the clock. Derek Watt had 2 runs for 5 yards, both of which converted 3rd and 4th downs. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches for 36 yards, but that stat doesn’t do justice to the one handed catch he made of a ball that Kenny Pickett gunned at him. Zach Gentry had one pass thrown his way which was deflected. Connor Heyward had two catches for 9 yards. Grade: B –

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 36 yards including a 36 yarder. George Pickens added 3 for 32 yards, but also contributed with a 22 yard end around. Gunner Olszewski had 1 catch for 4 yards, while Steven Sims and 1 catch for 15 yards and 2 carries for 2 yards, the second of which converted a third down on the final, clock killing drive. Grade: B –

Offensive Line
On the plus side, the offensive line’s progress in run blocking continued. While no one would mistake their efforts for Road Grading, Steelers running backs did have holes to run in. However, pass protection was weak, as Pickett suffered 6 more sacks. Not all of those are the line’s fault, but protection must improve. Grade: C

Defensive Line
No where to run. The Saints totaled 29 yards rushing. Or 7 less that Najee Harris’ longest run. Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams stat sheets won’t make any fantasy football owners happy. But measure in Reality Football this group played well. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt only had 4 tackles and one QB hit, but his presence was felt throughout, whether it was stopping guys at the line of scrimmage, snuffing out QB scrambles or drawing double teams…. And those double teams helped Alex Highsmith, who had two sacks, including a strip sack that helped end New Orleans final possession. Devin Bush quietly had another good game. Grade: A

Secondary
Wow. What a difference interceptions make. Damontae Kazee’s 4th quarter interception set up the Steelers final touchdown while Levi Wallace ended the Saints final possession. Arthur Maulet’s stat line reads 3 tackles 2 solos and 1 pass defensed. Nice, but it doesn’t do justice to the incredible play he made. The Saints were 3-12 on 3rd downs. Giving up a TD on a two minute drive brings this group’s grade down. A smidge. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Pressley Harvin punted 3 times, nailing the ball into the 20 twice and none of his punts were returnable. The Steelers kick coverage was sound, and Steven Simms looked good in his lone kick return.

Matthew Wright, however, missed two of his field goals and his kickoffs were short. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers entered the bye week as a 2-6 team that had gotten its tail kicked be a Super Bowl favorite. They exited it looking like a team that used its week off to get “back to basics.”

  • Tackles were crisp. Assignments were smart. Run blocking was physical. Penalties were minimized.

Matt Canada’s offense finally looked like an winning offense. Yes, the Red Zone remains an issue and a tendency to rely on trick plays is forming. But they scored twice at the goal line through smart execution.

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Teryl Austin’s defense put on the most complete performance of the season. Were it not for the late 2nd half hiccup, there’s a strong chance the Saints never see the end zone.

Through it all, Mike Tomlin has kept his eye on establishing sound fundamentals, and that focus paid off. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
This player led the team in tackles, the first two of which went for third down stops. He also made several other stops for no gain, with the biggest coming against Andy Dalton on 4th down with 7:47 left to play and for that Robert Spillane is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Saints.

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Persistence Pays Off: Steelers 20-10 Win over Saints Fueled by Dominating Defense, Patient Offense

Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:

  • Ugly
  • A dominating defensive performance
  • A “team win”

Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.

Jaylen Warren, Demario Davis, Steelers vs Saints

Jaylen Warren rips off 4th quarter run. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off

For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:

Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year

  • These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.

Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.

Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”

Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.

Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.

Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite

The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.

  • It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.

That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.

  • And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.

 

T.J. Watt, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Saints

T.J. Watt stuffs Jordan Howard. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.

  • But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.

Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.

  • The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.

How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.

Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.

Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.

Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status

Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.

  • Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
  • Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
  • Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
  • Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
  • Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.

All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.

But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.

  • Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.

After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.

The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”

But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.

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Hedging: Steelers Decline Devin Bush’s 5th Year Option – What Does & Doesn’t Mean

The ink on the draft cards for the Steelers 2022 Draft class was hardly dry when the franchise displayed a bit of buyer’s remorse by opting not to pick up Devin Bush’s 5th year option.

The Steelers of course traded their own 2019 first round pick, their 2nd round pick from ’19 and their 2020 third round pick to move up to pick Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft. Devin Bush started as a rookie, winning rookie of the year honors, while authoring several splash, game-changing plays.

Bush returned to start 17 games in 2021, but he was not the same. Not only was he not an impact player, his tackle count plummeted, which is especially surprising, given the historically bad run defense the Steelers suffered.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

What the Decision on Bush Means and Doesn’t Mean

The Tribune Review’s Tim Benz went so far as to declare in a headline: “Praise of Kevin Colbert’s success with Steelers meets acknowledgment of Devin Bush’s failure.” That’s going a little too far.

Let’s be clear:

  • This unequivocally confirms that the Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin have serious concerns about Devin Bush.

The Steelers, like any NFL franchise, expect to offer their first round draft picks second contracts. Since the 2010 NFL CBA mandated 4 year contracts with a 5-year option for first round draft picks, the Steelers have picked up the option on Cam Heyward, David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

And the Steelers not been facing salary cap Armageddon, they probably would have found a way to sign Dupree to a second contract. As it was, they franchised him.

But not franchising Devin Bush, the Steelers put him into the company of Jarvis Jones, Artie Burns, and Terrell Edmunds, all of whom did not get their options picked up.

  • While that’s not good, it isn’t as damning as it sounds.

Really, the Steelers put Bush in the same company as Terrell Edmunds. The 2020 CBA changed the 5th year option, making it fully guaranteed upon signing. Prior to that, it was only guaranteed for injury (much to Ryan Shazier’s benefit.)

Had the Steelers optioned Devin Bush on Monday, Art Rooney II essentially would have been giving him a post-dated check for 10.9 million dollars. Art II clearly isn’t ready to do that. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on him.

The conventional wisdom was that Terrell Edmunds was as good as gone when the Steelers declined his option, but Terrell Edmunds is back, albeit on a one year prove it deal.

If Bush rebounds in 2022, the Steelers could still franchise him at the cost of about 18 million dollars. So the Steelers aren’t giving up on Bush’s development, but rather hedging their bets. It could turn out to an expensive hedge indeed.

Steelers Sign Kazee Veteran Safety

The Pittsburgh Steelers made a signing the day after the draft that has to count as a bit of a surprise. They came to terms with Damontae Kazee. Kazee entered the NFL in 2017 as a fifth round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, playing as the primary starter in his second and third seasons before a torn ACL ended his 4 season after four games.

The Dallas Cowboys signed him, and he started 15 games for them in 2021, making 2 interceptions and forcing 2 fumbles. Still he was unsigned at the draft and only got a one year contract from the Steelers, presumably at or near the veteran minimum.

The Steelers have taken a “wait and see” approach to safety this off season, declining to getting into a bidding war for Tyrann Mathieu, letting Terrell Edmunds test the market, and only signing Karl Joseph weeks into free agency.

Of course the Steelers are expected to seek a long term deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick this off season. They also have Tre Norwood as a safety.

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