The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers start the post-Ben Roethlisberger era this Sunday as they open the 2022 season against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers have a new quarterback, a new general manager and when they return to Pittsburgh, they’ll be playing at Acrisure Stadium instead of Heinz Field.

  • So Steel Curtain Rising is responding to all this change by reviving a tradition perfected by a lost friend.

If you’re fortunate enough to have known the late, great Ivan Cole you will remember that he previewed every season with an article titled “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 20xx.”

There, Ivan would make the strongest case possible for the Steelers Super Bowl chances, with the caveat that he was only laying out a best case scenario and not making a prediction.

So today I honor my departed friend with my own best-case scenario.

T.J. Watt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt contains Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

For the last 16 or 17 years Bob Labriola’s preseason analysis has hinged on one key fact – The Steelers had a chance at a Lombardi because they had franchise quarterback.

  • Now that Roethlisberger has retired, does doom the Steelers?

No, far from it. If a year ago, Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a certain floor (see his six 4th quarter comebacks), he also gave them a bit of a ceiling. He was clearly a bad fit for Matt Canada’s offense (Ben was at his best, almost his old self, calling his own plays; the rest of the time? Not so much), and even with the addition of Najee Harris, his inability to throw deep limited the offense.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That alone should improve first half scoring. In other words, while Trubisky cannot be expected to mount 4th quarter comebacks the way Ben did, they may not be as necessary.

And should Trubisky falter, Kenny Pickett has looked as good as anyone had a right to expect him to look so far. Which brings us to Mason Rudolph. Booing fans may beg to differ, but a third string quarterback with 17 starts under his belt is something most NFL coaches would envy.

So this is the deepest quarterback room the Steelers have had since 2012… when they finished 8-8. OK. But I’d argue that the 2022 Steelers are far deeper at the skill positions.

Najee Harris gave the Steelers their first 1,000 yard rusher in 4 years despite working behind a terrible offensive line. Benny Snell Jr. may not be RB number 1 material, but he is a solid backup. Jaylen Warren impressed enough in presason to be the “next man up” if the depth chart is correct.

At wide receiver the Steelers are led by Diontae Johnson, a promising young player whose impressive body of work is underpinned by his integrity, worth ethic and maturity. In other words someone who can provide a perfect example for rookie George Pickens as well as Chase Claypool, a veteran struggling to mature.

Myles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski provide solid depth from two men who can play specials teams, and this group only figures to get stronger with Calvin Austin’s return.

At tight end Pat Freiermuth appears poised to grow into a “Go To Guy” in clutch situations, while Zach Gentry has a chance to prove that drafting a guy as “a project” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. If new comer Conner Heyward works out, the Steelers could have their deepest tight end room since 2010.

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

Let’s call a horse a horse: The Steelers can be stronger at quarterback, running back, wide out and tight end, but if their offensive line fails to improve all is for naught.

And let’s not sugar coat this: Based on the preseason, the Steelers offensive line is picking up right where they left off in 2021.

This is bad.

It is even worse when you factor in the Steelers spending 72 million to sign Mason Cole and James Daniels and resign Chukwuma Okorafor. Tony Defeo has counseled patience towards the offensive line, but is that just a Pittsburgh pipe dream?

On a Steel City Insider podcast, Craig Wolfley assured Steelers fans that the line can improve. OK. Wolfey sees the world with Black and Gold tinted sun glasses you say? Well that’s true. But Duke Manyweather, who trains NFL lineman in the off season, reminded Steelers fans:

A little history is helpful here: The Steelers offensive lines in 2008 and 2010 started out as weak spots and struggled mightily at times, but both units improved during the course of the season.

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

In 2021 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded the franchise’s worst run defense since the 1940’s. Honestly, one has to wonder why opposing coaches even bothered to throw. It was obvious that even an average running back could, would and did gouge the Steelers run defense for double digit gains at will.

  • Why did that happen?

In a word, because Stephon Tuitt was injured, Vince Williams retired, Tyson Alualu’s season lasted 6 quarters and Devin Bush wasn’t the same prior to tearing his ACL. But except for Bush, the Steelers couldn’t have anticipated any of this prior to the season.

  • The Steelers used the past off season to plan accordingly.

Larry Ogunjobi gives the Steelers a quality option on the defensive line, and Myles Jack should help stabilize the center of the defense behind the line. Likewise, the Steelers made frequent use of their 3 safety package during the preseason which should strengthen the run defense.

True, Damontae Kazee being out to start the season is a setback, but the 3 safety package’s existence suggests that Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brain Flores are actively addressing this liability.

At outside linebacker T.J. Watt is flashing signs of being a generational talent, while Alex Highsmith looks to improve. Depth is thin behind them, but Malik Reed’s arrival should help. But the Steelers need both starters to remain healthy.

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

The secondary is of the most intriguing depth charts on this 2022 Steelers squad. In 2021 Cam Sutton emerged a true leader and a legitimate starting NFL cornerback. Last year, just before the season, the Steelers raised eyebrows when they traded for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Those eyebrows remained raised when Witherspoon sat on the bench for 8 of the Steelers 9 first games. He only started getting serious snaps in week 12, but managed to finish the season with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed. The Steelers resigned him along with Levi Wallace, a cornerback who had a lot of success against the Black and Gold.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

At safety Damontae Kazee was looking like he could turn into one of those trademark Steelers under-the-rader free agency signings and, if his stay on injured reserve as indeed short-lived, he still could be.

If it is, he will join Terrell Edmunds, a player who returned to Pittsburgh after finding lukewarm interest on the free agent market. IT says here that Edmunds misfortune is Pittsburgh’s good luck. While Edmunds may never be a superstar, he’s improved each year, and should be a stabilizing force in the secondary.

Many, including this author, questioned the wisdom of the Steelers trading their first round pick for Minkah back in 2019, but since then he’s made game changing play after game changing play.

Special Teams to Be Special?

Anyone who doubts the importance of special teams need only remember how the Steelers struggled in 2018 when the kicking game faltered.

In Chris Boswell the Steelers return one of the best kickers in the NFL. Statistics say that the Ravens Justin Tucker is the NFL’s best, and his resume speaks for itself. But Boswell kicks in a tougher venue, and the man his ice water flowing throw his veins.

  • If the game comes down to Boswell’s foot I wouldn’t bet against him.

A year ago the Steelers drafted Pressley Harvin in the 7th round, and fans spent the season wondering why Mike Tomlin kept him around. However, if he can translate his preseason punting exploits into the regular season, we’ll know why.

If he can hold onto the ball, Gunner Olszewski should give the Steelers a viable threat in the return game, and Steve Simms also looked good as a returner in preseason.Ivan Cole

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

While Mike Tomlin is a well-known commodity, this will be the first time he’ll start a season without a franchise quarterback. Tomlin will also welcome a number of new assistant coaches either to the team or to new roles within the team.

Teryl Austin will take over as defensive coordinator, Brian Flores arrives as linebackers coach and work as a senior defensive assistant. Pat Meyer joins the team as offensive line coach. Alfredo Roberts, Grady Brown and Frishman Jackson round out the new faces at position coaches, taking over the tight end, defensive backs and wide receiver rooms.

  • What to make of all this?

Well, if Mike Tomlin has struggled when he’s tried to identify, recruit and/or promote up and coming young coaching talent (think Scottie Montgomery, Jack Bicknell or Carnell Lake), he’s repeatedly he’s demonstrated ability to bring in experienced veteran value adding coaches to his staff (think Richard Mann, Mike Munchak and yes, Todd Haley.)

Tomlin’s hires for senior positions all boast extensive resumes in both the NFL and/or college and should serve as able mentors for a maturing team.

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

We close this tribute to Ivan Cole, by quoting from his “The Case for the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers,” which he wrapped up with:

I want to end like I began. I am not saying what I think will happen this season, just a best case scenario of what can happen in a fully realistic way, and in many respects, validated by history.

Like Ivan, I’m not making predictions. Nor am I ignorant to the fact that the Steelers are playing in the AFC North, home to two potential Super Bowl-NFL MPA favorite tandems in the form of Bengals with Joe Burrow and the Ravens with Lamar Jackson.

Must pundits outside of Pittsburgh are predicting a rough year, not only forecasting Mike Tomlin’s first losing effort but a 5 or 6 win season.

But if Ivan were he he’d say, “So be it. Let Iron sharpen Iron. And besides, the Steelers play best with their back to the wall. So let’s live in our hopes and not in our fears!”

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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.

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Could “Patience” Be the Watch Word for the Steelers 2022 Offensive Line?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: The Steelers’ offensive line stinks.

You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.

Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.

What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.

Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.

In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.

As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.

Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.

  • Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.

Believe it or not.

I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.

The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Last year’s line, from left to right, included Moore, Kevin Dotson, Green, veteran Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor.

Chucks Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only leftover from the mostly aging 2020 crew. As for Dotson? He was a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in 2020 who turned some heads as a spot starter during his rookie season.

What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.

Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.

  • Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.

What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.

At least youth was on its side, though, right?

Not if you were Dotson and Green.

Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.

Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.

In addition to more player personnel changes, Pat Meyer was hired as the team’s new offensive line coach, making him the fourth person to assume that role for the Steelers since 2018.

That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.

As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.

It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.

And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.

Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.

Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.

Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?

Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.

James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.

  • Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.

The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.

Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.

There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.

Hell, maybe even Kendrick Green.

 

 

 

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6 (Not So) Random Thoughts on the Steelers 16-15 Preseason Win over the Jaguars

Preseason football isn’t what it used to be. (Or perhaps, as staff writer Tony Defeo suggested on BTSC, perhaps the good ole days of preseason weren’t all that good.)

Be that as it may, preseason football gives unproven players a chance to test their mettle in live fire circumstances. It gives coaches a evaluate unit cohesion. And, best of all, it gives fans a chance to evaluate young player with their own eyes.

With that in mind, here are 6 observations from the Steelers 16-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 preseason Jaguars

Kenny Pickett scan for a receiver. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

1. Pickett’s Got Poise

OK. Let’s be crystal clear on this: 2 preseason games does not a Hall of Fame resume make. Remember Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 preseason standout? His NFL career consisted of 4 defensive snaps.

  • With those disclaimers in place, it is hard not to like what we’ve seen from Kenny Pickett.

His debut against the Seahawks was nice, but it is easy to see that as a varsity first round pick dominating JV competition. But against the Jaguars, Pickett was going up against NFL veterans.

  • He looked like he belonged. He made good decisions. Perhaps most impressive was his poise.

For the second time in two weeks, he took the reigns in a 2 minute situation and calmly went down the field. When asked about it, Mike Tomlin suggested that “…its probably who he is” before concluding “Some things people are born with.”

Leading touchdowns in the 2 minute drill against the Jaguars and Seahawks in August isn’t quite the same as doing on the road it against the Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Ravens in the 4th quarter of a rainy December night with the AFC North on the line, but we can now dare to dream.

2. Trubisky’s Mobility Will Be far More than a “Nice to Have”

So several times last season as it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger was about to ride into the sunset, Mike Tomlin mused about the importance of having a mobile quarterback, although it was clear he was thinking more along the lines of Steve Young than Kordell Stewart.

  • Against the Jaguars Mitch Trubisky showed his Steve Young-like mobility.

More than once, he slid his way out of pressure and delivered the ball down field to connect with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Jaguars 2022 preseason

Mitch Trubisky shows off his mobility against the Jaguars. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Its good that he has that mobility, because he’s gonna need it….

3. The Time to Worry about the Offensive Line Begins Now

…Throughout training camp, veteran beat reporters such as Jim Wexell and Mark Kaboly have warned their readers that the Steelers offensive line has been shaky. It is hard to know what that really means, even if the Steelers remain one of the few NFL teams to have live hitting during training camp.

  • The Steelers offensive line was atrocious.

The line’s decline began in 2019, became obvious in 2020 and accelerated in 2021. The conventional wisdom was that with the maturation of Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, and the free agent additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t get any worse. Could it?

The performance against the Jaguars suggests that the Steelers offensive line IS capable of regressing even further in 2022.

4. Gunner’s Good, But Watch Those Fumbles

There’s a lot to like about Gunner Olszewski. When the Steelers signed him, it almost seemed like a steal when comparing his contract to what the 49ers had given Ray-Ray McCloud. Everything we’ve seen or heard since then has been a positive, with all signs indicating he can be a good return man and a viable 4th wide receiver on game day.

But, as suggested here when he signed with the Steelers, perhaps the Patriots parted ways with Olszewski because of his ball security aka fumbling issues.

After making a really smart kick return, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter, allowing Jacksonville to take the lead. That’s easy to forgive in preseason. When the games count? Not so much.

5. Time to Stop Beating around the Bush

As criticism of Devin Bush mounted last fall, Steel Curtain Rising urged restraint. ACL injuries were tricky things to come back from, reminding everyone that Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers opener himself admits he didn’t feel 100% until 1998. The Dr. de Acero wrote his own medical opinion in Spanish talking about the complexities of ACL rehab.

  • That was then. This is now.

I don’t pretend to have the savvy to do an X’s and O’s analysis of Devin Bush’s role in what was a very shaky run defense. But one image stands out is that of Bush getting turned so that he’s facing backwards as a running is cutting through to the second level behind him.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how Brian Flores and Jerry Olsavsky had Bush’s responsibilities for that play drawn up. When asked earlier this week if this was his “Make or break” year in the NFL, Bush offered sanguine words. Talk is cheap.

It is now time for Bush to put up or shut up.

6. NFL GamePass Condensed Games Have Their Limits

As I did last year, I opted not to watch the game live and instead watch it via NFL Game Pass’ condensed viewing option, which not only cuts out commercials, but also pauses between plays with very view replays.

While that sure beats slogging through 3 hours’ worth of commercial breaks, you really do miss something watching games in such condensed fashion. Not only do you lose the flavor of the game, it is also hard to hone in on its ebb and flow.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard. Has Pittsburgh Already Done Enough?

For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”

  • Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?

Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.

Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.

The Steelers starter at right guard during 2021 was Trai Turner, an emergency free agent signing to replace David DeCastro. Turner brought attitude to the position, as evidenced by his ejection against the Raiders, but the Steelers have made no attempt to resign him.

To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.

Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.

Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.

The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.

But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.

 

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The Steelers 2022 Free Agent Activity Has Been Splashy But Practical

You can tell Steelers fans aren’t used to their favorite football team being extremely active during the onset of the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin in 2019.

Why do I say that? Because I think the fans want to elect Kevin Colbert, the team’s long-time general manager, king of Pittsburgh after he finally hangs up his executive badge for good following the 2022 NFL Draft.

What Steelers fans are experiencing so far is your normal free-agent activity that most teams have this time of year. This is what happens with actual cap space, something the Steelers haven’t had this much of since forever–after starting out with just under $30 million last week, they still have over $20.5 million according to Spotrac.

Maybe that’s why the signing of Mitchell Trubisky seemed like such a big deal when the news broke last week that they agreed to a two-year contract with the still fairly young quarterback. Perhaps this is why inking a deal with inside linebacker Myles Jack feels like a bigger coup than it actually is.

Make no mistake, though, while the Steelers have been a bit splashier than usual through one week of free agency, they’ve still been just as practical as ever.

Neither Trubisky or Jack is a perennial All-Pro player, but they’re both good enough that they represent upgrades over what we saw at their respective positions a year ago — sorry to break this news to the truly diehard Ben Roethlisberger fans out there.

I think even the most intense Steelers fan wouldn’t go overboard with the individual signings of guard James Daniels, center Mason Cole and cornerback Levi Wallace, but put them together with the Trubisky and Jack deals, and it feels like a time to celebrate and throw a parade.

But all Colbert did with these moves was make the Steelers better on paper at positions that needed to be upgraded, and he did this without breaking the bank in the process.

No deal that’s been signed so far has made you feel like the Steelers are mortgaging their future. No, they’re just quietly going about rebuilding their roster and reinforcing it with youth by bringing in guys on their second contracts, players who may still have their best football ahead of them.

  • Again, it just seems flashier because you’re not used to the Steelers doing so much.

Will all of these moves pan out? The odds and free-agent history say heck no, but some of them likely will. If it’s Trubisky, for example, wow, will the Steelers be in tremendous shape moving forward. But even if someone like Daniels steps in and becomes the anchor of an improved offensive line, the Steelers should be able to build upon that.

I like what the Steelers are doing. Am I worried about any free-agent grades and someone declaring the Steelers “winners”? Not really. I’m just excited about how these new players can collectively help the team expedite its rebuild.

The real winning is done in October and November, but I must say, it is pretty cool to see the Steelers do a little “winning” in March for a change.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Hold the Line! Steelers Sign Chuks Okorafor, Mason Cole and James Daniels to 3 Year Contracts

Say this about the Steelers brain trust here in 2022, they’re not trying to sweep their weaknesses under the rung. After opening free agency by signing Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers moved quickly to protect him.

First they came to terms with center/guard Mason Cole, who most recently played for the Minnesota Vikings. Then word came that they resigned tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, for 3 years. And now they’ve added Chicago Bears center/guard James Daniels.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

The moves address what was a chronic and historically bad for the Steelers in 2022, and they also put Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson on notice that they’ll need to fight for playing time, if not their roster spots.

The decision to bring back Chuck Okafor, and to do so as a priority in free agency must count as a bit of a surprise. Okafor does bring the Steelers 35 starts, but terms of his contract suggest that his deal is structured as more of a “prove it” contract.

According to Aaron Wilson of the NFL network, Okafor’s 3 year contract three years, will give him a 9.25 million dollar signing bonus, with base salaries of 1.25 Million, 6 million and 4.75 million. It also calls for 4 million dollar roster bonuses to be paid on the 5th day of the league year in 2023 and 2024.

  • For those readers not fluent in salary cap speak, this is a deal the Steelers can easily bail on this time next year.

According to internet reports, James Daniels contract is for 3 years and 26.5 million dollars. Mason Cole is said to have signed a 3 year contract, the terms of which have not yet been leaked.

Too Quiet for Comfort on the South Side?

If news of newcomers to Pittsburgh has been prolific, word on who might be staying on the South Side has become a little worrisome.

The Steelers confirmed that they extended tenders to Dwayne Haskins and J.C. Hassenauer. Montravius Adams has also been resigned.

But there’s been no word of Robert Spillane. Nor has there been any news about the Steelers top three free agents, Terrell Edmunds, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Ahkello Witherspoon.

The glass half full way to look at this is that none of these three has come to an agreement with another team. But the glass half empty conclusion is that had any of these three players been a priority for Pittsburgh, the Steelers already would have resigned them.

Word has leaked that the Steelers have come to terms with cornerback Levi Wallace, which we’ll have more to say about later.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2022 Free Agent Tracker – Follow Pittsburgh Through Uncharted Waters

The 2022 off season has arrived and with that the Steelers enter uncharted waters. Ben Roethlisberger has retired so for the first time since 2004, Pittsburgh has no franchise quarterback.

They are also coming off their 3 straight one-and-done playoff appearance where they again were embarrassed. This came on the heels of a 2021 season that saw the Steelers run defense and first half offense reach historic lows, with futility levels not seen since the 1940s.

  • And don’t look now, but the Steelers have 24 free agents, setting another franchise record.

But all news is not grim. The Steelers enter this bold new era with between 28 and 32 million dollars in salary cap space, and that number could rise depending on the fates of players like Stephon Tuitt and Joe Schobert.

steelers press conference,

The Steelers 2022 Free Agents Signings and Profiles

Click below on the player’s highlighted name for a full-free agent profile.

Steelers 2022 Free Agent Signings

Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback
3/14/2022, Steelers sign Trubisky to a 2 year contract
Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle
3/14/2022, Steelers resign Okorafor to 3 year contract
Miles Killebrew, Linebacker
3/11/2022, Steelers resign Killebrew to 2 year contract
Arthur Maulet, Cornerback
3/12/2022, Steelers resign Maulet to a 2 year contract
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/guard
3/15/2022, Steelers offer exclusive rights tender
Dwayne Haskins, Quarterback
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
3/16/2022, Haskins signs restricted free agent tender
Mason Cole, Center/Guard from Minnesota Vikings
3/14/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract
Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive tackle
3/15/2022, Steelers resign to 3 year contract
James Daniel, Center/Guard, Chicago Bears
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract
Levi Wallace, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Montravius Adams, Defensive Lineman
3/15/2022, Steelers resign Adams to 2 year contract
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
3/16/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Ahkello Witherspoon, Cornerback
3/18/2022, Steelers resign him to 2 year contract
Gunner Olszewski, KR/PR, Wide Receiver from the New England Patriots
3/18/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Genard Avery, Outside Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
3/28/2022, Steelers sign to 1 year contract
Karl Joseph, Safety
4/1/2022, Steelers resign Joseph to 1 year contract
Terrell Edmunds, Safety
4/23/2022, Steelers resign Terrell Edmunds to 1 year contract

Steelers 2022 Free Agent Losses

Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 2 year contract with San Francisco 49ers
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs
James Washington, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Dallas Cowboys
Taco Charlton, Outside Linebacker,
4/5/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with New Orleans Saints
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback
4/8/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with Cleveland Browns

Unrestricted Free Agents


Joe Haden, Cornerback
Trai Turner, Guard
Eric Ebron, Tight End
B.J. Finney, Center
Kalen Ballage, Running Back

Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Demarcus Christmas, defensive line
DeMarkus Acy, Cornerback

Restricted Free Agents

Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper (signed)

That’s a daunting number and there is no way the Steelers can keep all of those players, even with their salary cap surplus.

But the truth is the Steelers don’t and shouldn’t want to keep all of them. As Mike Tomlin often says, about free agency, “Its free for them and its free for us.” While the Steelers have never been “splash” players in free agency, there are numerous times when they’ve let one player walk and quietly upgraded the position with another, under the radar signing.

As we do every year, staff writer Tony Defeo and I will be doing free agent profiles highlighting the pros and cons of signing or letting the players above walk, and updating movement as time allows.

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