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.

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Still Believe in Yesterday? 20th Anniversary of Tommy Maddox Playoff Rally Shows Need for Prudence with Pickett

January 5th certainly is a momentous day in Steelers history. Thanks to the magic of social media yesterday I was reminded that January 5th was:

  • Chuck Noll’s birthday (he’d have been 91 on January 5th 2023
  • The anniversary of Tommy Maddox‘s dramatic playoff comeback vs the Browns at Heinz Field in 2003
  • The day Bill Cowher resigned in 2007 after the Steelers 8-8 2006 season

All three events were important in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers as we know them today. All three are worthy of memory and celebration.

But one offers an important lesson for Steelers fans, if not the organization itself today in January 2023. And that is Tommy Maddox’s playoff rally.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Tommy Gun Story: Digest Version

For a full accounting of the Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” story click here to read Tony Defeo’s retrospective on the Steelers 2002 season. If you don’t have time, here’s the digest version:

  • Tommy Maddox was a first round pick in 1992, who’d washed out with the Broncos, Giants and Falcons
  • Maddox played the 2001 edition of the XFL and quarterbacked Los Angeles Xtreme to the championship
  • The Steelers signed Maddox in the summer of 2001, and Maddox won the backup job

Kordell Stewart had quarterbacked the 2001 Steelers to the AFC Championship game and won team MVP honors after stepping up following Jerome Bettis‘ midseason injury. So Kordell appeared set as the starter going into 2002.

However, the Steelers started 0-2, Kordell looked bad, and Bill Cowher opted to bench Stewart in favor of Maddox in week three in the name of giving the team a proverbial “spark.”

Maddox led the team to a win in overtime, Cowher opted to stick with a hot hand, and the 2002 Steelers won their final first AFC North crown, brining up a wild Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

Maddox’s Playoff Rally at Heinz

Bill Cowher’s Steelers defenses of the 1990’s had carried a reputation for their “shut down secondaries.” But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady opened the 2002 season exposing the Steelers secondary as a shell of its former self (hence Kevin Colbert trading up to get Troy Polamalu that next spring, but that’s another story.)

The Browns exploited that weakness to jump ahead 14-0 and kept it a two score game for the first 45 minutes of play. They opened the 4th quarter with a 27 to 14 lead, and held 33 to 21 lead with just over ten minute left.

Tommy Maddox went to work.

  • First he led a 14 play drive that ended with a Hines Ward touchdown
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out
  • Maddox led an 8 play drive where he completed 4 of 5 passes, setting up Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard touchdown

An Antwaan Randle El pass complete to Jerame Tuman completed the 2 point conversion, the Steelers defense held on for what Dan Rooney described as one  of the most exciting playoff wins in Steelers history.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And it was exciting. It also seemed to cement Tommy Maddox’s status as the Steelers franchise QB. Dan Rooney, per Bob Labriola, seed to have come to a similar conclusion, after spending much of the game “Making a list” which he balled up and threw away at after the Steelers beat the odds with their comeback win.

For my money, I thought the game proved that Tommy Maddox had the most important intangible quality a quarterback can have — mental toughness. Heck, according to urban legend, Maddox himself stood in the huddle, down two scores with 5:30 left to play and said, “Alright. We got ’em where we want ’em.”

Lesson? Remain Prudent with Pickett

But of course Tommy Maddox wasn’t the Steelers answer at quarterback. He had a rough go of it as the Steelers struggled throughout the 2003 season, leading Pittsburgh to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Kenny Pickett has had a tremendous rookie year. The poise and acumen he’s show in orchestrating game winning drives against the Colts, Raiders and most impressively the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium IS impressive.

  • Those drives show not only mental toughness, but an instinctive, innate playmaking ability that can’t be taught.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan should proceed into the 2023 off season with the assumption that the Steelers have found their franchise QB in Kenny Pickett. Fans should also keep that in mind whenever the Steelers decline to make some sort of inane trade with Green Bay should Aaron Rodgers throw one of his “I’m not sure I want to be a Packer anymore” tantrums.

But fans should also remember the lesson Tommy Maddox left us – the true test of a quarterback isn’t whether he can author on successful season but several.

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Mike Tomlin is on the Brink of His First Losing Season. Will He Go Over?

There are many things that annoy fans about Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Number one, they think the only reason Dan Rooney, the late, great owner of the franchise, hired Tomlin to be the Steelers’ next head coach in 2007 was because of the Rooney Rule (Rooney stated multiple times that this wasn’t the case, but even if it was, so what?)

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Number two, they think Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII with a team that was assembled by Bill Cowher, the man Tomlin replaced as head coach and someone who only managed to win one Super Bowl in 15 years with teams he helped to assemble. (For the record, I love Bill Cowher, but that is one of the dumbest criticisms of Tomlin I have ever heard–it’s too bad it never seems to go away. And how come no one ever criticizes Kevin Colbert for “Only Winning with Tom Donahoe’s players?”) Number three, Tomlin’s teams have only won three playoff games since the 2010 season, when he guided the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV where they lost a heartbreaker to the Packers.

Of those first three reasons, the third one is by far the most valid criticism. While Tomlin has had a great career as the Steelers’ head coach, it comes down to postseason results at the end of the day, and there’s no question he’s come up short in that department over the past 13 seasons.

But there is a fourth reason why fans have often been critical of Mike Tomlin (well, there are plenty more than just four, but who has time for that?), and that’s the fact that he’s never suffered a losing season as head coach of the Steelers.

  • Why is that a criticism of his?

Beats the holy heck out of me, but Tomlin’s most vocal critics love to weaponize it and mock the streak that currently stands at 15 straight seasons. Maybe it’s because Tomlin’s most vocal supporters use it to prop him up in just about every argument involving Tomlin and his abilities as a head coach in the National Football League. Can you blame Tomlin’s supporters for that, though? I mean, the man started to be roundly and unfairly criticized long before the streak was even a streak.

Tomlin remarkably kept past teams together and rallied them to non-losing seasons, and even playoff appearances, during years when they easily could have fallen off a cliff. The Steelers managed to remain relevant in the 2010s, even after the legendary roster that produced three AFC championships and two Lombardi Trophies between 2005-2010 got old all at once.

Perhaps more impressive than Tomlin’s lack of a losing season as head coach of the Steelers is the fact that his teams have only played one game during his tenure where they were officially eliminated from playoff contention at kickoff.

For the record, that game was the final one of the 2012 regular season. It was also the first time Tomlin was on the brink of having his first losing campaign (although, the streak wasn’t long enough for anyone to notice at that point). Fortunately, the Steelers took on a pretty pathetic Browns team at Heinz Field and won in a rather convincing fashion to finish the regular season at 8-8.

  • It was actually the Steelers’ ninth-straight non-losing season dating back to the Cowher years.

The Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons was in serious jeopardy in 2013 when they started out 0-4 and 2-6. After rallying to get back to 5-6, Pittsburgh then lost two heartbreakers — 22-20 to the hated Ravens on Thanksgiving Night, and then 28-24 to the Dolphins on December 8 — to drop to 5-8.

  • It looked like the streak would end in short order.

In fact, my old boss, completely disinterested in attending another game that season, gave me two free tickets to the Steelers’ next matchup: A Sunday night affair against the soon-to-be AFC North champion Bengals at Heinz Field.

I invited my uncle to the game, and we both froze our butts off. Actually, I later found out that I suffered frostbite in my right big toe, an appendage that still goes numb to this day if my feet get too cold. (Because of the cold and the Steelers’ subpar record, this was the lowest-attended game in the history of Heinz Field up to that point.)

I may have suffered frostbite — and I may have spent half the night standing in the men’s room trying to stay warm–but Pittsburgh won that game rather convincingly to improve to 6-8.

Not only did the Steelers win their last two games to finish the regular season at 8-8, but they ended their season still in playoff contention, where they would remain for the next few hours until Chiefs kicker, Ryan Succop, dashed their hopes out in San Diego.

It wasn’t long after 2013 that the Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons became Tomlin’s streak of non-losing seasons (and, again, a weapon for his supporters and detractors to use in every debate about his coaching prowess).

Tomlin’s streak hasn’t really been in danger since 2013, even if it looked like it was going straight down the tubes after Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the year in the second game of the 2019 campaign (see Tomlin’s ability to rally compromised teams).

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger fat, Ben Roethlisberger out of shape,

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in late 2019. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via York Dispatch

  • That brings us to the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers currently sit at 5-8 after an annoying loss to the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Not only is Tomlin again on the brink of suffering his first losing season as the head coach of the Steelers, but thanks to the NFL’s new 17-game schedule, his team now has to win an extra game in order to keep the streak alive.

  • Can Tomlin avoid it? I don’t really care.

For that matter, neither does Tomlin, who’s on record as saying that he doesn’t seek comfort in something like that. He’s only worried about winning a Super Bowl, and any season that falls short of that is a failure.

But part of me would love to see that streak stay alive. Why? Tomlin’s detractors seem to hate it more than his supporters love it.

Right now, I picture Tomlin as this heel wrestler who is trying to survive a 30-man battle royal. He’s teetering on the brink of elimination and has several other wrestlers attempting to push him out of the ring. Maybe they already have, but they don’t know that both of his feet must touch the ground in order for him to be eliminated. Much like Shawn Michaels in the 1995 Royal Rumble, maybe some people already assume that the end of Tomlin’s streak is a mere formality.

  • But he’s still alive. His second foot hasn’t touched the ground.

Tomlin is still plotting out a way to have yet another non-losing season and anger Steelers fans…for some reason.

I refuse to count out Mike Tomlin until that second foot has touched the floor.

 

 

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Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors: Larry Ogunjobi

Thanksgiving 2022 has arrived, so as we’ve done every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising is naming its 2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winner.

  • Our tradition began during the middle of the 2009 Steelers ugly 5 game losing streak.

The Steelers had just dropped a very winnable game in overtime against Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs. They’d just lost Ben Roethlisberger to a concussion. And Charlie Batch broke his wrist. Yet from the carnage of that ugly loss came a ray of hope.

Andy Studebaker had picked off a pass intended for Hines Ward. He was in his own end zone and had nothing but green in front of him. So he took off. He would have taken it the house, were it not for Rashard Mendenhall, picking himself off of the turf and coming from the complete opposite side to run 94 yards to bring him down.

If one can question the “what it” that Mendenhall displayed at other times during his Steelers career, no one can deny the heart he displayed on that play.

So Mendenhall earned our first Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, and it has been a tradition since.

2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winner Larryy Ogunjobi

This year’s honors begin with the brightest spot (thus far) of the otherwise disappointing Steelers 2022 season.

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had come to Pittsburgh. Kenny Pickett had driven the Steelers down the field and gotten them on the board with a touchdown pass to Najee Harris. But the Buccaneers had gotten a field goal, and as the second quarter opened, Brady had moved Tampa Bay 2nd and 1 on Pittsburgh’s 1 yard line.

  • The Steelers meager 4 point lead seemed destined to become a distant memory.

Leonard Fournette, a man who has tortured the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium, got the call. He thought he had a hole behind the left guard.

  • Instead he got dumped for a 3 yard loss.

Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Now, you might be thinking, “Last year you used a similar example when bestowing Steelers Thanksgiving honors on Cam Heyward, you’re giving it to Cam again?” We’re not talking about Cameron Heyward. Yes, Cam tackled Forunette for a 5 yard loss on 3rd down, but someone else made the play on 2nd down.

And we are giving Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors to Larry Ogunjobi precisely because last year Cam Heyward was the only Steelers defensive lineman capable of making those kinds of stops, and this year he has Ogunjobi to help him.

  • And after 10 games Larry Ogunjobi is showing just how much difference one man can make.

In that same game, Ogunjobi made several stops for little or no gain. And he’s done so throughout the rest of the year.

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense gave up an average of 5 yards per carry, and were the NFL’s worst run defense. The Steelers only saw 3 games were an opponent’s longest run was less than 20 yards. Opponents had long runs of over 40 yards in three games and long runs of over 30 yards in 3 more. Overall, the Steelers opponents’ longest run from scrimmage averaged at 26.5 yards.

  • The Steelers 2021 run defense was so bad, one wonders why anyone even tried to pass.

Yet in 2022 the Steelers are writing a different story. This year they’re giving up 3.9 yards per carry and that 1.1 yard difference improves them to 5th in the NFL. The longest run they’ve given up is 36 yards, and the average longest run given up is 19.5 yards.

Even Cincinnati, who rushed on the Steelers at will in 2021, struggled to run the ball in an otherwise lopsided win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Alex Highsmith strip sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, HJ News.com

  • Does Larry Ogunjobi deserve all of the credit for this improvement?

Absolutely not. And that’s the point. Improved play from Devin Bush and Montravius Adams, the arrival of Myles Jack, the maturation of Alex Highsmith and Robert Spillane and the return of Tyson Alualu are all critical to this improvement.

But none of those men would be able to do their jobs as well as they are doing them, were it not for Larry Ogunjobi making plays on his own, tying blockers up or taking advantage of double laid on Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • Followers of our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors will note Larry Ogunjobi is a bit of an outlier.

And he is. Most past honors have gone to up and comers, think Antonio Brown in 2011 or Ryan Shazier in 2016, or an established presence in the franchise such as Ben Roethlisberger in 2017 or Kevin Colbert in 2019.

In contrast, Ogunjobi is with the Steelers on a one-year “prove it” deal and could easily be playing somewhere other than Pittsburgh in 2023.

But that’s one of the lessons that comes with this year’s choice – sometimes its best to be thankful for what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

As I “celebrate” my 21st Thanksgiving in Argentina, I’ll again express my hope that everyone reading this has reasons to be Thankful that go far beyond football.

So whether your spending Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh or welcoming friends and family from Pittsburgh as I did so often growing up and as a young adult or whether you’re just a Steelers fan with no ties to the Steel City, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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Steelers Resign Minkah Fitzpatrick to 4 Year Extension, Proving that Yes, Sometimes Social Media Rumors Are True

The Pittsburgh Steelers have resigned Minkah Fitzpatrick to a 4 year extension worth a reported 73.6 million dollars with 36 of it guaranteed. The deal makes him the NFL’s highest paid safety and proves, once again, that Minkah Fitzpatrick shows that sometimes its worth paying attention to social media.

  • Ah, how’s that you say?

Luke Wilson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick denies Luke Wilson a touchdown. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Let me explain. Part of being an intelligent football fan in the digital age is being wise enough to ignore much if not most of what you see on social media. For quick reference think back a few months to those reports that “The Steelers have a deal in place to land Aaron Rodgers should he ask out of Green Bay.”

A lot of people on Twitter believed that. Bless their hearts, they really did.

Many also bought the Tweets and Facebook posts that explained why Russell Wilson was destined for the Steel City. And of course there were fans who got frustrated when the Steelers didn’t offer 5 first round draft picks for Deshaun Watson, as reports assured us they were ready to do.

Which isn’t to say that those reports are always wrong. A tweet from someone I trust led your truly to write up an article detailing the Steelers signing of Tyrann Mathieu. Thank God I double checked, because it will be Terrell Edmunds and not Mathieu lining up along side Minkah this year.

  • But Minkah has been different.

During September 2019, I was hurriedly getting ready to work my company’s booth at Oracle Open World when I saw on WhatApp that the Steelers were trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick. I thought nothing of it, because everyone “knows” the Steelers never trade their first round pick.

  • They especially wouldn’t trade him less than 24 hours after losing Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

No, I figured it was some over enthusiastic, gullible fan who’d been duped by social media and forgot about it. But then I found out it was real.

The same thoughts occurred to me today when I saw the news. I figured it had to be false, because the Steelers never make those moves now, always right before the season.

But sign Minkah they have. The question is why now?

Omar Khan Effect?

The Pittsburgh Steelers pioneered the practice of resigning free agents who are in the final year of their deals. And they often made those signings in the spring, well before training camp. Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson inked deals during this timeframe.

  • James Harrison similarly got an extension in the spring as have a few others.

But by in large, as the Kevin Colbert era progressed, the Steelers have waited until the end of the summer to resign their players. Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt all inked deals just before the beginning of the season. Heck Troy Polamalu signed his contract at the airport as the Steelers were leaving for Baltimore for the 2011 opener. (The Steelers unlike other clubs don’t negotiate contracts during the season.)

The Steelers were expected to do the same with Minkah. Hold off through training camp and preseason as insurance against injury and ink a deal before the season’s start.

  • But instead, they’ve signed him.

Whether this is a tactical shift by new General Manager Omar Khan or a one-off move, this is the right thing to do. Yes, there is a risk that Fitzpatrick could get injured during drills at St. Vincents or during preseason. But there’s also a greater chance that he could get injured in the season opener.

This way Minkah will be with the team, fully participating in drills and in preseason, if you’re a curmudgeon like me who still believes “practice makes perfect,” that’s a good thing.

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Kevin Colbert’s Legacy as Steelers General Manager in 5 Moments

Football is an intense sport. Perhaps the most intense. Yet rarely do you see someone expose the depths of their soul the way Kevin Colbert did in his press conference announcing the Steelers 2022 Draft class.

Emotional doesn’t begin to capture the moment.

  • Yet through it all, Kevin Colbert was a Steeler to his core.

Colbert was reluctant to take credit. He refused to fall back statistics on the team’s record or draft successes. He felt no need to clarify that he “knew the task” to was winning championships, only stating “It was four” and then humbly offered “being able to add to that room” meant a ton before affirming “we’ve got to get more.”

  • Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Sr. undoubtedly were watching from heaven with approval. Colbert did anything but “Put on the dog.”

Kevin Colbert legacy, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl 43, Lombardi Trophy

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney after Super Bowl XLIII with the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: Twitter

The path to understanding difficulty of winning a Super Bowl maps directly to the cracks in Kevin Colbert’s cracks voice.

I don’t and won’t pretend to know what flashed through Kevin Colbert’s mind as he struggled through those words, but I know I what leap into my consciousness as I heard them:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe-string tackle of Nick Harper vs. the Colts in the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs
  • Ike Taylor making one of his 17 career interceptions in the Super Bowl XL
  • Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the 2008 AFC Championship game
  • James Harrison’s 99 yard pick six in Super Bowl XLIII
  • Ben to ‘Tone in Super Bowl XLIII

During his 22 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Colbert drafted 183 players. He probably signed twice as many undrafted rookie free agents, including men like Dan Kreider, Willie Parker and Nate Washington. He signed dozens of free agents, from All Pros like Jeff Hartings, James Farrior, and Ryan Clark, to forgotten role players like Mike Logan, Travis Kirschke, and Duce Staley.

All of those moves were necessary, in their own way, to delivering victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But absent those five critical plays mentioned above their sum would have been insufficient.

  • Which isn’t to say that those 5 plays alone resulted in two Super Bowls.

They did not, and arguing to the contrary would be fundamentally disrespectful to so many other players. But those 5 plays enabled the others contributions.

Think about it:

Had Ben Roethlisberger not stopped Harper, Bryant McFadden’s once in a life-time pass defense over future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne, never happens. Nor would Mike Vanderjagt’s epic fail hold its unique niche in Steelers lore.

Ike Taylor, interception, Super Bowl XL

Ike Taylor’s interception changes tempo of Super Bowl XL

When Ike Taylor made his interception on the Pittsburgh’s 5 yard line, he reversed the momentum was decidedly in Seattle’s favor. Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward perhaps still could have made their magic, but that would have only gotten the Steelers back in the game instead of helping icing the win. Ditto Deshea Townsend’s sack.

  • Ike Taylor didn’t make many interceptions, but boy, did this one count.

Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the AFC Championship didn’t just flip a game that the Ravens had been methodically wresting control of, it also exorcised the demons of 3 straight AFC Championship losses the Steelers had suffered on Pittsburgh soil.

In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison’s pick six almost got forgotten. But this one comes down to simple math: It was a four-point swing (at minimum) in a game that the Steelers won by 27 to 23. Yes, defense STILL wins championships.

Ben Roethlisberger’s pass to Santonio Holmes is perhaps the greatest 6-yard completion in the history of the game capping one of most fabled comeback drives in Super Bowl history.

  • Yes, ladies and gentleman, winning a Super Bowl is difficult, extremely difficult.

It is tempting to look at those plays and conclude “Yeah, Kevin Colbert really needed a ton of luck to get his Super Bowls.” The opposite in fact is true. These plays were so extraordinary because they were being made by the best of the best at the moment when they were needed the most.

Kevin Colbert brought them all Pittsburgh, proof that he is one of the best of the best.

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Look Far, Stay Close: Steelers Hire Omar Kahn to Replace Kevin Colbert

After interviewing 16 candidates from around the NFL to find Kevin Colbert’s replacement, Steelers President Art Rooney II settled on one who has been in his own back yard since 2001, naming Omar Khan as the next General Manager.

Omar Khan, Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert

Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Omar Khan joined the Steelers in 2001, one year after Kevin Colbert arrived, serving as football operations coordinator and was named as Vice President of Football and Business Administration in 2011, one year after Kevin Colbert officially got the title of general manager.

In a statement released by the team, Khan commented:

I am extremely excited for this opportunity to be the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I would like to thank Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, and Kevin Colbert for their support throughout this process. I am ready for this challenge and grateful to continue the success we have had on the field during my first 21 years. I look forward to completing our football operations staff and working tirelessly to build another championship football team for Steelers Nation and our community.

The choice of Khan does represent a bit of a departure for the Steelers in that his background is on the business side of the operations, as opposed to scouting. (Although Khan did gain scouting experience while working with the New Orleans Saints.

Andy Weidl of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was also a finalist to replace Colbert, will reportedly join the team as Assistant General Manager, although the hire has not yet been announced.

There’s been no word on what role if any Brandon Hunt, the Steelers current Pro Scouting Coordinator will play with the organization. Hunt interviewed and was a finalist for the job.

Steelers MO: Look Far for Coaches, Stay Close for Front Office

In another sense the Steelers decision to promote Khan from within is in keeping with their MO for hiring a front office head. For all intents and purposes, Art Rooney Jr. was the first head of the Steelers scouting department.

And when Chuck Noll retired and Haley left the Steelers, Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations. When the breach between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe became unbridgeable, Dan Rooney again interviewed candidates from across the league, only to settle on Kevin Colbert, who was not only a Pittsburgh native, but an alumni of North Catholic, the same high school that Rooney and Donahoe had attended.

  • That stands in contrast to their MO for hiring coaches.

Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll from outside the organization (OK, it’s not like Bill Austin’s staff was stocked with up and comers). When Noll stepped down, the smart money was on Joe Greene as his replacement.

But an exhaustive search lead them to Bill Cowher. When Bill Cowher hung it up, the front runners to replace him were Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. Both men were serious contenders and Grimm was one of the finalists, but the job ultimately went to Mike Tomlin, who was with the Minnesota Vikings.

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Watch Tower: Legendary Steelers Scribe Ed Bouchette Retires – Thank You Ed

The Watch Tower’s Lights have been dim for too long, but they’re lighting up today to say “Hail and Farewell” to a long time friend.

Ed Bouchette Announces His Retirement

The winds of change are sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation this off season. First Ben Roethlisberger retired. Then came Kevin Colbert’s final draft. And now, long time Steelers scribe the “Dean” of the Steelers press crops Ed Bouchette is retiring.

Ed Bouchette announced his retirement on a local Pittsburgh radio show The Fan Morning Show . A day later he followed with a farewell column in The Athletic that has drawn over 450 comments.

Ed Bouchette, Steelers beat writer, Ed Bouchette Post Gazette, Ed Bouchette The Athletic

Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette. Photo Credit: Barnett Media

Such a retirement calls to mind Pittsburgh native David McCollough’s observation that by the time Franklin Roosevelt died, many Americans didn’t think of him such much as the President but rather as the Presidency itself.

The same can be said for Ed Bouchette who was more than just a Steelers journalist, but in many ways embodied Steelers journalism.

The fact that Bouchette began covering the Steelers in 1974 – when this writer was only two – and has been on the beat since 1985 helps a lot. But if such longevity is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. And below we’ll take just a moment to explain why.

Bouchette, Newspaper Man

As a child of re-located Pittsburghers who weren’t football fans, I had to self-educate on the Steelers.

That education took place in the form of reading newspapers at my grandparents’ homes on trips to Pittsburgh in the late ‘80s. Before too long newspapers became mandatory cargo for any and all family members traveling either up or down the Turnpike and I-70.

By 1988ish I knew who Gene Collier and Bob Smizik were. I honestly can’t tell you when the name “Ed Bouchette” started meaning something to me. In a way, that’s fitting.

  • That’s because the other two were columnists, but Ed Bouchette was an old fashioned newspaper man, working the beat.

Someone reared and raised in a generation when a reporter’s first job was to avoid making his or herself as part of the story.

But even if I didn’t know who he was, Ed Bouchette played a vital role in bringing tone and color to the 1989 Steelers storybook season to life in a way that Washington Post sports section and ESPN NFL PrimeTime highlights never could.

Those were days long before interviews lived forever on Twitter, before you could watch the Immaculate Reception at the press of a button or watch a press conference at your convenience from say, Buenos Aires. Thanks to Ed Bouchtte’s slogging through the depths of old AFC Central locker rooms, I got a feel for how men like Merril Hoge, Bubby Brister, Rod Woodson, Rodney Carter, Greg Lloyd and Delton Hall authored the most improbable in-season turn around in NFL history.

Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette, Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher on the cover of Ed Bouchett’s Dawn of a New Steel Age.

But I think what really cemented Ed Bouchette as an authorities Steelers voice was the Dawn of a New Steel Age, the book Bouchette authored on Bill Cowher’s 1992 season. Bouchette’s book remains special to this day because of his unique ability to capture the feel and texture of the moment as Cowher Power was awakening Steelers Nation while also gaining an understanding the historical context  behind that transformation. (You can read the full review of Dawn of a New Steel Age here.)

From then on out, anytime any bit of news or rumor reached me about the Steelers, my first instinct was “OK, what does Bouchette have to say about this?”

Bouchette Cuts Against the Grain, Graciously

If Ed Bouchette did embody the old “newspaper” man ethos in so many ways, there’s one way he was an exception, and that exception endeared him to so many.

  • Early in my time in Buenos Aires, I made a run at working as a freelance journalist.

While I did publish a few articles in the now-defunct Buenos Aires Herald, I did a lot more freelance writing than I did publishing. That experience involved banging heads against the wall with editors who would “lose” articles they promised to publish. That only happened once in part because I learned that editors often couldn’t even be bothered to read an email pitching an article.

When I vented about this to a friend who worked in journalism, he told me, “Welcome to the world of newspapers where, as a rule, the more widely read you are, the ruder you.”

Well, Ed Bouchette is probably Pittsburgh’s most widely-read journalist, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone more polite, friendly or helpful. Here’s one such example:

Jim Wexell, who was already a veteran journalist when he joined the Steelers beat in 1995, wrote in Polamalu that Bouchette reached out to him before his first draft and acted as a mentor. Looking at the comments second of his farewell article in The Athletic, you’ll find similar comments from a journalist who covered the Steelers briefly for the Oil City Derrick, another from a student journalist who covered the Steelers for his college’s paper, and many, many more.

  • Bouchette’s generosity extended to bloggers.

The first time I contacted him for a comment about an article, he blew me away by complementing my work and sending me his cellphone number. Through the years he helped me out with a number of articles. And, when I pointed out an error in a Post Gazette story that referenced the ’88 quarterback competition at St. Vincents, he couldn’t have been more appreciate in his response.

Bouchette’s Footprints

One thing that has surprised me, is that both when I asked him about his favorite stories from the PG days and in his farewell article, Bouchette shared a few specifics, but didn’t supply a long list of articles you might expect of a journalist of his tenure.

  • I suspect there are two reasons for this.

One, because for Bouchette, its never been about him, its always been about the story. Second, I also suspect that as an old newspaper man, Bouchette quickly accustomed himself to rushing his copy in by deadline in the evening, watching it go out the door the next morning and then seeing used as fish wrappers by the next day.

  • But world has changed, and in a good way.

When asked why he’s retiring, Bouchette echoed Chuck Noll, explaining “Its time.” That’s a fitting reference. In Bouchette’s story on Noll’s retirement, he closed by quoting Noll as saying, ‘”Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints,’” and then reminded readers that the 4 Super Bowl trophies in the lobby at Three Rivers Stadium were Noll’s footprints.

  • And where can Ed Bouchette’s footprints can be found?

On in the digital pages of the Post-Gazette, The Athletic, and within Google Newspaper Archives. The city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation are lucky to have them.

Thank you Ed. Enjoy your well earned retirement.

 

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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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