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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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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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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