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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Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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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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6 Quick Takeaways from the Steelers 19-9 Preseason Win over the Lions

The Steelers 2022 preseason finale win over the Detroit Lions may not have had the intensity of an ole style Chuck Noll preseason finale dress rehearsal, but it certainly brought a lot more to the table than the 4th preseason wrap up games against the Carolina Panthers.

And that revealed both good and bad for the Steelers now that the games that count are about to start.

With that in mind, here are 6 not-so-random thoughts on the game.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers Lions 2022 Preseason

Pat Freiermuth’s 32 yard catch sets up a score. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

1. The Offensive Line Has Potential to be Truly Offensive

The big ugly spot coming out of the preseason win over the Jaguars was the offensive line, which had been horrendous in that preseason game. Could the unit improve week-on-week?

Not really. Mitch Trubisky was sacked twice and had to get out of trouble many more times. And while he did have time to throw on a couple of his longer passes, we also saw plenty of the “chink-and-dink that plagued the Steelers offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s final two seasons.

The run blocking wasn’t much better, with the Steelers averaging 2.9 yards on the ground. Najee Harris saw his first action, and did a decent job of making something out of nothing on more than one occasion.

After the game Mike Tomlin did concede that the line had improved a little, it did, but those improvements were offset by penalties. The Steelers offensive line has a long way to go before it is no longer a liability.

2. This Defense Has “It”

3 sacks, 1 interception, 12 passes defensed and 2 4th down conversions stopped. Yes, as Mike Tomlin cautioned, it is only preseason. And yes, the defense did allow longer runs of 27, 10, and 11 yards.

But it is hard to avoid watching and coming away with the feeling that this defense is headed in the right direction.

3. Freiermuth is for Real

Pat Freiermuth not only lead the team in touchdowns, he came up with a key 32 catch that set up Steven Sims touchdown catch as time was expiring at the end of the first half. Based on what we saw from Freiermuth last season this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But it always takes two years to really measure a player’s mettle, so its nice to see Freiermuth deliver.

4. Pickett Looks Good, But Mortal

After coming in and playing exceptionally well during his first two preseason outings, Kenny Pickett still looked good but played like a mere mortal. He did make one long critical completion with a perfectly placed ball to Myles Boykin. And 3 plays later he hit Olszewski with a catchable ball in the end zone.

5. Snell Sells It

Benny Snell has had some injury issues this summer while Jaylen Warren has earned a lot of positive press. Snell’s stat line is a modest 17 yards, but he did post the highest total of the group and earned the best rushing average of behind a bad line.

More importantly, his hustle was apparent.

Snell was playing as if his job depended on it – it very well may – and that’s what you want to see in a situation like this. More importantly, he made something out of nothing on a couple of carries – a skill that’s going to be critical behind this line.

6. Trade Mason? Are You Out of Your Vulcan Mind?

The Steelers decision to cut 7th round pick quarterback Chris Oladokun set off a social media firestorm the likes of which have not been seen since the team cut 4th round pick Doran Grant prior to the 2014 opening day.

Was it because, like Devlin Hodges, Chris Oladokun had been the summer superstar at St. Vincents and the standout during preseason games? No. He never saw the field in preseason and, by one count, completed just over 46% of his passes in practice.

  • The real reason of course is that that cutting Chris Oladokun means the Steelers will be keeping Mason Rudolph.

As they should. Mason Rudolph has quietly authored the most consistent performance of any Pittsburgh quarterback this summer, although he’s not had much time with the first team. And for fans that don’t want to hear that, take this from the Lions. Midway through the 2nd half, the broadcasters flashed a “Battle of the Backups” graphic, showing that Tim Boyle had completed 5 of 15 passes for 64 yards and one interception vs. 4 of 10 for 50 yards for David Blough.

Blough of course got more garbage time yards, but that stat alone shows that the Steelers are very lucky to have a quarterback of Mason Rudolph’s caliber as their 3rd string.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

The big day has arrived. The 2022 NFL Draft is here.

A generation from now, will we remember Kevin Colbert’s final draft as the night the Pittsburgh Steelers found their franchise quarterback? Will this be the evening where he tried to go out with a bang and flopped instead? Or will we recall how Kevin Colbert convinced Mike Tomlin not to force things and instead drafted a future Hall of Famer at another position?

Those questions will take years to answer.

As of now, the pundits and tea leaf readers argue that the Steelers brain trust is sold on picking Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral or Desmond Ridder should one be on the board when the clock strikes 20.

steelers press conference,

That may be the case. Mike Tomlin has never been coy about pre-draft crushes. His love for Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey, Jarvis Jones (ugh), and Najee Harris was well-known long before their names reached commissioner’s desk.

Would picking Pickett, Willis, Corral or Ridder at 20 and/or trading up to get him violate rule number 3 on the Steelers Road Map for Return to the Super Bowl i.e. don’t force finding a franchise quarterback?

  • Honestly, says the guy who thought picking Ben Roethlisberger was a mistake, I don’t know.

But I can opine on what the Steelers needs are in this draft.

Over the past few weeks, with Tony Defeo’s help, we’ve broken down the Steelers needs at each position. Using the Steelers Draft Needs, we’ve clustered their needs into four tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Wide Receiver and Defensive Line clock in at High-Moderate. In other words, a guy Pittsburgh picks there could very well end up starting.

Below that we have a log jam, with Quarterback, Running Back, Inside Linebacker, Outside Linebacker and Cornerback all coming in at Moderate High. In other words, the Steelers aren’t looking for a 2021 starter here, but that could change fast.

Next, we have Offensive Tackle and Safety. The Steelers should be OK here, but could go looking for a future starter.

Finally, we have Tight End and Center/Guard aka “interior lineman,” where the Steelers really are looking for depth.

So how to sort out the pecking order, given that we’ve got apparent ties at several positions?

That’s the Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix comes in.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Here is how I see the Steelers needs playing out:

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Defensive line gets the nod over wide receiver simply because the Steelers two starters there are younger. But that’s close, as the Steelers do have some depth on defensive line with upside on defensive line (Isaiahh Loudermilk), whereas the cupboard is empty at wide out.

The same rational holds at running back over receiver. The Steelers need more at running back than Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, but they’re superior to any backup wide outs.

The fact that the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph and only one Najee Harris is why running back is edges out quarterback. Quarterback comes in over outside linebacker because that’s a more important position, but frankly that’s close because the drop off in proven talent behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith is steep.

Likewise, the Steelers have appear to have 3 starter caliber cornerbacks, plus James Pierre, but they have more bodies at inside linebacker, even if there are long term questions about Devin Bush and no “starter in waiting” behind him and Myles Jack.

Inside linebacker is a higher priority over Offensive Tackle because the Steelers have two starters under team control for at least 3 years, and Joe Haeg can provide depth. But again, this is close.

Tackle edges out safety because both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are far more proven commodities than any of the tackles, and Tre Norwood has far more “upside” than Haeg.

  • Safety edges out interior line, because the Steelers four players for 2 positions.

Center-Guard comes out as a higher priority than tight end simply because Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry are better, more known commodities than any of the interior lineman.

No, Steelers Mustn’t Draft for Need

With that said, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is anything but a call for Pittsburgh to pick based on need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns happens.

In other words, if the Steelers can grab a play making outside linebacker who could push Alex Highsmith to the bench, by all means they should grab him. Nor should they pass on picking the next Heath Miller let alone a Gronk clone just because Gentry looked good last year.

No, the Draft Needs Matrix seeks to show where the Steelers roster needs the most help and whom they should pick if all other things are equal.

  • Which of course they never are, because success in the NFL draft is a mix of science, art and luck.

The 2022 NFL Draft will be no different, and to the young men who will hear their names called in next three days, we congratulate them on their chance to live the dream that each of us had from the first moment we touched a Nerf football and barked out a snap count!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

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

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

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

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back

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

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

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

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

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

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Dwyane Haskins 1997-2022, Steelers Back Up Quarterback Dead after Collision with Car

Tragedy has struck the Pittsburgh Steelers as backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins died today, Saturday April 9th, 2022 after being hit by a car in South Florida. According to Chris Adamaski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Haskins was in Florida at an off season workout hosted by Mitch Trubisky, along with Mason Rudolph, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Benny Snell, Chase Claypool, Gunner Olszewski and several other Steelers.Dwayne Haskins, Dwayne Haskins obituary

Dwyane Haskins was 24 and is survived by his wife Kalabrya. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made the following statement:

I am devastated and at a loss for words with the unfortunate passing of Dwayne Haskins. He quickly became part of our Steelers family upon his arrival in Pittsburgh and was one of our hardest workers, both on the field and in our community. Dwayne was a great teammate, but even more so a tremendous friend to so many. I am truly heartbroken.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Kalabrya, and his entire family during this difficult time.

Steel Curtain Rising echoes that sentiment.

Haskins’ Fleeting Second Chance with the Steelers

Dwayne Haskins was a standout player for The Bullis School, an elite prep school in Potomac, Maryland who played his college ball for Ohio State, and was a contender for the Heisman Trophy in 2018. Daniel Snyder wasted little time in bringing Haskins back to Washington, picking him 15th in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Haskins took over the starting role in mid-2019, but his tenure was brief. Haskins got benched after 4 games in the 2020 season, returned to a starting role in week 14, but was cut before the end of the season when social media pictures surfaced of Haskins at an event that clearly violated COVID-19 protocols.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

With Ben Roethlisberger‘s “Life’s Work” rapidly coming into focus, the Steelers signed Haskins early in the 2021 off season.

However, the Steelers only offered him the league minimum, and resigned Joshua Dobbs, further putting Haskins on notice that he’d need to earn his roster spot. By all accounts, Haskins played well during training camp. He saw extended duty early in preseason, looking very good as the second quarterback in the rotation.

While the Steelers offered Haskins an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender to start the 2022 off season, it was also clear that Haskins would need to earn a roster spot. Sadly, destiny has robbed him of that chance.

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Running Back Depth is a Need, but Steelers Can (and Will) Do Better than Kalen Ballage

Running back depth, or lack thereof has been the Achilles Heel for the Steelers during the latter part of the Ben Roethlisberger era. Just how bad has the problem been?

Well, consider that after their 2014 Divisional Playoff loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field, none of their top 3 running backs, neither Ben Tate, Josh Harris nor Dri Archer ever saw another NFL carry.

A year later, the Steelers went into the playoffs starting their 5th and 6th string running backs, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Thin running back depth hobbled the Steelers a year later in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, with Le’Veon Bell leaving early and DeAngelo Williams ineffective.

In 2021 the staffed quantity on the depth chart behind starter Najee Harris and that included Kalen Ballage. Did he show enough quality during that time to earn a second contract?

Kalen Ballage, Pittsburgh Steelers free agent

Kalen Ballage during the Steelers 2021 preseason. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire.

Capsule Profile of Kalen Ballage Career with the Steelers

Kalen Ballage came to the Steelers as a former Miami Dolphins 4th round pick who’d bounced around to four teams in his first 3 years in the NFL. Ballage earned a spot in training camp at least in part due to an injury to Benny Snell.

  • Here’s where memory plays tricks.

Kalen Ballage seemed like the “next man” up after Harris, but the record shows he only had 12 carries and only saw 65 offensive snaps. That was good for 36 yards in 12 carries along with 2 catches on 7 targets. If the offensive line didn’t give him a of help, Ballage did little to help himself in spot duty.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

Yeah. This is a tough one. The Steelers need depth behind Najee Harris and Ballage gives them a veteran presence. And he’s only fumbled twice in four years in the NFL. And you can get him dirt cheap. Plus he played 20% of special teams snaps.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

If you’re not convinced by the above you shouldn’t be. Kalen Ballage was a bargin-basement free agency signing for a reason. His limited sample size has been large enough and representative enough for the Steelers to see what they have in Ballage and that is: Not much.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Kalen Ballage

A key priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 off season is finding not only a number 2 but a number 3 running back to work behind Najee Harris.

It says here that, unless the Steelers stumble on the next Tom Brady with of their 6th round pick (ooh, wouldn’t that make the Melvin Ingram experience worth it), Pittsburgh will not field a Super Bowl team in 2022. But its still instructive to remember that the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, its running backs depth chart was four players deep.

The point isn’t that Kalen Ballage isn’t even 2022’s version of Mewelde Moore, it’s that he’s not even Gary Russell.

Expect the Steelers to move on.

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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Will JuJu Smith-Schuster Stay with Steelers? Should He? Its a Tricky Situation

Second contracts separate dollars from cents in today’s NFL. Sure, even undrafted free agent rookies get six figure salaries. But they’re only an injury away from losing it all. Draft picks have more security, but only a little.

  • But manage a second NFL contract wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life.

If you’re smart with your money and lucky enough to stay healthy, you’ve got a shot at integrational wealth. The Steelers are better than any other NFL team at honoring their second contract commitments, particularly for home-grown players.

Yet, when it comes to wide receivers, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts.

A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster was pleading to join them. He got his wish, sort of, and now both sides need to decide whether to reup for a third dance. Will it happen?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a Twitter fight erupted between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates as to who JuJu was arriving to replace. As it turned out, JuJu pushed both men off of the team (OK, Bryant did himself no favors).

JuJu Smith-Schuster had an electrifying rookie campaign, catching 58 passes for just under 1000 yards and included game changing long catches against the Lions and what should have been a game changer against the Patriots. He followed up with 111 catches for 1426 yards in his second season, wining team MVP honors.

Those honors didn’t sit well with Brown, who threw a tantrum and well, you know the rest.

  • JuJu boldly declared, “I’m Ready.”

Alas, he might have been ready but the rest of the Steelers offense wasn’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign lasted 6 quarters as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slogged out an 8-8 campaign with an offensive line in decline and a running game led by a wounded James Conner and rookie Benny Snell.

Smith-Schuster’s production dipped to 42 catches as he missed four games. He bounced back in 2020 to catch 97 passes, but didn’t get much interested in free agency. He returned to Pittsburgh on a one year deal, but got injured 5 games into the season. JuJu returned for the playoffs, but wasn’t a factor.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season only lasted 5 games but the Steelers missed him. As Mark Kaboly reminded before the playoffs, with JuJu the Steelers converted 46% of their third downs.

  • Without JuJu that number dropped by 10 percent.

Go back to 2020 when drops became a chronic issue for the Steelers receiving corps. But not for JuJu, as he easily led wideouts with a 75% catch rate.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gamer. He brings a physical presence as a run blocker. He is a leader. The fact that he suited up for the playoffs and risked injury tells you all you need to know about his heart.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s story is a compelling one, but the Steelers can’t let sentimentally cloud their judgement. Alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu was lethal. Without him, he’s been good but not great. Second contracts for wide receivers clock in at about 12 million per year or more, often with 8 figures of guarantees.

JuJu Smith-Schuster quite simply hasn’t proven he’s worth that kind of investment.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster

A year ago, JuJu pleaded to stay in Pittsburgh. That seemed impossible. But when Smith-Schuster only got one year deals, he opted to stay with the Steelers via a home town discount and voidable years.

This year the Steelers have the cap space to consider resigning him, yet JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t appear interested, based on his comments about Heinz Field’s locker rooms and some social media posts. But does that mean JuJu’s as good as gone?

  • Much of this will depend on the market.

A year ago, JuJu thought he’d have more interest in his services yet got few takers. Perhaps that will happen again given how injury ravaged his 2021 season.

Realistically, that seems to be the only way he returns as a Steeler in 2022.

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 2021 Final Report Card: Not Too Tardy to Break Even Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-

Running Backs
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F

Defensive Line
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and  Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B

Coaching
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.

  • So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.

Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

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

On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?

Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.

And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C

Front Office
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C

Unsung Heroes
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.

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