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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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Dare to Dream Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher daring to dream that his classroom once again features a franchise quarterback, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s stat line of 16 of 27 for 168 yards and one touchdown appears so “pedestrian” at first glance. But there was nothing pedestrian about the poise and playmaking instincts he showed on his final pass. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his first 100 yard game, a 111 yard one to be exact, mixing long runs and tough yards on 22 carries. Jaylen Warren ran for 76 yards on 11 carries with Derek Watt converting a 3rd and 1 for 3 yards. Warren and Harris combined for 5 catches, none more important that Harris’ game winner. Harris also pushed Pickett on a 4th down conversion. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 6 targets for 36 yards to lead the team, but his 20 yard catch brought the Steelers to midfield on the game winning drive. Neither Zach Gentry nor Connor Heyward had a catch, but contributed to run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 35 yards, Steven Sims had 3 for 34 yards and George Pickens “only” had 2 for 29 yards. Miles Boykin didn’t have a catch, but helped push Kenny Pickett across the line on a QB sneak. Gunner Olszewski executed a nice reverse and made a key block on Warren’s long run. Plays like that, along with the receiver’s stats won’t make Fantasy Football owners happy.  But the reality is that the quality of each individual play is why the Steelers playoff hopes are alive. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit nine times. The latter number is too high, but is OK given the context. However, the offensive line contested the line of scrimmage from the very beginning and paved the way for the best rushing effort of a Steelers offense since Le’Veon Bell’s prime. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 4 tackles followed by 3 by rookie DeMarvin Leal. What the stat sheet doesn’t show is the number of times the Ravens rushers were either stopped for zero or minimal gain. An excellent night for the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led the unit with 8 tackles including one for a loss. T.J. Watt “only” had one sack, but it came two plays after J.K. Dobbins 22 yard run and helped ensure it was the last run of the night. Watt also had another tackle for a loss and 3 other QB hits. Alex Highsmith and 3 tackles – for little or no gain. Grade: A

Secondary
The Ravens were 5 for 12 on third downs. And for the second consecutive week, an opponent’s desperation comeback attempt ended with a Steelers interception, this time at the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who also led the unit in tackles. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he made 3 others including a 51 yarder. The Steelers gave up a long kickoff return, only to have their defense deliver a save. Pressley Harvin averaged 5 yards a punt including one inside the 20. Grade: C-

Coaching
Complainers about Matt Canada’s offense will find plenty of fodder given the Steelers partly pass numbers, sluggish Red Zone performance and settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Again.

So be it. The Baltimore Ravens are on of the toughest teams in the NFL to rush on, and the Steelers waltzed into their home and rushed the ball down their throats earning a 10 point advantage in the time of possession.

  • Moreover, the Steelers committed to the run and that delivered dividends as the game wore on.

On defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores decided that the Ravens weren’t going to repeat their success running against the Steelers, and deployed a 4-4-3 scheme that featured 2 rookies to stop the Ravens. And stop the Ravens they did.

Eight weeks ago the Steelers record was 2-6. They’d just gotten thrashed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and talk both inside and outside of Pittsburgh was how high within the top 5 of the draft the Steelers would fall.

But Mike Tomlin committed his team to playing to win, his players bought into it, and today their playoff hopes remain alive. Grade: A

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Mike Tomlin hesitates to praise rookies too much. Yet after the Ravens game he described this individual as “combative” and “confrontational” urging that those characteristics were “needed.” Seven tackles on 50% of the defensive snaps were enough to make Mark Robinson the 3rd leading tackler of game and for that he win Unsung Hero honors for the 2022 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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He’s Got “It”: Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Kenny Pickett’s Poise Carries Day

Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.

  • In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:

  • Decisions made before the game
  • Decisions made on draft day
  • Decisions made during the game

Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Pre Game Decision

22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:

  • Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.

Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.

A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.

  • But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
  • Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.
T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.

So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.

But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”

Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition

Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:

Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%

Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.

Game Day Decision Making Delivers

Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.

  • The Steelers are hardly immune.

Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.

And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.

So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.

  • Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.

Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Najee Harris, James Daniels, Steelers vs Ravens

James Daniels blocks for Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.

  • Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.

Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.

But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.

And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.

Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again

Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.

While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:

  • Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.

But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:

That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.

  • Kenny Pickett has “It.”

And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.

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The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

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

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

This is bad.

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

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

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

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

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

  • Why did that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams to Be Special?

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

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

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

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

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

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

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

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

  • What to make of all this?

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

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

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

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

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

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

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

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

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

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

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Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

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