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 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 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 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 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.
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 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.