Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe Steelers are coming off a playoff season but are clearly in transition following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger…The quarterback battle and efforts to improve the run defense are issues to watch in 2022Scott Smith
As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the Buccaneers will hit the road in Week Six after a three-game homestand and begin their tour of the AFC North. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 16 and the game will be broadcast by FOX.
The 2021 Steelers slid into the final AFC playoff spot on the final day of the regular season when the Colts shockingly got blown out by the Jaguars. Pittsburgh also had to sweat out an overtime thriller between the Chargers and Raiders, because a tie in that game would have sent both those teams to the postseason and eliminated Pittsburgh. The Chargers and Raiders were, in fact, tied with two seconds left in overtime before the Raiders' Daniel Carlson drilled a 47-yard game-winner.
The Steelers' playoff stay was brief as they were trounced in the Wild Card round by Kansas City, but making it to the dance was a notable achievement for a team that started 1-3 and had a soon-to-be retired Ben Roethlisberger directing an offense with very little explosiveness. With Roethlisberger essentially immobile in the pocket (his average of 3.7 yards of movement before the pass was easily the lowest in the league) and relying heavily on quickly-released passes, the future Hall-of-Famer finished with a career low of 6.2 yards per attempt.
Pittsburgh began the season with a rousing upset in Buffalo but then dropped three straight to the Raiders, Bengals and Packers, which in retrospect isn't such a damning streak given how those teams finished up. The scheduled eased up in its second month and the Steelers ripped off a four-game winning streak against the likes of Denver, Cleveland and Chicago, followed by a tie against the Lions in Week 10.
The Steelers would win four of their last six to finish at 9-7-1 and in the postseason, though two of those four wins were nail-biters against a Baltimore team that was dealing with an historic rash of injuries. The Pittsburgh defense, led by eventual NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, held its opponents below 20 points in each of those four victories. Watt finished with 22.5 sacks and fellow Pro Bowler Cameron Heyward added 10.0 more, while Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to develop into one of the NFL's best safeties. On offense, rookie running back Najee Harris rarely left the field (84% snap count rate) and finished with 1,667 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns.
The Steelers were pretty active in free agency, adding not only a new potential starting quarterback but also making several moves to shore up the protection in front of him. The new quarterback is Mitchell Trubisky, fresh off a season backing up Josh Allen in Buffalo that seems to have rekindled some interest in the former second-overall pick after his days in Chicago ended on a sour note. Roethlisberger's quick release last season masked some significant protection issues in Pittsburgh but that was addressed with the signings of James Daniels and Mason Cole to play right guard and center, respectively.
The Steelers actually have two new options to replace Roethlisberger, as the 20th pick in the draft landed them the first quarterback off the board, Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett. Trubisky likely has the inside lane to start the 2022 campaign but he could be pushed quickly by the rookie depending upon how the season is going. Both passers will have a pair of rookie targets to work with as the Steelers drafted Georgia's George Pickens in the second round and Memphis' Calvin Austin in the fourth. Pittsburgh's draft haul also included Texas A&M defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal, and the Steelers have a history of drafting very well at that position.
Former Jacksonville off-ball linebacker Myles Jack took a two-year deal with Pittsburgh and figures to be an upgrade over Joe Schobert. Pittsburgh did not address a needy cornerback room in the draft but did pick up a good addition for that group in former Bill Levi Wallace. And there was help for the Steelers special teams, too, as former Patriot return man Gunner Olszewski also got a two-year deal.
So, we mentioned Roethlisberger. He sets the clock ticking on his Hall of Fame eligibility as a new era begins in Pittsburgh after nearly two success-filled decades with him at the helm of the offense. The Steelers also saw wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster leave for Kansas City in free agency, though with Pickens joining holdovers Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson the Steelers are in good shape at the position.
Several of the additions in free agency noted above were direct replacements for players who left the Steelers in the spring, including return man Ray-Ray McCloud and guard Trai Turner. Wide receiver James Washington also jumped to Dallas after four seasons with the Steelers.
In a blow to the Pittsburgh defense, veteran 3-4 end Stephon Tuitt elected to retire early in June.
What Else is New?
The Steelers' organization has always emphasized stability, most notably at the head coaching position, but it has also leaned on Kevin Colbert in player personnel matters for more than two decades. Colbert was the first the team's director of football operations then the general manager and finally the vice president/general manager from 2000-22 before retiring shortly after this year's draft. Pittsburgh unsurprisingly promoted from within to replace Colbert, making Omar Khan the new general manager and extending his own 22-year tenure with the club.
The impact of the changing of the guard at quarterback also cannot be overstated. The Steelers have tailored their offense around Roethlisberger since 2004 but Matt Canada, who was been with the team for just two seasons and was promoted to offensive coordinator just last year, now has free rein to structure the attack as he sees fit. With Harris, Pickett and Pickens all added in the last two years, the Steelers' offense should be evolving quite a bit in the next couple seasons.
How long will Kenny Pickett have to wait for his shot?
This is obviously the most significant story for the Steelers in 2022, and beyond. Pickett was seen by some analysts as the most "pro-ready" of the quarterbacks available in this year's draft but the group was considered underwhelming overall. The Steelers picked up Trubisky on a reasonable two-year deal but can move on after one year or possibly keep the veteran as a reasonably-priced high end back up in 2023. Or, Trubisky could unlock the potential that made him such a high draft pick in 2017 and let the Steelers develop Pickett over one or even two full seasons. Pickett has good mobility and the arm strength to make any throw necessary but his ultimate fate may rest on how well he learns to read NFL defenses and show poise in the pocket.
Will Pittsburgh's run defense be significantly improved?
In 2021, the Steelers allowed 146.1 rushing yards per game and 4.99 yards per carry, both of which were dead last in the NFL. That unit has since lost Tuitt but the team has otherwise made moves to try to fix the problem.
The Steelers most notably drafted Leal, who can play end in their 3-4 front, and signed Jack, who steps in next to Devin Bush in the middle of the defense. Pittsburgh's defense would also gain from improved play out of Bush, who had a promising 2019 rookie season after being drafted 10th overall but missed much of 2020 due to injury and was shaky enough last year to prompt the team to decline his fifth-year option. That leaves Bush playing on a contract year in 2022, so there will be plenty of motivation.
And while Tuitt is hanging them up after sitting out all of last year, nose tackle Tyson Alualu should be back on the line after missing all but two games due to injury last year. Head Coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers can improve against the run with more "whoop" blocks and cleaner tackling, but something must be done after they allowed five teams to rush for 198 or more yards on them last year.