So it wasn’t a throwaway season after all.
Many, myself included, predicted doom and gloom for the 2022 Steelers in the wake of longtime QB Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement and a less-than-stellar 2022 QB class entering the NFL. The team looked challenged immediately, lending credence to their expected demise as they attempted to coalesce around veteran QB pickup Mitch Trubisky and rookie QB Kenny Pickett, with somewhat poor results on the former, but notable learning increases for the latter. Playing the proverbial tortoise role, the Steelers managed to cobble together a third-place finish and a respectable 9-8 record, proving the doubters and critics wrong and establishing hopes for continued improvement.
Trubisky’s struggles as a starter were mercifully ended in early October after a loss to the Jets and with the team mired in a 1-3 record. As stated, Pickett showed steady improvement and was able to more fully grasp the speed of the game, evidenced by his dwindling turnover numbers through the course of the season. He’s still raw and capable of some puzzling decisions, but team officials saw enough in Pickett to assume he’ll be the starter for the foreseeable future, especially considering he threw one interception in the final nine games after tossing eight in the previous eight games.
Less clear is the running back slate. Second-year RB Najee Harris stumbled early, garnering few yards on many carries before having his workload unceremoniously reduced in favor of rookie backup RB Jaylen Warren, whose bruising forward rushing style provided a nice compliment to Harris’ somewhat jittery feet. By season’s end, Harris had largely matched his 2021 rushing output (3.8 YPC in 2022, 3.9 in 2021), albeit on fewer carries, but saw his receiving production nearly cut in half (41 receptions compared to 74 in 2021), which can easily be attributed to the presence of Pickett, who topped over 300 yards passing exactly once in 2022.
This could also explain the puzzling receiving numbers for the rest of the team. WR Diontae Johnson posted an odd set of statistics, with 86 receptions for 882 yards (10.3 avg.) and no touchdowns, while rookie WR George Pickens nearly matched Johnson’s yardage with roughly a third fewer catches. Pickens added some highlight-reel gems throughout the season; he appears primed to be a headache for the rest of the AFC North for some time. Once considered “the next great Steelers receiver”, former Steeler Chase Claypool was traded midseason to the Bears for a second-round draft pick, ending a disappointing showing in Pittsburgh that didn’t get better in Chicago. TE Pat Freiermuth improved his yards-per-reception considerably, adding 3.3 yards to every catch in 2022.
The offensive line remained the team’s major issue, with inconsistent performances all along the line as the norm throughout the season. The team is expected to address this heavily in the 2023 draft; with the skill positions largely settled for the time being, the Steelers can afford to spend real draft capital here.
Any discussion of the Steelers defense these days begins and ends with OLB/Edge T.J. Watt, whose absence due to injury for much of 2022 surprisingly didn’t sink the team’s chances. Watt still managed to appear in ten games and rack up 5.5 sacks, which is still more than half the OLBs that started their entire slate leaguewide. Fellow OLB Alex Highsmith made up the difference with a career-high 14.5 sacks, while free agent signee ILB Myles Jack provided 104 tackles and a steadying influence inside, which enabled WLB Devin Bush, a recent disappointment, with some semblance of a bounce-back season.
The secondary was again anchored by star S Minkah Fitzpatrick, who put in one of his best seasons with 96 tackles and six interceptions, including one for a TD. CBs Levi Wallace and Cam Sutton were adequate and “held their own” most of the time, with third CB Arthur Maulet lending good backup support in a number of areas, most notably run defense (59 tackles). This is another area the Steelers are expected to address in the draft.
The defensive line was stout in 2022, especially longtime DT Cam Heyward, who posted 10.5 sacks and an eye-popping 14 tackles for loss. Fellow DTs Larry Ogunjobi and Chris Wormley remained fixtures in the defensive line rotation and were situationally effective. Also rotating inside at times were veteran DEs Tyson Alualu and Isaiahh Lowdermilk, both of whom fought through injuries to add significant support at varying spots along the line.
K Chris Boswell missed the month of November due to a nagging groin injury, although backup Matthew Wright managed some clutch kicks in Boswell’s absence, including going 2-2 in FG attempts over 50 yards. P Pressly Harvin III was steady if unspectacular, and primary returner Steven Sims was adequate, although the Steelers are probably looking for more production here.
Positive. The proverbial needle is pointed up in Pittsburgh, despite the team’s questionable decision to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Much hinges on the coming draft, but the Steelers have made some astute decisions there in recent years, including the addition of Pickett in 2022.