2022 NFL Preview: Steelers move on from Big Ben, and there are reasons for concern
Things could have gone a lot worse for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Ben Roethlisberger's final season.
Roethlisberger was a shell of himself. The offense as a whole wasn't good. The defense, despite having NFL defensive player of the year T.J. Watt, wasn't great either. It was a Steelers team that had a very fortunate record in close games and caught a couple huge breaks in Week 18, which led to a playoff berth at 9-7-1. The Steelers got blasted in the playoffs by the Kansas City Chiefs, but Mike Tomlin kept his streak of non-losing seasons alive and Roethlisberger ended his career on a semi-high note. All in all, it wasn't that bad.
Usually when a future Hall of Fame quarterback retires, there's fear of a big drop. The truth about the 2022 Steelers is they shouldn't miss their quarterback much. For the last part of 2020 and all of 2021, Roethlisberger was not very good. He was so worried about getting hit behind a bad offensive line that his top priority was getting rid of the ball fast. It bogged down the offense. His average depth of target was 7.1, second-lowest among all regular quarterbacks (Jared Goff was 6.8). Roethlisberger also had the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of all 37 qualified QBs. He had a great career, but he struggled badly at the end. The Steelers won in spite of him.
Now they're hoping to have a Joe Montana/Steve Young, Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck transition. They were happy to draft Kenny Pickett, who played for the University of Pittsburgh. He was the only quarterback drafted in the first round, and no other quarterback went in the second round. It was a bad quarterback class, but Pickett was the top option in the Steelers' minds.
“We probably spent about 15 seconds on the clock after New Orleans made that pick,” Tomlin said, according to Steelers Now. “It was an easy decision for us.”
Mitchell Trubisky, signed in March, might begin the season ahead of Pickett. He'll have to play well to hold off a first-round pick. It should be Pickett's job before too long.
The quarterback situation is what gets headlines. It overshadows that the entire Steelers roster is in flux.
Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out that only two players remain from the team's last playoff win in January of 2017, and one is kicker Chris Boswell. The other is defensive lineman Cam Heyward, who is 33 years old. A third player from that last team to win in the postseason, defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, retired.
We expect the Steelers to be good because of a remarkable track record, but it's a team that was not as good as its record last season, got very lucky to make the playoffs, has one of the most uncertain quarterback situations in the NFL and has significant questions at many key spots like offensive line, inside linebacker and in the secondary. If the Steelers drop off it won't be because they don't have Roethlisberger. It will be because they started to slip last season and that went largely unnoticed because they caught an inordinate amount of key breaks.
The Steelers aren't devoid of talent. There are just more pressing issues than we're used to seeing from a franchise that isn't used to having a downturn.
The Steelers usually aren't too active in free agency, but they spent $80.535 million to acquire guard James Daniels, linebacker Myles Jack, center Mason Cole, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and cornerback Levi Wallace. They also resigned cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, coming off a fine season, to a two-year, $8 million deal. None of those signings are earth-shaking, but they're smart additions and will help across the roster. The biggest loss in free agency was receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose career stalled after a great start. The draft was solid, with quarterback Kenny Pickett, receiver George Pickens and defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal filling needs. The offseason momentum was set back by the retirement of defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, a fantastic part of Pittsburgh's front. Pittsburgh did well to replace him with Larry Ogunjobi on a one-year deal, which was signed in June. The coaching staff had a shakeup too, when defensive coordinator Keith Butler retired. The team promoted Teryl Austin to that spot and also added former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores as senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach. They also saw longtime GM Kevin Colbert retire, and he was replaced by Omar Khan.
Kenny Pickett staying in Pittsburgh isn't just a neat narrative. The Steelers felt comfortable with what they're getting because they'd been in the same building as Pickett when he was quarterback at Pitt.
“You can just tell that he’s a guy that’s really comfortable with that responsibility that comes with being a quarterback," Tomlin said via Steelers Now. "That intangible quality. That thing that we’re all trying to measure, he has. And we were close enough together that we were able to confirm it. It wasn’t speculative.”
There are questions about whether Pickett can be a top-end starter or just average at best. Here's what Yahoo Sports draft expert Eric Edholm said about Pickett in his scouting report: "Pickett has the moxie and experience to step right in as a starter immediately if needed. However, even with what looks like a good floor as a prospect, the question is whether he can be special in the NFL. Although he saw a huge uptick in his game in 2021, it would be unwise to assume he can make a similar jump at some point in the league. Still, Pickett's variety of respectable traits figure to make him a solid to very good quarterback at some stage in his career."
We'll get to see if the Steelers are right about Pickett or he's just another EJ Manuel, overdrafted because he was the best quarterback in a weak class.
The Steelers' win total at BetMGM is a modest 7.5. The last time the Steelers didn't finish .500 was 2003. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record in his 15 seasons. It's hard to look at that history and bet the under on the Steelers. Yet, statistically they had the profile of a seven-win team last season (via point differential and Football Outsiders' estimated wins) and while they're the rare team that might not suffer from losing a Hall of Fame quarterback, the QB situation might not be better this season. Take the under, though you might regret fading Tomlin and his rock-solid organization.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "You’ll have to spend a draft pick around 40-45 overall to land Diontae Johnson, and I won’t dismiss that out of hand. He’s the type of receiver who commands targets, and although the Steelers have a spotty quarterback situation, it’s not like Ben Roethlisberger played well last year.
"That said, I’m more likely to play the waiting game and take the discount on Johnson’s running mate, Chase Claypool. You’ll land Claypool about 70-80 picks cheaper in most draft rooms. Let’s get in on that discount before the market corrects.
"Claypool enters his third season, which once upon a time was the breakout period we’d focus on with young receivers (recent rookie seasons have spoiled us somewhat). Most of Claypool’s efficiency metrics were similar in 2020 and 2021, except for a notable drop in touchdowns. That’s partly on Roethlisberger, and partly a stone fluke. If Claypool merely repeats what he’s shown the last two years and has ordinary luck with the six-point plays, he’s set up to be a fantasy bargain in 2022."
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Last season the Steelers were fourth in the NFL in passing attempts and 28th in rushing attempts. Part of that is related to game scripts, but it wasn't an ideal mix given how hard Ben Roethlisberger hit the wall. This season, we should see more of 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris. Harris was solid as a rookie, rushing for exactly 1,200 yards on 3.9 yards per carry. The Steelers don't want to overexpose their quarterbacks — even with a great mix of pass catchers in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, exciting rookie George Pickens and potential breakout tight end Pat Freiermuth — so expect a heavy dose of Harris and a much more balanced offense. Harris could lead the NFL in touches.
What can T.J. Watt do this season?
Watt was tremendous last season, tying the single-season sack record with 22.5. He did it with an extra game in a 17-game season, though he missed two games due to injury. Watt won NFL defensive player of the year. It's a little troubling that Watt had a season for the ages and the Steelers still were just decent on defense. They were 20th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed. For those who like advanced stats, Pittsburgh's defense was 14th in Football Outsiders' DVOA. The defense added some talent in linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback Levi Wallace, but won't have Stephon Tuitt back. They're hoping Larry Ogunjobi replaces him adequately, which he should. There are some questions at inside linebacker, where former first-round pick Devin Bush hasn't progressed, as well as cornerback and the safety spot alongside new $72.6 million man Minkah Fitzpatrick. Watt will have a tough time reaching 20 sacks again, though he should be good for the mid-teens at least. The question is, would that be good enough for the Steelers to have a resurgence on defense?
The Steelers are one of the most bankable assets in the NFL for a reason. The last time the Steelers had a new rookie first-round pick at quarterback, they went 13-0 in Ben Roethlisberger's regular season starts and made the AFC championship game. That probably isn't on the table for Kenny Pickett and this year's Steelers, but the defense could be much better, there's a lot of talent at the skill positions on offense and Mike Tomlin has a Hall of Fame resume as a coach. If Pickett takes the job early and looks good, while the Steelers battle to a winning record and another playoff berth, the transition between eras won't seem so bad.
Last season the Steelers were an unsustainable 7-1-1 in games decided by seven points or less, and 4-0-1 in games decided by three or less. We remember them as a playoff team, but they needed an inexplicable loss by the Indianapolis Colts in Week 18 and a last-second non-tie in the final game of the season between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers to get there. Nobody likes hearing their team was lucky, but the 2021 Steelers were lucky. That probably won't carry over. If there's regression back to normal records in close games and the Steelers' Mitchell Trubisky/Kenny Pickett quarterback combination struggles, Pittsburgh will be nowhere close to a playoff berth in a tough AFC. There will be unjustified talk about Mike Tomlin's job security and the Steelers will have to answer unfamiliar questions about a potential rebuild.
The Steelers' early-season schedule is at Cincinnati, vs. New England, at Cleveland. It's possible they could enter October at 0-3, and by that point Kenny Pickett will likely the starting quarterback regardless of whether he or Mitchell Trubisky wins the job coming out of preseason. I anticipate this being Mike Tomlin's worst season. Pittsburgh has a tough schedule, a tricky quarterback situation with two potentially bad subpar options and imminent regression. I don't think the Steelers will be down for long, because the franchise's infrastructure is too good for that, but the only reason to project them to finish above .500 is a blind faith in Tomlin and their history.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders