When it comes to star power on one side of the football in the AFC North, none of the three other teams can touch the Pittsburgh Steelers’ big three defensively in outside linebacker T.J. Watt, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Knowing that, it was no surprise to see those three represent the Steelers in CBS Sports’ 2022 Preseason All-AFC North team Wednesday morning on the defensive side of the football, finishing just one spot behind a quartet of Cleveland Browns on the defensive side of the football for the most from one team.
Along with Watt, Heyward and Fitzpatrick on defense, the Steelers see wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool make the All-AFC North Team from CBS Sports offensively, as well as return man Gunner Olszewski on special teams, giving the black and gold six total players on the 25-man roster.
Not bad overall.
Offensively, Johnson wasn’t much of a surprise at all. He’s a top 15-20 receiver in the NFL and is easily one of the top three in the division, so his inclusion with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins from Cincinnati at the position makes a ton of sense. Claypool was a bit of a surprise, getting the nod over Cleveland’s Amari Cooper and Baltimore’s Rashod Bateman.
Defensively, Watt, Heyward and Fitzpatrick were easy calls at their positions for CBS Sports.
“Watt and [Myles] Garrett might be the two best edge rushers in the NFL. It was extremely easy to select them for this roster. Heyward remains an extremely effective — and underrated — game-wrecker from the interior of the defensive line,” CBS Sports’ Jared Dubin writes regarding the All-AFC North team. “He’s made five consecutive Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams (three first, one second) in that stretch, notching at least eight sacks in four of those five seasons. Even at age 33, he should have another excellent year.”
Watt, along with Garrett, are the two best edge rushers in the NFL, bar none. Nobody else really comes close to them, at least for the time being. Watt obviously won his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021 after notching 22.5 sacks to tie the NFL’s single-season sacks record in just 15 games.
Heyward, as Dubin points out, continues to get better with age. He recorded 10 sacks last season and was a disruptive force opposite Watt in the trenches, providing the Steelers with two elite-level defenders that gave opposing offensive lines fits.
In the secondary, Fitzpatrick was joined by Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates and Baltimore’s Marcus Williams at the position, making for a loaded safety room on the All-AFC North team. Fitzpatrick was head and shoulders above the other two though, at least for CBS Sports.
“Fitzpatrick remains elite in coverage, and is one of the league’s best defensive backs at forcing turnovers,” Dubin writes for CBS Sports.
Though the turnover numbers and the overall splash plays were down last season, Fitzpatrick was still incredibly effective, helping fill lanes as a run defender, leading the Steelers in tackles with 124 last season. He also made some crucial plays down the stretch as a pass defender that don’t quite show up in the stats sheet.
On special teams, Olszewski was the easy pick for return specialist for CBS Sports, largely due to his recent All-Pro accolade at the position in 2020.
“Olszewski was an All-Pro in 2020 and didn’t drop off too much last season,” Dubin writes. “It’s reasonable to expect another good season in the return game, even on a new team.”
The Steelers signed Olszewski with the hopes that he can stabilize the return game for the black and gold, especially after losing Ray-Ray McCloud in free agency to the San Francisco 49ers. So far, he’s made more waves in training camp and preseason as a receiver than a returner, but the Steelers certainly do feel good about what they have in that department moving forward.