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Kozora: Turn Out The Lights, The Steelers Season Is Over

It’s four weeks into the 2022 season. With a 17-game schedule, we’re technically not even through the first quarter. But it’s hard to find any sort of path – or hope – for the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season. The Kenny Pickett era kicking off is fun but it’s unlikely to be enough.

That’s why there was so much urgency in Sunday’s game against the New York Jets. A team Pittsburgh certainly could’ve beaten, needed to beat, and ultimately couldn’t beat. Losing is bad enough. Blowing a ten-point fourth quarter lead twists that knife a little more.

Sure, it helps the AFC North isn’t looking like the elite-tier division we thought it’d be. Maybe the winner here only reaches ten wins. Heck, maybe only nine. But none of that matters if the Steelers can’t reach that mark. There’s no indication they’re even gonna come close.

At the risk of rehashing what you already know: the offense, even with Pickett, won’t be much better than average. Better, perhaps, but not a top ten unit that’s going to put up points on the board. Pickett will have his growing pains, as he showed in his debut, and it’s hard to expect this team to play mistake-free football, especially if they’re going to try and open up the offense. The defense has gone from excellent to good to average…at best, without T.J. Watt. The pass rush doesn’t get home. The run defense has cracks. They’re taking the ball away but some of that is unlikely to be sustainable, especially as the schedule gets tougher. Chris Boswell is an elite kicker but the rest of the special teams unit isn’t creating splash at best and at worst, actively hurting this team.

And that’s really the issue. The next four games. At Buffalo (now 14-point dogs), home to Tampa Bay, at Miami, at Philadelphia. The Steelers are unlikely to be favorites in any of those games and with good reason. Can they win? Sure. Any given Sunday. But Pittsburgh will have to at least go 2-2 those next two games just to reach 3-5 at the bye week then get red hot on the other side. That’s the model, that’s the path, and I sure don’t like those odds. The idea of them losing all four and starting the year 1-7 is far more likely and that’s the most damning statement you can make about the state of this team.

The best plan was to beat the Jets, go 1-3 the next four, and try to find a groove against AFC North teams out of the bye week. Still tough but doable. Now? I don’t see how it’s going to happen. Any game the Steelers could win will be a close one and they can’t win tight games. I’ll parade around the stat once again. From 2020 to 2021, the Steelers were 15-4-1 in one-possession games. This year? They’re 1-2 and functionally, 1-3, the Browns’ last-play touchdown skewing the stat.

This is all pretty negative and sometimes, fresh outcomes produce overreactions in either direction. I’ve tried to be measured and calm, not hitting the panic button after Week 2 loss and still hopeful heading into yesterday. But all week I’ve discussed the importance to win this game, that it kinda sorta entered must-win territory and this team would be in dire straits if they lost. Today, I’m simply walking the walk.

The 2022 Steelers are the 2020 Patriots as they spent their first years sans Tom Brady. Turning to a veteran quarterback, getting off to a bad starts, Belichick and company began the year 2-5, and figuring things out towards the end of the year under their new identity. Pittsburgh’s story is a little different, they found their rookie quarterback a year sooner than New England did with Mac Jones, but the overall arc is the same. This is a transitional year and those are almost always painful. It’s only extra frustrating because on paper, there is talent. They should be better than this. They aren’t.

Does that mean the Steelers next five seasons are going to suck? Not necessarily. If Pickett is a franchise guy, this team can get turned around. It’ll still take a lot of doing but for all my doom and gloom, I don’t want to assume the next several seasons are the 80s all over, an ugly and forgettable chapter. We can talk about next year next year. All that matters is the here and now and I don’t see reason for 2022 optimism.

There can – and hopefully will – still be encouraging aspects of the season. It’ll be fun to watch Pickett develop, the highs and lows of a rookie quarterback who has shown plenty of promise in relatively limited action. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a joy to watch and it’ll be a great night to see T.J. Watt step back onto the field. Chris Boswell is the best kicker in Steelers’ history and George Pickens is growing by literal leaps and bounds. All of that should be enjoyed. Miserably sitting around the TV for three hours each Sunday isn’t the way to go. Change perspective, accept the suck, and be happy with the flickers of light that happen each week. That’s where I’m at.

An easy retort from an optimistic fan is to look at last season. Pittsburgh was 1-3 four weeks into the 2021 season with the same dark-cloud thoughts over our heads. The season’s over. I get the fact the Steelers have turned their fortunes around before. But with this team, with this schedule, my hope for a 2022 turnaround is gone.

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