Things have not gone as many hoped or expected so far this season for the 2022 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Following an offseason filled with changes to the roster and the front office, the Steelers were very clearly in a transition-type year. All that changed in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals though, as the star-studded defense took the game over, forcing five turnovers and seven sacks of quarterback Joe Burrow, giving the Steelers a welcome season-opening win in overtime.
Since that game though, the loss of T.J. Watt to an injury suffered in Week 1, the poor play of a new-look offense featuring quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett, a rebuilt offensive line, and injuries on the defensive side of the football outside of Watt have hurt the Steelers in more ways than one as they sit at 2-6 on the season at the midway point.
For a roster that was top-heavy coming into the season, the injuries showed just how lacking the Steelers were in the depth department. The poor play, coupled with the lack of depth and injuries has the Steelers’ roster sitting at No. 28 overall in the league, according to Pro Football Focus’ midseason roster rankings, down from No. 22 overall to start the season.
According to PFF’s Brad Spielberger, the Steelers’ biggest strength so far this season is the defensive line featuring Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, not to mention a guy like Watt who wrecked the Bengals in Week 1.
“There aren’t many better tandems along the defensive front than T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, with both players ranking in the top three in PFF wins above replacement over the past three seasons,” Speilberger writes for PFF. “Alex Highsmith has also emerged on the edge, while free agent addition Larry Ogunjobi is playing solid football on the interior. Once Watt returns to full health, the Steelers will need to take over games with their front if they want to win a few games to close out the year.”
The idea behind producing such a potent defensive front was that the Steelers’ pass rush would be able to take over games once Pittsburgh got a lead, forcing opposing offenses to become one-dimensional abandoning the run and allowing guys like Watt, Heyward and Highsmith to get after quarterbacks, which would lead to splash plays for the defense.
It played out that way in Week 1 against the Bengals, but since then the Steelers have been very pedestrian defensively without Watt. Highsmith has played rather well and looks like a complete player off the edge, but the sack numbers just aren’t there right now without Watt, even with him leading the league with 6.5 entering the Steelers’ Week 9 bye week. Three of those came in Week 1 against the Bengals.
Heyward has been dominant against the run, but he’s not generating much pressure at all as he deals with double teams, and Ogunjobi has just one sack and 11 pressures on the season.
It doesn’t help that the Steelers have not been able to stop the run consistently without Watt as the likes of the Patriots, Browns, Jets and Eagles ran at will on the Steelers. Coverage hasn’t been great either as Buffalo lit up the Steelers, and the secondary dropped four interceptions against the Dolphins.
Good news is, Watt is expected back in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints. We’ll see if he gives the Steelers a boost.
As for the weakness of the Steelers, according to Spielberger, it remains the trenches offensively.
“Signing James Daniels in free agency appears to have been a sharp move, with his 70.2 grade ranking 14th among guards,” Spielberger writes for PFF. “Beyond Daniels, it’s been tough sledding for the Steelers up front, ranking 24th in yards before contact per rushing attempt at just 1.1 yards. Their tackles have combined to earn a 62.7 pass-blocking grade, which ranks 25th.”
Outside of Daniels, it’s been rather rough for the Steelers in the trenches, especially from a penalties and pass blocking perspective. The Steelers can’t seem to stay out of their own way — or even line up correctly — in recent weeks with pre-snap penalties, and the inability to consistently hold up in protection has hindered the offense overall, resulting in six sacks in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has had a tough time behind an offensive line that has regressed in recent weeks, and he certainly helped the matter by bailing out of clean pockets at times.
Moving forward in the second half, the Steelers will certainly attempt to compete and could get back into the playoff picture against a weak second-half schedule, but all eyes will be on Pickett, watching him develop in the second half of the season to see if he has what it takes to be the guy moving forward in the Steel City.