Though the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season did not end as hoped, there is plenty to smile about. From rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett taking big leaps as the year progressed to the team finishing going 7-2 to secure a winning season, the future looks good in Pittsburgh. Alex Highsmith, who had a pleasantly surprising 14.5 sacks, expressed his optimism about the team’s future during a Wednesday interview via Steelers.com’s Teresa Varley.
“I think it’s so important to carry that momentum to next year,” Highsmith said via Varley. “We’ve got a core group of young guys. I love seeing how Kenny [Pickett] and the offense started to gel towards the end of the year.”
The Steelers’ core is indeed youthful, especially on the offensive side. The oldest every down starters on the offense were center Mason Cole and guard Kevin Dotson at 26 years old, though FB Derek Watt just turned 30. Moreover, the team’s skill positions are made up of young and developing players. Indeed, receivers George Pickens, tight end Pat Freiermuth, and running back Najee Harris were all drafted within the past two seasons, as was Pickett. After a season of playing together, this core built ample chemistry that certainly won’t hurt moving forward.
After a shaky start, Pickett indeed progressed as the year went on. He became the first rookie quarterback to throw back-to-back game-winning touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders, and looked more confident as the year went on. He had two games classified as elite according to PFF, earning an 88.5 grade against the Indianapolis Colts and a 92.4 grade against the Ravens.
“I know that we’ll continue to get better overall,” Highsmith continued. “And I think us as a defense, we were playing some of our best ball at the end of the year, creating more turnovers and getting more sacks and stuff, so I think we’ll be able to build on it next year.”
The Steelers’ defense in the second half of the year was nothing short of a top unit. Outside of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, they did not allow more than 17 points in a game after the bye week. According to rbsdm.com, the Pittsburgh defense allowed a 41.0% success rate to opposing offenses since Week 10, which was the sixth lowest in that span. Simply put, the Steelers’ defense keeping games close is the only reason they were able to make the 7-2 run to close the season.
The Steelers finished the year with 20 interceptions, as forcing turnovers continued to be a staple of first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense. The team’s pass rush also improved immensely after the return of reigning DPOY T.J. Watt, closing the year out with a seven-sack performance against the Cleveland Browns.
As Highsmith said, there is much to look forward to moving forward. This is the youngest Steelers team in a long time. As they showed this season, they only get better with more reps together. Outside of fullback Derek Watt and tight end Zach Gentry, the entire starting offense is slated to return next season. An improved offense paired with an above-average defense is a recipe for success.