Run the ball. Play good defense.
This is what the Pittsburgh Steelers have been known for throughout their history as one of the most successful franchises in the National Football League. Whether it be the Steel Curtain of the 70s, Blitzburgh of the 90s, or the 2005/2008 defenses that led the team to Super Bowl championships, the Steelers have always had a talented, experienced defense when they are competing for titles. The same could be said for a dominant running game, having the late Franco Harris lead the team back in the 70s while Jerome Bettis and other backs like Duce Staley and Willie Parker mix in during the 2000s in a ground-and-pound attack.
The Steelers still had a capable running game during the last decade with a good offensive line headlined by Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro blocking for the likes of Le’Veon Bell and James Conner. However, the identity of the offense fell on Ben Roethlisberger and the passing attack the last decade-plus with Antonio Brown being one of the best receivers in the league when he was playing with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, and others.
While this focus on the passing game led to plenty of good statical seasons for the Steelers during the 2010s, it produced very little in terms of playoff success. With Big Ben out of the picture, the team has to dial up a winning formula around QB Kenny Pickett. The former Pitt star is coming off a fine rookie campaign but needs to take a huge step forward in Year Two to help Pittsburgh become that juggernaut on offense once again.
Unless that isn’t what the Steelers are attempting to do this time around.
WhenRoethlisberger got his start back in 2004, the Steelers didn’t have a high-flying passing game. They had a gritty team filled with veterans on the defensive side of the football along with a running game to play smash mouth football. While they have weapons like Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Pat Freiermuth in the passing game, this team is building its identity around Pickett complementing the ground game rather than him as the focal point. They have their workhorse back in Najee Harris and found a complement last season in UDFA Jaylen Warren. They have committed to overhauling the offensive line, adding Nate Herbig from the Jets and Isaac Seumalo from the Eagles with more moves likely to come at either OT or C or both.
The Steelers have foundational pieces on defense with Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Minkah Fitzpatrick along with Alex Highsmith, who is becoming quite the force himself on the edge. They have revamped the ILB room, re-signed Larry Ogunjobi, and brought in CB Patrick Peterson and look primed to address other needs next month in the draft.
As Mike Tomlin often states, “If you have red paint, paint your barn red.” The Steelers have a QB capable of winning games like we saw down the stretch last season, but Pickett isn’t likely going to become the next Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen throwing for 300-plus yards and 4 TDs on a regular basis. Instead, they have an effective game manager who brings mobility and good decision making to the table and is able to complete passes on possession downs and take care of the football.
Instead of forcing Pickett to be something that he’s not, the Steelers are building a team to maximize his strengths, a physical bully on both sides of the football that wins the time of possession battle while beating its opponents into submission. Personally, I’m all for the approach of zigging when everybody else in the league is zagging, opting to spread things out and win throwing the football. The Steelers simply don’t have the team currently to win that way, and frankly, it’s not them to their core. Pittsburgh is recognized as a blue-collar town, and it’s only fitting that its football team embodies that same demeanor. It has done them well in the past, resulting in several championships. Hopefully, following this blueprint can result in another one here soon.