Look out, NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers figured out who they wanted to be in 2022. Critically, they’ve added the pieces to truly play that way in 2023.
The first half of Pittsburgh’s 2022 season was a mess. A complete, utter disaster. But things changed after the bye. It still wasn’t pretty, they won ugly, but they won. They went 7-2 down the stretch to somehow get back into the playoff conversation and come one game away from becoming the AFC’s 7th seed. That turnaround can’t be ignored. So what…turned around?
Pittsburgh got back to its roots. Old-school, smash mouth football. It still felt like three yards and a cloud of dust but it was more effective. It was a winning model. One the Steelers have run with. Almost literally.
Omar Khan got busy in the offseason, signing guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo. Herbig for depth, Seumalo to start, both to drive people off the ball. The defensive trenches were fortified too in NTs Armon Watts and Breiden Fehoko, lesser impact players than Seumalo but guys who can plug and clog the middle. At linebacker, the team added Elandon Roberts, who is just an “older Mark Robinson” and brought in hammer Keanu Neal at strong safety.
But the draft really showed what the Steelers want to be about. First round, Broderick Jones. The first offensive tackle Pittsburgh’s drafted since the Clinton Administration. Second round, Joey Porter Jr. with some of the longest arms in the draft. Follow that up with Keeanu Benton to play nose tackle. Third round, Darnell Washington, arguably the most unique player in the draft class and one of its best blockers. Fourth round, Nick Herbig, who doesn’t have the bulk of the others but plays with a fearless attitude and non-stop motor. Seventh round, Cory Trice Jr., a hard-working corner who will jam and re-route and ending with another offensive lineman in Spencer Anderson, who provides versatility inside.
The theme couldn’t be any more obvious if it was in a bad ’90s after-school special. Pittsburgh wanted big people to impose its will on the opponent. Get size, get length, get athleticism, get high-character players who are going to work hard and maximize their potential.
Pittsburgh’s zigging when others are zagging. The reality is the Steelers can’t compete with the Chiefs, the Bills, probably not even the Bengals if they try to match their style of “just outscore the opponent.” So go the other way. Bring in big people, win on the ground, and control the ball. Those high-flying offenses can’t score if they’re not on the field, and it’s a big reason why Pittsburgh won down the stretch in 2022. No team had a higher third-down conversion rate post-bye than the Steelers and their time of possession was tops in the league. It’s a model that can work, too. The San Francisco 49ers have sure shown it.
Bully ball. That’s what Pittsburgh wants to do. It wants to beat people up at all levels. In the trenches, that’s obvious enough and frankly, every team’s goal. But it’s an area where the Steelers have struggled, especially offensively, for the last several years. It started with the old heads getting, uh, old, Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster. They retired, the line was rebuilt – poorly – and then rebuilt a second time over the last two offseasons.
But you see the mentality at other levels too. At cornerback, a big guy in Patrick Peterson. Porter and Trice, two of the largest and most physical corners at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the NFL’s timing that’s become such a crucial part of passing games (and helps your pass rush, too).
It’s not going to be perfect. It never is. And winning 35-31 shootouts isn’t on the menu. But you know what is? Beef. All the beef is on the menu. That’s how this team is going to play. And they scooped up a couple more servings of it this weekend.