The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to look very different in 2022. For the first time in forever, the Steelers will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center. Roethlisberger was the defining face of the franchise over the past 15+ years, and now Pittsburgh will have to enter a new era without their Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
The team has done some work to replace him at the game’s most important position. They signed Mitch Trubisky in free agency, drafted Kenny Pickett out of the University of Pittsburgh, and have Mason Rudolph who was tabbed as Roethlisberger’s successor a few years ago. Eventually, the quarterback position will get sorted out but it won’t be this year. Quarterback could be a weakness of the Steelers this season, which means the defense will need to carry the team for at least a year.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they are one of the few teams that can succeed on the strength of the defense. Head coach Mike Tomlin has been a defensive mastermind during his tenure in Pittsburgh and 2022 will be no different.
It does help to have linebacker T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, on the defense. Watt is one of the most dominant and disruptive players in the entire league. He tied the single-season sack record last season with 22.5 even though he only played 15 games. Watt could very easily be the next face of the franchise and would be a very capable replacement.
Of course, Watt doesn’t just do it all by himself on the defense. Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward is also one of the best defensive players in the NFL, he just doesn’t get as much respect because he doesn’t play a flashy position. What Heyward does in the trenches is invaluable to the Steelers and allows Watt to have as much success as he does rushing off the edge.
The rest of the defensive line is also very effective at doing their job. Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu were solid starters in 2022. Wormley played especially well, racking up a career-high seven sacks. Now, the Steelers are adding defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and rookie DeMarvin Leal to that group, which will only strengthen it. The number of quality players that Pittsburgh has up front will be very helpful for fielding a dominant defense again.
Those guys will also help free up the outside linebackers and lead to more sacks as a team. Obviously, Watt is the biggest beneficiary of the d-line but outside linebacker Alex Highsmith has also been an effective pass-rusher. He was impressive last year in just his second season, and first as a starter, and should only build upon that going forward.
The Steelers viewed their inside linebackers as an area of potential weakness going into 2022 so they made sure they addressed that area in the offseason to ensure that the defense would be firing on all cylinders. Pittsburgh went out and signed linebacker Myles Jack in free agency to come in and start next to young linebacker Devin Bush.
The team is hoping for two things from Jack. The first is great play in the middle of the defense. Jack has had some pretty great seasons in his career and the Steelers are hoping that slotting him into such a prolific defense will help bring that level of play back out. The second thing Pittsburgh is hoping to get out of Jack is a mentor for Bush. After posting such a promising rookie year, Bush has failed to improve his play. Part of that is due to injury (just five games played in 2020) but Pittsburgh needs Bush to play like a potential star now. If Jack and Bush can both elevate each other’s games then there is a good chance the Steelers’ defense is one of the best in the league.
One area of the defense that Pittsburgh doesn’t have to worry about is the safeties. With Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds holding down the two spots on the backend, the Steelers know what they are getting from the position. Fitzpatrick is a prototypical free safety with incredible range and ball skills, making him one of the best in the game at playing center field. Edmunds is a more physical safety that can drop down into the box or the flat but still can defend well in coverage. Those two will provide a very useful brand of constancy over the top.
The Steelers are going to need those two to be playing at their best in order to make up for the corners. Pittsburgh lost cornerback Joe Haden, currently a free agent, who was their number one corner for the past couple of seasons. Even though he was older, corner is usually a young man’s position, he was a reliable veteran that was playing pretty well.
Now, the Steelers will turn to some more unproven options, to put it nicely. Corners Ahkello Witherspoon, Cameron Sutton, Arthur Maulet, and free-agent signing Levi Wallace will be expected to pick up the slack in 2022. Witherspoon was a solid starter for Pittsburgh last year but will have to elevate his game if he is the number one corner. Wallace was also effective in Buffalo once he got a chance but isn’t necessarily considered a lead guy. Regardless of who ends up earning the starting cornerback spots, they will need to play well in order to keep up with the rest of the defense.
If the defense lives up to its potential and is one of the better units in the league, then the offense will just have to be decent for the Steelers to have a pretty good season. That will require some adequate play from one of the quarterbacks, which could be asking for too much given who is in the room. But whoever does get the keys to the car this season will be getting behind the wheel of a pretty solid vehicle.
Pittsburgh does have a lot of talent on the offense, the only question is can the quarterback maximize it. The Steelers are never short on wide receivers and 2022 is just more of the same. Diontae Johnson and Case Claypool are both young receivers that have proven they have what it takes to produce at this level. Johnson is a more dependable possession receiver, while Claypool is a big, physical, and fast freak that can be counted on for some explosive plays.
What can really put the Pittsburgh wideouts over the top this year is the play of two promising rookies. Wide receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin both have a shot to come into the offense and play right away.
Pickens already seems to have a spot locked down as he has been one of the biggest rookie sensations from training camp across the whole league. It wouldn’t be surprising if Pickens actually ends up surpassing one of the two receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, he has been that good. Austin is a smaller receiver that will probably earn some snaps as a gadget player with a chance to make some big plays.
The Steelers’ quarterback will also have another weapon at his disposal in tight end Pat Freiermuth. He proved himself to be a very solid tight end as a rookie last year and is looking to take another step forward in year two. He will be a huge asset for whoever the quarterback ends up being with his size and strength over the middle, quickly developing into a go-to target for them.
The run game will also be helpful to the quarterback. And with second-year running back Najee Harris leading the attack on the ground, the rushing attack will be very effective. Harris is an incredibly dynamic back that has already shown that he has what it takes to be a starting running back at this level. Not only with Harris be effective on the ground but he will also provide the quarterback with a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield (74 receptions last year).
The Steelers are not a team that is known for relying on more than one running back but they have the options to do so if needed. Benny Snell has already proven that he can be a productive runner when called upon to start. And running back Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Warren are young players with some potential.
The one thing that could help the running game back in 2022 is the offensive line. Just a few years ago, Pittsburgh had one of the best offensive lines in the entire league but now they are struggling up front.
The good news is that the team is bringing back most of the starters from last season so at least they will have some continuity. Tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore both return after starting 16 games last year. center Kendrick Green (15 starts in 2021) and guard Kevin Dotson (nine starts) are also coming back. The only spot that will likely be filled by a new player is the guard spot opposite of Dotson where the Steelers are bringing in James Daniels, who was a reliable starter for the past few years in Chicago.
Even with the questions that I have about this team, especially at quarterback, I still think they will end up with a winning record in 2022. Tomlin has never had a losing record in Pittsburgh, and he has been there a while, and I don’t think that streak stops just yet. I think a 9-8 record is a pretty safe prediction for this team given how good they should be on the defensive side of the ball.
The bigger question is whether I think Pittsburgh’s season will be over following week 18 or not. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Steelers will make the playoffs. The AFC is just too tough this year and they also will have to navigate their way through a challenging division with both the Ravens and Bengals likely to be in the playoff hunt.
Now, if the Steelers get some surprisingly good play from the quarterback position this year, whether it comes from Trubisky or Pickett, then I could see them realistically as a playoff team. But with the likelihood of that happening not being very high I think the Steelers’ ceiling is a great defensive team that just doesn’t have enough on the other side of the ball to truly be a championship threat, which is ultimately still a pretty good season.