The Steelers' actions prior to Tuesday's trade deadline tells you everything you need to know about how their 2022 season has gone so far.
Pittsburgh traded away receiver Chase Claypool, the team's rookie of the year just two seasons ago, to the Chicago Bears in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick. While the move is a sign of where the 2-6 Steelers are eight games into the season, the Steelers' acquisition of cornerback William Jackson III before the deadline signified their resolve as it relates to trying to put together a roster that can win on a weekly basis.
That may be true, but the fact remains that the Steelers are a franchise that is clearly focused on the future. That's what happens when you're a last-place team that is starting a rookie quarterback. With the Steelers embarking on their bye week, here's a look at the grades each facet of the team received after eight weeks. As you can imagine, this is not a report card for the refrigerator.
Sans Pat Freiermuth and the occasional George Pickens sightings, it was a forgettable eight weeks for the rest of the Steelers offense. The only other true positive has been the emergence of undrafted rookie running back Jaylen Warren, who is averaging a full 2 yards per carry more than starter Najee Harris. Harris' struggles aren't entirely on him, as the former first-round pick is playing within an offense that does not tailor to his strengths.
Harris is also running behind an offensive line that has made little to no strides this season despite several new faces. The line's struggles have also made life difficult for quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett. Pickett, who took over for Trubisky five weeks ago, was sacked six times in last Sunday's blowout loss in Philadelphia. In regards to Pickett, it's hard to evaluate a rookie quarterback who has been put in the situation he is currently in (more on that later).
The Steelers receivers haven't had banner seasons, either. Diontae Johnson has struggled to live up to his new contract. Pickens has made plays but has not gotten nearly enough targets. With Claypool gone, it will be up to Gunner Olszewski and Steven Sims to pick up the slack.
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Consistency is the biggest issue here. The defense will play winning football one week (as it did against Tampa Bay in Week 6) and will look completely outmatched another week (see Sunday in Philadelphia). Then, there are games like Week 7 in Miami, where Pittsburgh's defense played well but did not make enough splash plays to deliver victory.
Like the offense, several individuals on defense have had solid seasons to this point. Myles Jack has proven to be a good offseason acquisition. Minkah Fitzpatrick has played well, although Sunday's loss in Philadelphia was not one of his better days. Cam Heyward continues to produce, while Terrell Edmunds has built off last year's solid campaign with another strong start to 2022. Devin Bush has enjoyed an uptick in performance after a rough 2021.
The unit's best player so far might be Alex Highsmith, who has a team-high 6.5 sacks. Highsmith has continued to produce despite the absence of T.J. Watt, who is expected to return after the bye week. The addition of Jackson should also help a secondary that was exposed in Philadelphia following solid outings in Miami and against Tampa Bay.
Special teams: D+
It's been an up-and-down season for Chris Boswell, who missed four field goals during the season's first two months. It should be noted that two of those misses occurred in windy Buffalo during Pittsburgh's 35-point loss to the Bills in early October.
Olszewski has been a disappointment. The former Patriots All-Pro returner's muffed punt against his former team cost the Steelers a win in Week 2. Sims, who made the initial 53-man roster after a solid preseason, has the Steelers' signature special teams play of the season so far with his 89-yard kickoff return against Tampa Bay in Week 6.
Even great coaches can have bad seasons. That appears to the case so far for Mike Tomlin, a likely future Hall of Famer who has struggled to get the most out of this team. Tomlin hasn't helped himself by not committing to a quarterback from the start. By not doing that, neither Trubisky or Pickett was given a true opportunity to succeed.
Trubisky took most of the reps -- but not all -- during training camp. And by not naming him the clear-cut starter, Tomlin inadvertently set Trubisky up for failure. Pickett, a former Pitt star, was cheered each time he saw playing time in camp and during the preseason. Chants for Pickett ensued any time Trubisky did something the hometown fans disapproved of during the Steelers' first two home games. The fans ultimately got what they wanted when Tomlin pulled the plug on the Trubisky era after three-plus games.
Pickett, who did not receive any first-team snaps during the first month of the season, was all of sudden thrown into the starting lineup against live NFL defenses. As you can expect, it hasn't worked out for the first-round pick. Pickett often looks outmatched and overwhelmed. He has two touchdowns against eight interceptions that include two ugly interceptions that sewed up Pittsburgh's Week 7 loss in Miami.
Pickett remained in the lineup despite suffering a head injury that briefly sent Trubisky back into the mix. Trubisky played well in relief duty while closing out the Steelers' win over Tampa Bay. But instead of staying with Trubisky in Miami and giving Pickett another week of rest, the Steelers went back to the rookie, who led Pittsburgh's offense to just 10 points.
Tomlin and Co. will continue to ride with Pickett, who now has one less option to throw to with Claypool in Chicago. It's not an ideal situation for anyone, especially for the rookie quarterback and a coach who is in jeopardy of recording his first losing season. While a rebuilding season may not have been avoidable, it certainly could have been handled better.
Decades ago, Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells famously offered the quote, "You are what your record says you are" when asked about his team's mark. That quote is applicable to the 2022 Steelers, who are a few plays from being 5-3 instead of 2-6. At 5-3, the Steelers would be tied with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North. But as it currently stands, the Steelers are last place in the AFC North.
Watt's injury in Week 1 was a blow that undoubtedly cost the Steelers a few games. But the team's overall weaknesses on the offensive line, offensive play-calling and the handling of the quarterback position has ultimately been the difference between being a playoff contending team and a team that is looking into the future, while trying to salvage the present.