Last year was the end of an era for the Steelers, the 18th and final season of Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh, with the long-time starting quarterback opting to hang them up ahead of what would have been his age 40 season in 2022. Roethlisberger had a legendary career, but a change at quarterback was needed, as Roethlisberger’s performance had been a serious problem for this team the past couple years. After suffering an elbow injury that cost him most of the 2019 season, Roethlisberger was not the same in 2020 and 2021, completing 65.0% of his passes for an average of just 6.22 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while finishing 25th out of 42 eligible and 37th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF in the two seasons respectively.
The Steelers have still made the post-season with records of 12-4 and 9-7-1 respectively over the past two seasons, but they ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency in 2020, while going 7-2 in one-score games, and then in 2021 they went 8-2-1 in one-score games to sneak into the post-season despite a -55 point differential. Despite their records, their offense has struggled in both seasons, ranking 28th and 30th in offensive efficiency respectively, with Roethlisberger’s underwhelming play being a big part of the problem. Both seasons also ended in largely uncompetitive first round losses in the post-season, with the offense being a big problem in both games.
Even if Roethlisberger had returned, the Steelers almost definitely would not have the same success in close games, as that tends to be very unpredictable year-to-year, and, without that close game success, it would have been very tough to make it make to the post-season in 2022 without a significant improvement from their offense, which would have been very unlikely with Roethlisberger at the helm. Given that, it’s understandable that the Steelers seemed to be moving on from Roethlisberger one way or another this off-season, with Roethlisberger hinting that his “retirement” was not entirely mutual and that he would have played again for the Steelers in 2022 if they had wanted him.
The Steelers might not have found a significant upgrade for Roethlisberger though. This year’s draft was considered historically bad at the quarterback position, but the Steelers still opted to take the plunge and select University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett 20th overall, the only quarterback selected in the first two rounds of the draft and the latest first quarterback selected since 1997. Pickett was the most NFL ready quarterback in the NFL, but probably would have been a 3rd or 4th round pick in most drafts and would have been a 6th or 7th round pick a year ago, before a breakout senior season. He had a great final collegiate season and could be a low end starter in the NFL, but ultimately projects more as a backup long-term, even if he ultimately might still end up being the best quarterback in this draft class.
While the draft was not a promising route to find a quarterback this off-season, the veteran market, especially by trade, was much more active than usual, but the Steelers opted to sit out of the Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, etc. trade market and only added a veteran by free agency, signing disappointing former Bears first round pick Mitch Trubisky to a 12-year, 14.285 million dollar deal with incentives if he starts a significant amount of games.
Trubisky was probably the best the Steelers could do in the free agent market this off-season and the former 2nd overall pick could still have some upside, as he is only in his age 28 season, he wasn’t totally terrible in Chicago despite being in a poor offensive scheme, and he spent last year sitting and learning on the bench behind Josh Allen in a much more successful offensive scheme in Buffalo, but there’s a reason why he wasn’t a starter anywhere last season.
In total, Trubisky completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions in 50 starts with the Bears, while adding 5.33 YPC and 9 touchdowns on 203 carries on the ground and earning mostly middling overall grades from PFF. He would probably be a low-end starter if he won the starting job, but he at least has some upside and off-season reports are that he’s the heavy favorite to win the job, even if that might say more about the supposedly NFL ready Kenny Pickett than it does about anything Trubisky is doing at a high level.
Long-time Ben Roethlisberger backup Mason Rudolph is also technically in the mix for the starting role and he does know the system better than anyone, but that’s about all he has going for him, as the 2018 3rd round pick struggled mightily in the only extended starting experience of his career when Roethlisberger was hurt in 2019, completing 62.2% of his passes for an average of 6.24 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while finishing 37th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.
It’s possible Rudolph was just forced into action too early and he could be better if given a second chance to start, but Trubisky and Pickett still both look like stronger options and, with his 3 million dollar salary non-guarantee, it’s not a sure thing that Rudolph is even kept on the final roster as a third quarterback, even in an unsettled position group. Most likely multiple quarterbacks will see starts for this team in 2022, with Trubisky being the early favorite and Pickett likely to see action down the stretch unless Trubisky surprisingly plays well enough to keep the job all year.
Poor quarterback play hasn’t been the Steelers only problem on offense over the past couple years though. Another issue has been their offensive line, which was decent in pass protection in 2021, ranking 15th in pass blocking grade on PFF, but also struggled in run blocking, ranking 24th. That figures to remain the case in 2022, as not much has changed on this unit. They gave a 3-year, 25 million dollar deal to former ex-Bear James Daniels, who is only in his age 25 season and has finished above average on PFF in all four seasons of his career, including a career best 20th among guards in 2021, but he’s mostly a replacement for free agent departure Trai Turner, who played right guard for the Steelers last season and was PFF’s 23rd ranked guard as a 17-game starter.
The Steelers also gave a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal to Mason Cole to at least compete with 2021 3rd round pick Kendrick Green at center, after he finished his rookie season 35th out of 41 eligible centers across 15 starts, but Cole isn’t necessarily going to be a significant upgrade. Cole was a 3rd round pick in 2018 by the Cardinals and started 16 games as a rookie, but he finished his rookie season 36th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF and was sent to the bench for his 2nd season, only playing 211 snaps.
Cole found his way back in the starting lineup in 2020, making 14 starts, but again struggled, finishing 34th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF, leading to the Cardinals trading him to the Vikings for a 6th round pick prior to the 2021 season. Cole was a reserve in Minnesota, but played pretty well in limited action on 471 snaps, suggesting it’s possible he could still develop into a solid starter, only in his age 26 season. That’s far from a guarantee though and he could easily continue struggling in 2022. It’s possible Green ends up making starts at center again if Cole struggles.
Whichever of Cole or Green ends up as the starter, the other will provide depth across the interior, with Green and Cole both having the versatility to kick to guard if needed. Kevin Dotson remains locked in as the starter at left guard and, if he can be healthier in 2022, after being limited to 565 snaps in 9 games by injury last season, that should be at least somewhat of a boost for this group, as he was their best offensive lineman when healthy last season, even if only by default, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF.
A 4th round pick in 2020, Dotson also finished his rookie season 29th among guards on PFF, albeit across 358 snaps. Run blocking has been a problem for him, but he has excelled as a pass protector, finishing 1st and 5th among guards on PFF in pass protection grade in the past two seasons respectively, and, even though he’s inexperienced and a projection to a full-season role, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had his best season yet and broke out as at least an above average starter in his third season in the league in 2022.
Tackles Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor remain on the left and right side respectively, with the latter returning after the Steelers kept him on a 3-year, 29.25 million dollar contract in free agency this off-season. Okorafor isn’t terrible, but that’s a rich contract for a player who has finished 78th among 93 eligible offensive tackles and 60th among 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in the past two seasons respectively, the only two seasons of his career as a starter. Okorafor was a 3rd round pick by the Steelers in 2018 and is still relatively young in his age 25 season, so the Steelers are probably betting on him becoming better going forward, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee and he could easily remain a mediocre starter at best.
Moore, meanwhile, was a 4th round rookie last season and predictably struggled, even more than Okorafor, finishing 75th among 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts. The Steelers didn’t add any competition for him, so they seem to still believe in him long-term, but there’s also a good chance he struggles again in his second season in the league, even if he does ultimately develop into a solid starter long-term. I’d expect him to be a little better in year two, but not noticeably.
Veteran Joe Haeg remains as the swing tackle behind Moore and Okorafor and also has the versatility to kick inside to guard if needed. A 5th round pick in 2016, Haeg wasn’t bad as a starter in his first two seasons in the league with the Colts (29 starts), but he’s settled in as more of an above average, versatile reserve over the past four seasons, making just 11 starts total. He’s still only in his age 29 season though and has earned an above average grade from PFF for a season 4 times in 6 seasons in the league, so he should remain at least a good reserve option this season and could easily hold his own as a spot starter for an extended period of time if needed. This is still a mediocre offensive line overall though.
The Steelers’ running game wasn’t that effective last season, ranking 29th in the NFL with 3.85 YPC, in large part due to their run blocking issues. First round rookie Najee Harris was the feature back last season and had 307 carries, 2nd most in the NFL, but he averaged just 3.91 YPC on those carries, in part because of run blocking problems and in part due to his own unspectacular play, finishing 36th among 64 eligible running backs in rushing grade, good, but not great. Harris also played a significant passing down role, but also was not efficient in that aspect of his game, averaging just 1.00 yards per route run.
Harris has a lot of talent and would probably be more effective in a smaller role, especially with better blocking, but his blocking situation doesn’t look significantly better this season and the Steelers didn’t add any running back help behind him this off-season, meaning Harris is likely to see just as big of a role as he did last season, when his 978 snaps played were most in the NFL among running backs by a significant amount, with no one else playing more than 808. He could possibly see even more carries, with the Steelers likely wanting to be more run-heavy this season, after ranking 4th in the NFL in pass attempts with 664 and just 28th in carries with 411 last season. Harris is likely to be among the league’s leading rushers, but he probably won’t be all that efficient in the process.
Benny Snell only played 110 snaps last season, with only 36 carries, but that still made him their #2 back, a role he will likely continue serving in this season. Snell was a 4th round pick in 2019, but has shown nothing in three years in the league, averaging just 3.50 YPC on 255 carries, as well as just 0.52 yards per route run as a passing down back. The only other running backs on their roster with any experience at all are 2020 4th round pick Anthony McFarland, who has a 3.22 YPC on 36 career carries, and 2017 undrafted free agent Trey Edmunds, who has just 31 carries in five seasons in the league.
Without a better option than Snell for the #2 running back role, depth would be a big problem if Harris were to get hurt, which has a greater than average possibility, given the huge workload he is expected to have for the second straight year. Harris is also likely overstretched in that workload and would probably be more effective if he had another capable back behind him. It’s surprising they didn’t add to their backfield at all this off-season, aside from undrafted free agents.
The Steelers’ receiving corps has been a relative strength for the Steelers over the past two seasons, but it was still a position of need this off-season, as the Steelers opted not to retain three wide receivers that saw at least somewhat significant roles at the position last season, JuJu Smith-Schuster (222 snaps), who began the year as a starter before getting hurt in week 5, as well as James Washington (479 snaps) and Ray-Ray McCloud (536 snaps), who saw significant roles in Smith-Schuster’s absence last season. None of them produced much, all averaging fewer than a yard per route run, but the only notable replacements the Steelers added were rookies, 2nd round pick George Pickens and 4th round pick Calvin Austin.
Both have upside, especially Pickens, but they might not be that reliable in year one. The Steelers don’t really have a choice but to rely on one at least one side of them for a significant role though, with no other good options on the roster, as their veteran options Miles Boykin, Gunner Olszewski, Anthony Miller, and Steven Sims totaled just 9 catches between the four of them last season. It wouldn’t be hard for the Steelers’ rookies to be an upgrade on the wide receivers who the Steelers let go of this off-season, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be efficient or effective.
With questionable depth behind them, the Steelers will rely heavily on their two top wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Johnson was Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target the past two seasons, ranking 8th in the NFL in targets in 2020 with 144 and 2nd last season with 169. He’s posted good slash lines, 88/923/7 and 107/1161/8 respectively, but those are actually underwhelming considering how many targets he has gotten.
Over the past two seasons, Johnson has ranked 27th and 10th in the NFL in receiving yardage, which is good, but much lower than his rank in targets, while averaging 1.83 yards per route run and 6.66 yards per target over the two seasons total. Roethlisberger definitely loved targeting him, but it’s unclear if whoever the Steelers’ new quarterback is will have the same preference. Johnson will probably still be the team’s leader in targets, but if that’s more like 120-130 than 150-160, that will have a noticeable effect on his production.
Claypool would probably be the primary beneficiary of Johnson seeing a smaller target share and he’s been the more efficient player of the two over the past two seasons, since being selected in the 2nd round in the 2020 NFL Draft, averaging 8.10 yards per target, as well as a 1.84 yards per route run average, despite not seeing nearly the same target share as Johnson (109 targets and 105 targets respectively). Only going into his age 24 season with a huge athletic ceiling, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Claypool had a bigger passing game role and broke out in his third season in the league in 2022.
Tight end Pat Freiermuth is also a candidate for a larger passing game role, after averaging 1.26 yards per route run as a 2nd round rookie in 2021, a decent average for a tight end, and posting a 60/497/7 slash line in close to an every down role. Also a good blocker, Freiermuth finished his rookie season as PFF’s 9th ranked tight end in overall grade and he has the upside to develop into an above average starting tight end for years to come long-term. I would expect an uptick on the 79 targets he had last season and for him to be a more effective player as well.
The Steelers also still have #2 tight end Zach Gentry, who played 473 snaps last season and wasn’t a terrible pass catcher (1.04 yards per route run), but who is mostly just a blocking tight end, a role he will remain in this season, and who probably wouldn’t produce much if he had to start to Freiermuth’s absence. Johnson, Claypool, and Freiermuth are solid options, but this is largely an unspectacular group, with depth concerns.
The Steelers’ defense has a big drop off from 2019-2020 to 2021, falling from 3rd in defensive efficiency in both 2019 and 2020 to 20th in 2021. Given the Steelers’ issues on offense and that they are highly unlikely to continue winning close games at the rate they have been the past two seasons, the Steelers are going to need their defense to perform at a level much closer to their 2019-2020 defense than last year’s defense. Part of the reason for their decline is simply that elite defensive performance tends to be very hard to maintain year-to-year, compared to elite offensive performance.
While an elite offense is largely quarterback driven, which usually remains steady year-to-year, an elite defense usually needs 7-9 players playing at an above average level and with defensive players leaving in free agency, getting hurt, or regressing on a regular basis in the NFL, it becomes very tough to maintain that high level of play every year. For the Steelers, all three happened to some of the key players on their dominant 2020 defense.
Two key players who got hurt were interior defenders Stephon Tuitt, who missed the whole season, and Tyson Alualu, who was limited to just 57 snaps in 2 games. In 2020, Tuitt played an every down role in 15 games (779 snaps), struggling against the run a little, but still earning PFF’s 23rd highest overall grade among interior defenders and their 13th highest pass rush grade among interior defenders, adding 11 sacks, 15 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate, despite almost exclusively rushing from the interior. Alualu, meanwhile, played a smaller role (488 snaps), but excelled as a situational run stopper, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender overall and their 7th ranked in terms of run defense grade.
Alualu is expected back in 2022, but he’s now in his age 35 season and, while he could remain a useful situational player, he’s unlikely to repeat his dominant 2020 season, now two years and a major injury later, so he’s not a real difference maker upfront for this group. Tuitt could have been, but he opted to hang them up this off-season, retiring early for injury and personal reasons, ahead of what would have been his age 29 season.
This still wasn’t a bad group in 2021 though, as long-time dominant interior defender Cameron Heyward remained and played at his usual level, finishing in the top-7 among interior defenders on PFF (2nd) for the 4th time in 5 seasons, and Chris Wormley did a good job of stepping into the starting lineup, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked interior defender across 729 snaps, after playing just 148 snaps as a sparingly used reserve in 2020. The Steelers also added further to this group this off-season, adding DeMarvin Leal in the third round of the draft and veteran Larry Ogunjobi in free agency.
Heyward hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet, but age is still a big concern for him, as he’s heading into his age 33 season and is a candidate for a big drop off, which would make it very tough for this defense to return to their 2020 form. Heyward would still probably be a well above average every down player even if he wasn’t his usual self, but it would have a noticeable effect on this defense if he wasn’t as dominant as usual, as he has totalled 65.5 sacks, 87 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate in 134 games from the interior over the past 9 seasons, while playing at a high level against the run as well.
Wormley has a decent chance to repeat last season’s performance. It was the best year of his career and by far his highest snap total, but, before hardly playing in his first season in Pittsburgh in 2020, Wormley earned slightly above average grades from PFF in the previous two seasons with the Ravens on snap counts of 401 and 446 respectively and he was a former 3rd round pick, back in in 2017. A pretty consistent run defender, Wormley has also had a 7.7% pressure rate for his career and, only in his age 29 season, has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter, if not a significantly above average one.
Ogunjobi will also see a big role and he might seem like a steal on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal because he originally agreed to a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal with the Bears earlier this off-season before a failed physical, but that was a massive overpayment, an overpayment so bad that negative fan reaction to the move might have actually led to the Bears pushing for Ogunjobi to be failed medically, recovering from a foot injury that needed surgery.
Ogunjobi has been mostly healthy in his career, missing just 3 games in 4 seasons in the league, while averaging 769 snaps per season, and he has an impressive sack total over those 4 seasons with 20.5, but that’s largely due to volume, as his peripheral pass rush stats aren’t great (7.3% pressure rate over that stretch) and he has generally struggled against the run, leading to him earning middling at best overall grades from PFF in every season in his career except his rookie campaign in 2017 when he was a reserve. That includes a 103rd ranked finish out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 724 snaps in 2021.
Ogunjobi’s addition at least gives the Steelers better depth in 2022, along with the return of Alualu and the draft selection of Leal, which is important because their reserves behind Heyward and Wormley didn’t show much last season, with Isaiahh Loudermilk (288 snaps) Montravius Adams (171 snaps), Henry Mondeaux (244 snaps), and Isaiah Buggs (227 snaps) all seeing action, but none of them earning more than an average grade from PFF. All but Buggs return for 2022, but none are expected to have significant roles barring injury and none are roster locks.
Loudermilk was a 5th round pick so he probably has the best chance of the bunch to carve out a role, but that’s only by default, as Adams is a career reserve who has averaged just 176 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league, while Mordeaux is a 2020 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2021. Led by Heyward and Wormley, this is a solid position group, with Ogunjobi, Leal, and Alualu being added or returning from injury to at least serve in situational roles as reserves, which was a problem area a year ago, but they don’t have nearly the same upside as they had in 2020 when they still had Stephon Tuitt and when Alualu and Heyward were earlier in their 30s.
Another key player from the Steelers’ 2020 defense that they didn’t have in 2021 was edge defender Bud Dupree, who earned an above average grade from PFF across 609 snaps in 2020, prior to signing in Tennessee as a free agent last off-season. The Steelers replaced Dupree by signing veteran Melvin Ingram in free agency to rotate with 2020 3rd round pick Alex Highsmith, who flashed a lot of potential on 440 snaps as a rookie, finishing 27th in overall grade on PFF among edge defenders in his limited role, and who had definitely earned more playing time.
Ingram was pretty good to start the season, but was unhappy with his limited role and demanded a trade, which he got when the Steelers sent him to Kansas City mid-season, after 246 snaps. That led to Alex Highsmith taking on an even larger role, but he was underwhelming across his 851 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2021, playing the run pretty well, but managing just a 7.7% pressure rate. Highsmith showed more pass rush potential as a rookie (9.7% pressure rate) and could be better in year three, but that’s not a guarantee and he’ll have to play an every down role again because the Steelers are even now thinner at this position than they were after moving on from Ingram last off-season, parting ways with all reserve edge defenders who played any snaps for this defense last year except one and not replacing them.
That one player is Derrek Tuszka, who finished last season with 248 snaps played and earned a significant role by mid-season, despite joining the team only after being a final cut of the Broncos, who selected him in the 7th round in 2020, but only gave him 27 rookie year snaps and then gave up on him before his second year. Tuszka was decent in his limited role last season and has earned a continued role, but he would obviously be a projection to a larger role if an injury happened ahead of him on the depth chart and it’s concerning that the Steelers don’t have any other good reserve options aside from him, with their next best option being Genard Avery, a hybrid edge/off ball linebacker who has played just 302 snaps per season between those two positions in 4 seasons in the league.
Fortunately, depth won’t be needed that much at this position because the Steelers’ top edge defender is probably the top edge defender in the league, TJ Watt, who almost never comes off the field aside from occasional breathers, playing 55.7 snaps per game over the past four seasons, while playing 62 of a possible 65 games. Watt missed two games last season and was limited in others, but that still didn’t stop him from tying the all-time single season sack record of 22.5, leading to him winning his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt added 14 hits and a 15.0% pressure rate last season, but he’s such a dominant player that last season was actually his lowest pressure rate of the past three seasons, despite his incredible sack total.
In 2019, Watt had 14.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate and then he followed that with 15 sacks, 27 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate in 2020, while also playing the run at a high level and being the only edge defender in the league to finish in the top-4 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past three seasons. Still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2022 and he could easily win another Defensive Player of the Year award or two at some point before his career ends. He significantly elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group, one with significant depth concerns. They can’t afford to lose Watt for any significant period of time if they are going to have a chance to play well enough defensively to even make the post-season in 2022.
The biggest free agent addition made on this defense this off-season was ex-Jaguar Myles Jack, who signed a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal, but he’s mostly just a replacement for fellow ex-Jaguar Joe Schobert, who was okay in his lone season in Pittsburgh in 2021, earning a middling grade from PFF across 921 snaps as an every down player, but not playing well enough to justify being brought back for a non-guaranteed 9.25 million, especially with Jack being cheaper and a possible upgrade.
Jack struggled mightily in his final season in Jacksonville, finishing 84th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 917 snaps, but he has obvious bounce back potential, still theoretically in his prime in his age 27 season, having finished in the 65th percentile or higher among off ball linebackers on PFF in three of the previous four seasons prior to last season, including a 15th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on PFF across 931 snaps as recently as 2020. A big bounce back is not a guarantee for him, but it’s certainly a strong possibility and I would expect him to at least be more passable than he was a year ago, the worst season of the 2016 2nd round pick’s career.
Devin Bush remains as the other starting off ball linebacker, also playing every down (762 snaps in 14 games in 2021) and also having a strong chance to bounce back after a down 2021 season, finishing 89th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. The 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Bush struggled in a big way early in his rookie season, but turned it around quickly, ranking 19th on PFF among off ball linebackers from week 4 on. He seemed to be carrying that into year two in 2020, but a torn ACL ended his season after 278 snaps in 5 games and he did not seem to be at all the same player upon his return in 2021, leading to his terrible season, as well as another 3 games missed due to injury.
Still a first round talent, only going into his age 24 season, Bush has obvious bounce back potential, another year removed from the injury, and could still develop into an above average starting off ball linebacker long-term. It’s a possibility that 2022 is the best overall season of his career, if he can stay relatively healthy and show his pre-injury form for most of the season, something he never got to do before he got hurt early in his second season in the league.
Also returning is top reserve Robert Spillane, who has been a solid player on snap counts of 347 and 379 respectively over the past two seasons, holding up against the run and in coverage. He probably wouldn’t be a great starting option if forced into significant action, but he could probably hold down the fort for a few weeks if needed. Bush and Jack come with a lot of risk and downside, but the upside is there for them to be at least a solid starting linebacker duo and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be an upgrade over last season, when Schobert was middling at best and Bush was one of the worst off ball linebackers in the league, almost definitely still dealing with the effects of his 2020 injury.
Another key reason for the Steelers’ defensive decline from 2020 to 2021 was a significant decline in play by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had previously been one of the Steelers’ most important impressive players, finishing 11th and 7th among safeties on PFF in the 2019 and 2020 respectively, but who had a down year in a big way in 2021, only earning a middling grade overall from PFF. Especially struggling by his standards in coverage, Fitzpatrick allowed more catches and yards than he did the previous two seasons combined and saw his interception and pass deflection totals fall from 9 and 11 in 2019 and 2020 combined to just 2 and 4 in 2021.
Fitzpatrick is 2018 first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, so he has a great chance to bounce back and be at least significantly better than he was a year ago, even if he doesn’t quite reach his 2019-2020 level of play, but a full rebound is certainly a possibility as well, which would have a very strong, positive effect on this defense as a whole. The Steelers still clearly believe in Fitzpatrick, making him the highest paid safety in the NFL in terms of average annual salary on an extension this off-season, adding on 4 years, 73.6 million to what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. It’s a lot of money, but if bounces back and proves to be a consistently high level safety, he will be worth it.
Fellow starting safety Terrell Edmunds also got a new contract this off-season, albeit a much cheaper one, re-signing in Pittsburgh on a 1-year, 2.385 million dollar deal. Edmunds was also a first round pick in 2018, but, as evidenced by his new contract, his career hasn’t gone nearly as well as Fitzpatrick’s, never finishing higher than 21st among safeties on PFF in four seasons as a starter (60 starts), including a 66th ranked finish among 98 eligible safeties on PFF in 2021. Edmunds is only in his age 25 season though and he’s never been a terrible starter in four tries, so it’s surprising he had to settle for this cheap of a one-year deal on the open market. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in 2022 and, even if he doesn’t, he should remain at least a capable starter, with the upside for more.
The Steelers also upgraded their safety depth this off-season, signing experienced veteran Damontee Kazee, who will almost definitely be an upgrade on last year’s #3 safety Tre Norwood, a 7th round rookie who was PFF’s 92nd ranked safety out of 98 eligible in limited action (388 snaps). Kazee was a 5th round pick in 2017 and seemed to have a breakout second season, finishing 22nd among safeties on PFF in 2018, but he hasn’t been better than middling in any of his other four seasons in the league, proving that 2018 campaign to be something of a fluke. Still, he’s a proven, experienced player with 49 starts in 69 career games and he’s good enough to be starting somewhere, so he’s good depth for the Steelers to have. He also has the versatility to play slot cornerback, as does Tre Norwood, which could be where Norwood moves full-time now with Kazee supplanting him as the 3rd safety.
At cornerback, the Steelers really missed departed free agents Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton from their 2020 defense, when they finished as PFF’s 44th ranked and 34th ranked cornerback respectively, across 908 snaps and 464 snaps respectively. Without them, the Steelers had problems at cornerback for most of the season, with players like Arthur Maulet (380 snaps) and James Pierre (415 snaps) seeing significant roles, especially early in the season, and struggling mightily, finishing 97th and 101st respectively out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF.
Things got better down the stretch when the Steelers inserted Ahkello Witherspoon in a big role, playing 366 snaps in 8 games from week 11 on after playing just 2 snaps all year prior to that, having only been acquired from Seattle by Pittsburgh right before the start of the season for a 5th round pick. Witherspoon was PFF’s 13th ranked cornerback from week 11 on, giving the Steelers a solid trio of cornerbacks with Witherspoon, Joe Haden, and Cameron Sutton, the latter of whom also had decent 2021 campaigns as starters.
The Steelers retained Witherspoon as a free agent on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season, but there’s a reason he was available for only a 5th round pick and a 1.5 million dollar 2021 base salary prior to last season and why he wasn’t expensive for the Steelers to retain this off-season, as the 2017 3rd round pick has been highly inconsistent and injury prone since entering the league, so there’s a very strong chance Witherspoon struggles to keep up the level he played at down the stretch last season for a full year.
Witherspoon has earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of his 5 seasons in the league, but he’s played in just 56 of a possible 81 games, he’s never started more than 12 games in a season (36 total career starts), and he’s never played more than 700 snaps in a season. Still only in his age 27 season, with a lot of talent, it’s possible he could be a solid starter for a full 17 games in 2022, but his history would suggest something is going to go wrong at some point, whether an injury or a stretch of inconsistent play.
Cameron Sutton also returns as a starter and, while Joe Haden was not brought back this off-season, that was because Haden was going into his age 33 season and the Steelers found a younger replacement in Levi Wallace, signing him to a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal in free agency. Wallace went undrafted in 2018, but signed with the Bills, took over as a starter in week 10 of his rookie year, and hasn’t looked back since, making 52 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Wallace hasn’t developed into more than a solid starter, never finishing higher than 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF for a full season, but he’s also never had a bad season and is still only in his age 27 season, so he was a good, cheap signing for the Steelers at a position of need.
Sutton hasn’t developed into more than a solid starter either. Sutton was a 3rd round pick in 2017 and showed promise in limited roles in the first four seasons of his career (293 snaps per season, 8 total starts), but only earned an average grade from PFF in the first season of his career as a starter in 2021 (16 starts). He’s not a bad starter and he’s only in his age 27 season, so he should remain a capable starter, but he probably doesn’t have more untapped upside. Witherspoon seems like the only one of their top-3 cornerbacks who could be a significantly above average player in 2022, but he comes with a significant downside too. Depth is also a concern at the position, especially given Witherspoon’s injury history, as Arthur Maulet and James Pierre return and could be their top reserves behind their top-3.
Maulet is a 2017 undrafted free agent who has never played more than 415 snaps in a season or earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, while Pierre is a 2020 undrafted free agent who is very inexperienced aside from last season’s poor play, seeing just 30 snaps as a rookie. Tre Norwood could also earn a reserve role at cornerback, but he probably wouldn’t be much better there than he was at safety. Justin Layne was a 3rd round pick by the Steelers and still theoretically has upside and could be in the mix for a reserve role, but he hasn’t developed at all, playing just 151 career snaps with just 29 snaps last season, unable to get onto the field even in a position group that has been underwhelming at times. The Steelers should get better safety play this season with Minkah Fitzpatrick likely to bounce back in a big way from a down year, but cornerback play is a concern, especially if Ahkello Witherspoon can’t keep up his strong play from down the stretch in 2021.
The Steelers finished right in the middle of the pack with a 17th ranked special teams DVOA last season and things are likely to remain similar in 2022. Kicker Chris Boswell and punter Pressley Harvin both return, as do core special teamers Ulysses Gilbert, Miles Killebrew, Robert Spillane, who were all among the top-50 on PFF in special teams grade. The only big difference for this group is they are swapping Ray-Ray McCloud, a solid return man, for Gunner Olszewski, also a solid return man. I would expect a capable special teams unit again.
The Steelers’ defense will probably be better than a year ago, but I don’t expect them to be as good as they were from 2019-2020, when they were one of the best defenses in the league. Meanwhile, their offense looks likely to continue being one of the worst in the league, so, even if their defense is better, the Steelers are still unlikely to win as many games as they did a year ago, as they are highly unlikely to have the same record in close games. In a loaded AFC, it’s hard to see this team making the post-season, with a roster that ranks just 26th in average annual salary and looks that way on paper, with a team’s average annual salary of their roster correlating heavily with winning percentage. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC North