Steelers 7-2 finish shows the arrow is pointed up


Sam Himrod

Another year, another winning season for the Steelers. It definitely wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day, for the 20th year in a row, the Steelers finished .500 or better. 

The Steelers walked into Cincinnati in week 1 to play the reigning AFC Champions and pulled out a 23-20 win in overtime. It certainly wasn’t a pretty game. It was a game we had no business winning, and yet we won. The defense forced Joe Burrow into throwing 4 interceptions, his career high. Certainly a good start for a team that is in a “rebuilding year”. 

Then the losing streak began, losing four in a row to the Patriots, Browns, Jets, and Bills. The Bills game was certainly the worst of that bunch, losing 38-3. The good news was that Kenny Pickett, in his first career start, threw for 327 yards against a very strong Buffalo defense on the road. 

I’m not the guy who likes to blame injuries, but TJ Watt, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the man who holds the NFL single season sacks record, got hurt week 1 and didn’t return until week 11. Obviously the defense wasn’t the same without him. 

Pickett, in his second start of his career, beat Tom Brady which was certainly a building block for him. The Steelers lost a close one in Miami, and then were blown out by the then undefeated Eagles. The Steelers were 2-6 and needed the bye week in week 9.

They looked like an entirely new team after a week off in week 9. They finished 7-2 in the second half of the year, and every single position improved after the bye. 

The biggest thing that stands out to me is Kenny Pickett’s growth and maturity, specifically his turnovers and timely throws. He threw eight interceptions in his first five games leading up to the bye week. 

He only threw one interception the rest of the year, which led the Steelers to a 6-1 record with him playing the whole game (he was knocked out against the Ravens with a concussion which also held him out vs the Panthers).

The recipe for success for Pickett was fairly simple: take care of the ball and good things will happen. 

Another huge reason for the turnaround was the running game. Najee Harris was banged up for much of the first half of the year, but came back from the bye looking like his rookie-year self. He ran more powerfully and more decisively than he had at the start of the year, which paved the way for his second consecutive 1,000 yard season. 

Jaylen Warren was the perfect complimentary back to Harris. He ran hard and made the most of his touches. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry on the season. Warren was also excellent on third downs, both in pass protection and in the receiving game. The Steelers might have found a diamond in the rough with their undrafted free agent Warren.

The run game brings us to the offensive line. It came into the season young and inexperienced, which showed. The run game was sub par, and the pass protection wasn’t good either. However, the group got stronger and stronger as the season progressed. The same starting unit played 99.2% of snaps together, which is unheard of in the NFL. They stayed healthy and became dominant by the end of the season. 

The defense stepped up its game as well. Alex Highsmith had a breakout year on the edge, totaling 14.5 sacks and forcing 5 fumbles, the most in the NFL. If he can keep up the production, the Steelers will have a dominant edge rushing duo in Highsmith and Watt.  

Excluding week 11 vs the Bengals, they gave up an average of ONLY 14 points per game. It’s no wonder the team finished 7-2.

Minkah Fitzpatrick tied for the NFL interceptions lead, tallying six on the year. He got back to playing like the Pro Bowler that we anticipated he would be after a down year last season. He was also great in coming down into the box and making timely tackles in the running game.

The run defense improved drastically in the second half of the season. They went from giving up 118 yards per game to less than 100 yards per game. Cam Heyward lived in the opposing backfield, and the free agent signing of Larry Ogunjobi paid off big time, as he ate up blocks that allowed the linebackers to come down and fill the running lanes.

The Steelers front office did an excellent job in this past year’s draft. In the first round, they got a franchise quarterback in Kenny Pickett. They followed that up by giving him a big weapon outside in George Pickens. It seemed like anything Pickett threw to Pickens was caught. I think he could end up being the best wideout from the draft class. The future looks really bright with those two in the passing game. 

In the third round they grabbed a DT from Texas A&M DeMarvin Leal who showed signs of being a solid player. They then drafted WR Calvin Austin from Memphis who unfortunately suffered an injury that held him out for the year. 

Connor Heyward, Cam’s younger brother, was an excellent utility piece for both the offense and special teams. In the 6th, they grabbed a raw prospect LB Mark Robinson out of Ole Miss who got significant playing time at the end of the season and showed some promising flashes. 

Mike Tomlin proved once again why he is one of the best coaches in the NFL. Despite starting 2-6 and with people saying it was a lost cause, he was able to lead the team to a 9-8 record. The Steelers are in good hands as long as Tomlin is at the helm.

The Steelers were able to put key building blocks into place in the second half of the season that could contribute to the organization’s success for a long time.