Watt’s injury altered Steelers path to contention in 2022

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The path to contention for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022 was always going to be narrow.

It almost always is for a team in its first season after a franchise quarterback walks out the door for the final time.

For the Steelers to navigate the early stages of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era without bottoming out, they needed two things to happen simultaneously. The defense needed to be, as coach Mike Tomlin...

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The path to contention for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022 was always going to be narrow.

It almost always is for a team in its first season after a franchise quarterback walks out the door for the final time.

For the Steelers to navigate the early stages of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era without bottoming out, they needed two things to happen simultaneously. The defense needed to be, as coach Mike Tomlin promised during the offseason, “dominant.” And whoever replaced Roethlisberger at quarterback — be it Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett — needed to essentially not lose games with careless turnovers.

The plan worked. Well, for about four-ish quarters anyway.

The Steelers overwhelmed defending AFC champion Cincinnati in the early stages of the season opener. T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and the rest of Pittsburgh’s front seven ransacked the Bengals’ offensive line, overwhelmed and confused Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow and appeared to have rediscovered the snarl the unit lacked against quality teams in 2021.

Trubisky played it safe, more than happy to fill the role of game manager while the defense went to work.

Then Watt felt a searing pain in his chest as he tried to corral Burrow late. In the brief moment it took for Watt’s left pectoral to tear, the arc of Pittsburgh’s season irrevocably changed.

While the Steelers still managed to somehow pull out an improbable overtime victory — thanks to more than a little help from the Bengals — whatever margin for error they had evaporated.

By early October Trubisky’s brief stint as the starting quarterback was over and the defense was a middling mess that took turns wilting a littleor a lot.

The bottoming out that has long served as part of the circle of life for most NFL teams during the salary cap era — just not in places such as Pittsburgh — finally appears to be at hand.

The Steelers are 2-6 after eight games for just the second time in Tomlin’s 16-year tenure. In 2013, Pittsburgh summoned enough to rally to an 8-8 finish, narrowly missing a playoff berth.

Yet that group had Roethlisberger in his prime and offensive stars on the rise in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. It also had a locker room scattered with players who still had a Super Bowl appearance (or two) on their respective resumes.

The 2022 version of the Steelers does not. The leaders on offense include co-captain Najee Harris, who says all the right things but is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Trubisky remains a co-captain, though his biggest role right now is serving as a de facto mentor to the 24-year-old Pickett, who has been thrust into the role as one of the faces of the franchise a little earlier than Tomlin initially planned.

Tomlin has tried to strike an even tone throughout perhaps the most difficult stretch of his career. He also knows, however, that what he says matters far less than what his team does.

“Words are not going to get it done, actions are,” Tomlin said. “We’re going to work hard and roll our sleeves up and continue this process.”

As painful as it might be, at least in the short term.

WHAT’S WORKING

Not much, though one of the few bright spots has been the emerging chemistry between Pickett and fellow rookie George Pickens. The athletic 6-foot-3 Pickens perhaps had the catch of the first half of the season in a loss to Cleveland in September and has looked like the downfield threat the Steelers desperately need.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Just about everything else. The offense is in the bottom quarter of the league in almost every major statistical category, including points (31st), yards (28th) and turnovers (28th). Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has become a flashpoint for the unit’s struggles, and he has done little in his 26 games calling the plays to come up with something that can work at the NFL level. His job security after the season appears tenuous at best barring a major turnaround.

The defense hasn’t been much better. The Steelers had seven sacks in Week 1. They have eight total in seven games without Watt.

STOCK UP

Expectations for inside linebacker Devin Bush both inside and outside the organization plummeted in the offseason to the point where the Steelers declined to pick up Bush’s fifth-year option.

While the 2019 first-round pick still hasn’t returned to the form he showed before tearing the ACL in his knee early in 2020, Bush has been solid if not spectacular. Considering where Bush was at a year ago, it’s a step up.

STOCK DOWN

Harris looks the part of an NFL starting running back. His production, however, is not matching his pedigree. Playing behind an offensive line that looks more comfortable backpedaling in pass protection than it does trying to open running lanes, Harris has been a non-factor.

An effective running game would go a long way to taking some of the pressure off Pickett to do it all. At the moment, it’s not happening.

INJURIES

Watt could return as soon as this Sunday against New Orleans. The week off likely helped defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (knee), who has been effective at times after signing a one-year deal.

KEY NUMBER

8 — the number of interceptions Pickett has thrown in 165 pass attempts as a pro. He threw just seven interceptions in 497 attempts during his breakout season at Pitt last fall. While not all the picks are his fault, Pickett needs to take better care of the ball if the Steelers are to have any shot at stringing wins together over the second half.

NEXT STEPS

Try to build some momentum toward 2023 over the season’s final nine games. The schedule isn’t overly daunting. The Steelers face just two teams the rest of the way who entered Monday with winning records: AFC North rivals Cincinnati and Baltimore.

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