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State of the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers: Can Mike Tomlin avoid first losing season without Big Ben?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Steelers' organization, Steelers fans around the world and those yinzers who still think Mario Lemieux was better than Wayne Gretzky: 

Ben Roethlisberger retired. He soaked in the final moments of his career. But he's no longer the quarterback of the Steelers. And that marks a huge change for this organization, after 18 seasons. What is in store for Pittsburgh moving forward? Let's take a look.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Making the playoffs after the Raiders and Chargers failed to tie in the final game of the regular season. I mean, what a roller coaster it must have been, watching the Raiders and Chargers, who could have squeezed the Steelers out of the postseason if they'd managed to tie. The fact that it was as close as it got was astonishing. At any rate, Pittsburgh reached the playoffs despite starting the year 1-3.

One low from last season: Chase Claypool celebrating a first down when the team was in the 2-minute drill. Claypool's move came in the closing moments of a close loss to the Vikings in Week 14. This memory might throw some cold water on Claypool's recent statement that he is a top-three receiver in the NFL.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Tomlin. We obviously don't know what happened behind closed doors, but seeing how the Antonio Brown era ended in Tampa Bay, is there any chance we can go back and make Tomlin the Coach of the Year retroactively for every season Brown spent in Pittsburgh? The way Tomlin handled those teams, which were not exactly short on drama, and still finished no worse than .500 in each of his 15 seasons on the job so far, might be more impressive than what Bill Belichick has done in New England. (It's not. But I'm going for dramatic effect right now.)

Tomlin's .500-or-better streak will be put to the test this year. But as I showed in my predictions for the coming season, I think that Tomlin is going to hit that .500 mark again. (Yes, there will be a tie.)

By the way, if this interview with Tomlin doesn't motivate you, nothing is going to.

Quarterback: Mitch Trubisky. I would have liked for the Steelers to give it a real go with Mitch for one season, to see what he could do. Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins, before Haskins' tragic passing in April, would have rounded out a veteran QB room, and with Trubisky as the leader of the group, perhaps he could have mounted a Ryan Tannehill-like turnaround. After all, Trubisky was 29-21 in his career as a starter with the Bears, from 2017 to 2020, and he recorded winning records in his starts in three of the four years he was there. I would have just gone with him for the year.

But that's almost certainly not going to happen now, after the Steelers used the 20th overall pick to select Kenny Pickett, who played college football at Pitt. You saw how excited Franco Harris got before he called out Pickett's name at the 2022 NFL Draft. And for good reason. Pickett set an ACC single-season record with 42 touchdown passes in 2021 -- more touchdown passes than he had from 2017 to 2020 combined (39). He looked good. Pickett also has the hometown thing going in his direction. (I'm not saying the Steelers are still smarting from their decision not to take a certain other Pitt quarterback in the 1983 NFL Draft, but you can't help but see that miss looming.)

That said, there have been just seven quarterbacks selected 20th overall or later who actually started Week 1 of their rookie season since 2015. Now, some of them -- Dak Prescott, Derek Carr and Russell Wilson -- ended up being pretty good. But it's reasonable to expect Trubisky to get the job to begin the season, even if it seems like a matter of time before he's replaced by Pickett.

Projected 2022 MVP: T.J. Watt, Edge. Watt tied Hall of Famer Michael Strahan's single-season sack record with 22.5 last season. Only, unlike Strahan, Watt did it in just 15 games, not 16, and Brett Favre wasn't out there looking like a less-than-resistant target. Watt also joined Reggie White and Mark Gastineau as the only players in NFL history to lead the league in sacks in back-to-back years. Nobody has done it three times. Watt and White are also the only players to ever record 13-plus sacks in four straight seasons.

New face to know: Brian Flores, senior defensive assistant/linebackers. How is it that the Steelers always end up with highly qualified coaches like Flores on their staff? Oh, that's right -- good organizations always find a way to win by seeking out great talent like this all the time. Like, all the time.

2022 breakout star: Buddy Johnson, linebacker. The 2021 fourth-round pick is currently buried on the depth chart behind the newly signed Myles Jack and Devin Bush. But Bush, whose defensive grade from Pro Football Focus ranked 58th among linebackers who played at least 50 percent of defensive snaps last season, has never quite lived up to the expectations set when Pittsburgh drafted him 10th overall in 2019. With Flores on this staff, I'm looking for the 23-year-old Johnson to flash, or at least get regular defensive snaps. I'd also like to shout out Alex Highsmith here, so I can point back to this next season when he finishes with 10 sacks.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Steelers be able to ...

... keep the offensive line from being a liability? This group has been a question mark in recent years. Many people tried to warn me away from drafting Najee Harris in fantasy last season because the line was, in their words, "garbage," and the O-line did finish ranked 26th by PFF. Still, I thought the unit was decent, despite the ranking (Harris finished fourth in the NFL in rushing, after all, with 1,200 yards), perhaps best embodied by guard Kevin Dotson's not-bad PFF grade of 64.5. Pittsburgh added James Daniels, my colleague Gregg Rosenthal's No. 23 ranked free agent of the offseason, and solid veteran center Mason Cole. Plus, for however long he starts, Trubisky could continue to help mask the offensive line the way Roethlisberger did: by getting rid of the ball quickly. Trubisky's career numbers with less than 2.5 seconds to throw (72.9 percent completion rate, 31:11 TD-to-INT ratio, 95.5 passer rating) are comparable to Roethlisberger's over the last two seasons (70.3 percent completion rate, 37:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 97.5 passer rating), per Next Gen Stats.

... coax some improvement out of the defense? We've talked about T.J. Watt -- he's awesome, obviously. Saying that is like saying Kenobi was great. People know this; we don't need to explain it too much. And, not surprisingly, Pittsburgh has excelled at getting to the quarterback since Watt arrived in 2017, collecting a league-leading 273 sacks in that span. But the Steelers ranked 20th in scoring defense and 24th in yards allowed last season -- the first time they'd finished 20th or worse in either category since 1991, Chuck Noll's last year on the job. Their brutal showing against the run (they allowed 146.1 rushing yards per game, last in the NFL) no doubt played a big part in that. The aforementioned predicted breakout by Johnson, along with the additions of Jack, Flores and defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi (who, uh, has some history with the team) could help shore up this weakness.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: George Pickens' draft photo. We are still trying to figure out what exactly was going on in this photo right here. But we shouldn't let us distract that from the potential that made Pickens a pre-draft darling, with Daniel Jeremiah ranking him 61st among his top 150 prospects. Anyone excited about him before the draft should only have had those feelings cemented when he was selected in Round 2 by the Steelers, a team that has not missed on a single wide receiver in the last 30 years. OK, yes, I know there are one or two duds in reality. But a quick glance of the productive receivers they've hit on (including Claypool in 2020, Diontae Johnson in 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2017, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown in 2010 and Mike Wallace in 2009) illustrates what I'm talking about. Pickens has the talent to be one of those guys who can challenge for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, even with the relative uncertainty at quarterback.

... people shouldn't overlook: Najee Harris is Mike Tomlin's "side project." I already took a victory lap on Harris outperforming expectations in his rookie season behind that flawed offensive line. In the interview I linked to in Tomlin's section of this piece above, he said he wants Harris to take a bigger leadership role this season with the Steelers. This is a good sign for one of the most productive offensive players of 2021 -- Harris ranked fourth in the NFL in scrimmage yards, with 1,667. I'm a little concerned with the heavy workload, given that Harris also led the league with 381 touches, including 74 catches, giving him the sixth-most touches in a season by any rookie in NFL history. But he did bulk up to a Jerome Bettis-like weight (in a good way), and he's a second-year guy, so I'm not going to be overly worried about it. And yes, I'm probably just trying to talk myself into taking him in my fantasy league again.

For 2022 to be a success, the Steelers MUST:

Finish at or above .500. OK, so as I mentioned in my discussion of Tomlin above, finishing exactly at .500 is a little tricky in this world of 17-game schedules. But I'm confident they can get that tie if need be to preserve Tomlin's non-losing steak. The point is, even though the Steelers are, long-term, one of the top organizations in the NFL, this is a good bar to set at this point. It would be foolish to expect them to compete for a Super Bowl title in 2022. I mean, they probably still will, but it'd be foolish to expect it.

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