Before the Steelers got run out of Kansas City like everyone predicted (including their quarterback), Pittsburgh was up 7-0 five minutes into the second quarter. I thought that maybe they had a chance because all this team has done with a problematic corpse or Mason Rudolph playing QB over the past couple years defies the laws of modern football. If I hadn’t been watching with a die-hard K.C. fan who was calm when normally he’d be a bundle of pessimism, I would’ve had genuine concern about Patrick Mahomes’ confidence gradually unraveling due to Andy Reid osmosis.
I bordered on worried for a couple of reasons: 1) Mike Tomlin is a great coach, and 2) The organization seems to run like Disney; even when a show or movie underwhelms, they continue to break records and walk away with wins. Yeah, Ben Roethlisberger played like Boba Fett post-Sarlacc Pit the past few years, but their brand/success has them ingrained in the conversation.
It was nice to see a player who everyone — besides the most overprotective Steelers fans — wanted out of the league look so vastly, overwhelmingly washed that there’s no doubt his career is over. Stephen Knox wrote about the hero’s sendoff he received but shouldn’t have, so if you want to get angry about that or laugh at NBC omitting “accused rapist” from its word cloud graphic, you can read that here.
The past couple of paragraphs notwithstanding, I’m not going to talk about “7,” as Tomlin so glowingly referred to him. I’m going to talk about what Pittsburgh does at QB going forward, and how their strategy and infrastructure will probably lead to a better outcome than you’d see from most NFL teams trying to rebound after losing their franchise passer. (See Giants, New York.)
If the experts are to be believed, and Rudolph is the Steelers’ plan for next year, then I’m not here to judge or offer steel linings about next year’s team. They’ll most likely go .500 or slightly better again and maybe sneak into the playoffs with a little luck as is the bare minimum under Tomlin.
Here’s what he said after they beat the Browns in Week 17 and secured another non-losing season (vis USA Today):
“Our agenda, this year, is to get into [the] single elimination tournament and then pit our skills against others in that single elimination tournament in an effort to win the World Championship. That’s our mentality every year.
“And so with that mentality, it’s just certain hardware that you expect to pick up along the way. And if you don’t, you’d be seriously disappointed. That’s just an expectation that we have here in Pittsburgh.”
It’s no wonder the media, his players, and Steelers fans love him. He’s one of the best quotes in the league on top of being one of the best coaches. If he says they’re going to try Rudolph next year, I believe him, and I believe in him. (That blind faith stops if they try to fix Dwayne Haskins, because that’s an impossible ask along the lines of correcting Russell Westbrook’s jumper or Charles Barkley’s golf swing.)
It’s easy to say Pittsburgh should’ve drafted a successor earlier, but finding that QB and not pissing off your guy along the way seems like it was too delicate of a balancing act for the organization, so they focused on shoring up flaws Roethlisberger had masked for so long.
T.J. Watt and the defense were an enigma this season as evidenced by my inability to start them the right week in fantasy, but also by their ability to pressure QBs, stop the pass, and hold teams out of the end zone — they led the NFL in sacks (55), were ninth in fewest passing yards allowed per game, and were tied for seventh in fewest TDs allowed — while being abysmal against the run, yielding a league worst 146 yards per game.
Minkah Fitzpatrick recorded 124 tackles, which led the team, and when your safety leads the team in tackles it’s often because running backs are getting loose in the secondary because they’re regularly getting past the front seven. Whether the Steelers were tired, bad, or both, up front is debatable, but constantly being relied on to get stops because your offense can’t score, or getting the ball run down your throat because the other team is protecting a lead/afraid of your pass rush, are key points that should be made in any debate about the defense.
It’s equally difficult to gauge their offense, too, because even if JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t get hurt, they were severely hindered by 7’s inability to raise his yards-per-pass attempt above 7 (6.2 for the season). Their reworked offensive line was able to open up enough holes for rookie Najee Harris to rack up 1,200 yards, so that’s promising if next year’s team is similarly passing challenged, and it probably will be.
I’m not a fan of reaching for a quarterback who’s not there, and the Steelers should avoid tying themselves to any of the underwhelming prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft unless they fall to them ala Mac Jones and the Patriots. However, unlike New England, Pittsburgh made due with a QB who, you know, aged, and they have the experience, coaching, infrastructure, and talent necessary to remain relevant.
As Tomlin stated above, relevance isn’t their goal, but they may have to settle for that until they figure out the answer at quarterback. This year’s playoff berth and the first quarter and a half against K.C. showed that they can hang in there, and that’s a great omen for whoever is selected, signed, or promoted to lead the offense.
You just hope whoever that player is, he’s worthy of a coach as great as Tomlin, a team as talented as the Steelers, and a city as devoted as Pittsburgh.