By Jeremy Hritz
Steelers Training Camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania is a little under 1 week away, and soon, the team will begin the real work of preparing for the 2022 season. It’s a season of change, as after 18 years the Steelers will be with a new quarterback, a new defensive coordinator, and of all things, an irritatingly renamed stadium (Heinz Field forever!). In anticipation and preparation for camp on July 26th, here are the top 10 questions I see facing the Steelers as business is about to begin.
1. Will the Offensive Line Improve?
We can all recall the awful play of the offensive line in 2021, and it was a major reason why the offense was bad as it was. Poor pass protection, and ineptitude in opening holes for Najee Harris, the offense, for a second year in a row was going nowhere, and it seems a small miracle that Harris ran for 1200 yards. With the addition of James Daniels at right guard and Mason Cole at center, in conjunction with the development of players like Dan Moore, Kevin Dotson, and Kendrick Green, there are reasons for optimism. One thing is for certain, if the OL struggles again, it will be a long season for the offense.
2. Will the Defensive Line Improve?
It begins and ends with both lines, and as bad as the offensive line was last season, the defensive line was equally as ineffective. Sure, injuries and the absence of players such as Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, made the unit tenuous, but their absence forced players such as Isaiah Loudermilk, Chris Wormley, and Montravius Adams to gain valuable playing time which should make the unit overall better. Factor in the return of Aluala, the signing of Larry Ogunjobi, and rookie DeMarvin Leal, and overall, there are quality players to provide a healthy rotation to keep the unit fresh. It all starts with stopping the run, and the DL will have to show they are prepared and able to do just that.
3. How Will the Defense Change Under Teryl Austin?
Keith Butler retired this offseason, and the Steelers promoted Teryl Austin to defensive coordinator. Butler was often criticized for being unable to make adjustments in game, though some will argue that it is Mike Tomlin calling the defense, was known for prioritizing pressure, and the defense lead the NFL in sacks consistently. Under Austin, it should be expected that we see tweaks and adjustments, and possibly more of an emphasis on coverage and pass defense due to his background. Players this offseason spoke about Austin’s attention to detail. Does this mean that the scheme will be too complex for the players, causing them to think too much instead of play? While we don’t know, his touch on the defense is greatly anticipated.
4. Will Kenny Pickett Start a Game?
While it’s not written in stone, it would take a flat-out failure in order for Mitch Trubisky to not begin the season as the starting quarterback; however, how many games he lasts in such a role is debatable. Kenny Pickett was drafted to be the next franchise quarterback, and upon poor play from Trubisky, Pickett’s name will be called. The question is whether or not Trubisky can play well enough to last the season as the starter and what the team’s threshold will be to pull him for bad play. Regardless, the former Chicago Bear and Buffalo Bill is in the unfortunate position of playing in front of fan favorite, and when the first interception/fumble/poor play occurs, the chants for Pickett will begin.
5. Can Devin Bush Rebound?
Devin Bush had his worst season of his young career that many attributed to his recovery from his ACL tear. Whether it was stopping the run or covering tight ends down the seam, Bush struggled with both, and it was one of the reasons for the poor run defense in 2021. There were also concerns last offseason with his social media behavior, and thankfully, there have been no such disruptions this summer. There is hope that the addition of defensive guru Brian Flores can help reinvigorate Bush and help him rekindle the quality performances from his first two seasons. There is also the element of playing for a contract as the Steelers did not pick up his 5th year option. Play well, and not only help your team, but also set yourself up for future financial stability through free agency.
6. How Does Ahkello Witherspoon Perform as the New Starter Opposite Cam Sutton?
Joe Haden is gone. Enter Ahkello Witherspoon, who played well in spot duty last season near the end of the year, but there is uncertainty whether or not he can be an effective performer as the man for the duration of a season. Witherspoon has ball skills and athleticism, though not top end speed. He provided splash in 2021 that has provided for some optimism, but as the primary starter, can he sustain such a performance remains to be seen. I’ve written about how cornerback is the position with a great deal of uncertainty, and Witherspoon is a big reason for that. The Steelers need him to produce in a big way, or they will be forced to rely on their depth at the position which is also unproven/average at best.
7. Who Is the Leader in the WR Room?
With the departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the wide receiver room is now without veteran leadership. Both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have their issues with focus, and in Claypool’s instance, maturity. With no true vet in the room, and with the addition of two rookies in George Pickens and Calvin Austin, both who will be expected to play, Johnson and/or Claypool must step up and assume a leadership role. The question is, can they do it? With Johnson’s contract situation looming, it will be interesting to see how his role with the team evolves, and additionally, how does either player have enough team capital to assume the role of a leader? The Steelers need both Johnson and Claypool to have productive seasons if this offense is going to thrive because everyone else is unproven.
8. Does Najee Harris Have a Breakout Season?
Najee Harris was solid in his rookie season, despite playing behind a poor offensive line, showing he can be not only a running threat, but a threat in the passing game as well. Heading into year #2, expectations are tremendously high for him to produce at the level of an elite running back to live up to his first-round draft pick pedigree. With the offensive line improved (yes, an assumption, not fact), there is reason to believe he will eclipse his yardage totals from 2021, and be the leader of the offense. However, you have to wonder that if the passing game struggles, will defenses key exclusively on Harris and impede on the effectiveness of the rushing attack? Wait and see.
9. Is 2022 Mike Tomlin’s First Losing Season?
Head Coach Mike Tomlin has never experienced a losing season during his tenure with the Steelers, but that could be in jeopardy since Ben Roethlisberger is no longer with the team. With all of the new pieces on offense, new coaches, and a new signal caller, this season could be Tomlin’s most difficult yet. There is no reason to believe he is not up to the challenge, and quite possibly, all of the movement could create a clean slate for newfound success.
10. How Does Big Ben’s Absence Impact This Team?
It’s going to be weird with Roethlisberger. After 18 years, there will be a new leader of the Steelers, and I’m not sure people have given this as much thought as it deserves. Roethlisberger will go down as one of the most revered players for the Steelers ever, and without him on the roster, there is sure to be some residual, intangible effect. What is it? I don’t know. But I am interested to find out.