By Jeremy Hritz
The wide receiver position should be much improved over 2021 for one reason: speed. Last year, the Steelers lacked a receiver who was able to get behind defenders, and it limited how the offense could attack, making them a predictable unit. Factor in an aging QB with limited mobility and a penchant for the short passing attack, and the result was mediocre at best.
Rookie George Pickens not only offers speed, but aggression and physicality, and the willingness to sacrifice his body for the catch to make spectacular receptions in traffic. In addition, he is an eager contributor in the blocking game, and he could end up being a complete receiver for the team. We should, however, not expect immediate results from Pickens because it could take some time, especially with a new quarterback, to get into a rhythm. Once he does, look out.
Rookie Calvin Austin also provides the element of speed and shiftiness, and if he can get healthy, he will be given the opportunity to contribute in the passing attack. How long it takes him to get healthy is the biggest question mark.
Returning for the Steelers is WR#1, Diontae Johnson, fresh off his contract extension, and ready to prove himself as a number one receiver in the NFL. He made several outstanding catches during training camp, as well as in the preseason, and he appears poised for a year of personal bests. The key for Johnson is a) to stay healthy and b) to reduce his drops. This has been a challenge for him in his first few seasons, and while he improved in 2021, he has to continue to show focus and concentration to grow and improve.
Chase Claypool is a big-bodied pass catcher entering year #3, and after a down season in 2021, there is reason for optimism for elevated output this year. Like Johnson, Claypool struggled with concentration last season, and failed to pull in several passes that should have been caught. He also hurt the team at times with a lack of emotional control, which led to unnecessary penalties. If he can put these things behind him and return to the output of his rookie season, it could be a special year for him. However, you have to wonder whether or not Pickens steals some of his opportunities.
Gunnar Olzewski and Steven Sims are similar-type players who have speed and are able to provide spark in the return game. Sims is the more agile, faster receiver of the two, while Olzewski is rugged and more eager in the blocking game. Where both struggle is with ball security, and this has to be a focus for improvement so it doesn’t become an issue than hurts the team once regular season play begins.
Miles Boykin made the roster for his special teams play, but I’m not convinced he sticks and doesn’t end up on the practice squad.
Overall, this unit now has the best of both worlds in terms of possession receivers and speed, but it is unproven and needs to establish consistency if they are going to become a standout group in the league.
Steelers Offensive Line, Offensive, or On the Rise?
Where do I begin?
2021 was a disastrous year for the Steelers offensive line. Poor run blocking, shoddy pass protection, it was one of the factors that led to the early demise of this team in the postseason. This offseason, the team added right guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole, and there was optimism about how they could elevate the play of this group in 2022. Well, the preseason did not necessarily endorse that sentiment for these newcomers.
In addition, Dan Moore, the second year left tackle out of Texas A&M, whom everyone had high expectations for, played the worst out of all the linemen, looking like a turnstile, allowing pressures, sacks, and racking up penalties. This is worrisome, as Moore is responsible for protecting Trubisky’s blind side, and if he cannot at least regain his output from his rookie season, there is reason to be concerned about the health of the quarterbacks.
Kendrick Green was moved to left guard this offseason to compete with Kevin Dotson, but that did not work out. In camp, and in all three preseason games, Green was consistently overpowered and pushed into the backfield, generating some discussions about whether or not he would be cut, let alone make the team. Green did survive final cuts, and will serve as a backup at LG and center, but he will not see the field unless all depth is exhausted. Dotson will start at left guard, and he has promise and potential if he can stay healthy. It will be his third year, so the expectation for him to be the people-mover he was drafted to be must come to fruition.
At right tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor returns, and is the most consistent and stable linemen that the Steelers have. Some will argue that this is all you need to know about the state of the Steelers offensive line, but I believe that Okorafor will have his best season yet, as he enters his 5th season and is only 25-years old. Okorafor has much potential and is athletic, and he could be on the verge of his best season.
JC Hassenaeur is a viable option as depth at center and guard, but beyond him, this team doesn’t have many options if there are injuries.
I wouldn’t draw to final of a conclusion on the offensive line just yet as they have a new OL coach, new players, and still haven’t had time to gel as a unit. After about 3-4 games, we should have an idea of what we have with this group. Will it be more of 2021, worse, or a pleasant surprise?
The answer will probably be somewhere in the middle.