The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers did not have an overall dynamic offense, finishing 26th in points, 23rd in yards and 28th in yards per play.
Even as the team’s results swung toward the positive in the second half of the season, as the club finished with a 7-2 record after its bye in Week 9, it was not necessarily driven by strong offensive play.
In those nine games, the Steelers scored 30 points just once — a 37-30 loss to Cincinnati on Nov. 20 — and scored 20 points or fewer five times.
The combination of low scoring and winning brings up an interesting question. Were the Steelers incapable of scoring more, or with an inexperienced quarterback and shaky offensive line, or were they trying to win with as little risk as possible?
The Steelers’ one bad loss in that stretch — a 14-16 home setback courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 11 — came by way of three Mitch Trubisky interceptions.
In his eight games after the break, Kenny Pickett threw just one over 389 pass attempts, when he was hit as he threw against the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 24.
Turning the ball over is a good way to lose a football game, and a lot of what the Steelers were doing in 2022 was predicated on minimizing that potential impact.
“I think there’s a balance for us and we’re going to continue to let (more-aggressive play-calling) grow,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “If you look at the stats and go through them, the games that we turn the football over, we didn’t win and that doesn’t mean you can play afraid not to make a mistake, but there’s a line there. You can’t just go out there and wing it around.
“We have an organizational plan of what we’re going to do, we got a tremendous defense standing out there that’s going to play really good, we’re going to put our special teams in a good spot. All those things add up for us to win. Stats are great, but we’ve got to do our part and we’re going to be really, really good at doing that on offense, but ultimately, it’s only about winning.”
Of course, sometimes, winning requires more offensive output. The Steelers learned that the hard way early in the 2022 season, when the team’s defense couldn’t keep pace with high-powered offenses from the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles.
The Steelers suffered losses of 38-3 and 35-15 to those teams, leading some to question the import of that second-half run that largely came against less-than-stellar competition.
But there’s one game in there that bucked both of those trends, that home loss to the Bengals on Nov. 20.
In the first half, the Steelers offense matched the Bengals score for score. In fact, they basically mirrored the Cincinnati possession for possession.
The Bengals went three and out, the Steelers went three and out. The Bengals kicked a field goal, the Steelers kicked a field goal. The Bengals scored a touchdown, the Steelers scored a touchdown. Then they did it again, with each of them scoring on 10-play drives.
When the Steelers defense finally stepped up for a big stop, with T.J. Watt intercepting Joe Burrow, the Steelers went into the half with a three-point lead.
In the second half, the Steelers offense was no longer able to keep up. On the team’s first two four drives of the second half, they gained a total of 19 yards and got no first downs. They didn’t score again until a Najee Harris touchdown run with 45 seconds left made the final score look closer than it was.
The Steelers showed in that game that they could be a more-aggressive offense that can keep pace with one of the top units in the NFL, even when the team’s defense isn’t having a great day.
But they also showed a lack of consistency in the ability to make that approach last for 60 minutes. It’s not that the Steelers got passive in the second half. They just stopped executing.
On those first four drives of the second half, they run four times and threw eight times. But Pickett was 2 for 8 for 12 yards on those attempts. That’s a 39.58 passer rating in the third quarter. In the second half of the game, Pickett was 11 for 23 for 124 yards, with most of that coming after Cincinnati had a two-touchdown lead.
But the fact that they kept pace with the Bengals for a half suggests the offense they need to be is not that far off.
Moving into 2023, Pickett believes that the improvements in personnel the team made in the offseason, with the additions of wide receiver Allen Robinson II, tight end Darnell Washington, guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Broderick Jones, while retaining nearly every significant member of the 2022 offense, has the team in better position to be able to run with the big dogs for a full 60 minutes if necessary in 2023.
“We have that ability,” Pickett said. “We have the guys on the outside. We have the guys in the backfield, up front. We have everything in place that if we execute, we’ll be able to go shot for shot with those guys. That’s the goal, those teams that are playing deep into February, they have that. That’s where we need to get to.”
The Steelers don’t want to win games that way. They’d much prefer to lean on their elite defense, run the ball well and have Pickett do just what’s necessary to get a win.
But if they want to be considered one of the best in the NFL, they’ll need to show that they can win a shootout when they need to, as well.