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Saunders’ Steelers Prediction: As Far as O-Line Can Take Them



Pittsburgh Steelers Kevin Dotson Kendrick Green Minicamp

The Pittsburgh Steelers have several questions to answer coming into the 2022 season, not the least of which is who will be the team’s starting quarterback of the future as the franchise moves on from future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but the team this season will go only as far as the offensive line takes them.

The Steelers have plenty of other questions, both for 2022 and beyond in other places.
The quarterback position, as always, has drawn plenty of intrigue, with some calling for first-round pick Kenny Pickett to start over Mitch Trubisky immediately and almost everyone is wondering how long it will be until the youngster takes over.

That’s a big story for the future of the Steelers, as the team needs to figure out which, if either, of those players will be the team’s quarterback of the future.

But I don’t think that distinction really matters much for 2022. All three of the Steelers quarterbacks looked fine in the preseason and all three seem likely to be able to shoulder the load and deliver at least an above-average performance this season. That’s as good as the Steelers got from Roethlisberger from the past two seasons, and they made the playoffs in both of those years. All three seem to be better fits for the kind of offense that Matt Canada wants to run.

They also have excellent depth, so if there’s an injury or one player doesn’t look as good in the regular season as they did in the preseason, Canada has other options to work with. In short, the Steelers won’t have an elite quarterback in 2022, but the position probably won’t be a negative, either.

The Steelers also have a question mark on the interior of the defense. The team just can’t be successful and be the worst team in the NFL at stopping the run as they were a year ago. Health will be a factor, as the Steelers are counting on some older (Tyson Alualu, Cam Heyward, Myles Jack) and recently injured (Devin Bush, Larry Ogunjobi) players, but the team appears to have solidified a spot that was a big question mark last year. And even as bad as it was last year, that unit didn’t stop the Steelers from a winning season and a playoff berth. Any improvement will go a long way toward shoring up question marks in other areas.

I’m not worried about the backs and receivers, which are extremely talented. Nor am I worried about the secondary, with a star in Minkah Fitzpatrick and solid depth down to the Dime back. The pass rush led by T.J. Watt should again be one of the most potent in the league.

Really, the only question mark that I see impacting the team’s performance this season is the offensive line, and boy is it a doozy. That starts with a challenge this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Trey Hendrickson against Steelers left tackle Dan Moore Jr. is the kind of mismatch that can get a quarterback killed — thank goodness for that depth — but it’s also far from the biggest one this Steelers line will face this season.

There’s two games against Myles Garrett, though Moore acquitted himself well against Garrett in 2021, one against Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones, another against Brian Burns, Carl Lawson, Cameron Jordan, Haason Reddick, Shaquil Barrett and house-wrecker of the regular season opener, ageless Buffalo Bills star Von Miller.

Almost every week, the Steelers offensive line is going to face a player that figures to be better at rushing than they are at pass blocking.

New addition Mason Cole will at least help get the ball to the quarterback consistently without getting blown backward into his face, but he’s far from a pass-rush savant, with a 44.1 Pro Football Focus grade in 2021.
Fellow new addition James Daniels figures to be a legitimate improvement in the run game, but his 68.3 pass-blocking PFF grade from 2021 is a tick below the 72.7 Trai Turner posted at that spot last year.

They might be able to make some more room for Najee Harris, and the Canada scheme used to its full potential can minimize some of their shortcomings with things like screens, waggles, bootlegs and shovel passes.

But all in all, it’s hard to see that unit being able to hold its own this season as things stand right now. And the additions of Cole and Daniels, while providing some improvement, have also sapped the unit of its potential. Only Moore and perhaps left guard Kevin Dotson could reasonably be expected to give more than they’ve shown to this point.

This is, of course, not news. Mike Tomlin openly spoke of the struggles of that unit in the preseason, and the lack of draft-pick investment over the years has been obvious. The Steelers are picked to win 7.5 games by the oddsmakers, at least in part, because of concerns about the offensive line.

In some ways, those concerns are probably overblown. Like almost everywhere else on the team, I don’t expect the offensive line to be worse than it was last year. It could be slightly better.

But the Steelers were probably fortunate to be 9-8 in 2021. The Steelers scored 343 points while allowing 398. Their pythagorean record, based on average point differential, was 7-9-1. They went 8-2-1 in one-score games, including two overtime victories. Is it reasonable to expect them to repeat that over-performance of their averages in the win column?

It depends on what you attribute that over-performance to. If you think it was the magic of an old great at quarterback like Roethlisberger willing the Steelers to victory, then you’re probably bearish on those chances.
I think Tomlin is an underrated coach that gets the most out of his team and puts them into position to win games they probably shouldn’t. They beat Buffalo on the road, came roaring back to nearly do the same at the LA Chargers, and swept Cleveland and Baltimore right out of the postseason.

The Steelers also have one of the most accurate clutch kickers in the history of the league in Chris Boswell, always an ace in the hole in close games.

I don’t know if they’ll again win 80% of their one-score games, but the Steelers are a group that has been in that position a lot and thrived and should be able to do so again.

This season’s schedule is daunting, with trips to Cincinnati, Buffalo and NFC East favorites Philadelphia and a home game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all coming before the Week 9 bye.

But the reports of the Steelers death have been greatly exaggerated from this perspective. A strong defense, improved running game and consistent if average quarterback play won’t count the Steelers among the AFC’s elite, but the team should have little to fear from the middle-class teams like New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Las Vegas that populate the schedule.

So I’m predicting that the Steelers will finish 9-8, and with an AFC North tiebreaker win over the Ravens, advance to the postseason as a Wild Card team.

Full season prediction:

L at Cincinnati
L New England
W at Cleveland
W New York Jets
L at Buffalo
L Tampa Bay
W at Miami
L at Philadelphia
W New Orleans
L Cincinnati
L at Indianapolis
W at Atlanta
W Baltimore
W at Carolina
W Las Vegas
L at Baltimore
W Cleveland