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Saunders: Steelers Vision for the Future Becoming Clear as Khan Puts Stamp on Team



Pittsburgh Steelers GM Omar Khan

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers run their draft process as a team. 

Head coach Mike Tomlin gets to know the players, studies them as people, and figures out which ones he can get the most out of. Assistant general manager Andy Weidl sets up the board and shepherds the scouting department through its process. Omar Khan reads the room and figures out what the rest of the NFL is going to do, setting up the Steelers in a position to maximize their value return on every draft pick. 

President Art Rooney II is mostly hands-off, setting the direction for the franchise and whose image he wants the team to resemble. Rooney is the one who has a plan for what the franchise is supposed to look like and how it’s supposed to run.

Over the last few years, with the exception of some injuries to some of its top players, the Steelers’ defense has largely lived up to that vision. The offense has not.

The Steelers started the process of revamping the offense in 2021, before the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, but the first steps were false ones. Reworking the offensive line with mid-round draft picks in Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green did not work. Najee Harris has now gone through most of his rookie contract without a playoff win, partially because of that first failure. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada and quarterback Kenny Pickett have already been jettisoned.

In 2022, general manager Kevin Colbert retired and Khan and Weidl took over. The plan they’re executing today is a new one. It started last year’s draft class, when the Steelers added first-round tackle Broderick Jones and big, blocking tight end Darnell Washington. It continued this offseason, with the hiring of Arthur Smith as offensive coordinator, and this week’s drafting of offensive tackle Troy Fautanu and center Zach Frazier in the first two rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft.

“I think we have an idea of what we want the Steelers offense to look like,” Rooney said in February.

It’s starting to look pretty clear. The Steelers are leaning on what Weidl built with the Philadelphia Eagles and remaking this offense from the trenches out. The team has used four picks in the first two days of the last two drafts on players that are primarily blockers.

“When you want to play a certain brand of football — a Steelers brand of football — it certainly helps to have the right guys,” Smith said after securing Frazier in the second round on Friday.

The Steelers now have locked down three of their five offensive line slots for the foreseeable future, plus a blocking tight end. They have two running backs under team control through 2025. The Steelers are going to be able to run the ball.

And if they can do that, they think they can put Russell Wilson and/or Justin Fields in enough advantageous situations that they’ll be able to find their big-play receivers down the field, or underneath workers like Pat Freiermuth and third-round wide receiver Roman Wilson to move the chains.

That’s the same plan that the Eagles largely use. It’s the same plan that the Tennessee Titans used when Smith was the offensive coordinator there, getting to No. 4 in scoring offense in 2020.

It might not be the sexiest plan. It might not be the plan that is the most fun to play with on Madden. It might not be great for your daily fantasy football lineup. But when combined with a suffocating defense, it’s absolutely a plan that can win a lot of games.

Is it going to get the Steelers to the Super Bowl? With quarterbacks like Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes patrolling the AFC, it’s hard to call them favorites, even to come out of the AFC North, despite another strong draft.

But one of the lessons of the failure of Pickett should be that it’s a lot easier to develop a quarterback if you put him in situations where not much is required of him. That’s how the Eagles brought Jalen Hurts along. That’s what the Steelers themselves did with Ben Roethlisberger way back when.

If he develops into a star of his own right, then the offense can be remade in his image. Until then, keeping winning games with subpar quarterback play until it gets better is the best possible outcome.

The Steelers made a bunch of not-very-Steelers like moves this offseason, but one thing that remains an organization touchstone is the singular focus on a plan. It looks like the Steelers have everything lined up and everyone pulling in the same direction to get this one a lot closer to success than the last one.