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Saunders: Steelers Simply Ran out of Time to Turn Season Around



Steelers Draft Cam Heyward
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward greets fans as he heads to the locker room following an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. The Steelers won 28-14. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 regular season on a tear, winning each of their last four games and four of their final six as one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the second half of the season.

They won’t get a chance to keep that streak going, though. 

The Steelers, who finished 9-8 on the season after beating the Cleveland Browns to close the regular season on Sunday, were eliminated from the playoffs when the Miami Dolphins beat the New York Jets on a last-minute field goal.

Just like that, moments after the Steelers beat the Browns to finish with a winning record, their Cinderella run struck midnight. About 20 minutes later, outside linebacker T.J. Watt was still processing the idea of the team’s season being over.

“I think it will take a little bit of time to kind of understand and come to terms with it because I feel like we were just starting to play some really damn good football,” Watt said. “But that’s the business. We didn’t get it done this year. There’s a lot of stuff to build on, and we move on.”

The Steelers played each of the four AFC teams involved in games that helped determine their fate. They lost to all of them, two of them at home. In retrospect, it was the four-game losing streak from Sept. 18 to Oct. 9 that sank the Steelers season.

In the middle of that streak, head coach Mike Tomlin made the choice to go to Kenny Pickett as his starting quarterback. The Steelers won eight of the 13 games that Pickett started, and while his play was not quite enough to overcome the team’s 1-3 start without him, it does provide some promise for the future, even if the team failed to accomplish its goals in 2022.

“We did not grade this group on a curve,” Tomlin said. “We did not grade Kenny Pickett on a curve. We don’t function like that. Football is a game. Our business is winning, and our intentions are to handle business.”

But Tomlin acknowledged that even he felt that the Steelers were closing fast on not just being a playoff team, but a good one: “we were a team on the rise.”

“I felt like, if we got in, we had a good chance to make some headlines,” Watt said. “But we’ll never know.”

The Steelers will have plenty of parting gifts to take away from the 2022 season, despite not getting to compete for the grand prize. Tomlin extended his NFL record to now 16 consecutive non-losing seasons to start his career.

The play of first- and second-year players like Pickett, George Pickens and Najee Harris largely provided the springboard for the team’s second-half turnaround, especially on offense.

“We saw a lot of improvement,” Pickett said. “Really liked the way we were improving and getting things off tape and moving the ball really well.”

But those obvious positives to the season won’t be much solace when the team breaks up this week and spends the playoffs watching on TV from home.

“Wish we had another week to keep improving,” Pickett said. “When you don’t take care of business, you don’t control your own destiny. So that’s what happened.”

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