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Pittsburgh Steelers: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

The quarterback will be different but the expectations haven't changed for T.J. Watt and the Steelers.

For multiple reasons, the Steelers are entering unfamiliar territory in 2022. The first and most obvious one starts at quarterback, where the Steelers will enter a season without Ben Roethlisberger for the first time since 2004.

The second reason has a lot to do with the first. For the first time in a long time, the perennially contending Steelers likely will enter 2022 as the most popular pick to finish at the bottom of a loaded AFC North. But while the other North teams have their answer at football's most important position, they largely lack the long-term organizational stability that has helped the Steelers thrive more often than not. That's what Pittsburgh will be banking upon as it enters 2022 with more questions than answers but a track record that indicates it will get them figured out in short order.

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OFFENSE

The first answer to "Who replaces Roethlisberger?" came at the start of free agency, when the Steelers signed former No. 2 pick Mitchell Trubisky to a two-year, $14 million contract. Things haven't gone as planned for Trubisky, who fell short of expectations during a four-year run with the Bears and spent the 2021 season backing up Josh Allen in Buffalo. Though he didn't play much, Trubisky says he benefited immensely from the experience. It cleared his head from a tumultuous time in Chicago, allowed him to focus on his fundamentals and exposed him to a winning culture. Then came the draft. From the start with the Steelers, nothing was handed to Trubisky, who was to compete with holdover Mason Rudolph, and that became even clearer when the Steelers used the 20th overall pick to take Kenny Pickett, the star QB next door who led the Pitt Panthers to an ACC title with an unforgettable senior season. Considered a high-floor, NFL-ready quarterback, Pickett brings an even bigger spotlight to Pittsburgh's three-man quarterback competition — the first of its kind since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007. Make no mistake about it: Pickett is the Steelers' future behind center. But for 2022, Tomlin won't hesitate to play whoever emerges as the best option to win games in the present. "We're in a competitors' business," Tomlin said after the draft. "They understand that."

The Steelers got exactly what they wanted from 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris, who enters his second season as one of the league's most promising running backs. It's hard to find anyone in the league who runs harder than Harris, who somehow compiled 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns despite running behind an offensive line that struggled to block anyone. Only Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor carried the ball more in 2021 than Harris, and Harris will likely get a similar workload this season. Benny Snell Jr. finished 2021 with the second-most carries on the team with only 36.

About that offensive line — there are reasons to believe it will be a better product this season. One year after they entered the season with the league's least experienced O-line, the Steelers are still green in spots — projected starting LT Dan Moore Jr. is entering his second NFL season — but they've also got more certainty and stability at others. Chukwuma Okorafor fortified his spot at right tackle after signing a three-year extension, and the Steelers signed two veterans — G James Daniels and C Mason Cole — who could play significant roles on a retooled, but not completely rebuilt, line.

Wide receiver saw the most turnover of any position on the roster this offseason, but there's little reason to believe the Steelers will have much drop-off. If anything, this group could be in for an even bigger year with a quarterback — whoever it is — capable of stretching plays and finding openings down the field. This was an area where Pittsburgh understandably struggled in 2021 with a pushing-40 Roethlisberger, but it wasn't for a lack of talent at the skill positions. Pittsburgh has some legitimate weapons in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and it also has one of the best young tight ends in the NFL in Pat Freiermuth. Add in second-rounder George Pickens — a first-round talent who fell because of character and injury concerns — and Pittsburgh has every reason to believe it can be just a little bit better.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Schedule

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DEFENSE

Just like the offense, Pittsburgh's defense enters the 2022 season with a situation it hasn't faced in a long, long time. Seemingly always stout against the run, Pittsburgh bottomed out in 2021, finishing dead last in rushing yards allowed per game (146.1) and average yards per carry (5.0). Whether or not it was strictly a byproduct of injuries will be determined in the coming season because the Steelers haven't changed much of anything in their front seven.

Stephon Tuitt was expected to be back in the fold after missing all of 2021 with a knee injury but he unexpectedly announced his retirement in late May. Pittsburgh signed former Brown/Bengal Larry Ogunjobi to a one-year contract to replace Tuitt. He'll be flanked up front by All-Pro Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu, the latter of whom missed all but two games last season with an ankle injury. There's hope Devin Bush, the former first-round pick, will be better than he was coming off a knee injury in 2021. The Steelers swapped out Joe Schobert for Myles Jack, who was a lone bright spot on a woebegone Jaguars team. No matter the case, the Steelers simply have to be better against the run because they play in a division that features plenty of unpredictable climates and two teams that run it more than anyone (Baltimore and Cleveland).

No one in the division, though, has T.J. Watt, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. Watt just kept getting better and better last season, and there's no reason to believe he'll slow down in his sixth season. A pass rusher like Watt makes everyone around him better, and while the Steelers have yet to recoup the production lost due to the departure of Bud Dupree, who left in free agency before the 2021 season, it doesn't seem to matter much when it comes to disrupting the opposing quarterback. Pittsburgh is riding an unprecedented streak of five straight seasons of leading the NFL in sacks. To make it six, it will need another special season from Watt and, perhaps, some more ascending from Alex Highsmith, who went from two sacks as a rookie to six in 2021.

Despite Watt's career year, the Steelers' secondary took a step back in 2021, and it's unclear if the unit will be much better this season. Veteran Joe Haden is gone, and he's been replaced with Levi Wallace, a solid, under-the-radar cornerback who spent his previous seasons with the Bills. Asking Minkah Fitzpatrick to recreate his unforgettable 2019 campaign, when he intercepted five passes on his way to his first of back-to-back All-Pro honors, would be a stretch, but it's fair to hope he can be better than he was in 2021. Fitzpatrick has seen his turnover numbers drop in each of his three seasons with the Steelers, and it served as a reflection of the Steelers' defense as a whole, which went from one of the league's best turnover-producing units in 2020 to a middle-of-the-pack unit in 2021.

SPECIALISTS

Chris Boswell remains one of the league's most reliable and longest-tenured kickers, as he'll navigate the tricky conditions of Acrisure Stadium for an eighth season with the Steelers. Pressley Harvin III is firmly entrenched as the Steelers' punter after averaging 42.6 yards on his punts last season. After three years of returning punts and kicks for the Patriots, Gunner Olszewski will take over the role in Pittsburgh, where he'll look to build upon his 1,668 career return yards.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Steelers have the track record, tradition, stability — you name it — to never be completely counted out. There are elite, All-Pro players on defense and talented players sprinkled across the offense, and the team is led by a future Hall of Fame head coach. Ultimately, though, the Steelers' 2022 campaign will be determined by what they get from the quarterback position in a division that's filled with great ones and a conference that boasts most of the best the league has to offer.

Prediction: 4th in AFC North