Mike Tomlin enters his 16th season as the Steelers head coach, joined by the second-year offensive coordinator and play caller Matt Canada and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin via the in-house promotion. There are a few things to take away from the coaches alone – Matt Canada is adept at tailoring an offense to the strengths of his players, meaning we should look to those strengths to get a better feel for how the offense should look; Teryl Austin has been with the organization since 2019 and has previous defensive coordinator experience (Lions 2014-2017 and Bengals 2018); and, finally, the identity of the team should remain with the retention of Tomlin (who has received some backlash from fans over the previous two seasons). That said, the rebuild is in full effect for these Steelers in 2022. Not only has their defense continued to regress over the previous three seasons (22nd-ranked total defense in 2021), but they come into 2022 with a bottom-five ranked offensive line and a new quarterback. Speaking of the new quarterback, Mitch Trubisky has all but assuredly won the offseason quarterback battle, beating out rookie Kenny Pickett. So, when we circle back to Canada and his ability to design an offense around the players on the field, we’re left with a journeyman quarterback behind a poor offensive line and declining defense (which influences play calling). The biggest issue with Trubisky behind a poor offensive line is his slower-than-average processing speed and long release time, which could mean a plethora of sacks taken this year, backing up the offense to long down and distance to go and stalled drives. At the same time, however, the plus arm strength and ability to throw into tighter windows can help offset those discrepancies should Canada place him in the past environment to succeed, which I think he can.
Najee Harris is one of the true bell cow backs remaining in the NFL, and based on the depth behind him at the position; I expect that to remain the case moving forward. The biggest issue is expected efficiency, as Harris is coming off a season of 3.9 yards per carry on 307 totes. The expected and proven pass game involvement, in addition to elite volume, will keep him in weekly consideration regardless of the opponent. The matchup is a net-negative for Najee on the ground against a revamped zone-based Bengals defense, but one of the glaring holes in the defensive scheme for Cincinnati is passes to running backs out of the backfield (filtered 135 targets to the position in 2021, fourth most in the league). Behind Najee, I tentatively expect rookie Jaylen Warren to serve as nothing more than a sparsely utilized change of pace back, with Benny Snell on hand for emergency usage (this situation still isn’t entirely clear, so Snell might start the season in a backup role, but the volume shouldn’t matter, regardless).
In stark contrast to the talent on the roster in the trenches, the pass-catching corps of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, George Pickens, Pat Freiermuth, and the aforementioned Najee Harris is one of the more dynamic units in the league. One of the more interesting developments with this unit this offseason is the shifting of Claypool from a perimeter role to the slot, which was a product of the release of Juju Smith-Schuster and replacement by George Pickens. That kind of athleticism out of the slot is not something often seen at the NFL level, which will create routine mismatches against typically undersized slot coverage. Considering our exploration of the offensive design above, I would expect we see a re-emphasis on ball-out-quick timing, layered crossing routes designed to stress coverage, high running back route involvement, and the occasional deep shot built off of it all. That means this offense, and Mitch Trubisky in particular is going to have to be efficient in order to sustain drives and put points on the board. It can be done, as we’ve seen in the past, but we’re likely to see a relatively wide range of weekly outcomes from this team to start the season.