PITTSBURGH — Sixteen years in, Mike Tomlin still hasn’t endured a losing season in Pittsburgh.
As much as the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers coach appreciates the way his team rallied down the stretch to end up 9-8, he also couldn’t care less that his record streak — the most consecutive seasons of finishing .500 or better to start a head coaching career in NFL history — remains intact.
“My agenda is getting in the single-elimination tournament, pursuing the confetti game and winning it,” Tomlin said Monday, less than 24 hours after Pittsburgh’s unlikely pursuit of a playoff berth ended when Miami slipped past the New York Jets in the final minute to secure the AFC’s seventh and final seed.
The Steelers found themselves in the mix until the final weekend of a wildly uneven season thanks to the steady progress of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and the return of all-everything linebacker T.J. Watt, who missed seven games after tearing his left pectoral in Week 1.
While Tomlin preached the “next man up” standard, the reality is there are few — if any — defensive players in the league who can replace Watt. Pittsburgh spent two months largely adrift while Watt healed. Though there are a litany of reasons why the Steelers got off to a nightmarish 2-6 start, the absence of Watt’s familiar No. 90 created a void Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin could not adequately fill, the primary reason the Steelers looked cooked at midseason.
Only they weren’t, a testament to Tomlin’s rock-steady leadership and the pervasive culture of a franchise that never panics, even with Pickett taking over as the starter in Week 4 and enduring a rocky onboarding process as he tried to get up to speed.
“Typically, when I was walking into the building, I thought things were going to be tense,” said linebacker Myles Jack, who signed in Pittsburgh in the offseason after spending five years in Jacksonville. “(Tomlin) didn’t start tripping. He didn’t start yelling. It didn’t turn into a finger-pointing match.”
Pittsburgh finished with a 7-2 flourish, including four straight wins to end the season, two of them courtesy of last-minute game-winning touchdown passes by the rapidly maturing Pickett.
The mistakes that piled up incessantly during Pickett’s bumpy opening month on the job vanished as December bled into January. Pickett threw just one interception over his final eight appearances, an encouraging sign for the Steelers in a division that includes Joe Burrow and — at least for now — Lamar Jackson.
“I felt like I made a good jump there in the learning curve, and I want to make that leap into Year 2,” Pickett said.
If Pittsburgh wants to get considerably closer to the “confetti game” in 2023, Pickett will have to.
While there are question marks on the roster — particularly on defense — heading into next season, the offense could be set. Every offensive starter is under contract for next season save for fullback Derek Watt.
“We’re young, but we’re also really talented and I think that for us to come together through all of the adversity we had earlier in the year, especially to finish out the season the way we did, it’s motivation for us,” running back Najee Harris said. “We should be hungry for next year.”
The biggest question heading into the offseason centers on offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who became a lightning rod as the unit struggled to score, particularly early in the season.
The Steelers averaged just 18.1 points per game, 26th in the NFL and the franchise’s worst performance — save for 2019, when former quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost at halftime of Week 2 with a right elbow injury — since 1998.
Tomlin credited Canada for improving as the season went on, particularly as the running game started to thrive when the weather turned colder. It’s far too early to tell, however, whether Canada will be given a chance to return in 2023.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
There could be significant turnover at all three levels of the defense. Veteran defensive linemen Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormly, inside linebackers Devin Bush and Rob Spillane, cornerback Cam Sutton and safeties Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee will all become free agents in March.
Most of the pending free agents expressed an interest in returning. Bush, however, is unlikely to be one of them. The 2019 first-round pick saw his playing time diminish down the stretch. He saw the field for just 10 snaps combined during pivotal must-win games against Baltimore and Cleveland, a clear indication the coaching staff doesn’t feel he has the physicality to hang in the AFC North.
Kevin Colbert may have done his old bosses one final solid last spring when the longtime general manager put together the 2022 draft class before retiring. From Pickett to wide receiver George Pickens to defensive end DeMarvin Leal to tight end Connor Heyward to undrafted rookie free agent running back Jaylen Warren, Colbert hardly left the cupboard bare.
Current general manager Omar Khan and assistant Andy Weidl find themselves in an enviable position as they prepare for their first draft together. Pittsburgh will have three picks in the top 50 after it landed Chicago’s second-round pick when it sent wide receiver Chase Claypool to the Bears at the trade deadline.
Finding difference-makers on the defensive line and in the secondary figure to be a priority.
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