Tim Benz: Latest ESPN offseason poll frames a significant question for 2022 Steelers

The latest in an endless torrent of NFL offseason polls, rankings and lists on national websites actually revealed an interesting truth about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Most of these posts are just filler for the league’s downtime in July before training camp. They are simply conversation starters to drive traffic and move the needle on social media.

But the one ESPN.com recently released, outlining a list of every team’s greatest strength by position group, had a telling admission about the Steelers: It is hard to find a single spot on the depth chart without significant questions.

The Football Outsiders compilation (revealed Friday) is titled “The best position group for all 32 NFL teams: Strongest units and top depth charts for 2022.”

As examples, the wide receivers (Tyler Boyd, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins) were highlighted on the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. Running backs Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson were singled out in Cleveland. And the Ravens’ batch of players at safety (Chuck Clark, Kyle Hamilton, Marcus Williams) got the nod in Baltimore.

When they got to the Steelers, though, they admitted some massaging needed to be done. Instead of naming a position group, ESPN.com just said “pass rush.”

“It’s a bit of a cheat, since the pass rush in Pittsburgh incorporates both edge-rusher linebackers like TJ Watt and down linemen like Cameron Heyward. We list the pass rush here for the Steelers largely thanks to the brilliance of those two players. Watt and Heyward combined for 31.5 sacks, 21 hits and 61 hurries in 2021.”

There’s nothing to argue with there. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks for the fifth straight year, and, as Football Outsiders points out, they have been first or second in adjusted sack rate each of those seasons, as well.

But the fact that those who put the list together had to manipulate the Steelers entry by fudging Watt and Heyward into the same position is indicative of a concern for head coach Mike Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff. Forget questions about having enough depth on the 2022 squad. Is there enough frontline talent on the team to make a run in the playoffs for the first time since 2016?

Beyond Watt, Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers cupboard isn’t exactly stocked with All-Pro talent.

For instance, ESPN.com could’ve just said “defensive line” for the Steelers top position group. After all, Heyward is there. Chris Wormley had a career-high seven sacks a season ago, and Tyson Alualu is an above-average player who gives quality snaps at both end and nose tackle.

However, with Stephon Tuitt retiring, the Steelers are putting a lot of eggs in Larry Ogunjobi’s basket, coming off a significant foot injury. Not to mention, those who absorbed the snaps for Tuitt and Alualu during their 2021 injuries were part of a defensive front that yielded an NFL-worst 146.1 yards per game on the ground.

Because of Watt, the site could’ve simply said “linebacker” or “outside linebacker.” But opposite Watt, Alex Highsmith was decent — not great — in 2021. A critique even Highsmith has made about his own play. Inside, Myles Jack should be an upgrade over Joe Schobert. How much of one? That needs to be seen. And Devin Bush is coming off a poor 2021, trying to recover from a 2020 knee injury.


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After Fitzpatrick, the secondary is largely made up of individuals known more for their versatility and solid play off bench in specific roles than playmaking capability as starters.

On offense, the perceived starting quarterback — Mitch Trubisky — is taking over after a year as a backup in Buffalo. He bypassed the second-string guy, Mason Rudolph, who was once beaten out for playing time by Devlin “Duck” Hodges. And first-round pick Kenny Pickett may not even be active on game days to start the year.

Running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth are the only weapons worth mentioning at their positions. The offensive line should be better than a year ago. But aside from newly acquired James Daniels at guard, there doesn’t appear to be a player with Pro Bowl aspirations on the horizon.

As for the wide receivers, there is plenty of talent within the group. Yet it’s unclear if it will manifest. George Pickens and Calvin Austin III are intriguing draft picks. Diontae Johnson was a Pro Bowl replacement in 2021. Then there’s Chase Claypool. He talks a big game, but over his first two seasons hasn’t had enough big games to talk as big as he does.

So I get where the folks at ESPN were coming from in their explanation about the Steelers. The pass rushers, as a collective, are flashy and talented. After them, though, the roster is chock-full of youthful question marks, potential that has yet to be honed and average players who need to make above-average leaps in terms of consistent contributions.

Because of those reasons, it’s no wonder so many pundits nationally are expecting the Steelers to go through a sixth straight season without a playoff victory.

Tim Benz is a Tribune Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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