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Are the Pittsburgh Steelers the AFC's Most Underrated Team?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJuly 1, 2022

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The AFC is absolutely stacked this year. Most of the teams in the AFC West spent the offseason loading up on impact players at a dizzying pace. The AFC North fielded two postseason teams last year and has three legitimate playoff contenders in 2022. Same for the AFC East. The AFC South features the conference's top seed from a year ago in the Tennessee Titans and an improved squad in the Indianapolis Colts.

However, while well over half of the conference has odds of 20-1 or better to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl at DraftKings, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a long shot at +5000. Those odds indicate that Vegas is falling into the same trap that many fans and pundits are.

With the Steelers set to roll out a new quarterback in 2022, the team is being written off. But the folks doing so are underestimating Mike Tomlin's bunch. Look past the uncertainty at quarterback, and you see a team with the potential to make some noise this season.

Maybe even the most underrated team in all of the AFC.

Of course, most of the questions in the Steel City this year are focused under center. After an 18-year-career that included six Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl wins and the most passing yards in franchise history by a massive margin, Ben Roethlisberger is gone. Per Bobby Kownack of NFL.com, Pittsburgh's head coach admitted you can't just replace a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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"First of all, the dude's talent. When you watch somebody do something at a certain level for so long, it messes up your perception of what's regular and what's not," Tomlin said on The Pivot podcast. "The dude's arm talent was so special for so long. When you see special stuff every day, you get used to it. I've enjoyed that comfort, we've all enjoyed that comfort. I'm excited about being uncomfortable. Yeah, we might not have the type of quarterback play that we've had, we might not have the special talent that we've had, but we got capable dudes. And we've got a team."

The job of leading Pittsburgh's offense in 2022 will fall either to veteran free-agent acquisition Mitchell Trubisky or rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett. If early practices are any indication, Trubisky has a decided edge over Pickett: The former has been working almost exclusively with the first team, while Pickett has worked behind Mason Rudolph with the third team. As Gerry Dulac wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Trubisky told reporters at OTAs that he is ready to take the reins offensively.

“I’m preparing to be a starter,” Trubisky said. “I feel like, no matter what position you’re in, that’s the way you should prepare. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but I’m getting a lot of good reps. I feel really comfortable in the offense. I feel very confident.”

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This is the point when caveats are offered up. The first is that Trubisky is (obviously) not Roethlisberger. If he were, he wouldn't be on his third team in as many years. And if the Steelers start losing games, Pittsburgh is going to want to see what it has in Pickett sooner than later.

But the thing is, Trubisky doesn't have to be Roethlisberger for the Steelers to make the playoffs. Heck, Pittsburgh made the postseason a year ago and Roethlisberger wasn't Roethlisberger. His 3,740 passing yards were his lowest total in a season where he played at least 14 games since 2008. So was his 86.8 passer rating.

Simply put, Big Ben looked cooked last year. Finished. His arm strength was just gone.

Trubisky may not be a world-beater, but he was 29-21 as the starter over four seasons in Chicago. Twice in three years, Trubisky helped guide a Bears team constructed similarly to the Steelers into the postseason—including in 2018, when he threw twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions, went 11-3 as the starting quarterback and made the Pro Bowl.

Trubisky isn't as bad as he's been made to be after playing in Matt Nagy's offense in Chicago. And now he's with arguably the most stable and well-coached team in the league.

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Trubisky won't be hurting for weapons in the passing game. The Steelers still have wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool and tight end Pat Freiermuth, and while JuJu Smith-Schuster left in free agency, Pittsburgh took steps to offset that loss with the addition of Georgia's George Pickens in the second round of the 2022 draft. Running back Najee Harris was fourth in the NFL in rushing as a rookie, and per Chris Carter of Steelers Now, Tomlin said on that same podcast appearance that the young bruiser is ready to take on a leadership role in Year 2.

“I’m bridging the transitional leadership relationship between Cam Heyward and Najee," Tomlin said. "Like, Najee is a leader. He was a born leader. He’s got good football morals. He sees the game the way we see the game.”

Then there's T.J. Watt and the Pittsburgh defense. Watt won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022 after tying Michael Strahan's single-season sack record with 22.5. Pittsburgh's 55 sacks in 2021 led the league for the fifth season in a row. The Steelers were also ninth in the league in pass defense (215.1 yards per game).

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This isn't to say the Steelers don't have issues defensively. The team barely ranked inside the top 20 in scoring defense and fielded the worst run defense in the NFL last season. But the addition of capable veterans like linebacker Myles Jack and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi should go a long way toward fortifying Pittsburgh's susceptibility to the run, and the addition of fifth-year cornerback Levi Wallace was a big get on the back end.

That defense is going to keep Pittsburgh in more games than not.

If there's a potentially glaring weak spot in Pittsburgh, it's the same as a year ago: the offensive line. At the conclusion of the 2021 season, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers offensive line 26th in the league. Dallas Robinson of Pro Football Network recently ranked the line even lower at 29th:

"The Steelers have the league’s least expensive offensive line—and it shows. James Daniels was one of the most cost-effective signings in free agency, but even that move was somewhat canceled out by Pittsburgh allowing Trai Turner to depart. Even if the Steelers can coax league-average play out of their interior, tackles Dan Moore Jr. and Chuks Okorafor haven’t looked like NFL starters."

There's no sugarcoating the fact that the line is an issue in Pittsburgh. But two years ago, Trubisky led a Bears team whose line barely ranked inside the league's top 20 to the postseason. There's also a new offensive line coach in Pittsburgh in Pat Meyer, and so far, veteran tackle Dan Moore likes what he sees.

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“He knows how guys move and that there’s different ways to do things,” Moore said, per Carter. “Everybody moves different, has different body types and styles. The same block might be completely different for someone else. He’s a vet as a coach and does a good job of knowing his players. He’s really been a great leader.”

To be fair, the Steelers aren't the only underrated team in an AFC where there are many more teams with a chance of making hay in the postseason than without.

The Miami Dolphins made one of the offseason's biggest trades in acquiring Tyreek Hill from the Kansas City Chiefs. The team also completely overhauled its running backs. That's a lot of new firepower for new head coach Mike McDaniel and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. After an atrocious 1-7 start last year, the Dolphins won eight of their last nine games. If Miami's 15th-ranked defense improves, the Dolphins could make life difficult for the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.

So could the New England Patriots, who actually have longer Super Bowl odds than the Dolphins. The Patriots won 10 games and made the playoffs last year and sport a top-five defense. New England brought over DeVante Parker to serve as the team's new No. 1 receiver, plus the team has a head coach who knows a thing or two about winning.

Bill something.

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The Las Vegas Raiders made splashy moves on both sides of the ball in the offseason, trading for wide receiver Davante Adams and signing veteran edge-rusher Chandler Jones. Despite those acquisitions and Derek Carr coming off the most passing yards of his NFL career, the Raiders have the worst Super Bowl odds in their division despite making the postseason in 2021.

That's not all. The Tennessee Titans have been relegated to also-ran status despite winning 12 games and capturing the conference's No. 1 seed in 2021.

Each and every one of those teams' odds is 18-1 or worse to rep the AFC in Super Bowl LVII. But there are only three teams with worse odds than the Steelers: the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans.

Lumping the Steelers in with those bottom-feeders seems incomprehensible. After all, in 15 years as the team's head coach, Tomlin has never had a losing season. Not once.

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This isn't to say Steelers fans should start making travel plans for Glendale, Arizona, in February. At the risk of being redundant, the AFC is ludicrously stacked in 2022. There could easily be a 10-win team that misses the postseason. And Pittsburgh's league-worst run game and rushing defense may be even greater obstacles to a postseason appearance than the questions at quarterback.

But at 50-1 odds to be crowned AFC champions, the Steelers have been completely dismissed. And between the talent the team has on both sides of the ball and Pittsburgh's long history of winning more than it loses, to say it's premature to write the Steelers off is an understatement.

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