5 for Friday: Steelers ahead in identity game

One of the big questions you hear each season, especially early in a season, is what is a particular team's identity?

The reason for that is simple. When push comes to shove, what is it the team can fall back on to win a game in a tough environment?

And make no mistake, each week in the NFL is a tough environment, whether you're at home or on the road.

One thing we have consistently heard from the Steelers this offseason is that they believe they found an identity midway through last season. They also believe strongly that identity can be carried over from one season to the next.

"I feel like we found our identity," running back Najee Harris said this week at the team's mandatory minicamp. "Early on we didn't know what we were. There was a lot of stuff going on, especially at the quarterback position. Bringing new guys in. Really we didn't have our identity, we were trying to look for it, and later on after that bye we kind of figured out what we did best, and that's playing Steelers football.

"That's what we do. We run the ball, we have a good defense, we've got good players on the outside so we've got to get them the ball in space and try to get those deep balls down the field, but we've got to control the line, we've got to control that rushing attack so we can put more pressure on the defensive coordinator and figure out what to do. If they want to stack the box, then we've got people on the outside, if they want to play a six-man box then we can run the ball. I think we just got into an area where we found out who we are."

The Steelers know who they are, and it's not just a desire to be that way. They showed in the second half of last season they can run the football, play good defense and allow quarterback Kenny Pickett to make plays when necessary.

If that sounds like a familiar formula, it's because it's a similar one to what the team did when Ben Roethlisberger was a young player.

Those early Roethlisberger teams often would throw the ball early to be able to run the ball late. It's one reason why Roethlisberger often bristled when he was deemed a "game manager" by analysts who didn't watch the Steelers play a lot.

Sure, he might only throw 25 to 30 passes in a game, but many of those passes came in the first two or three quarters as the Steelers built a lead. And then he would spend the second half – or at least fourth quarter – handing the ball to Jerome Bettis.

Is it a formula that can still work?

It did over the second half of last season, when the Steelers went 7-2.

Harris rushed for 673 yards and six touchdowns over the second half and was complemented nicely by Jaylen Warren, as the Steelers averaged 146 yards per game on the ground.

There were times when Pickett had to engineer a fourth-quarter drive to win it, but he showed himself capable of doing that.

The Steelers aren't going to shy away from that identity they developed. In fact, they embraced it this offseason with the moves they made.

And it should allow them to hit the ground running – no pun intended – to start the 2023 season.

"I think our identity was pretty clear the last nine games," offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "We were running the ball really well. We were physical. You saw who we drafted, who we acquired, and I don't think there's any question of what our identity is going be. I think we want to run the football, we want to be physical, we want to be a good team that throws the ball down the field and take advantage of what the defense gives us. So, I think our identity is well known and we'll stay to where we're at."

• Half the battle for NFL teams is knowing who you are. The Steelers know who they are heading into Year 2 with Pickett.

They don't want to ask their second-year quarterback to be Superman. But with his four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarterback comebacks late last season, he did offer glimpses of being more than mild-mannered Clark Kent.

"That whole notion of a game manager, which … is maybe implied – you can't manage on third down. You can't manage in the red zone. You certainly can't manage in two minutes," quarterback coach Mike Sullivan said. "There's always going to be guidelines or parameters, if you will, in terms of a game where, you know what, this is a really, really great offense. We're going to have to keep pace, so to speak."

In their final nine games last season, the Steelers converted over 54 percent of their third downs. The Bills led the NFL in third-down conversion rate for the season at 50.2 percent.

So, Pickett was pretty good – actually better than pretty good – those situations. If he can make a jump in terms of production inside the 20, which he should, the offense has a chance to make significant strides.

• Harris has rushed for 2,234 yards in his first two seasons. He scored 20 touchdowns. He's caught 115 passes for another 696 yards.

Yet there are people who talk about him as if he has been a disappointment. That's crazy.

Availability is a big deal for running backs. Whenever people talk about being able to "find" a running back anywhere, that's never part of the equation.

Yes, teams such as the 49ers have had running backs they have taken later in the draft who have worked out – for a handful of games. But are they long-term answers?

If they were, would the 49ers have traded for Christian McCaffery last season?

This idea that running backs are disposable is a misnomer.

If you want to run the ball – and rushing was up across the league last season – you'd better have a bell cow runner, unless you're a team that has a quarterback who handles a lot of those duties.

And that's a risky line to walk.

Harris takes care of his body. He trains to handle 300-plus touches each season. He prepares to make sure he can answer the bell. And he produces.

That's valuable.

• Aggregation and commentary from people who weren't there when somebody says something have become a pox on the business.

And so it was this week with a quote picked up from Steelers wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson when talking about second-year wide receiver George Pickens.

Offensive and defensive assistant coaches were made available at minicamp this week and while talking with reporters Jackson said when asked about Pickens' improvement from his first to his second season, "It has to be a big jump. The onus is on me to have him take that next step. The big jump that we are all searching for and want, he's got to be a great player for us. For him to play like he did last year, that's a failure on my part. That's a failure on his part. And so he's got to play at a great level. The expectation is for him to play at a great level this year."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Now, it's obvious to anyone with a brain that Jackson was saying that if Pickens is simply the same player he was last season this year, then both he and Pickens have failed at their jobs. The idea is that you want to be a better player, not stay the same. Jackson spent almost the entire part of his interview session talking about how good he feels Pickens is and can be. He most certainly was not calling Pickens' rookie season a failure.

But the aggregators and hot-take artists have picked it up as if that was the case.

Context matters. 

Jackson is 100 percent right that if Pickens doesn't take the next step, if he's the same player he was a year ago, it will have been a failure to progress. That is what he was saying.

To contend otherwise is simply lazy or someone being disingenuous to generate attention.

• We'd be remiss in this space if we didn't acknowledge the passing of a Pittsburgh icon this past week in Stan Savran.

Stan was a true professional and took his job as a conduit for the fans very seriously.

But, as Steelers president Art Rooney II noted earlier this week, he also knew he was covering sports and not "World War II."

His grace, his professionalism, his talent and his pure outlook on life will be missed.

We were blessed in this market to have a talent such as Stan around for as long as we did. The number of young people he helped in the business is invaluable. He never was too big to talk to or help anyone.

And he was never too big to spend time talking sports with anyone in his audience.

He'll be dearly missed.

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