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Bye offered Steelers chance to self-scout the offense

Bye weeks are typically a time for self-reflection, particularly when they come right in the middle of a season.

After all, because of the week-to-week nature of NFL preparation, so much time is devoted each week to studying and game planning for the next opponent that there's seldom time to take a step back and look at what it is your own team is doing well – and not doing well.

That self reflection was how the Steelers' coaching staff spent the past week while on the bye week. And, at 2-6, there obviously wasn't a lot Mike Tomlin and his staff were happy about.

As would be expected from an offense averaging 15 points per game, much of the focus has been on what the offense can do better. Getting into the end zone would be a good start.

Their 10 offensive touchdowns are the fewest in the league.

"I think we can get better in all areas, and not just offensively, but in all three phases," Tomlin said Tuesday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex as the Steelers began in earnest their preparations to host the Saints (3-6) at Acrisure Stadium.

"Specifically, when it pertains to the offense, we spent a lot of time talking about how we're dividing the labor up and who we're choosing to feature and what components of play and how much we're choosing to feature people. When you go through a trade circumstance like we did with Chase (Claypool), that creates a real avenue to have some of those discussions when it comes to distributing playmaking opportunities, who works what area of the field, etc. I feel really good about the work we were able to get done in that component."

The Steelers traded Claypool to the Chicago Bears last week for a 2023 second-round draft pick, opening up some additional opportunities in their receiving corps. Claypool entered the bye week second on the team in pass targets with 50, and tied for second with tight end Pat Freiermuth with 32 receptions.

The Steelers have said they plan on getting veteran Steven Sims more opportunities to replace Claypool in the slot, but his departure also opens up more opportunities for others beyond just opening up a spot in the lineup.

"It's not just the depth at the position we were comfortable with making that move," Tomlin said. "Just the space in the field where Chase has made a lot of plays for us, also is the space in the field where Pat Freiermuth makes a lot of plays for us. It's reasonable to expect him to get continually highlighted in that area, as well."

It could also mean more offensive focus placed on Diontae Johnson and talented rookie George Pickens, as well. While Johnson leads the Steelers with 43 receptions, Pickens is fourth with 26.

The Steelers also might be expected to put rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett on the move more often, as well.

Pickett has completed 23 of 29 passes for 175 yards off of play-action or when on the move this season.

"I thought our misdirection passing game and pocket movement stuff was really positive and efficient." Tomlin said. "It's an asset to us. And I think it helps us from a protection standpoint when we're able to change the launch point and we're not a stationary target. I thought that was just one component when I talk about the positive."

Doing more of that in the second half of this season is something that's likely on the docket, as well, for the Steelers as they try to turn this season around while also developing their offense around their rookie quarterback.

"Given the position he plays and the significance of it, that is a component of the equation," Tomlin said.

The bottom line is producing more points – and hopefully – more wins.

But the proof will be in the pudding.

"We'll see. I tend to let our actions do the talking," Tomlin said. "We understand it's a put-up or shut-up game, particularly at this level."

An optimistic outlook: The Steelers defense could get a shot in the arm this week with the potential return of linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Damontae Kazee. Both players are currently on the Reserve/Injured List but have returned to practice and could suit up this week against the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium.

"Both guys have been participants and we'll continue to monitor those guys," said Tomlin. "We've been optimistic about their inclusion this week. But again, we got some work ahead of us and got some reaction to that work, how they feel coming off the work. We'll just continue to monitor those guys and make appropriate decisions regarding them as we get closer to game time."

Watt has been out since he suffered a pectoral injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 of the season, while Kazee hasn't played yet in the regular season after injuring his arm and wrist in the preseason."T.J. is who he is," said Tomlin. "It's not mystical the things that he's able to do. I don't know that any of us are surprised at what he's capable of getting done. We eagerly await his return."

What their return would mean to the defense remains to be seen, but two veterans back, including the reigning defensive player of the year, can't do anything but help.

"I just think that remains to be seen," said Tomlin. "I think I'll let their contribution speak for themselves. But obviously, those are two veteran players that that are NFL capable and obviously going to be positive contributors to our efforts if available."

If Kazee is able to return, it would give the defense Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Kazee at the safety spot, and could translate into some interesting personnel groupings.

"I just think in this era of specialization, particularly defensive specialization, to match offensive personnel groupings is a big component," said Tomlin. "In three safety defense or big nickel, as a lot of people refer to it, is one of the things that's in vogue to combat two tight end personnel groups, and particularly when one of those tight ends is a vertical, upfield type and a guy that's wide receiver like. We explored that some and it was an asset to us and it's reasonable to expect us to continue in that vein."

The return of Kazee, coupled with the addition of cornerback William Jackson III via a trade with the Washington Commanders, gives the Steelers two additional veterans in the secondary. While Kazee already is comfortable with the defense, Jackson's ability to contribute right away could be tougher as he is still in the learning process.

"I think anytime you get veteran presence, it's an asset to you," said Tomlin. "Been there, done that guys and both guys are that. I don't necessarily view them as one in the same. Kazee's been a part of the program from the outset. We signed him in the offseason. Will's contribution will be determined by his availability and how quickly he's able to learn some of the nuances of what it is that we do and his ability to communicate and function as a collective."

Taking the lead: The Steelers have a young offense, and sometimes that can mean a lack of leadership. But that is not the case in the Steelers locker room.

Multiple players have stepped up in a leadership role, including rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and center Mason Cole, who was dubbed as a hub of communication from Tomlin.

"I think we've had a number of guys that have displayed leadership and I think Kenny has been consistent in that area," said Tomlin. "I also think Mason Cole is a hub of communication on the offensive line and has displayed consistent leadership. Pat Freiermuth is an emerging leader. Najee's (Harris) an elected captain. Diontae is a guy that's taken an active role in the development of some younger people at his position. It's coming from a lot of areas but I think that's a reasonable expectation."

Cole, who was signed this offseason as an unrestricted free agent, has been a stabilizing force for the offensive line and someone who has stepped up in multiple ways.

"I think he's been a steady eddy," said Tomlin. "Not only in performance, but in presence and communication. He's a quality, veteran football player."

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