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From the Press Room: Steelers vs. Browns

Appreciative of the efforts: The Steelers had plenty to be proud of in 2022, coming back from a 2-6 record to finish the year 9-8.

And for Coach Mike Tomlin, it's his 16th consecutive season with a winning record, never having a losing season in his career.

But for him, it was all about the players in the locker room, the guys who battled every week, who never gave up, never lost faith.

That was on display Sunday when the Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns, 28-14, at Acrisure Stadium in their season finale while fighting for a playoff spot.

"I'm appreciative of the efforts today," said Tomlin. "I'm appreciative of the efforts all year. We're an evolving group, and that evolution continued even into today.

"I'm just appreciative of the collective. I'm appreciative of the men, not what they're capable of, but what they're willing to do. In the face of adversity that football presents, in the face of adversity that life presents, we have an opportunity to kind of display some things in all of that.

"Hopefully we learn something. Hopefully we taught others something in the midst of our journey. So, I'm just thankful for that group, appreciative of the efforts today in terms of getting the job done, divisional game.

"Aside from all the other things outside of our stadium and so forth, it's important that we displayed the ability to focus and handle in stadium business, and they did that, even in some instances a young collective. So, appreciative of that. You grow from that."

The mindset today was this wasn't going to be the end of the road for 2022. With a win, and losses by the Dolphins and Patriots, the Steelers would have been preparing for a playoff game. But it didn't happen that way. While the Patriots lost to the Bills, the Dolphins defeated the Jets, ending the Steeler postseason dreams.

"It comes to a screeching halt this offseason," said Tomlin. "I don't know if I pondered that. I was preparing for the potential of next week."

Tomlin referred to the team as a 'young collective' in some areas, and the win over the Browns in a game that had a lot on the line was valuable experience for them.  

"I think this growth in big game opportunities, we've been in some big games, but we're doing business with these guys because of their ability to rise up in these moments," said Tomlin. "I think that's part of the things that attracted us to them individually.

"When you look at each guy and you put a collection of those kind of guys together and you work them and you prepare them, you generally have an opportunity to grow in that way.

"We lack experience in some areas, but we're good enough to win and good enough to win while we grow, good enough to win while which gain experience.

"We did not grade this group on a curve. We did not grade Kenny Pickett on a curve. We don't function like that. Football is a game. Our business is winning, and our intentions are to handle business."

Taking care of business: For rookie Kenny Pickett, the disappointment associated with coming up short of the playoffs had little to do with the chance to experience preparing for and playing in a postseason game continuing to accelerate his development.

The first-round pick from Pitt had a much different agenda.

"I don't even think it's just about my learning curve," Pickett insisted after the Steelers reached the end of the road via a 28-14 win over the Browns today at Acrisure Stadium and the Dolphins' 11-6 victory over the Jets in Miami. "I think it's about playing for a championship. That's what it's all about. 

"We would have had an opportunity if we had that chance. When you don't take care of your own business, you don't control your own destiny."

The Steelers needed to beat the Browns and they needed the Dolphins to lose or tie, and the Patriots to tie or lose to the Bills (New England lost, 35-23) to reach the postseason.

They had to settle for 9-8 after the win over Cleveland and the Jets' near-miss against the Dolphins.

No one, perhaps, personified the way the Steelers rallied from 2-6 and 3-7 to post a winning record better than Pickett.

He started OTAs as the No. 3 QB behind Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, became the No. 1 at the outset of the third quarter of what became a 24-20 loss to the Jets on Oct. 2 and finished winning the last five starts in which he appeared for more than two series.

Pickett completed 13 of 29 passes for 195 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions against the Browns.

He was 4-for-8 for 62 yards on the 14-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that took 5:34 and re-established a two-score lead at 28-14 with 4:37 left in regulation.

The exclamation point was a fade to the corner of the end zone for wide receiver Diontae Johnson for a two-point conversion.

"It's big," Pickett maintained regarding his rookie development. "I felt like the offense started to become my own the more I was playing in it, taking real ownership of it instead of just kind of playing catch-up when I got thrown in there a little bit earlier and I was just worried about executing the plays. And now I felt like I had everything at my disposal when I was coming to the line of scrimmage.

"I think I made a good jump there in the learning curve. I want to make that leap into Year Two now."

Pickett concluded his rookie season with a 7-5 record as a starter, including a loss to Baltimore in which he played just two series before exiting with a concussion.

The 28 points scored against Cleveland were the second-most the Steelers managed in a game this season, behind the 30 they produced in a 37-30 loss to the Bengals on Nov. 20.

"We always knew what we were capable of," Pickett said. "It was good to see it come true in front of our eyes. Just finding ways to win week in and week out, and no one really caring how it gets done, just find a way to get it done. 

"That's what it's all about is getting wins. It was really good to see."

Filled with pride: T.J. Watt said it time and time again on Sunday after the win over the Browns.

And it was a feeling felt throughout the Steelers locker room at Acrisure Stadium.

"It's hard to fully understand that we don't have a game this week," said Watt of the upcoming week.

The Steelers were hoping they would spend the upcoming week preparing for a Wild Card game, but that didn't come to fruition and instead they were talking about the growth during the 2022 season instead of preparing to play.

"I think we were starting to play some really good football in all phases," said Watt. "I think on defense we were starting to really get that splash. We were able to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional and able to get after the quarterback.

"It was too little too late this year, but a lot to build on. Very proud of the guys in that locker room. It would have been very easy to fold it in and start to wonder why this is happening to us and pointing fingers and assigning blame, but none of the guys did that.

"Credit to Coach T(omlin), the leadership in the locker room, the guys that we have to be able to, when our backs were against the wall in the record and throughout games this year, to be able to fight back and play for each other."

The Steelers turned their season around after starting off a disappointing 2-6, finishing out strong with a 9-8 record. And even though they capped it with a win over the Browns, the locker room wasn't one where there was celebration or satisfaction.

"Disappointment. It all happens very fast," said Watt of the vibe. "I mean, it's hard to fully understand that we don't have a game this week. I think it will take a little bit of time to kind of understand and come to terms with it because I feel like we were just starting to play some really good football.

"But that's the business. We didn't get it done this year. There's a lot of stuff to build on, and we move on."

And they are building with a team that was young in 2022 but gained experience that will be beneficial as they move forward.

"We were a young team this year," said Watt. "It will be nice to be able to keep a good core group of guys here. Never know who's going to be back, who's not, but very confident with the guys in this locker room. We've been through so many ups and downs throughout the season, and no one gave up.

"We have a good mix of young guys who want to work and old guys who want to show the way, and I think that's very key to what we want to build here as Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I think it's been important all season long, Coach T's brought back alumni, just to show what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.

"I feel very confident in young, old, whoever's in that locker room, players and coaches."

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