The preseason game largely identified as the dress rehearsal for the 2022 NFL regular season is over for the Steelers, and so it's only natural to offer an assessment of the situation as it stands currently.
Just months into what everyone believed would be their toughest task – replacing sure-shot first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger – the Steelers did a nice job by adding a veteran free agent and drafting another who is living up to his billing as the top prospect at the position in the most recent draft. Quarterback has not been an issue for the team, other than having to place the ones they have in the correct order on the depth chart. They ended up with an overall upgrade at wide receiver by replacing what they lost in free agency with better, more dynamic players. They strengthened themselves at tight end by picking and having a vision for a player no other team seemed to evaluate accurately, and they look to have more candidates to serve as backup running backs that they'll have spots for them on their 53-man roster.
On defense, their line goes six deep, one of their two starting outside linebackers is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and their secondary contains three legitimate starting-caliber cornerbacks and arguably the best free safety in football. They upgraded themselves at inside linebacker by signing a veteran who has been their best player there since he first strapped on a Steelers helmet. And their placekicker is money. Sure there are depth issues, some of them acute, but depth is only a problem if there are significant injuries, and maybe they get lucky this year. At least there is hope there.
Put all of that together, and one might believe the Steelers could be on the verge of something special in 2022, and maybe they would be if not for an offensive line that Coach Mike Tomlin would be justified in calling "junior varsity." What was a problem throughout last season looked like it could be a dealbreaker this season based on its performance against the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Saturday night.
That the Steelers could get physically handled on the line of scrimmage to the tune of 24 yards rushing on 14 attempts (1.7 average), an 0-fer on all short-yardage plays in which they didn't attempt to pass, Mitch Trubisky running for his life just about every time he attempted to pass, and still win the game defies belief, but that's exactly what happened.
"Just like I told the team, I told them at halftime, and I told them after the game, and it was true in both instances – they controlled the football game," said Tomlin. "But we won the game, and so we've got to take responsibility for that positively and negatively. Down in and down out, we didn't perform well enough. We didn't perform at a high enough level to control the game. I thought their defensive front in the environment, in particular, controlled the game."
On the first series of the game, the Steelers ran six offensive plays – two runs by Benny Snell netted 1 yard, and on the four pass plays Trubisky scrambled for 10 yards when the protection broke down before he could find a receiver, and on the other three he was under pressure almost immediately as soon as he got the shotgun snap from Mason Cole.
Left tackle Dan Moore Jr. had a rough night dealing with Josh Allen, and Chuks Okorafor fared only slightly better on the other end of the line of scrimmage. James Daniels got pushed around some and was flagged for holding, and John Leglue allowed the pressure in the end zone that became a safety when Rudolph was flagged for intentional grounding. But that was going to be 2 points for the Jaguars either way, because if Rudolph didn't throw the ball into an empty area to draw the penalty he would've been sacked in the end zone.
And don't really be fooled by the fourth quarter comeback engineered by Rudolph as a sign the offensive line finished strong. On the drive that ended with Nick Sciba's field goal that cut the deficit to 15-10, Rudolph completed 7-of-8 passes for 38 yards and the entire drive covered 46 yards in 11 plays. It looked a whole lot like the kind of offense the Steelers resorted to in 2021.
Then on the drive that netted the decisive points, Rudolph moved the offense 52 yards in six plays, but 46 of the yards came on two short passes that Tyler Vaughns turned into big plays by breaking tackles and gaining extra yardage through second-effort.
Certainly it was disappointing to watch the offensive line perform to this level in the second of three preseason games, and the disappointment maybe took a turn toward depression when the effort and salary cap space the Steelers expended during the offseason to improve the unit is factored into the equation.
There don't seem to be any magical solutions, no promising young players waiting in the wings for an opportunity, and expecting magic to happen via the waiver wire seems delusional. From a personnel standpoint, the guys on the field in Jacksonville on Saturday night largely will be the guys on the field in Cincinnati on the afternoon of Sept. 11, and between now and then the Steelers seem to be facing an either/or proposition.
Fix it by figuring out a way to get the existing players to perform better, or run the risk that the offensive line ends up sabotaging the season.