Second half keys: Steelers can look to 2022 for blueprint

The Steelers made it into their bye week this season in much better shape than they did a year ago when they stumbled into their week off at 2-6.

At 3-2 and in first place in the AFC North in their bye, the Steelers have to feel good about their start, even if it wasn't necessarily the best way to get there.

The offense has averaged just 15.8 points per game. But that doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

In the team's wins, the Steelers have averaged 22.0 points. In their two losses, they've averaged 6.5 points. The same thing holds up defensively. In their wins, the Steelers have allowed 16.7 points. In their losses, that climbs to 30 points.

When the Steelers have been good, they've been pretty good. When they've been bad, they've been horrid.

Finding a happy medium and playing better complimentary football in the second half of this season is a must.

The Steelers accomplished that at their bye a year ago, going 7-2 following their mid-season break to recover from their slow start and finish 9-8.

Critics of the Steelers' second-half surge a year ago pointed to the fact the team played a much easier schedule after the bye week.

But that's not all that different this year. According to's DVOA rankings (which moved over from the now-defunct, the Steelers played the fifth-hardest schedule in the NFL in the first five weeks of the season. From here out, their schedule ranks 21st.

Even if that's the case and the schedule does lighten up, winning those games still takes the offense and defense working hand-in-hand with each other.

That's one thing the Steelers need to get back to in the second half of this season. The offense needs to possess the football. And to do that, it needs to be better on first and second downs to improve on third downs. 

The Steelers rank 24th in third-down conversion rate at 37 percent. The issue is that they are tied for the fourth-most third downs in the NFL with 73.

"We've got to get better at staying on the field, first and second down needs to be better so third downs are not as imperative," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "We've had too many third downs."

That was one of the biggest improvements for the Steelers in 2022, as they converted 54 percent of their third downs after the bye week. Buffalo led the NFL with a conversion rate of just over 50 percent for the season.

Getting Diontae Johnson back will help. Johnson, the Steelers' leading receiver the past three seasons, suffered a hamstring injury just after halftime of the team's Week 1 loss to the 49ers.

Of Johnson's 86 receptions in 2022, just over 52 percent resulted in first downs. Sixteen of those came on third downs to convert the play into a first down.

His return can only help the offense, not only in the passing game, but in the running game, as well.

While Johnson was out, second-year receiver George Pickens caught 17 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns.

With two threats on the outside, opposing defenses might not be able to devote a safety to slowing the running game as much as they have in the early portion of the season.

"We've got some answers if teams want to do things," wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said of getting Johnson back.

It also will help the offensive line gain some traction, though some of that unit's early-season struggles have been, at least in part, due to who the Steelers have faced.

According to DVOA metrics, the Steelers have faced the most difficult slate of defenses in the league to this point, led by the likes of the 49ers' Nick Bosa, Cleveland's Myles Garrett and Maxx Crosby of Las Vegas.

Not that they'll use that as an excuse.

"You always expect them to go out and play their best," offensive line coach Pat Meyer said. "When you play guys like that, you're going to scheme certain things, whether it be protection or run, around those kind of players. You'd be foolish not to. There's no way we're going to leave someone one-on-one versus elite guys a whole game. We're not going to do that. If other teams want to do that, good for them, but we're not going to do that. 

"But you always expect them to do their best, play to the best of their ability, play hard and finish and play with technique. What they've done in terms of that, I've been pleased with them. We've just got to be, as a whole group, more technically sound, more efficient in the things we do. And we can put them in better positions to do that as coaches."

Do those things offensively and continue to get the big plays the offense has produced in the first half and it will help the defense, as well.

Defensively, the Steelers need to do a better job overall against the run and tighten things up on the back end in terms of allowing big plays.

Getting defensive tackle Cam Heyward back will help both of those things. Heyward has been on injured reserve since Week 1 after having surgery to repair a groin injury.

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

He's not quite ready to come back just yet, but is getting closer.

Heyward's presence would help solidify the run defense, though many of the issues there were due more to sub-par tackling at the second level in the first two games. After giving up 386 rushing yards in their first two games, the Steelers have allowed 333 on the ground in their past three outings.

On the back end, the Steelers are allowing 12.3 yards per completion, third-most in the league. Despite that, they're allowing a completion percentage of just 59.3 percent, which is third-best in the league, while their five interceptions are tied for fourth-most.

The pressure packages have helped produce some of those positive numbers, as the Steelers' 17 sacks are tied for third-most in the league.

Nearly half of those (8) have come from outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who leads the NFL in sacks and is on pace for 27, which would break his own NFL record of 22.5 set in 2021.

The Steelers also have already forced 11 fumbles after having just nine all of last season. Watt, Alex Highsmith and inside linebacker Cole Holcomb have forced two fumbles each, leading the way there. 

The team has produced 11 takeaways in its first five games and have done so without 2022 NFL interception leader Minkah Fitzpatrick recording one as of yet.

Fitzpatrick had 17 interceptions, four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in his first 61 games with the Steelers, meaning he was involved with a turnover once every two games. He won't go all season without being involved in several turnovers.

Add in head coach Mike Tomlin's 61-28-1 record after the bye week over the past decade, and there's some reason to believe the Steelers will make another strong push in the second half of this season. And unlike a year ago, they haven't dug themselves a hole they have to fight their way out of prior to the bye week.

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