No one can say for sure what will ultimately be the legacy of the 2022 Steelers. We do know, however, what their legacy won't be. The Steelers aren't playing for next year, as some assumed they were after turning the offense over to rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pittsburgh, as always, is playing for the present and the opportunities that await during the season's final 11 games.
The standard is still the standard, after all.
Pittsburgh showed its mettle on Sunday. A huge underdog at home, the Steelers defeated Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in a game that saw Mike Tomlin's team receive big contributions from all three phases. Tomlin received an incredible effort from a defense that was down several key players, including All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. He saw embattled linebacker Devin Bush preserve the Steelers' 20-18 lead by batting down Brady's pass on Tampa's two-point conversion attempt with 4:38 left.
A crowd of over 67,000 then saw Mitch Trubisky, who replaced an injured Pickett in the third quarter, convert two long third downs with downfield throws to Chase Claypool. Trubisky's touchdown pass to Claypool on the Steelers' previous drive proved to be the game-winning score.
It was a team effort, in every sense of the word.
"Obviously, we were leaking today," Tomlin said after his team's first home win of the season. "We were leaking in a lot of ways in terms of physically, emotionally and so forth. I just appreciate the mettle that the group showed this week in terms of remaining singularly focused in the midst of the storm and in putting together a winning performance."
Tomlin appreciated the win, which snapped Pittsburgh's four-game losing streak while leaving the Steelers just a game back of first place in the AFC North. The Steelers coach also acknowledged that one win does not eliminate the stench of the losing streak.
"We still understand exactly where we are, and we aren't running away from it," Tomlin said. "We'll continue to run to it and get better and prepare for our next opportunity."
The Steelers' next opportunity will take place in Miami on Sunday night, with the Dolphins looking to snap their three-game losing streak. Given the current state of the AFC (10 of the 16 teams have at least three wins), a win on Sunday night would go a long way in the Steelers becoming a legitimate factor in the AFC playoff race.
The statement above would have been hard to fathom a week ago, when the Steelers were coming off their worst loss since 1989. The blowout led many to believe that the rest of the season would be about the development of Pickett and the Steelers' other young players. And while a legitimate playoff push is still a murky proposition, Sunday's game showed that this Pittsburgh team has a resolve that should not be overlooked.
Will Sunday's win be a turning point for the season? The answer may ultimately show itself over the next five games. The Steelers will face the NFL's last undefeated team, the defending conference champion and two other teams that are in the thick of the standings. Let's take a look at each of those games while quickly revising what transpired this past Sunday.
Team effort keys win over Tampa Bay
There was a common theme protruding from the Steelers' locker room following Sunday's win. Several players reiterated Tomlin's pregame message from Saturday night about playing as a team. The Steelers did that on Sunday while receiving key contributions from just about everyone on the roster.
The biggest story from Sunday's win was Trubisky's play in relief of Pickett, who sustained a concussion midway through the third quarter. Trubisky played the best stretch of football by a Pittsburgh quarterback this season. He went 9 of 12 for 144 yards that included his game-winning touchdown pass to Chase Claypool. Trubisky sealed the win by completing two third-and-long passes to Claypool in the game's final minutes.
Trubisky took more chances on Sunday than he did before he was replaced by Pickett midway through Pittsburgh's Week 4 loss to the Jets. He showed that he can have success taking chances while continuing to take care of the football.
Trubisky and Pickett were the beneficiaries of mostly solid protection from the offensive line. But the offense continues to struggle on the ground, as the Steelers ran for just 77 yards and 29 yards on Sunday. This facet of the offense will have to get better if the Steelers are going to be a legitimate playoff contender. Despite the final numbers, Sunday's game should offer hope for Steelers fans that the running game is going to see better days. Najee Harris had several solid runs, especially on the Steelers' last two drives.
Outside of Trubisky, the Steelers' receiving corps -- tight ends included -- was the most encouraging part of the Steelers offense. Claypool broke out with 96 yards, his touchdown and his clutch third-down catches. Johnson and Pickens caught a combined eight passes, while rookie Connor Heyward's 45-yard catch set up Claypool's game-winning touchdown. Zach Gentry, starting in place of Pat Freiermuth, had several key blocks that included one on Harris' 14-yard run that helped set up Boswell's first field goal.
As noted earlier, Pittsburgh's special teams and defensive units were largely stellar on Sunday. The secondary, led by veteran Terrell Edmunds, won its respective matchups against Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Russell Gage. Myles Jack continues to be a key cog in the middle of the defense. Alex Highsmith has a league-high 6.5 sacks after taking down Brady on Sunday. The defensive line, led by Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi and Chris Wormley, manhandled the Buccaneers defensive line while limiting Leonard Fournette's effectiveness on the ground.
If there's a negative from Sunday's game from a defensive performance, it's the fact that they gave up another touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That's been a recurring theme this season that contributed to Pittsburgh's losses to the Jets and Patriots. But given how well they had played to that point, the lack of depth in the secondary and Bush's game-saving breakup of Tampa's two-point attempt, you wouldn't be at fault to give the defense a mulligan in that spot.
Week 7: at Dolphins (3-3) -- Sunday night
Tua Tagovailoa is expected to return Sunday night after missing the Dolphins' last two games with a concussion. Miami lost both games and is now 3-3 after a 3-0 start to the season. Turnovers were key in each of the Dolphins' losses. The Dolphins failed to force a turnover while committing seven of them over that span.
Possession downs have been an issue for the Dolphins all year. Their offense is 21st in the NFL in third-down efficiency, with their defense even worst at 27th in the league. Miami's defense has also struggled in the red zone, as it is 28th in the league in that department.
Surprisingly, the Dolphins have also had issues on pass defense despite boasting a talented secondary, led by Xavien Howard. Injuries have undoubtedly hurt the Dolphins, who have had to play three different quarterbacks over the past month.
The Dolphins, while wounded, are still a formidable foe that started the week as a seven-point favorite for Sunday's game. Miami's talented receiving duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are surely one of the reasons why the Dolphins are favored, along with the fact that Tagovailoa is set to make his return. But given Miami's recent issues, along with the fact that the Steelers hold a competitive advantage in the form of current defensive assistant and former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, it's certainly conceivable to think that the Steelers can pull off a second upset in as many weeks.
Week 8: at Eagles (6-0)
Let's not sugarcoat it: this is a tough matchup for Pittsburgh. The Eagles are currently undefeated and rank fourth in the league in scoring and sixth in points allowed. Philadelphia has arguably the league's best secondary and a talented front seven that includes former Steeler Javon Hargrave. The Eagles defense is complemented by an extremely balanced offensive attack, led by quarterback Jalen Hurts, receiver A.J. Brown and running back Miles Sanders. Hurts' running ability is something the Steelers have yet to see this season, as Pittsburgh has played against the likes of Brady, Jacoby Brissett and Mac Jones.
The Eagles' run defense, as well as its third-down defense, are two areas the Steelers could exploit. Philadelphia's defense is just 29th in the league on third and 27th in yards-per-carry allowed. If the Steelers can run the ball effectively, control the ball while containing Hurts' impact as a runner, Pittsburgh could keep things close. But it's going to take doing those things, along with getting splash plays on defense and on special teams, to net the Steelers' first win in Philadelphia since 1965.
Week 10: Saints (2-4)
Like Miami, injuries have also plagued the Saints. New Orleans has dealt with injuries to key players that include quarterback Jameis Winston, running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas, among others. Despite the injuries on offense, the Saints are 11th in the NFL in scoring, 10th in third-down efficiency and sixth in red zone efficiency.
New Orleans' defense hasn't been as sharp. It's 29th in the league in scoring after Joe Burrow scored four touchdowns against them this past Sunday. A below-average run defense and an inability to force turnovers have been the unit's main issues. But like the offense, the Saints defense has been stout on third down and in the red zone. The unit is fifth in the league on third down and seventh in the red zone.
Limiting the Saints duo of Kamara and Mark Ingram will be key, along with winning enough possession downs and capitalizing on scoring chances. The Steelers may get help here in the form of T.J. Watt, who could possible be back for this game following Pittsburgh's Week 9 bye.
Week 11: Bengals (3-3) -- Sunday night
Pittsburgh is familiar with Cincinnati after upsetting their division foe in Week 1. The Bengals have yet to hit their stride this season, although they are 3-1 over their last four games after an 0-2 start. Cincinnati's offense is starting to match the play of its defense, which was the team's strength up until this past Sunday's game in New Orleans.
Like some of the Steelers' other future opponents, the Bengals have been excellent on possession downs and in the red zone. A big reason for that success on offense has been Burrow's stellar receiving corps that includes Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins (who has been dealing with injuries), Tyler Boyd and Hayden Hurst. Running back Joe Mixon has also started to turn the corner after a slow start to the year.
The Bengals' slow start on offense can be attributed to a new offensive line and the new approach defenses have taken to try to limit the Bengals' big plays. Improvements on the line and the Bengals' approach to how opposing defenses are playing them allowed Cincinnati's offense to put up a season-high 30 points in Sunday's win in New Orleans.
Bengals fans are keeping a close eye on the health of linebacker Logan Wilson, who sustained a shoulder injury during Sunday's win. Wilson's loss would be a big blow to the Bengals, as he was one of the key players in last year's Super Bowl run.
Week 12: at Colts (3-2-1) -- Monday night
Like the Bengals, the Colts have rallied back after a slow start. Matt Ryan's efficient passing has helped mask what has been a rocky running game, as Jonathan Taylor has struggled to stay healthy. While Ryan has developed a quick rapport with Michael Pittman Jr., the former league MVP has had success spreading the ball around while getting a host of his teammates involved in the passing game.
Led by DeForest Buckner, the Colts' defensive line has enjoyed a productive start. Indianapolis' defense has been money on third down, as it is fifth in the NFL in that department. The red zone has been an issue for both sides of the ball, however, which was one of the biggest reasons for the team's slow start.
Ryan is a potential future Hall of Famer, but his lack of mobility should aid the Steelers' pass rush, which in turn will help the other levels of the defense. That doesn't mean, however, that the Steelers defense will have an easy go of it, especially if Taylor is healthy.
What it all means
At 2-4, the Steelers don't have much room for error if they are going to make a run at making the playoffs. Pittsburgh will probably need to win one of its next two games heading into the bye if it is going to have a shot at getting to nine wins and having a chance at the postseason. Given that the undefeated Eagles are on deck, the Steelers' upcoming game against the Dolphins can almost be considered a must-win.
If they are 3-5 at the bye, the Steelers would need to go 6-3 to hit the nine-win mark. That's certainly possible, given how the second half of the schedule is relatively easier. It will ultimately come down to injuries, the continued evolution of the offense, and whether or not the Steelers can continue to play team ball while receiving winning contributions from each player on the roster.