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Why does it seem like the Steelers are just “treading water”?

It seems like it’s the same thing year after year, but when will it change? What will it take?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a proud franchise. Their fan base follows suit. Therefore, you can imagine how painful it is to hear NFL talking heads talk about how the Steelers aren’t contenders, just mere pretenders.

When you look at the logistics, you can’t blame those narratives from being discussed. Just look at the last five seasons for the Steelers:

2022: 9-8
2021: 9-7-1 *
2020: 12-4 *
2019: 8-8
2018: 8-6-1

*- Playoff Appearance

Looking back at those seasons, the years which ended in a playoff berth were a one-and-done scenario. Even the 2020 season, which started with an 11-0 record, ended in a dud with a 12-4 finish.

For the past five seasons, the Steelers have barely been surviving, not thriving. They’ve been the epitome of “treading water”.

This isn’t breaking news, and is far from an earth-shattering declaration for fans who follow the team regularly. What needs to be discussed isn’t what has happened, but what needs to change for the team to get out of their current rut. To find a way to start moving in the water, rather than just remaining stagnant.

It’s easy to talk about when the Steelers will be back in a big-time AFC Championship game. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, but the truth of the matter is when will the Steelers win a playoff game? Something they haven’t done since 2016. When will they make the playoffs again? Something they didn’t do in 2022. When will the Steelers’ fan base get to cling to something which isn’t just a non-losing season?

What needs to change? How can the Steelers start to propel themselves forward?

Let’s start with free agency.

This will be Omar Khan’s first offseason as the General Manager (GM), and he’ll lean heavily on Andy Weidl to be the cornerstone of the Steelers’ decision making team, as it pertains to the talent on the roster. In this regard, the Steelers have plenty of work to do, and it starts with creating salary cap space. Tasked with this challenge, there is no one else I’d rather have steering the Steelers’ ship than Khan. He’s been tasked with this for decades, and can likely be even more aggressive/shrewd as the man in charge compared to just a consultant under Kevin Colbert.

The cap space will be created, but what will they do with it?

It starts with their own free agents. Do Khan and Weidl value these players the same way the Steelers fans do? Will they attempt to retain many of these players before the free agency period begins on March 13th? Either way, the team needs to make moves they know will fit the team, both financially on on the field.

In the past, several free agent moves have worked out, but others have fallen flat. When you consider the additions last year, you see plenty of players who had a positive impact on the 2022 roster.

  • CB Levi Wallace
  • Mason Cole
  • James Daniels
  • Myles Jack
  • Damontae Kazee
  • Terrell Edmunds

However, as many fans know, not all free agent deals are created equal, and don’t pan out.

  • Ahkello Witherspoon
  • Gunner Olszewski
  • Genard Avery

The Steelers will be able to sign players, but their ability to win more of these deals than lose will be critical to the success of the team in 2023 and beyond. Building through the draft is still the main way of developing a firm foundation for the team, but you also need to add veterans to help assist the process.

Speaking of the NFL Draft, this too will be an area where the Khan/Weidl tandem will have to hit home runs. With three picks in the first two rounds, hitting on these picks could change the trajectory of the organization. Swing and miss, and it will put the team back and keep them in their current rut.

Outside of free agency and the draft, it’s also important to talk about the coaching staff. With the departure of Blaine Stewart and Brian Flores, the Steelers now have 16 coaches on their staff, the smallest amount in the NFL. If there was ever a time to add quality coaches to the staff, it would be now. Whether it’s Mike Tomlin deciding to finally expand his thoughts on a small, tight knit staff, or Art Rooney II willing to pay a larger staff, at some point help is necessary to help equate to success.

When laying all this out, it might seem as if there is no hope for the Steelers in 2023, and beyond. However, I do see the Steelers’ arrow as pointing upwards. There is work to be done, but there is way for the team to start propelling forward. They have a great young nucleus combined with leadership, and that’s a good start. Now it’s time for the new GM to put the finishing touches on the previously work done.

Not an easy job, but not impossible either.

I talk about this at length in the Wednesday “Let’s Ride” podcast, and you can hear that in the player below: