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Steelers on the right track after all

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs

Photo: Getty Images

That score again from Kansas City: Chiefs 23, Bengals 20.

Not 41-38, 35-31 or even 28-24.

The AFC Championship was decided in a game that came in under 44 total points.

And the Chiefs emerged victorious for the most part because of the pressure they were able to generate on Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (kinda like last year’s Super Bowl, when the Rams harassed Burrow to the very end and won, 23-20).

The Chiefs will meet the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, a team that has a spectacular quarterback and a splashy passing game but one that secured the NFC title mostly because of its relentless ground game and punishing pass rush.

Turns out the running the ball and playing defense haven’t gone out of style after all.

Yes, you need a QB, and yes, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts are two of the best.

And yes, the ability to generate chunk plays is critical to making the playoffs, let alone experiencing postseason success.

But as “the lane gets narrow,’ as Mike Tomlin is fond of observing, when the weather gets bad, when the degree of difficulty ratchets up along with the stakes, running the ball and playing defense still make that narrowing lane easier to navigate.

So the Steelers, after further review, aren’t a million miles away after all despite the preponderance of franchise-caliber quarterbacks across the AFC.

It could even be argued that they’re on the right track.

Of this much we can be certain: They’re not playing a style that’s outdated.

They just need to play it better.

They need to “score more points,” as Steelers president Art Rooney II has emphasized, but the way to do that isn’t necessarily to just throw the ball all over the yard.

The Steelers progressed throughout a season that ended at 9-8 and on the outside looking in at the postseason.

But the strides they made individually and collectively, from Kenny Pickett to the offense’s ability to run the ball and function at crunch time when last-minute drives had to be made to win games were encouraging.

There’s reason to suspect Pickett and the offense will be more aggressive and more impactful next season.

If that happens, and if the running game and defense are able to maintain or continue to improve through free agency, the draft and the rest of the offseason’s annual comings and goings, the Steelers can get back in the contention conversation.

They haven’t been a part of that for a while now.

But when comparing the Steelers to this season’s NFL elite, it’s important to remember the Steelers were in the midst of a re-start/re-boot/re-build that started this season.

What didn’t happen after 2016 (the last season in which the Steelers won a playoff game) and through 2021 is ancient history, it’s no longer applicable.

The context is 2022 was Year One of the Steelers’ current configuration.

What matters is they started basically from scratch given the seismic transition at quarterback, eventually found their guy at the most important position on the field following the Mitch Trubisky swing and miss, and cobbled together a team that almost made the playoffs despite the extended unavailability their best defensive player, T.J. Watt.

It wasn’t good enough, but it was a start.

A jump-start, as it turned out.

Now we’ll see what the restructured personnel department, another component of the franchise’s re-start/re-boot/re-build can do as the new-look Steelers continue to evolve.

“We’re seeing changes already in the way (General Manager) Omar (Khan) and (Assistant General Manager) Andy (Weidl) are preparing for the draft,” Rooney acknowledged. “I think those guys have their own way of doing things that are a little different.”

One thing they won’t do is devalue defense and a running game.

Nor should they.

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